The Debaltseve Pocket

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.

24 January 2015[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] This, however, is unconfirmed, and the political bent of these commentators means that their words simply cannot be taken at face value.[6]

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.

[1] http://dragon-first-1.livejournal.com/

[2] https://twitter.com/Meduselchen/status/559382817952776192, https://twitter.com/VonHenrick1/status/559391290312642560, https://twitter.com/revsoc99/status/559422145739374592

[3] https://twitter.com/revsoc99/status/559422145739374592, http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=739_1422193552#jiDA1Hh5DlyqzUO4.99

[4] https://twitter.com/Conflict_Report/status/559371098803159041

[5] https://twitter.com/VonHenrick1/status/559280993975410689, https://twitter.com/pmsxa/status/559433574953545728

[6] https://twitter.com/hashtag/Popasnaya?src=hash

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Why we should all pay attention to Ukraine…right about now.

Recently, over the past few months, the conflict in Ukraine has slipped from the public consciousness – and for relatively obvious reasons. Even though the fighting has clearly been continued by both sides after the ceasefire imposed by the Minsk agreement in late September of last year, the frontlines have remained relatively stable.[1] But the capture of the Donetsk airport by the pro-Russian rebels (termed the DPR and the LNR) this week, plus recent attacks against the flanks of the Debaltseve salient and against Shchastya, (north of the major rebel-held city of Luhansk) indicate that the rebels, on at least one of these axes, is planning a major offensive.[2] The DPR leadership has even avowed that their strategy will be to push well past the original Minsk agreement frontlines and push the Ukrainian artillery well out of the range of Donetsk.[3] The DPR and LNR leadership has been understandably less vocal about its plans for the two other axes of attack. Even with the Russian support for the DPR and LNR (pegged by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at 9,000 strong this week), it is unlikely that all three attacks will be carried out in earnest – and succeed in their objectives even if they are.[4] However, especially with the situation in Debaltseve, there is a real chance that Ukrainian forces could be encircled and destroyed.

The Situation in Donetsk and Debaltseve

Inset SITREP 22 January - Copy1pixlr[5]

The Red territory is the territory held by the DPR / LNR separatist forces. The Blue / turquoise locations are the approximate locations of the Ukrainian forces. The proposed attacks launched from the #5 and #6 bubbles are the attacked launched against Debaltseve; the attacks launched at #13 and from #15 are the ones proposed to push back Ukrainian forces from the shelling range of Donetsk. 

With regard to the situation in Donetsk; it seems apparent that though the Ukrainian forces have been ejected from the city, their prospects for regroup are fairly strong. By attempting to penetrate the Ukrainian lines westward, the rebels run the very real risk of being cut off and encircled. The statements of Zakharchenko appear to suggest the separatists will attempt to push the Ukrainian forces back against a broad front, rather than attempt local encirclements on this sector. That being said, this could very well be a ruse, as the successive counter-attacks against the airport by the Ukrainians are likely to have required more soldiers to carry out. Destroying these concentrations, rather than neutralizing their nominal threat to Donetsk, could prove to be advantageous to the DPR and LNR – if they could pull it off.

With regard to the situation in Debaltseve salient, things look decidedly less rosy for the Ukrainian government forces. Any salient occupied by a military force is difficult to defend, and the situation in Debaltseve appears to be no different. Roughly 20 kilometers wide (14 miles) wide, the salient has been under heavy bombardment from rebel forces for weeks.[6] Crucially for the attackers (and defenders) the rail junction at Debaltseve connects Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (administrative regions) with the rest of Ukraine. For the defenders especially, possession of such a junction is especially crucial for their logistical efforts if they are to push back into rebel-held territory. Up until the last 72 hours, artillery duels between Grad multiple rocket launcher systems at their extreme (read: highly inaccurate) range of 25-40km have constituted the majority of the fighting doe Debaltseve. In the past 48 hours, however, the combined forces of the LPR and LNR have begun to attack down highways MO3 and MO4 in an attempt to cut off the Ukrainian forces deployed in a southern semi-circle around Debaltseve.[7] Additionally, evidence has emerged of Russian armored vehicles driving south-west through Stakhanov to reinforce these rebel attackers.[8]

While accurate estimations of the strength and composition of the Ukrainian units in Debaltseve are not known currently, it has been estimated that thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are deployed there. If cut off by the separatists, the pocket of Ukrainians in Debaltseve could suffer huge losses if they would be unable to break out of separatist encirclement. This is a real possibility given the estimated strength of the Russian troops support the DPR and LNR, and also the reduced mobility in-theatre due to weather conditions.

The risk of an encirclement has been pooh-poohed by some observers, but only time – a short amount, that is – will tell whether a major defeat will be handed to the Ukrainian forces in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/02/27/world/europe/ukraine-divisions-crimea.html

[2] http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/01/23/major-ukraine-rebel-offensive-looming-as-death-toll-surpasses-5000/

[3] See here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/24/world/europe/ukraine-violence.html?_r=0 and https://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/zakharchenko-vows-offensive-up-to-borders-of-donetsk-oblast-378208.html

[4] Poroshenko’s comments: http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/21/us-ukraine-crisis-davos-poroshenko-idUSKBN0KU1TX20150121. Zakharchenko, the President of the DPR, has alleged exactly the opposite of this. That isn’t necessarily the case

[5] Map sourced from: http://dragon-first-1.livejournal.com/

[6] http://www.france24.com/en/20150123-video-ukraine-military-defend-strategic-eastern-town-debaltseve-pro-russia-separatists/ http://www.kyivpost.com/content/kyiv-post-plus/kremlin-backed-separatists-rain-death-down-on-debaltseve-377923.html

[7] http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=103_1422029904

[8] http://ukraineatwar.blogspot.com/2015/01/ilovaisk-20-in-making-at-debaltseve.html