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The Ukraine-Russian Conflict: A Year in Review

By August 28, 2015 No Comments

As another Ukrainian Independence Day passes, the date (August 24) also marks the first anniversary of the incursion into Ukraine by apparently “volunteer” battalions of Russia’s Armed Forces, shortly after the infamous downing of flight MH-17 (July 17, 2014) over terrorist-held territory in Ukraine[1]. In the two weeks after the downing of Malaysian Airline’s MH-17 Ukrainian forces had managed to regain control of the border and cut the territory held by the Russian led “rebels” in two. With its supply lines cut, the city of Donetsk was effectively surrounded.[2]

The tightening of the noose around Donetsk was to include an assault on Ilovaisk, a town just to its east. Intelligence reports had indicated that Ilovaisk was weakly defended, but the reality proved to be far different. The Ukrainian army team took about half of the town when they suddenly found themselves facing fierce fire from the enemy’s previously prepared reinforced positions. Nearby, Ukraine’s Donbas battalion which was also involved in “tightening the noose” came upon uniformed “volunteer” Russian paratroopers on the main road to Donetsk. In the resulting battle on August 19, 2014 the Ukrainians even captured five of the enemy.[3]  At this time the first of many ersatz “humanitarian aid” convoys from Russia was making its way to Ukraine’s eastern border.[4] Accompanying this convoy were troops of Russia’s elite Pskov Airborne Division.[5]

On August 24, 2014, as President Poroshenko reviewed fresh recruits on Kyiv’s main street, Khreshchatyk, during the Independence Day parade,[6] a force of four battalions or about 4,000 Russian troops crossed into Ukraine along the Donetsk Oblast border.[7][8][9] Ukrainian infantry found themselves facing Russian armour.

Within a week all the territorial gains made by Ukrainian forces during the previous six were lost. In addition Russian forces seized territory to the south of Donetsk all the way to the Azov Sea. They were stopped on the very outskirts of the city of Mariupil.[10] Several hundred Ukrainian troops found themselves caught in pockets far from the new front lines. A full year later the Ukrainian Armed Forces published the list of 366 KIA, 429 WIA, 158 MIA and 128 POW.[11] But the Russian invaders were also bloodied, setting the stage for the “Minsk Protocol”, the first Minsk ceasefire agreement.

The Minsk Protocol was signed September 5 by Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) representative Heidi Tagliavini, former president of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma, Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Mikhail Zurabov as well as representatives of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky. This ceasefire agreement included the following points:

  • To ensure an immediate bilateral ceasefire.
  • To ensure the monitoring and verification of the ceasefire by the OSCE.
  • To ensure the permanent monitoring of the Ukrainian-Russian border and verification by the OSCE with the creation of security zones in the border regions of Ukraine and the Russian Federation.
  • To withdraw illegal armed groups and military equipment as well as fighters and mercenaries from Ukraine.

What followed were months of ongoing by attempts by Russian forces to “straighten the (front) lines”. By mid-October the total number of Russian regular enlisted men killed in action had reached 4360 according to some Russian estimates.[12] This process reached its zenith in Russia’s attempts to take the Donetsk Airport Terminal, beginning shortly after the “ceasefire”.[13][14]

It is worthwhile at this point to diverge from the ground war and review the wordsmithing and pretense that allow the conflict to continue within its current Ukrainian boundaries. The first pretense is that the enemy are “local separatists” and “terrorists” and that the war is an Anti-Terrorist Operation or ATO. This terminology is very convenient for the leaders of western countries. It keeps the battles off the front pages and it allows for effective plausible deniability by national leaders. It is business as usual for most western businessmen.[15][16] On the other hand, this allows for shipment of military equipment to Ukraine (although so far only “non-lethal”) without the outward appearance of hostility towards Russia. The pretense keeps Putin from sending in his air force, and by tacit agreement has also kept Ukraine’s air force grounded. It allows Ukraine to continue to flow Russian natural gas through its pipelines to Western Europe.

A direct legal consequence of Ukraine’s failure to declare war is that while Russian Generals are in the OSCE observer mission in Ukraine, the country requesting the mission, Ukraine, cannot contribute its own observers. Notably this OSCE mission was originally based in the Ukrainian-controlled town of Debaltsevo.

OSCE observer Major-General Lentsov had commanded a Russian peacekeeping brigade of 1,500 paratroopers in Bosnia in 1996, then was given command of the 98th Airborne Division, all units taking part in the invasion of Ukraine. On December 18, 2014 Putin promoted Colonel-General Lentsov[17] and as it turned out, he would command the Russian operation in Ukraine.

Maj Gen Aleksander Vyaznikov was the commander that formed a so called “Peacekeeping force” in August.[18]  This is the same Russian “Peacekeeping force” that successfully adjusted the battlefield reality during the last week of August 2014 on the outskirts of Mariupil.

The fighting for the Donetsk Airport Terminal reached its apogee on January 15, 2015. The Russian forces gave up on the pretense and again brought in their regular forces. The battle of the D.A.T. on that day is described in detail here: Battle of the Donetsk Airport – Collapse of the Ceasefire Pretense . In short the Russian losses were 132 killed, 149 wounded, 12 MIA. Ukrainians lost 3 killed and 8 wounded.

Eventually on January 21 the skeletal remains of the Airport Terminal were collapsed by explosives, killing or trapping many of its Ukrainian defenders. There was no building left to hold. Remaining Ukrainian fighters withdrew but continued to control one side of the airport itself.[19] The defence of the Airport had lasted 242 days. Total Ukrainian losses were close to 200 KIA and 500 WIA. Russian losses were 1468 enlisted men killed in action, a further 1500-2000 irregulars killed in action and about 40 units of armour destroyed.[20]

It is worth analysing the radical differences in strategy between the Kremlin and the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The Kremlin measures success in the classical manner, in terms of acreage of ground gained. But after the Ilovaisk debacle of late August, Ukraine’s leadership realized that absolutely any and every offensive of their own would be immediately countered by the rapid introduction of additional Russian forces from just across the border. For that purpose Putin has maintained no less than 40,000 and usually over 53,000 troops on Ukraine’s (virtual) eastern border.[21]

Ukraine cannot win this war in the Donbas. It can only win this war in Moscow. If the number of Muscovite casualties becomes large enough, the anguish and anger of their families will spill into the streets with uncontrollable results. This is why in this hybrid war Putin is denying Russian participation in the war, going to great lengths to conceal the casualty count[22] and the actual bodies themselves. Mobile crematoria serve this purpose well. The deaths of enlisted men are harder to conceal or explain away, but the demise of the various mercenary volunteer “lost tourists” can be totally ignored. The Ukrainian tactic by force of circumstance is and must be the generation of maximal numbers of KIA, of the infamous Russian “Cargo 200”.[23] Ukrainian forces have been able to lure the Russians into attempting to take certain objectives “at all costs”. The Donetsk Airport Terminal was the first.

On February 11, 2015 the conflict shifted to the negotiating table in Minsk. On the battlefield in Donbas this meant that the “separatist” forces launched a desperate attempt to “straighten out the line”. The first battle of the Debaltsevo pocket lasted from January 23 to February 2. It is described in detail here: The Battle of the Debaltsevo Bulge.[24] As a result, the Russian forces lost 398 KIA, 628 WIA, 109 MIA, 37 tanks, 21 units of artillery, 4 units of specialized equipment. The armed irregulars (mercenaries and local collaborators) lost 1181 KIA, 3022 WIA, an unknown number MIA as well as 8 tanks.[25] Ukrainian Armed Forces lost 107 KIA, 469 WIA, 31 MIA, 17 tanks and 14 units of artillery. Debaltsevo and the fields between it and the artillery positions in Svetlodarsk remained in Ukrainian hands.

Ahead of the Minsk ceasefire negotiations on February 11 additional Russian regular forces had to be brought in to achieve the objective at all cost.[26] And so the second “successful” push into Debaltsevo was manned almost exclusively by Russian forces hurriedly transported by train and truck from just across the border. This force was commanded by Major-General Lentsov, the very same Lentsov that earlier had observed Ukrainian positions in Debaltsevo as part of the OSCE monitoring mission.[27][28]

The losses were staggering. In one week the Russian forces lost 670KIA, 1066WIA, 245MIA and 45 units of armour.[29] By February 18 Ukrainian forces had to withdraw.[30] Ukrainian losses were 325 KIA.[31] (Ukrainian artillery honouring the ceasefire after midnight February 15 may be an aggravating factor in this military defeat.)

This taking of Debaltsevo by Russian forces showed that the Minsk II agreement was stillborn.

And since this ceasefire there have been dozens of violations daily including heavy artillery shellings by anti-Ukrainian forces. On June 3 an assault on the town of Mariinka by several hundred pro-Russian troops supported by armour[32] was repelled.

The OSCE observer mission had found it near impossible to observe or verify Minsk II compliance by the “pro-Russian” side. On August 9, four OSCE vehicles were incinerated in Donetsk.[33] The next day the “pro-Russians” attempted an assault on the town of Starohnativka supported by 10 tanks and 10 APC’s.[34] That assault was rebuffed. Reportedly this Russian assault was commanded by Maj. Gen. Lentsov of OSCE and Debaltsevo fame.[35]

A factor that may have had more effect than the Minsk II accords is the presence in Ukraine of at least 300 American military instructors since mid-April. The implications of this are not lost on the Kremlin.

Interestingly, the American instructors at Ukraine’s Yavoriv Polyhon training grounds are learning much from their students.[36] American forces are trained to quell small insurrections while supported by airpower and electronic communications. They have not faced a sophisticated fully mechanized opponent on the ground since the Korean War. Today they listen carefully to men who have fought Russian armour, survived MLRS missile attacks and commanded under conditions of total radio jamming. Americans are relearning the old truism – armies are trained to fight the last war, not the next.

Click here to watch the Mackenzie Institute’s interview with Borys Potapenko on life in Ukraine today.