Photo: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine
At least 11 Ukrainian soldiers are reported to have died repelling the deadliest yet 2017 attack from combined Russian-separatist forces in the east Ukrainian city of Avdiivka, which started on 29 January 2017. The land assault was accompanied by Grad missile salvos, which have left the 16,000 inhabitants of Avdiivka without heat, water, and electricity, while temperatures outside reach -18°C during the night.
Ukraine has started a humanitarian rescue operation, observers are speculating on the between the Avdiivka escalation and the call between Putin and Trump which took place hours before the first attacks. Meanwhile, we took a look into why the attacks took place in this specific location.
The small town of Avdiivka near Donetsk had become a hotspot in Donbas starting from late February 2016. Artillery salvos and battles of differing intensity don’t cease there even for a few days. The fighting mainly concerns not the city itself or the huge coke factory, but the so-called Promzona on Avdiivka’s outskirts, which borders the road leading from Donetsk to Horlivka. This is where fighting escalated on 29 January 2017, when starting from 4AM the Russian-separatist forces massively shelled the positions of the Ukrainian army, after which assault groups of militants attacked two Ukrainian army strongholds. This attack was repelled, the Ukrainian forces took another position in the Promzona, after which more artillery strikes on Ukrainian positions followed.
Both sides name attempts of the enemy to violate the Minsk agreements prior to the meeting of the Trilateral contact group that was set to take place on 1 February.
The escalation at Avdiivka has a strategic and tactical reason, writes Kyrylo Sazonov for espreso.tv. While the fighting has been escalating along all the frontline, not only in Avdiivka, the city itself was targeted more than others, because here the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DNR”) has its most vulnerable spot.
The new Ukrainian army positions in the Promzona allow to take the main road connecting occupied Horlivka and Donetsk under fire control. The largest Russian-separatist militant groups, called the “Army corps,” are located in these two cities.
From Horlivka, the Russian-separatist forces constantly shell Zaitseve and could start attacking Bakhmut at any moment, a city which not only contains unique factories which will bring profits for the militant leaders, but also large arm depots.
From Donetsk, the militants are ready to make a strike in the Mariinka direction and advance to Kurakhovo, where a power plant is located.
In the case of an advance, the “DNR” leadership will face the problem of rapidly transporting reserve forces from Horlivka to Donetsk, or the other way around. The best road is the one bordering the Promzona.
“All the fighting is taking place because of this road. We control it with machine gun fire […]. which is why they [the militants] don’t use it to transport military equipment, ammunition, and personnel. And all the other roads to Horlivka from Donetsk go either through villages, or are in worse condition,” military expert Oleg Zhdanov explained to BBC Ukraine.
It takes 20-30 minutes to drive from Donetsk to Horlivka. The alternative road through Makiivka will take no less than 1.5 hours.
Sazonov also hypothesizes that in one of the possible scenarios, Ukraine will switch from abiding by the Minsk peace agreements (currently failing to work) to advancement. Presence in Avdiivka’s Promzona is crucial for the success of this scenario. The larger time that it would take to transport reinforcements between Horlivka and Donetsk would mean everything in the world for the militants, and it is the main problem in their defense, which is why it is their strategic goal to move the Ukrainian forces away from their positions on the road.
Meanwhile, the strategic reason for the escalation in Avdiivka, Sazonov writes, is Russia’s attempt to exert pressure on Ukraine prior to the next round of negotiations in Minsk. So far, Ukraine has withstood the Kremlin’s attempts to implement its scenario for the return of Donbas, namely, to grant Donbas a “special status” which would entail holding early elections with Kremlin-approved candidates of the “separatist leaders” entering Ukrainian politics before a ceasefire had been established, and before Ukraine got control over the border with Russia, have failed.
“The Ukrainian leadership perfectly understands that Russia with the help of a Special status for Donbas and an amnesty for the militants is attempting to undermine Ukraine’s very existence. The Kremlin’s only accessible arguments are only to strengthen the attacks, escalate the conflict, and blackmail us with our prisoners who it stubbornly refuses to exchange. This creates additional tension within the country and they in Russia believe that sooner or later it will reach a critical point,” Sazonov writes.