The forgotten war in Donbas. Ceaseless fighting in eastern Ukraine, explained

Snapshot from the trailer of the film "War of chimeras" about the war in Donbas.

Snapshot from the trailer of the film "War of chimeras" about the war in Donbas. 

Military analysis

Article by: Anatolii Shara

For the fourth year in a row, Ukraine is fighting an undeclared war with Putin’s Russia. But it seems that Ukrainian media are more interested in the colors of Justin Trudeau’s socks, Trump and Putin’s body language at the G-20 meeting in Hamburg, or permanent scandals with local pop-singers giving concerts in Russia.

All that media frenzy overshadows the real war in Donbas and, worst of all, the fallen soldiers who gave their lives so that ordinary citizens have a possibility to visit cafes, cinemas, theaters. It is even practically impossible to know the names of the killed military men as monosyllabic reports from the spokesperson on ATO-related issues do not disclose the details on who and how was slain in this so-called “hybrid war.”

The more the war continues, the more it appears that it only matters those who directly involved.

Still, in 2017 the Armed Forces of Ukraine are in far more better shape than they were at the beginning of 2014. Certainly, the nature of fighting has seriously changed – the active hostilities four years ago have been replaced by a trench war.

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For ease of understanding the situation at the front line, let’s divide it into four sectors: the Luhansk direction, the Svitlodarsk salient, the Donetsk direction, and Mariupol. Here we will focus mostly on the recent developments in the Luhansk direction.

I. The changing status quo in Luhansk Oblast

After heavy fighting at the end of August in 2014 near Luhansk and January in 2015 for control over Bakhmutka highway (R-66), the overall situation in the oblast was relatively serene. There were a few factors facilitating such a status-quo. One of them is the river of Siverskyi Donets, which acts as a natural deterrent. From a military perspective, the active offensives, having such a barrier as a river, would bring too many losses, as artillery units have precisely sighted on the possible spots for attacks. So, during these two years, the units of Ukraine’s Ground Forces and the Russian-backed militants have concentrated on defending the areas they already have had under their control.

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During the phase of the trench war, both sides had worked on advancing into the “gray zones.” At the end of May, the Ukrainian units of the 93d mechanized infantry brigade, hardened in the battles for the Donetsk Airport, advanced near Krymske village. At this direction, the positions of Ukrainian Army near Krymske have traversed the river of Siverskyi Donets, and this is the only place where they are able to be active.

These areas should have been already under Ukraine’s control according to Minsk I Agreements but were seized by Russian-militant forces in the autumn of 2014.

When the commanders of the Russian militants understood that the Ukrainian infantry had taken important commanding heights near Zholobok village, allowing them to exercise control over this part of the R66 highway and even cut off supplies to their forces concentrated in Pervomaisk, Kadiyivka (former Stakhanov), they resorted to their favorite and many-times tested method by disseminating false reports in the controlled media of the separatist “republics” on the alleged full-fledged offensive of Ukrainian government forces. This was used as a precondition for shelling the positions of Ukraine’s Armed Forces with prohibited calibers, even Zholobok village suffered considerably though there were no Ukrainian soldiers in it. The Russian-militant forces claimed that the Ukrainian infantry suffered heavy losses, and spread scaremongering fakes in their medias that they even faced Polish mercenaries under the command of the US colonels and that the captured militants were mutilated and then killed by the Right Sector, a nationalist Ukrainian battalion which was turned into a bogeyman of sorts in the Russian and pro-Russian media. This was done with the only goal to cover their untalented military management.

After a few days of heavy yet fruitless attacks at the positions of the 93d brigade at the commanding heights near Zholobok, the combined Russian-militant forces launched plan B by dispatching sabotage and reconnaissance groups (SRG) towards the positions of the 93d brigade. The Ukrainian infantry foresaw such a turn of events and on June 24, they held a counter-operation against an enemy SRG and captured a Russian soldier named Viktor Ageyev. Just as before, Russia categorically denied any involvement of its soldiers in the war in Donbas. However, Ageyev himself has confirmed he is a contract soldier and was on active duty in Donbas.

Read more: Russian contract soldier captured in Donbas confirms he was on active duty

These days the situation in Luhansk oblast has calmed down. Combined Russian-militant forces have suffered a tactical defeat – the units of 93d mechanized infantry brigade have taken fire control over the R66 highway.

II. The ever-hot Svitlodarsk salient

Since December 2016, the situation near Svitlodarsk remains tense. Regarding this hotspot, there is a need to make a small but important digression. Even after leaving Debaltseve in 2016, the Ukrainian Army still preserves the option to deliver sharp and severe blows aiming at driving a wedge in between the so-called “LNR” from “DNR” with their following encirclement. Well knowing this, the Russian-militant forces had constantly been trying to drive out the Ukrainian Army out of the Svitlodarsk salient to deprive it of that option. This accounts for unremitting hostilities in this sector.

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Even being under the conditions of a total ban on the use of heavy artillery, the units of government forces have been squeezing the Russian-militant forces out of their positions inch by inch, gradually seizing the commanding heights and getting closer to Debaltseve, which, again, according to the Minsk I Agreements should be under Ukraine’s control. The militants freely use heavy artillery, provoking the Ukrainian infantry, but when they are eventually answered by counterattacks, they ask for a ceasefire.

This plan failed last December when the SRGs of the Russian-militant forces under the cover of artillery tried to seize the forward positions of the 54th mechanized infantry brigade. This turned out to be a total disaster for the Russian-militant side, as their SRGs were rebuffed and the units of 54th brigade successfully counterattacked, having seized a few advantageous positions. As of now, the overall status at the Svitlodarsk salient is more or less stabilized till the next attempt of the Russian-militant forces to advance.

III. The ever-suffering Avdiivka

Avdiivka is the hottest spot in Donbas war map, with the recent major flare in fighting having taken place on 29 January 2017.

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Having survived the terrible days at the end of January 2017, the inhabitants of Avdiivka may breathe more freely. During those hellish days, Russian-militant forces conducted severe attacks at the positions of 72nd mechanized infantry brigade at the Promzona, an industrial location outside the city. with an active use of artillery and tanks. A considerable part of mortars and howitzer shells fell on the houses of the civilian residents in Avdiivka, taking their lives and destroying the infrastructure of the city.

Read more: Escalation in Avdiivka, Eastern Ukraine: key facts and sources

After several successful counterattacks of the Ukrainian infantry, the Russian-militant forces lost crucial positions near the Yasynuvata junction which significantly strengthens the ability of the 72nd brigade to control the important road between Donetsk and Horlivka with fire. Correspondingly, the supplies routes have been changed, worsening the ammo provision for garrisons in Yasynuvata and Horlivka.

Understanding that a full-frontal attack on the positions of Ukrainian troops at the Promzona will be difficult, the commanders of the Russian-militant forces tried to deliver a flanking blow at Kamianka village to the north-east of Avdiivka. They were met by a strong rebuttal and retreated with no results. Despite active hostilities having decreased, the illusory cease-fire may end up in every given second.

Read also: Why Avdiivka is the most vulnerable spot for the Russian-separatist army in Ukraine

IV. The southern bulwark – Mariupol

The city of Mariupol is another hotspot in Donbas. Here, ceasefires are interspersed with heavy fighting. No one can be sure what’s happens next. The locals have adapted to this uncertainty. The single yet crucial difference between Mariupol and other frontline cities like Avdiivka, Mariinka, or Krasnohorivka is that Ukrainian troops were able to drive the Russian-militant forces out of the town.

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In result, the center of gravity of active hostilities had shifted to small villages as Shyrokyne, Kominternove, Sakharka, and Hnutove. As everywhere else along the frontline, the combined Russian-militant forces actively use heavy artillery against the government forces. Because of the chaotic character of shelling, the civilian residents have been suffering the most even taking into consideration the announcement of the so-called “bread ceasefire.”

Summing up, it would appropriate to say that, despite the declining media attention, the war in Donbas is ongoing and regularly takes the lives of the soldiers and civilians. This fact should be well remembered by every Ukrainian citizen who has a possibility to live his easy-going life.

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Anatolii Shara is a Ukrainian freelance journalist.

 

Edited by: Alya Shandra

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  • Randolph Carter

    Interesting how Russian forces have switched to small towns/cities: Krymske, Zholobok, Svitlodarsk. Is this an indication of their relative strength, commitment to Russian and Putin, or all these tactical targets (I’m lousy with military strategy, so if it’s obvious then someone please say so).

    Is Putin still refusing to pay his army and mercenaries? Are they attacking small towns just to fulfill an obligation to fight, or are these strategic moves? It seems like they’re getting their heads handed to them in each battle, and aren’t doing so well with Mariupol.

    Also, Krymske being in Crimea suggests Ukraine is resorting to force to retake it. I hope they can do it; this would be both a military victory and a psychological one. If they can do it, they should blow up the Kerch bridge; it would set Putin back several years and drain more money from the Russian economy.

    • Eddy Verhaeghe

      Randoph, there’s a Krymske in the Luhansk Oblast too and that’s the one this article is talking about.

      • Randolph Carter

        Thanks for the info, Eddy – so much to learn about Ukraine … guess that’s what makes her so great; the history, traditions, peoples, languages, even geography )))

    • Brent

      I like the idea of blowing up the Kerch bridge but Ukraine should wait until Putin does the grand opening ceremony in 2021….or 2022…..or before it collapses into the Sea of Azov!!!

      • veth

        NEED HELP?

        Ukraine to get U.S.-made patrol boats following Sea Breeze 2017

        A decision has been made to transfer to the Ukrainian Navy U.S. military patrol boats following Sea Breeze-2017 military exercise, Rear Admiral of the Ukrainian Navy Andriy Tarasov has told Krym.Realii.

        Politics 21:30, 17 July 2017

        “The negotiations have already moved to a more practical level. In fact the decision to transfer [the boats] has been made, and now the details are being discussed. I hope that the process will be fast enough and we will get these boats,” the military official said, according to Krym.Realii. According to him, Russia uses the fact that NATO’s modern vessels are at their side, in order to work out aggressive actions against them. Read also U.S. deploys warships, Navy Seals for massive drills off Ukraine coast – media “They [the Russian military] do it not only in the interests of training their forces, but also for the purpose of carrying out possible provocations. We are ready for these provocations, and the exercises will be held according to plan, despite the actions of the Black Sea Fleet of Russia,” said the rear admiral. As UNIAN reported earlier, on July 10, the Sea Breeze 2017 international naval exercise has started in Ukraine. The drills are being held in the spirit of Partnership for Peace, in accordance with the program of bilateral cooperation between the defense ministries of Ukraine and the United States for 2017. Read also Multinational naval exercise Sea Breeze-2017 launched in Ukraine Participants include representatives of the armed forces of 16 countries – Ukraine, the United States, Romania, Turkey, Georgia, Great Britain, Greece, Canada, Italy, Belgium, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Sweden, and France. The drills stage a conduct of a multinational maritime security operation in a crisis region.

        Read more on UNIAN: https://www.unian.info/politics/2033834-ukraine-to-get-us-made-patrol-boats-following-sea-breeze-2017.html

      • Randolph Carter

        Put the Admiral Kuznetsov underneath it when it falls…

        From Animal House: “D-Day gets rid of the wreck and your country’s insurance company buys them a whole new aircraft carrier!”

    • veth
    • Screwdriver

      Unlike in Donbass, there are real Russian troops in Crimea. This is why there are no shellings on that border. Ukraine would be crushed if they make a single shot towards Crimea, this is why this border is extremely quite, no tranches, no hostility. Ukrainians peacefully crossing the border to go on vacation to the “aggressor”.