by Dr Fritz Kälin, Military Historian. This article was previously published on the OG Panzer blog. I would like to thank the author and OG Panzer for allowing its republication here. Für eine deutschsprachige Version des Artikels, siehe hier.
This article series describes the course of the war in Donbas (eastern Ukraine) focusing on the most intense fighting in 2014 and 2015. The basis is provided by reports from experts and/or eyewitnesses available online in German and English, of which the expertise of Dr Phillip A. Karber stands in a class of its own. However, impartial factual accounts that would satisfy a (military) historian do not yet exist to any great extent. For linguistic reasons alone, sources from a western or rather pro-Ukrainian perspective predominate in this article series. However, when selecting the sources, care was taken to ensure that, despite obvious partiality, the favoured side was also reported critically. As a result, more can be reported about the verified course of events than anyone interested in the military could have learned from local media and specialist journals – this article series seeks to fill in the gaps. Political events (e.g. elections), humanitarian suffering and the shooting down of the MH-17, which are otherwise adequately described in the media, are not covered.
History of and possible geostrategic background to the Ukraine conflict
Once again, in a Europe that seemed to be at peace, war has broken out along a fault line within society resulting from geopolitical trials of strength. Ukraine (together with Poland) was the host country for the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship. Two years later, the easternmost part of the country was the scene of the most intense acts of war in Europe since 1945. Primarily domestic political and social problems and the refusal of the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to sign the European Union Association Agreement led to Euromaidan at the end of 2013. In February 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, and in March 2014, public buildings in numerous cities in eastern Ukraine were occupied by heavily armed activists opposed to the new pro-Western government in Kiev.
The geostrategic interests of international powers play an essential role in this conflict. As the example of the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 and Russia’s influence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia also showed, the Kremlin is willing to use violent means to prevent other neighbouring countries from joining NATO. A “frozen” conflict in Donbas serves this purpose concerning Ukraine. In contrast to Western countries, Ukraine had recognised the need to reform its armed forces due to the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. However, the financial crisis made such an initiative economically unfeasible. In essence, the Ukrainian armed forces remained an underfunded remnant of their predecessor units in the Red Army. Meanwhile, Russia’s army was reformed based on the lessons learned from the brief war against Georgia.
Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world. — Sir Halford John Mackinder, “Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction“, 1919.
On the US side, two opposing attitudes towards the escalating conflict in Ukraine are likely. According to a prominent strategic school of thought in the USA (the “Heartland Theory” by Sir Halford John Mackinder), the conflict over Ukraine – whether intended or not – could represent an assurance for the USA that no Eurasian interest group would supersede the transatlantic security architecture for the foreseeable future. At the same time, however, the worsening east-west relationship is forcing the USA to shoulder more of a military burden in Europe. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Obama administration issued the slogan “Pivot to Asia“. Increased American efforts at sea and in the air in East Asia would obviously have meant a further reduction in their military presence in an apparently peaceful Europe. In any case, it is striking that the USA verbally supports the pro-Western forces in Kiev, but withheld substantial military aid until the end of 2017.
The relationship of time, forces and space at the beginning of the conflict
Since 13 March 2014, Russia has been pulling about 90,000 soldiers from all over the country and positioning them near the border with Ukraine, half of them combat troops (see graphic below, as well as Michael Kofman et al., “Lessons from Russia’s Operations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine“, RAND Corporation, 2017, S. 65). Kombiniert mit der Militärpräsenz Russlands auf der Krim und in Transnistrien bedeutet dieser Aufm). Combined with the military presence of Russia in Crimea and Transnistria, this deployment represents an (almost) all-round strategic threat for Kiev. According to Clark and Karber, this represented a front three times longer than the mobilisation capacity of the Ukrainian armed forces (Wesley K. Clark und Phillip A. Karber, “Immediate Improvements Needed in Rapidly Implementing ‘Non-Lethal’ US Military Assistance for Defense of Ukraine“, 08.04.2014, S.1).
At the start of the war, the Ukrainian armed forces comprised around 130,000 active soldiers, around 60% of whom were conscripted (conscription was abolished in 2013). However, a maximum of 6,000 combat-ready troops could be drawn from the 15 brigades. According to the “Military Balance” of 2014, a little over 200 combat aircraft were fit for combat. Nevertheless, in March 2014, Ukraine carried out the largest mobilisation and relocation of troops in Central and Eastern Europe since the Second World War. In the north, in particular, the Ukrainian armed forces formed counter-concentrations to the Russian deployment. To do this, most of the infrastructure inherited from the Soviet era west of the Dnieper had to be relocated to the east. One hypothesis is that, given this Ukrainian show of strength, Moscow preferred a subversive campaign in Donbas to a major direct invasion. Only gradually did Kiev venture to release forces from its counter-concentration in the north for operations in Donbas. As a result, Kiev lost control of many cities in the easternmost part of the country. According to Karber, the state authorities were unable to take action against the militant squatters in Donbas as quickly and consistently as they would have liked. The government preferred to rely on Western assurances that the crisis would be diplomatically defused (Phillip Karber, “The Russian Military Forum: Russia’s Hybrid War Campaign: Implications for Ukraine and Beyond“, Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2015, 18′-23′).
Around seven million people live in the contested eastern Ukrainian oblasts (regions) of Donetsk and Luhansk. The largest cities in the two oblasts include Donetsk, Mariupol, Luhansk, Makiivka, Horlivka, Kramatorsk, Severodonetsk and Slovyansk (all of them have more than 100,000 inhabitants). The parts of eastern Ukraine controlled by separatists correspond roughly to the dimensions of the Swiss plateau in terms of area and population. The city triangle formed by Mariupol – Donetsk – Luhansk corresponds on the Swiss map to the area covered by Geneva – Northwestern Switzerland – Zurich West.
Even in the 21st century, mud in Ukraine hinders the mobility of troops in the spring and autumn months. The steppe terrain, with little cover, is hardly ideal terrain for defence. Control of the airspace should be, therefore, all the more important. But even if the means of air warfare are almost exclusively on the side of the Ukrainian state, this has not given Kiev the upper hand, according to current logic. The fourth part of this article series will look at this in more detail.
Ukrainian “ATO” recapture campaign April – August 2014
In mid-April 2014, the government in Kiev gave the green light for a so-called “anti-terrorist operation” against the separatists in Donbas. In the following, the abbreviation “ATO”, which is in common use in Ukraine, will be used for this, even if the name is an understatement, given the intensity of the fighting. This operation, led by the Ministry of the Interior, was supposed to drive the separatists out of the areas where they found little support from the local population. The remainder of the lost territory in Donbas was then to be isolated from neighbouring Russia and then divided between Donetsk and Luhansk. A total of twelve brigades and more than 25 independent battalions are thought to have been deployed for the ATO. It is difficult to quantify the strength of the separatists, but all in all, they are likely to have been very obviously militarily inferior to the government forces up until August.
Hardly had the ATO started when it was interrupted due to concerns about the concentration of Russian troops in the Russian border area, and it only resumed on 22 April (“Senior Security Official: Anti-Terror Operation Suspended as Russian Troops Amass on Border“, Kyiv Post, 24.04.2014). The further the Ukrainian troops ventured into eastern Ukraine, the more hostile the local population became. Sometimes, civilians actively obstructed the movement of troops. On 16 April, six armoured vehicles were allegedly taken from the Ukrainian airborne troops by separatists and angry civilians (see also: Andrew E. Kramer, “Ukraine Push Against Rebels Grinds to Halt“, The New York Times, 16.04.2014). Armed insurgents were stationed in the cities and on barricades along the access roads.
In May/June, the Ukrainian security forces were often ambushed during their advances; from June, military equipment from Russian army stocks reached the separatists, and the Ukrainian air forces suffered significant losses. Despite all the difficulties, the ATO seemed to be gradually achieving its goals in July/August (see video below).
Airborne troops brought in by plane and helicopter have been holding the Kramatorsk, Luhansk and Donetsk airfields in the region since mid-April. Most of them were supplied by air. On 28 June, Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack aircraft were even used for this purpose (Alexander Mladenov, “Su-25 ‘Frogfoot’ Units In Combat“, Osprey Combat Aircraft, Band 109, Bloomsbury Publishing, 20.04.2015, S. 89). However, the wind carried most of their improvised parachute containers, dropped from a medium height, into the rebel area. This attempt was more an expression of despair than creativity and a symptom of the then increasingly unequal struggle for the third dimension.
On 16 April, separatists took control of the town of Slovyansk near the Kramatorsk airfield. Its recapture by the Ukrainians at the beginning of July was almost exemplary. Sixty teams of Ukrainian special forces infiltrated the city and occupied the city centre. The separatists, surprised by this, began to retreat to the southeast. The Ukrainian 95th Air Assault Brigade was waiting for them on the 50-kilometre route. The withdrawal of the separatists turned into a panic escape, leaving behind a lot of material (Sebastien Roblin, “Airborne Fighting Vehicles Rolled Through Hell in Eastern Ukraine“, War Is Boring, 22.07.2017). But the Ukrainian forces were so surprised by their success — and lacking in strength — that they could not completely prevent the separatists from retreating or advancing. The success at Slovyansk, and its definitive claiming of the airfield at Kramatorsk, was limited to the tactical level.
The 95th Airborne Brigade gave another impressive performance in early August. In what is probably the longest “raid” in military history, it covered a total of 450 kilometres behind enemy lines, mechanical elements providing extra strength. This meant that Ukrainian troops cut off in the eastern border area could be moved. On passing by, the beleaguered defenders of the airport near Luhansk were also supplied, and the rebel area was temporarily penetrated (The Ellis Group, “21st Century Maneuver“, Marine Corps Gazette 101, Nr. 2, 28.02.2017).
The use of Ukrainian firepower
The Ukrainian armed forces have largely refrained from using heavy weapons such as artillery out of consideration for the civilian population. However, this does not mean that heavy weapons were completely dispensed with: towards the end of April, the Ukrainian armed forces deployed 120 mm mortar shells from 2S9 Nona-S self-propelled guns against separatist positions, this being one of the first artillery operations in this conflict. Artillery was also used by the Ukrainian armed forces in and around Slovyansk in June (see also: Joe Pappalardo, “The Right (and Wrong) Way to Use Artillery: Ukraine Edition“, Popular Mechanics, 18.09.2014). Also in June, the Ukrainian Air Force used Sukhoi Su-25 ground-attack aircraft to attack targets in Luhansk, Slovyansk and Kramatorsk with S-8 missiles, which resulted in collateral damage and civilian casualties (Mladenov, S.89).
Karber believes that a widespread renunciation of superior firepower severely delayed the conduct of the operation, which in turn gave Russia more time to deploy its regular armed forces, even if the Russian army had been ready for direct intervention since March/April (Phillip A. Karber, “‘Lessons Learned’ from the Russo-Ukrainian War“, The Potomac Foundation, 08.07.2015, S.36). It cannot be denied that there exists a depressing inconsistency between political-humanitarian motives (consideration for the civilian population), military necessities (protection of one’s own troops) and overall strategic goals (cutting the separatists off from Russian aid as quickly as possible), especially since Kiev soon relinquished control over the intensity of combat— more on this in the second part.
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