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Russia’s war in Ukraine in a nutshell

Nikolai Mitrokhin, 27.08.2014

The recently surfaced evidence of Russian servicemen fighting (and dying) in Ukraine have opened Russians’ eyes to a long existing situation. The project of forming separatist “republics” in eastern Ukraine is inviable without continuous influx of new forces and fresh blood from Russia. The only news is that Russia has run out of volunteers and turned to professional soldiers, sent to fight without any ideological or material incentive, but under direct orders from high command.

To understand how Russian soldiers became involved in the war and fell victim to it, it is necessary to review the recent past.

The armed conflict in Donbas has gone through several stages during which completely different forces were used on the separatist side.

During the armed seizure of power in several cities in the region from April 12 to April 20 separatists were impersonated by several groups. The main assault force were small criminal gangs (as well as petty criminals they brought in as “extras”) that hoped to get rid not only of Ukrainian forces but of old Mafia bosses dominating the region, billionaire Rinat Akhmetov mentioned most often among them. The local political and economic elite with close ties to Akhmetov, forming the core of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, definitely did not want Donbas to join Russia since that would mean a property redistribution and other troubles. The low-tier criminal and half-criminal bosses, in contrast, had great hopes for these radical political changes. If a petty criminal boss Sergey Aksenov, nicknamed Goblin, could become the prime minister of Crimea, why could Valeriy Bolotov, the supervisor of illegal coal mining under Alexander Efremov, head of the Party of Regions faction in the Ukrainian parliament, become the prime minister of “Luhansk People’s Republic”? Why couldn’t Igor Bezler, nicknamed “Bes”, a minor local official supervising the funeral business, become the master of Horlyvka? Why couldn’t Sergey Zdrylyuk nicknamed Abwehr, Aksenov’s schoolfellow and friend, try to become a “war mayor” of Kramatorsk?

Another large group taking part in the “Donbas revolution” were Russian Special Forces operatives and intelligence officers either storming the administration buildings themselves or covering the attackers. It were they who were responsible for the first Ukrainian helicopters shot down with Russian manpads over Sloviansk.

A third group were ideologically motivated Russian nationalists – veterans of various wars mobilized during the Crimea annexation campaign. The most prominent of them was Igor Girkin nicknamed Strelkov, accompanied by cossacks from the Beloretsk “Wolf hundred”. The most numerous in this group were the cossacks operating mostly under command of their ataman [cossack warlord] Nikolai Kositsyn and playing a decisive role in capturing towns on the border of Luhansk and Rostov regions.

And, finally, the least significant militarily but the most important politically were the local pro-Russian activists from numerous small organizations. Their presence allowd to pretend that the armed gangs enjoyed “people’s support” and that the event were a Donbas echo of the Maidan revolution in Kiev and not inspired by external influence.

The second stage of fighting started in about a month – from mid-May. By this point the Ukrainian army had overcome its collapse and quite tightly encircled the territory of future military actions, drawing a border to real separatist influence.

At this point the Kremlin saw the actual level of their support in the region. The theoretical “Novorossiya” project drawn up by “experts” from Konstantin Zatulin’s “CIS [former Soviet Union] countries institute” failed by late April, the failure of the May 2 coup in Odesa putting the matter to rest. In Donbas itself the influence of hastily created DNR and LNR spread only to a part of the territories they claimed as theirs. Actually they controlled only a large aglomeation of cities and miner towns sprawling from Donetsk to Krasnodon and three industrial towns outside it – Mariupil, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. The northern half of the Luhansk region and several districts in its southeast as well as the western and southern (as far as Donetsk’s suburbs) part of the Donetsk region did not support the campaign of seizing administrative buildings and remained under control of the central government.

Moreover, even in the separatist-controlled territories the locals behaved absolutely not like the separatists wanted. According to polls, approximately a third of this territory’s population supported joining Russia, another third would be satisfied with Donbas’s autonomy and only a third was for keeping the status quo – but really few were ready to go fight for their beliefs.

Frightening the locals with tales of “Right Sector” Ukrainian nationalists allegedly coming to kill them for speaking Russian, as well as insulting their male pride, incited the men to take up weapons only in some towns and villages on the separatist-government frontline. But even in Sloviansk and Kramatorsk the initial euphoria of “Donbas speaking its word” quickly faded and by late May Igor Girkin, the militants’ leader, started complaining of an acute lack of fighters.

By this point in Russia channels already were established to pinpoint, recruit and transfer potential fighters for the “Russian world”. The main way of attracting them became using draft offices to look for Chechen, Georgian and Afghan war vets in a difficult financial and run-down moral state. A perfect target would be a military professional working as a guard, builder or driver, with heaps of loans or family issues – or a young man fresh from the army, not yet adapted to the civilian life. It were these people who operated the heavy weaponry Russia started to supply the militants with starting in June when it became apparent that Girkin’s men, even armed with anti-tank missiles and manpads from Russia, can’t mount an efficient defense against Ukrainian tanks and artillery.

Another large group involved in the conflict was political “volunteers” attracted by the beacon of successful resistance that was Sloviansk and triumphant messages on social networks of “fighting the Ukrs” without almost any losses. All pro-Imperial political networks ranging from Stalinists to cossacks and Russian Civil War reenactors actively urged their members to take part in the war and recruit sympathizers. Among those “idealists” killed in Donbas are a communist Alexander Stefanovskyi from Perm, a National Bolshevick from Tolyatti Ilya Guriev, nationalists from St. Petersburg, Kuban and Don cossacks.

The flow of recruites and volunteers was strong from May to July but evidently decreased by early August. The reasons for that were the separatists’ obvious military failures, Russia’s leadership “flushing” the Novorossiya project and other significant factors.

On July 5 Girkin and his group left Sloviansk and Kramatorsk and then yielded almost half the territory under separatists control in Donbas to the enemy almost without a fight. This prompted a crisis of trust towards Girkin as a military commander and the head of “Russian resistance”.

Also many of those willing to fight were going to do it during the summer holidays. But by late July they found out that on Girkin’s orders they would be denied exit from the region. And that was understandable. Those recruited by draft centers got their promised “tons of money” only for the first month at best, then they had to fight for free, and due to the continuous risk to their lives a lot of them wanted to go back – but they weren’t let through. Why would they make an exception for the naive volunteers?

As a result by mid-August, according to Ukrainian estimaters, around 20-25 thousand men fought for the separatists, of which only 40-45% were locals, including the forcibly drafted, the number of the latter dwindling steadily. The majority of draft age males fled the separatist-controlled cities, prompting a cascade of accusative speeches from the disappointed “Novorossiya” leaders.

The presence of Russian war vets (as well as continuous support from Russia with weapons and armor) explains the slowness of the Ukrainian advance. The reservist who’d never seen fighting entered a regular but decrepit army to fight experienced, battle-tested soldiers, commanded by people with actual fighting experince – Girkin, Bezler, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, Arsenyi Pavlov (known as Motorola) and the shadowy Russian military experts behind the planning and logistics.

But even the two full-fledged separatist divisions (that actually should have been called Russians since summer) definitely weren’t enough. The Ukrainian army won the strategic initiative and in June-Jukt became quite successful in deep encirclements of separatist groups, locking them in towns and severing supply lines. The cossack units, relatively numerous but week in morale, left positions after first artillery raids and broke off to Russia. From the inside the rebel forces were gnawed by bickering field commanders and separate units. Moreover, most of them preferred looting and rape to fighting, prompting outrage even from their comrades-in-arms.

In early August the half-encircled Donetsk and Luhansk were under real threat of capture. Ukrainian troops, fighting under Grad and artillery fire from Russia, realized the futility of hopes to cut all the enemies from the border with Russia and set a goal to cut the militants’ supply with heavy vehicles and weaponry within Donbas itself. Despite serious Ukrainian losses this task was almost solved.

A talk of an FSB [Federal Security Service of Russia] agent nicknamed Trifon (a member of Girkin-Zdrylyuk’s group formed in Crimea) with his supervisor, intercepted by the Security Service of Ukraine, reveals the panic of FSB agents in Donbas at that point.

However, starting on August 7 the situation changed significantly. The political leadership of the DNR and LNR was simultaneously replaced. The Muscovites Boroday and Girkin,  Luhansk resident Bolotov and several other minor figure resigned on the same day. They were replace by “authoritative field commanders” which are Ukrainian citizens. In a week Russians with several attacks managed to push the Ukrainian troops from their positions and restore the movement on the strategic Donetsk highway.

This unexpected activity was explained on August 16 by the new “DNR prime-minister” Alexander Zakharchenko, former Kharkiv policeman, leader of the half-police-half-crimial “Oplot” organization), who openly stated at an official meeting that they received aid from Russia in form of one and a half hundred armored vehicles and a thousand and two hundred “fighters trained for four months in the Russian Federation”. At the same time he announced an attack of these reserves towards Novoazovsk, carried out on August 25. We can now be sure that this reserve consisted of Russian paratroopers, a small part of which the Ukrainian military managed to capture. A whole company of paratroopers from Pskovs (with their fighting vehicles and papers) was killed on August 19 in a battle for another strategic goal – the control over the road to Luhansk.

Thus, now the participation of Russian soldiers in the Donbas conflict – both as heavy armament operators and ordinary infantry – are now the only way of continuing the war and keeping at least some territory for DNR and LNR at least for the short term. Russia, sacrificing thousands of her citizens (the dead are already numbering in hundreds) may even win this war – by capturing the two rebellious regions or occupying other parts of “Novorossiya” they might like. But this will prompt such a wave of international sanctions that Russian economy will collapse by mid-2015. Apart from that, the Russian European enclave of Kaliningrad may also come under threat of isolation, the region already having separatist tendencies.

The Russian troops, however, may be performing another task. Many commentators believe their actions “strengthen Putin’s positions for talks with Poroshenko”. As I see it, the fate of DNR and LNR militarily is circling the drain, and Russian soldiers are now playing the role of paramedics trying at least to bring the patient to a hospital. The practical sense of this is Putin’s attempt to save face and prolong the existence of these “republics” at least until the end of the talks as well as solve several tactical tasks – for instance, move Ukrainian industrial equipment craved by the Russian military-industrial complex from the region on “humanitarian” military trucks.

One of the indicators of DNR and LNR projects being shut down is the quiet disappearance from Donbas of the last media personality from the start of the “rebellion”, a personification of the first generation of separatists – the “people’s governor” of Donbas and head of the mobilization directorate of DNR’s “ministry of defense”, former Neo-Nazi Pavel Gubarev. He followed his comrades that have been settling down in Moscow for the past two weeks. Donbas has completely turned into another “training poligon” of the Russian Ministry of Defense. At least that’s what the military officials call it when they tell the soldiers’ mothers where their sons disappeared without a trace.

[hr]Source:, translated by Kirill Mikhailov

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