The Debaltseve* Pocket
In the early hours of the morning of the 23 January, it appears that the battle for the Debaltseve pocket has begun in earnest. Though the Ukrainian positions in the city have been shelled for weeks by separatist (and likely Russian) forces, attacks against the flanks of these units have not been made until this time. This turning point in the operations of the separatist forces indicates a significant shift in focus for their strategic aims.
As I briefly covered yesterday, this action around Debaltseve is part of a general strategic offensive waged by the separatist forces. Likely bolstered by direct Russian military support (and indirectly though Russian diplomatic and economic assistance), the separatists are looking to push back the Ukrainian forces in a general winter offensive. Based on the accusations of the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, the strength of the Russian forces present in Ukraine could be at its highest level yet. If true, that also could be a significant driver behind the separatist choice to launch a strategic offensive.
Debaltseve itself is a key objective for the separatist offensive. The depth of the Debaltseve salient into the separatist lines would pose a serious threat to any separatist offensive mounted either from Horlivka or Stakhanov. By turning either left or right, the Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve could cut the separatist supply lines and could encircle separatist forces. In order to pre-empt this possibility, it appears that the separatist commanders have chosen to attempt an encirclement and destruction of the Ukrainians in Debaltseve itself.
The progress of the separatist forces is difficult to establish, as any information coming out of the combat zone is inevitably tainted by the political divide between the two sides, both of whom are capable at PR and most importantly, contesting the other side’s narrative of the battle.
From Popasnaya to Gorlovka(Horlivka), both Ukrainian and Russian-language sources claim their forces have the upper hand. In cases like Popasnaya, both sides claim they currently control the area, which would indicate that it is probably contested. Within the Debaltseve salient itself, wildly diverging claims are made by the opposite side, with the separatists claiming that Ukrainian units inside Ukrainian lines have switched sides, and that the Ukrainians are in retreat. Contrastingly, the Ukrainians claim that the Ukrainian forces inside the salient are and have been reinforced with additional units and are holding fast against enemy attacks. However, besides the general observation that military activity has increased, certain points do appear to be the case. In particular, the separatists appear to have taken the small settlement of Dolomitnoe, roughly 8-10 kilometers outside of Gorlovka/Horlivka and roughly 10 kilometers away from the main supply road to Debaltseve itself. This would seem to confirm the graphic on the map above as to the main axes of the separatist attacks. However it should be noted that some have claimed there is a broad-front offensive being carried out along the entire eastern flank of the Ukrainian forces in the salient, from Popashaya to Verhulivka. This, however, seems less likely to result in a success – these are likely to be feints designed to keep the Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve in their positions. In that way, the encirclement would have the best chance of succeeding, forcing as it does the Ukranians to stay as far away from the attackers’ flanks as they can for as long as possible. Based on the reports of pro-separatists in the past two hours, Mironovsky, Kransye Pakhare and Luhansk’e, all towns straddling the main supply route into Debaltseve, are all being assaulted by units including the 1st Cossack Regiment. This, however, is unconfirmed, and the political bent of these commentators means that their words simply cannot be taken at face value.
The outcome of the Debaltseve Pocket remains to be seen, but it is apparent that the noose around the Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve is tightening. Trapping them could lead to arguably the biggest separatist victory in the war. While estimates of Ukrainian forces in Debaltseve range from 2,000 to 8,000, both numbers indicate the critical importance of this battle on the outcome of the conflict between the two sides. Whichever way the battle is currently going, it seems apparent that the Ukrainian forces would do well to loosen the noose and live to fight another day. It is this author’s hope that they do so.
*Debaltseve and Debaltsevo refer to the same place – the difference in the English spelling likely being due to the difference between Russian and Ukrainian translations.