by Yuri Butusov
The invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces and the battle for Ilovaisk are events that require the most thorough investigation. Not everything can be revealed today. But if the guilty are not brought to justice, conclusions will not be drawn. And if we do not draw conclusions, Ukraine will not be able to withstand further Russian aggression effectively.
How did Ilovaisk begin?
The situation in Ilovaisk on the eve of the Russian invasion cannot be examined separately from the general situation on the Donbas front.
In August armed forces of the Russian Federation moved to a new stage of escalation of the conflict. Russian armies, which had served as the source for recruiting mercenaries for the war in the Donbas, on August 10 began to penetrate Ukrainian territory in earnest, using individual units, which began to take part in battles. Based on the death dates of Russian soldiers and the testimony of their families in Russia, it is clear that on August 13, in the district of Snizhne in the Donetsk Oblast, an attack by the tactical operational complex “U” destroyed a collection of troops and battle equipment that turned out to be units of the 18th motorized brigade of the Russian Federation.
The resistance and the nature of the ground combat operations intensified dramatically. The losses of Ukrainian military increased as well. The entry of the Russian army was due to the fact that the resources of the mercenaries were almost completely exhausted in previous battles and they could no longer ensure the control and defense of a large front line. The approach of Ukrainian armies to the outskirts of Donetsk and the seizure of Luhansk could have led to the rapid fall of the “capitals” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Luhansk People’s Republic.”
Russian armies, both on Russian territory and in Ukraine, organized massive artillery attacks on Ukrainian troops. Since “contact” fighting resulted in heavy losses, the priority of the Russian command was to carry out contactless firepower attacks on Ukrainian troops in the border districts of Luhansk, and in the districts of Savur-Mohyla, Amvrosiyivka, Torez, and Shakhtarsk.
The Ukrainian command (under ATO commander Colonel General Viktor Muzhenko) decided to hold positions along the border. The troops from sector “B” of the ATO forces received the order from the ATO commander to take Ilovaisk and Yasynuvata — key points that would have allowed them to close the circle around Donetsk from the south and north. Thus was created the threat to the only line in the Khartsyzk -Zuhres district, which connected the Donetsk group of Russian mercenaries to supplies of arms and reinforcements from Russia.
The attack on Ilovaisk in sector “B” (commander Lieutenant General Ruslan Khomchak) began with the order of the ATO commander Muzhenko and, from a tactical point of view, was completely justified. However, in the ATO plans this offensive had more of a supporting character since Muzhenko did not allocate serious reserves for its implementation. The total number of Ukrainian troops taking part in the battle did not exceed 600 people, even though there were quite a few units from other sections.
Small, reduced units of the 93rd, 51st mechanized, and 17th tank brigades with little armor and artillery were brought into the operation. The offensive forces were composed of separate units of the 39th and 40th battalions of the Territorial Defense of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast — therefore, by assignment, these were supporting units, which has the task of guarding the rear. In the battles in the approaches to the city, units of the “Azov” battalion of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIS) took part, as did the volunteer corps of the “Right sector.” In these battles Mykola Berezovyi (husband of Tetiana Chornovol — Ed.) died on August 10.
On August 12, army units successfully captured Ilovaisk in the west, from the direction of Shakhtarsk, but found it impossible to move further toward Zuhres — the enemy began with counterattacks by the mercenary units and artillery support from artillery groupings in the Moslyne and Khartsyzk districts. The firing was coming directly from the residential areas, and the Ukrainian troops were not able to suppress it. The third and farthest army checkpoint for Ilovaisk was held by units of the 40th battalion “Kryvbas,” which for more than two weeks of daily battles had repelled all enemy attacks and refused to withdraw from its positions right up to the order for breakthrough. The commander of the units at the third checkpoint of the 40th battalion Colonel Oleksandr Sinkovskyi was badly wounded and his soldiers refused to withdraw even after the evacuation of the commander. They were able to hold the checkpoints thanks to effective interaction with army tanks and artillery groups.
The perseverance of the 40th battalion created favorable conditions for capturing Ilovaisk. The ATO command brought the volunteer MIA units into the operation. Separate assault groups were composed of the individual Donbas, Dnipro, Shakhtarsk, and Azov battalions. They did not have heavy infantry weapons, armored vehicles or artillery, but they were ready to storm and clean out the city.
The main burden of battle during the storming of Ilovaisk fell on the volunteer MIA battalions and the National Guard. On August 18, shock troops of Donbas and Dnipro, with the support of military armored vehicles and artillery, attacked from both sides and suddenly captured most of Ilovaisk. The enemy retained only the large building in the northern part of the city, which had been prepared for perimeter defense. The enemy suffered heavy losses. However, it became impossible to build on that success. The mercenary troops pulled all available reserves from Donetsk to eliminate the obvious threat. They started hammering the supply routes and the positions of the Ukrainian troops around Ilovaisk and in the city itself with massive rounds of mortars and fire from Grad multiple launch rocket systems. The assault and reconnaissance groups were active. The units of the MIA Azov and Shakhtarsk battalions took part in the battles for the city, but in a few days left the battlefield and went to the area of Mariupol. The situation in the city was difficult — shelling continued almost constantly, and heavy fighting and constant counterattacks were taking place in the city and the surrounding area.
However, despite active battles, the enemy was unable to break the resistance of our Ilovaisk grouping. The MIA battalions Myrotvorets, Svitiaz, Ivano-Frankivsk, Volyn, and Kherson volunteered to help the Donbas and Dnipro battalions. In reality, these were small units with a total of about 200 people. There were no army reserves.
Pressure on Ilovaisk effectively paralyzed the mercenary units and the transfer of additional reserves to the city really could have turned the tide. This was obvious to all. In a few days of battle, the enemy began to avoid contact fighting in the city. Having encountered solid resistance, the mercenaries began to mount small attacks on our positions from fortified buildings and artillery. This is why despite heavy losses, all members of Donbas and Dnipro decided to continue to hold the city until the arrival of reserves who could help build on earlier successes and completely break the enemy’s resistance. The Donbas commander Semen Semenchenko was seriously wounded, and the command was assumed by his chief of staff “Filin.” The Dnipro commander Yuriy Bereza was wounded, but did not leave battle. Superb fighting qualities were demonstrated by the tank operators of the 17th tank brigade. Given the intensity of the fighting and the great number of different units in the area, Lieutenant General Khomchak himself assumed the direct coordination and command of all battles from the leading command post at the 39-06 checkpoint.
The command post of sector “B” was located at a safe distance from Ilovaisk. However, not only Khomchak but also a number of senior staff officers of the operational command “Pivden” decided to direct the battle in the military formations. Staff officers with weapons in hand participated directly in the battles. This hands-on control had its effect — perhaps for the first time all the commanders of the units of the Department of Defense and the MIA acted in coordination and with full mutual trust.
On August 22-23, it became clear that the Ilovaisk operation had stalled. The author of this article arrived near Ilovaisk at that time. The artillery raids were continuing. The small number of groups did not allow for an attack since there was no one to cover the flanks. The completely empty rear area near Ilovaisk represented a great danger. The enemy’s sabotage groups operated freely in the rear of the Ukrainians — there were practically no troops to control the vast spaces. It was possible simply to hold positions in the city, but the small Ukrainian forces were gradually depleted under artillery fire. It became obvious that Ilovaisk could not remain as the strategic base for the encirclement and destruction of the Donetsk group. However, even continuing to hold it without advancing was hopeless.
This was why the campaigns began on the Internet demanding reinforcement for the Ilovaisk grouping. However, the ATO command did not have available reserves. The troops had to hold such a large front line that it was impossible to create assault groups. Then, as the Russian fighting forces grew day by day, the Ukrainian troops continued to hold their positions, stretched out in thin threads between weak checkpoints. Any maneuvering or battle with the enemy units that were breaking through became impossible under these conditions. To succeed it was necessary to close up the battle front, withdraw from the border, and concentrate forces in key areas, beyond the range of Russian artillery, which was firing from Russian territory. It was necessary to prepare defensive positions.
The war now moved to a new phase. Increased fighting in the border areas and the growing concentrations of troops and armored vehicles of the Russian mercenaries on Ukrainian territory was not seen by the ATO command as preparation for an invasion. The plans for countering the invasion obviously had not been worked out. On August 23, there were no Ukrainian troops in Kuteinykov; in Starobesheve there was the company of the 28th mechanized brigade, which was in rotation. The Starobesheve-Kuteinykove line was key to holding Ilovaisk since it was the main supply route for the Ukrainian forces. The route ran through the area, and was extremely easy to defend, among slag heaps, extensive wooded areas, ravines, and narrow bridges.
The Russian forces had prepared the area in the region south of Savur-Mohyla-Uspenka-Amvrosiyivka for invasion. During the preceding days, a massive preliminary bombardment of Ukrainian troops was conducted from Russian territory. Certain units were demoralized by the fact that the enemy was shooting at our troops and return fire was prohibited. They asked a number of Ukrainian commanders for permission to open fire on the artillery batteries in Russia that were apparent to our intelligence, but this command never arrived.
The enemy fire caused heavy losses to the troops that were covering the border in sector “D” (commanded by Lieutenant General Petro Lytvyn). Attempts to hold at any cost the observation point at Savur-Mohyla and positions near the border came at a very high price to our soldiers. The enemy applied extensive heavy artillery — 152 mm howitzers, 220 mm and 300 mm multiple launch rocket systems “Uragan” and “Smerch.”
The situation in sector “D” became critical even before the full-scale Russian invasion.
The Russian command decided to make the most of the surprise factor for achieving success. While the Defense Minister Valeriy Heletey was announcing at the (Independence Day) parade that “the antiterrorist operation was proceeding according to plan,” and the ATO Commander Viktor Muzhenko was receiving the star of the Colonel General and taking part in the parade, Russian troops attacked.
The Russian offensive on August 24, during the parade, is a fiasco of the military intelligence of Ukraine and the Ministry of Defense, which is responsible for the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine. On August 28, the battalion task forces from the 8th and 9th mechanized infantry brigades, the 98th and 106th airborne paratrooper divisions, reinforced by units of the 31st paratrooper assault brigades, crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border. The enemy attacked between Amvrosiyivsk and Savur-Mohyla and advanced directly on Kuteinikove-Starobesheve.
The Russians advanced in dense compact battle groups. Many Ukrainian units were not shaken and in the area of Amvrosiyivsk the Russians encountered fierce resistance. However, the defense was scattered and centralized. The Russian units suffered losses, but their advance could not be stopped. The border region of sector “D” was not covered by any man-made barriers or minefields. Taking advantage of enormous troop and technical superiority, as well as self-propelled artillery support, a large number of tactical unmanned reconnaissance aerial vehicles, and electronic intelligence tools, the enemy continued to advance. A number of Ukrainian units were destroyed, many of our soldiers — several hundred people — had to surrender under desperate conditions.
In these conditions the command post of the commander of sector “D” Petro Lytvyn came under artillery fire and the general had to change positions. Due to a lack of understanding of the situation, his staff moved to the far rear. Lytvyn arrived at the command post of sector “B,” where the Dnipro commander Bereza came close to attacking the general when he found out he was proceeding without his troops. Khomchak also could have gone to his headquarters, which were in the rear, but he decided not to leave his troops. All the general staff officers remained with the general.
Parliament Speaker Oleksandr Turchynov phoned the Minister of Defense Valeriy Heletey and began to demand the immediate reinforcement of the Starobesheve-Kuteinykove region with reserves of at least two tactical battalion groups to avoid having our troops cut off at Ilovaisk. By evening on August 24, it became clear that sector “D” had lost control of the troops and the withdrawal of Ukrainian units became disorganized. No less than 1,500 troops passed through the Starobesheve-Kuteinykove region with artillery and armored vehicles. None stopped at the line to try to build a defense even though there were sufficient numbers of forces to do that — not only to prevent the rapid breakthrough and encirclement of the Ilovaisk group, but also to stop the enemy for a long time on favorable terrain.
General Khomchak warned the ATO command that the enemy advance was creating a real threat to his rear flank and asked permission to organize a retreat. This was supported by a number of leaders of the General Staff. At that time, the most appropriate solution was seen to be the withdrawal of troops of sector “B” from Ilovaisk to the Starobesheve-Kuteinykove line and the stabilization of the defense. But the ATO commander did not consider any withdrawal maneuvers for sector “B,” even though in sector “D” the withdrawal was taking place without any orders. This was the personal decision of ATO commander Viktor Muzhenko and his responsibility. At approximately 18:00 on August 24, one of the leading company-level tactical groups of the Russian Federation entered the route between Kuteinykov and Starobesheve and blocked the road.
The Russian offensive continued smoothly and it is absolutely unknown if we could have stopped it at any position. However, the Russian troops finally encountered opposition in sector “B,” which helped to stop the enemy. The command of the troops in section “D” was transferred to General Khomchak at midnight between August 24-25. But it was already impossible to stop the tragedy.
However, the nature of the fighting changed decisively. The Russian units did not expect organized resistance in this area.
General Khomchak gathered all available forces and moved them to the Kuteinykove area. In the Ilovaisk area, the front was reduced and a defensive perimeter was organized. One unit of the Russian 98th Airborne Paratrooper Division was destroyed in the Kuteinykove area by the soldiers of the 51st Volyn Mechanized Brigade. Ten Russian soldiers were captured and gave information that allowed Ukrainian authorities to announce the Russian aggression and confirm that Ukraine had been invaded by regular Russian troops.
On August 25, units of the 39th battalion of the Dnipropetrovsk Territorial Defense organized an ambush and destroyed one more unit from the 8th motorized rifle brigade. One wounded Russian soldier survived the battle and was taken into captivity.
Units of the (Russian) 31st Paratrooper Assault Brigade and the 106th Airborne Paratrooper Division were destroyed at the rear of the Ilovaisk grouping and soldiers from these units were taken prisoner.
The soldiers of the 40th Dnipropetrovsk Territorial Defense Battalion “Kryvbas” captured a reconnaissance unit of 10 “cossack” mercenaries, including citizens of the Russian Federation. After encountering resistance, the Russian forces regrouped. Russian artillery concentrated on defeating the Ilovaisk group. The enemy moved the artillery reconnaissance station above the battle area during the day, and at night several Orlan-10 surveillance drones circled the area.
After the first Ukrainian battery volleys, the enemy used direction finding (DF) to locate several divisions covering the area. Particularly heavy losses to the field fortification were inflicted by the Uragan (Hurricane) multiple launch rocket systems. .
Fighting in an encirclement in field positions can only be done with a fortified front, with equipped fortifications. Nobody built that kind of fortress in the Ilovaisk area — there were no resources and the area did not allow it. This was quite obvious and if not on the 24th then on the 25th an order should have been given to break through while the enemy still had not established a solid front and blocked all escape routes. However, General Muzhenko did not give the order to retreat.
On August 26, the Ilovaisk group achieved another success — it destroyed the tank unit from the 8th motorized rifle brigade. Our soldiers captured a T-72BZ tank, which only the Russian army uses. The resistance of the Ilovaisk group permitted the stabilization of the front and drew the large enemy forces to itself. However, without serious artillery and air support, and without reinforcements, it was impossible to continue resisting at those positions.
First, our troops were cut off from water sources. Delivery of ammunition was cut off and they had to conserve its use. The soldiers completely used up the 82 mm shells. There was only an emergency supply of the 120 mm shells. The Russian troops were able to significantly move the front line east, completely occupying Starobesheve and Kuteinykove. The enemy’s heavy artillery systematically razed certain of our positions to the ground. There were serious losses in transport and military equipment.
The ATO command attempted to mount an assault to unblock the troops but with insufficient forces. Weak reserve forces of the 51st and 92nd mechanized brigades, reconnaissance units, units of the Pravyi Sektor were sent to battle for the breakthrough too late, and, despite the heroism of individual soldiers and commanders, were defeated in battle with unequal forces on August 26 and 27. The entire Prykarpattia battalion shamefully fled the front line, not even attempting to come to the aid of their friends or at least to help stabilize the battlefront at the rear. Our troops tried to break through individually, in different directions, in advance of the Russian blockades. However, insufficient tactical instruction, insufficient field intelligence, low interoperability and the overall superiority of the Russian forces resulted in heavy losses.
Under such circumstances the complete liquidation of the Ilovaisk group was just a matter of time — a short time. And General Khomchak made the independent decision to go for a breakthrough.
It was agreed with the Russian troops that they would allow unimpeded passage and transfer of all prisoners taken from the Russians after the exit of our column to Starobesheve. The prisoners were put in the front vehicles. The Russian command guaranteed captivity and rapid return to Ukraine of all who surrendered weapons and did not put up resistance.
It is hard to imagine the effect that a surrender to captivity without a fight by one of Komchak’s leading commanders, the staff officers and the volunteer battalions would have had. They could have saved their lives. But honor and homeland meant a lot more to them. No soldier of the army units or the volunteer battalions deserted and no one surrendered weapons without a fight. On the morning of August 28, the vehicle column led by tanks and infantry fighting vehicles came out of Ilovaisk attempting a breakthrough. They were counting on speed and surprise. The column was headed by a Russian T-72 battle tank, which was supposed to disorient the enemy.
There were some 600 soldiers in the column.
They overcame the first line of Russian defense surprisingly without a fight. Our troops drove past rows of military equipment and cannons with Ukrainian flags. But nobody was firing — a few Russian soldiers even waved. However, at the second line of defense near Starobeshevo, near the village of Chabany, the Russian command gave the order to open fire. The column was hit from all sides with artillery fire, mortars, tanks, anti-tank missiles. Obviously, the enemy had moved most of its forces there. Our soldiers even in the hopeless conditions did everything possible to perform their military duty. Soldiers dispersed under fire and began close combat. On the trophy T-72, the commander of the armored operational command of “Pivden,” Colonel Yevhen Sydorenko, personally directed the battle and in front of many soldiers managed to repulse three enemy infantry fighting vehicles that attacked the flank of our column. The soldiers used anti-tank rocket launchers and succeeded in destroying several more Russian tanks and infantry vehicles. This heroic battle at close range allowed Ukrainian soldiers to disperse into small groups and make a breakthrough with their weapons in hand.
After his car was hit, Lieutenant General Khomchak managed to break through the circle on foot in 24 hours, along with several senior officers, “Filin” the commander of the Donbas group, Bereza, the commander of Dnipro, Teteruk, the commander of Myrotrovets, Polishchuk, the commander of Ivano-Frankivsk. The soldiers of the heroic Ilovaisk group are continuing to leave the encirclement up to the present time. Having used up all their ammunition, some 170 soldiers were captured, many of them wounded. They were taken to the Russian Federation and then a certain number were released to Ukrainian authorities.
Unfortunately, the losses by Ukrainian forces in sector “D” as a result of the Russian invasion turned out to be much higher than those resulting from the resistance of the troops in sector “B” in Ilovaisk. It is known that no fewer than 300 soldiers were killed.
The reasons for the heavy combat losses and major blunders by the command of ATO and sector “D” and the Ministry of Defense, which caused heavy losses due to the attack of Russian troops, need to be investigated and to undergo procedural evaluation. It is necessary to make serious staffing conclusions and deep structural changes in the composition and leadership of the armed forces.
The stunning heroism and self-sacrifice of Ukrainian soldiers, who stopped the Russian advance and obtained battle evidence of the Russian invasion and who captured Russian soldiers, must not be forgotten and must never be repeated again
Thank you, men, and eternal memory to those who did not surrender and who fought till the end, to those in captivity, to those who continue to defend Ukraine.
By Yuri Butusov, Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, September 8. 2014
Translated by Anna Mostovych