To understand how to repel Russian aggression it is necessary to form a concept of the main threats to Ukraine on the part of the Russian army and the foreseeable nature of the war.
Based on a review of battles during the 2014-2015 period I will try to predict the future events on the front and the likely threats and problems.
Is peace possible in the Donbas?
Putin’s goal is the destabilization of Ukraine, the creation of a pro-Russian force in Ukrainian government, the legitimization of the seizure of Crimea, and the occupation of the Donbas. And this is possible only if Ukraine officially recognizes such a state of affairs. This is why in the current political configuration peace is unattainable.
It is unlikely that the ceasefire will hold. After all, Russia does not admit to occupying the Donbas and Ukraine is unable to delimit the border with thugs — that would mean recognizing the Russian mercenaries Zakharchenko and Plotnitskyi as independent parties to the conflict. Only significant peacekeeping forces would be able control the terms of the ceasefire and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the line of demarcation. But the EU and the U.S. are still not ready to send peacekeepers. The Ukrainian troops themselves must become peacekeepers. Therefore, we have to fight.
A low-intensity conflict in Ukraine is beneficial for Putin. War allows him to maintain a crisis in Ukraine, to force it to draw down its resources and keeps it from attracting investments. Since direct military invasion to capture all of Ukraine has already become too difficult, Russia is counting on the effectiveness of local military attacks and the escalation of (Ukraine’s) internal problems.
Western sanctions have started to bite and the consequences of any full-scale invasion by Putin are unpredictable. Russia is not the USSR and its resources for conducting a large-scale war are very limited.
For the war to end, either Ukraine has to comply with Putin’s demands or Russia must begin to suffer significant losses that would make further continuation of military hostilities uncomfortable.
In order to end the war there needs to be a radical change in the situation in Ukraine — both in the military and the political, economic and informational spheres.
One side has to win and the other side to accept defeat.
The likely direction of attacks by the Russian army and the nature of the fighting
In fact, based on the strategy described by Putin, the Russian command does not need to follow any particular strategic direction. Yes, they are interested in Mariupol. But it is really obvious that the main war objective for the Russian Federation is to defeat our combat units. The loss of combat effectiveness — especially as a result of the encirclement of Ukrainian troops near Izvaryne, Ilovaisk, the 32nd checkpoint, the Donetsk airport, and at Debaltseve — brings about enormous losses for Ukrainian armies in people and equipment, inflicts moral-psychological damage, and also enables Russia to capture significant territory.
Undoubtedly, the enemy’s future military strategy will also take on the form of a series of local attacks.
Now, during yet another ceasefire, the enemy will conduct battle reconnaissance to determine the “weak points” of the Ukrainian front. That is, those locations where Russian troops can engage us in battle under conditions favorable to them. In any case, the battles will take place in urban areas, since towns and villages are natural defense centers and communication hubs.
The priority directions for enemy attacks may be Shchastia, Stanytsia Luhanska, Popasna, Artemivsk, Avdiivka, Pisky, Volnovakha, Mariupol.
As was the case with previous “ceasefires,” the enemy is preparing for combat, conducting intelligence on our positions, determining the combat readiness of our troops and concentrating forces for attack.
The attacks will be local. Russian invasion troops will fight in the enemy’s second wave, acting as assault units and mobile reserves. They also will carry out artillery support and provide electronic and artillery reconnaissance.
The Russian command tries to conduct offensive operations only when it can maintain the initiative, under conditions that are tactically favorable to their side.
The Russians do not care about the lives of the mercenaries in the second-rate units. During the defense of Debaltseve, Ukrainian units reported there were at least five instances of attacks by enemy infantry on our bases during the day, waves of full frontal attacks by obviously untrained units. Incidentally, the same kinds of frontal attacks were recorded in the fall of 2014 in the Donetsk airport. The second-rate units have to prove their combat readiness and effectiveness in battle and those who survive and demonstrate they can fight successfully are transferred to the attack units that are fighting constantly. Since qualified military specialists are paid very competitive salaries as compared to the private sector in Russia, Russian recruiters, even under crisis conditions, still have the necessary reserves to replenish their forces.
By recruiting volunteers for the war, Russians are able to hide the real casualties and lower the dissatisfaction of society at the huge casualties.
The fighting will be activated in late spring when the Donbas fields are once again covered with “greenery” that will help conceal the troop movements.
Enemy forces in the Donbas
At this time all control, communications, and logistics of the mercenary armies are in the hands of the Russian command.
Given the sharp increase in the combat capability of Ukrainian armies and the acquisition of considerable combat experience by soldiers and the younger commanders, the Russians have reorganized the mercenary bands into regular armored and infantry divisions.
The Russians have organized the gangs of mercenaries into 7 parts, called brigades and battalions. They have created a command system, provided the mercenaries with a considerable command structure of “vacationers” from the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, organized systems of reinforcement and have created attack units consisting exclusively of Russian military specialists with combat experience and qualifications. The majority (of the fighters), half of whom have been recruited from the local population, make up the infantry units with various levels of combat readiness. They basically conduct guerrilla warfare, carry out clearing operations, and protect the rear. In this fashion, a mercenary brigade may contain several thousand people, but its core consists of a company task force, reinforced with its own tanks, armored vehicles, howitzers, mortars, and anti-tank guns, which are involved in most of the brigade’s combat.
At this time the mercenaries, supplied by equipment and personnel from Russia, are rapidly restoring combat capability after heavy losses in battles near Debaltseve and the Donetsk airport.
However, the enemy’s strategic stability is due to the presence of regular units of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. At the same time, no fewer than 5-6 tactical battalion groups of regular Russian armies are taking part in the combat missions in Ukraine. These groups are formed on the basis of staff brigades, recruited from contract soldiers, sergeants and officers. Most of them clearly are fighting not by choice but by order.
Russian troops are in the second tier. Their task is to provide cover for the flanks and rear of the mercenary shock troops. They are the reserve force in case of a breakthrough by Ukrainian troops. They conduct various types of technical intelligence and electronic warfare, and they provide fire support for self-propelled rocket artillery, including large-caliber systems.
Russia has also deployed modern military air defense systems in the Donbas. In this fashion, the Russian army is under the Russian air defense “umbrella”
Debaltseve is an example of the interaction between Russian troops and mercenaries. On the frontline the Russian units fought only in the key areas of attack — in Nyzhnyi Lozovyi, Klynivka, Lohvynova. The attempts by Ukrainian units to unblock the Debaltseve bridgehead were repulsed by units of the Russian 5th separate tank brigade from Ulan-Ude (Buryatia).
Russian troops were brought to the frontal positions only after the advance units of the mercenaries broke through to Kalynivka and Lohvynove and ensured the smooth advance of Russian units. But it was Russians who then fought off the Ukrainian counterattacks under tactically advantageous circumstances.
A similar scheme of interaction as well as direct participation by regular Russian troops will be used throughout 2015.
According to analysts, we can derive the following average numbers in the Russian forces:
- Mercenary attack units — frontline units — up to 5,000 people.
- Second line sub-units, with limited combat readiness — up to 15,000.
- Unorganized bands — up to 5,000 people, who received rear towns and villages “for sustenance” from Russian intelligence.
- Russian troops — up to 10,000 military, including 5,000-6,000 army and paratrooper attack units.
Now, during the ceasefire, the enemy is carrying out accelerated actions to improve combat readiness of the mercenary shock troops with the help of qualified personnel, performing military interoperability maneuvers, and replenishing and repairing military equipment.
Problems of Ukrainian command
- The leadership of the General Staff and army has lost the trust of its people, especially the field officers and soldiers. This is the main threat. The army does not want to fight under the command of fools, liars and traitors. Read the interview with Colonel Pokusa, chief of staff of the 20th motorized infantry battalion, and the letter of the officers of the 25th and 40th battalion and the 128th brigade. The letter is not a fake; it is real and the facts cited are mostly true. Listen to the dozens of other critical comments of our soldiers. The leadership of the General Staff should be dismissed from the army for incompetence and it should face criminal prosecution. The right-hand man of the Chief of the General Staff Viktor Muzhenko, General Viktor Nazarov, has threatened experts — honored officers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine — while the Commander in Chief Poroshenko fails to protect the colonel with 35 years of service and unique experience who left everything in Crimea for the sake of Ukraine. Nazarov is not sent to prison, and a person subject to criminal investigation continues to command people. Is this not a shame for the army and for military command? Does this not demonstrate that generals in Ukraine are unscrupulous, dishonorable and do not respect their subordinates? (Viktor Nazarov has been accused of criminal negligence in the downing of a military transport plane and the loss of 49 paratroopers in June 2014, when he dispatched the group to the Luhansk airport despite intelligence reports that Russian terrorists had moved rocket systems to the area and were shooting down planes. — Ed.)
- The system of governance. The 30,000 army is broken up among numerous commands of sectors and brigades. The fragmentation of the system of governance into sectors, as during a police operation, is a terrible archaism, and absolutely is not indicated by combat statutes during war. In the Soviet armored military infantry division there were 14,700 people and often this type of division was commanded by an officer with the rank of colonel. The Ukrainian grouping is equal to the number of two Soviet divisions and is commanded by numerous generals and colonels. This bureaucratic system, with many levels of management, paralyzes the normal command of the armies and the command apparatus does not correspond to the numbers of combat personnel. The leadership of the General Staff constantly interferes with the direction of tactical operations and destroys the chain of command and the control system. During combat at the Donetsk airport, the Chief of the General Staff Viktor Muzhenko personally assumed the command of the 95th, 81st and 79th Airborne and 25th paratrooper brigades and brought them into battle in the area that was the responsibility of sector B, where Muzhenko himself two weeks previously had completely replaced many key officers. Chaos and disorganization prevented the execution of the combat missions.
- The total number of troops in ATO remains insignificant — 30,000-35,000 out of 230,000 in the military. The General Staff is not doing anything to increase the numbers of combat strength. There are numerous flags on the map but very low attack strengths for each flag and each unit. During the operation to unblock Debaltseve, the General Staff attempted to concentrate the assault force to capture the Lohvynove region. However, again the paratroopers reinforced by units of the 1st tank and the 30th and 14th mechanized brigades could not carry out their combat missions. The reason is that all the Ukrainian units go to the front understaffed. In the composition of a brigade, only one or two battalion tactical groups engage in combat and squadrons are created from the personnel in the battalions. Most of the combat missions at the front are performed by units that are no larger than the squadron tactical teams. There is no concentration of forces. Under conditions of combat with mercenary assault units and Russian troops, the individual squadrons can no longer fully perform combat missions.
- The reform of the Armed Forces that the president has approved is a profanation by the General Staff and a huge mistake by the military leadership of Ukraine. The results include the creation of two new operational command headquarters, a new air command, an increase in the number of generals and general positions from 121 to 151, and the creation of new military formations under conditions of terrible understaffing of the active army. The general increase of total military to 250,000 people at a time when what is important is to increase the number of mechanized combat units and not the general number represents a huge drain on resources that is absolutely unjustified under conditions of war and absolutely unaffordable for our army and economy. By continuing to give old equipment to poorly trained, unprofessional and unmotivated people, we do not strengthen the army. On the contrary, we are multiplying useless non-combat losses. With the new staff structure the General Staff has drastically decreased the fire power and combat capabilities of the motorized infantry battalions. The number of artillery batteries has been reduced from 6 to 4, but at the same time the number of artillery brigades has been increased from 3 to 6. While the means of artillery reconnaissance are still inadequate even in active brigades and there are no fully staffed and equipped formations, new artillery brigades are being created. Also new infantry brigades are being created with units that are not equipped and not staffed with motivated and trained personnel.
- The General Staff has an absolutely mediocre and wasteful attitude to military equipment, which for Ukraine is not a renewable resource. According to Dzerkalo Tyzhnia sources in the General Staff, 65% of the armored vehicle losses and 70% of artillery losses occurred during the encirclements in Izvaryne, Iloviask, and Debaltseve. According to our data, in the battle for Debaltseve, the losses of Ukrainian armies during battle numbered 127 armored units of various kinds. Since the General Staff did not take into account the level of technical serviceability of the equipment, it failed to provide for repair and spare parts. During the “organized retreat,” 70% of equipment losses consisted simply of abandoned armored vehicles, which our own troops were forced to destroy and disable and also, unfortunately, to leave in a usable state for the enemy.
- There is no systematic personnel management. There is no analysis of effective combat performance, and successful commanders do not replace the incompetent ones. Therefore, there is no interoperability and cooperation in the units. The commanders are absolutely irresponsible and the Chief of Staff Muzhenko simply manipulates people based on his own personal interests.
- Combat training on the training ranges does not ensure combat interoperability and cooperation at the battalion-brigade level. The reason is the absence at the front of fully staffed battalion tactical groups and brigades. The level of training of combat vehicle crews and artillery batteries is absolutely inadequate. In modern warfare combat training should include training within the framework of units and companies. For that reason, the entire brigade should be taken to the training range and intensively prepared. According to the testimony of Russian military, Russians send contract soldiers to battle who have at least 9 months of service behind them and three months of intensive preparation in the field camps in Rostov. Our brigade and battalion staff spend months on the front lines and the brigades are fighting with consolidated platoons. Many units do not overlap at all and do not fight together. Brigades are dispersed in small units at the front.
- There is no center of intelligence analysis that is responsible for transferring it to the troops on the front edge. The front units have practically no information about the enemy from sources other than their own visual observation.
Appeal to the commander in chief
Ukraine is continuing to fight thanks to a strikingly high level of patriotism and the personal initiative of soldiers and officers at the front. The army as an institution and a system, as a normal military organization, does not exist yet. Ukrainian patriots are fighting with their enthusiasm and love of country. They are fighting primarily thanks to the provisions and support of volunteers and not the state.
The army urgently needs military doctrine for the Donbas war, a radical reduction of management levels and the numbers of managers to one third or one forth of current numbers and a reduction by at least half of the current 1400 military units.
It is necessary to form fully staffed and equipped combat brigades for the gradual replacement of the modular units at the front with complete formations. The enemy is reinforcing its fighting forces, and we must act proactively.
But most important, the country’s leadership and especially the president must stop deceiving themselves and stop living with the psychology of a besieged fortress, in constant panic that tomorrow they will be deposed. Mr. Poroshenko, there are sensible people in our country who are not going to organize a military coup during military aggression. Everyone understands the value of democratic presidential elections. You need to plan a strategy for action, and not to struggle with phantoms and false threats. You must begin to rely on people, on intelligence and to learn to trust people and not only your own phobias and advisers of the level of a Svynarchuk. (Oleg Svynarchuk, Poroshenko’s former business associate, is head of the Interdepartmental Commission on Military-Technical Cooperation and Export Control. — Ed). The entire country will support you if you begin to carry out successful reforms that immediately increase the combat readiness of the army and not simply imitate a flurry of activity with rations and material supplies. You must do what the people who are fighting in the trenches and at the frontline defensive positions advise you to do. And not listen to the incompetent schemers with feudal attitudes.
A person with the intellect of a corporal, even if repeatedly advanced in rank, is telling you that his paratroopers will protect you against any coup. This is nonsense. First, listen to the paratroopers themselves, including many volunteers. And you will learn much about yourself. The video is online. And second, a liar is incapable of protecting you from the people. For the liar, nothing ever works, all are to blame except the General Staff.
Mr. President, you have only one path: to win the war and enter history, or to continue to “betray” the war and plunge into history. On your side are the people, the best patriots, all the warriors who want to protect their homeland. Against you are your fears, villains and scoundrels who are taking advantage of your fears and are blocking you from wise decisions and systemic reforms. You must choose what side you are on. The army can be and must be rapidly reorganized. Ukraine has a large numerical advantage over the enemy. Our motivation is so much higher. We do not have as many weapons and equipment as Putin, but we have an incomparable advantage in the quality of our people. Believe in the people and this will be your most important victory.
Note: Yuriy Butusov is a Ukrainian investigative journalist and military expert. He is the creator, founder and chief editor of Censor.net, one of the top news sites in Ukraine that has been providing extensive coverage of the Donbas war. Earlier, Butusov wrote a critical analysis of the Ilovaisk tragedy and the extensive Ukrainian losses that he attributes to Russian treachery and the incompetence of Ukraine’s General Staff.