Original article by Denis Seleznev
Translation: Daniel Mihailovich
Editors: S. Naylor and O.C.
What will the final offensive of the junta look like?
The situation in Donbass is in limbo. On one hand, the signed truce has halted large-scale military operations; on the other, exchange of fire did not stop for a single day. There have even been attempts to carry out limited operations. For example, the Ukrainian command has not abandoned hope of rescuing the encircled special forces units from the Donetsk airport (so far all attempts at this have been repulsed). According to the [Ukraine] National Security Council, over the first 5 days of the armistice, the Ukraine Armed Forces (UAF) units came under fire from the Novorossiya Armed Forces (NAF) about 130 times. The NAF quote similar figures for the UAF shelling of their positions.
The peace is too ‘fragile’
At the level of statements, it is already clear that leaders in Donetsk and Kiev have opposite views on the future of Donbass. Poroshenko said that the agreed “special status” for Donbass is temporary, and is not even prepared to talk about a transition to a federation-type structure in Ukraine. Yuriy Lutsenko, who is now the head of the president’s electoral bloc, has been more outspoken and insulting, sharing his plans for staging a blockade of the region. As for the DPR, the Prime Minister Alexandr Zakharchenko stated on September 9 that the truce is only an opportunity for the UAF to retreat from the rest of the territory of the DPR/LPR without further bloodshed.
It is also worth noting that at the level of the individual unit commanders, there is open discontent with the Minsk accords. In particular, Alexey Mozgovoi, the Prizrak brigade commander, said that 100% of the NAF personnel do not support these agreements with Kiev. As for the “hawks” in the rest of Ukraine—those supporting Kiev in the continuation of the war—there is a clear decline in their aggressive mood. At the end of June, during the previous truce, there were rallies in Kiev demanding the continuation of the war; they nearly set fire to the Parliament building. Today, after a series of crushing defeats, Ukrainian “hawks” are much more moderate, although the desire to harm Donbass has not evaporated. In general, it is worth noting that the two sides consider the truce to be nothing more than a pause before the next stage of active hostilities.
As for the immediate future, at the moment there are three main options: the UAF offensive, the NAF offensive, or the indefinite freezing of the conflict. In Novorossiya, the first option is considered the most likely outcome.
Indeed, the Ukrainian army is now actively massing forces in the ATO zone. However, the failure of the third round of conscription and the heavy losses of July-August has not allowed Kiev to assemble forces sufficient for an attack. According to various estimates, the number of Ukrainian forces in the area today is at about the same as in the beginning of July: that is 35-40 thousand personnel. Approximately the same number of forces was concentrated at the time of the start of Porosheko’s infamous “Plan B”. However, there are several fundamental differences between then and now.
First, if in the beginning of July the backbone of the UAF consisted of cadre mechanized and armored brigades, today the bulk of the troops are territorial battalions. These battalions are extremely poorly equipped, and lack both morale and training. There are repeated instances of entire territorial battalions leaving combat positions; e.g. the flight of the 5th territorial battalion “Prikarpatie” from the Amvrosievka area, the unauthorized withdrawal of the 25th territorial battalion from under Debaltsevo, the desertion of the company of the 9th battalion”Vinnitsa” from Mariupol, or the recent refusal of the 14th battalion “Cherkassy” to move to the frontline under Volnovakha. The quality of the units has doubtlessly decreased, and, after a series of encirclements, they developed a strong distrust of the Supreme Command of the army.
Second, the UAF’s losses of armor and artillery have been enormous. The UAF basic tactics in previous battles included massive use of armor, exploiting the NAF’s lack of anti-tank units. Whereas earlier, almost all the first-line UAF units could afford to use armored fists of several dozen vehicles, now this kind of luxury is available only to the remnants of staff brigades. While the units like the 1st and the 17th tank brigades, the 51st, and the replenished 72nd and 93d brigades can still afford a focused offensive supported by the armored vehicles, the rest of the UAF have to use such vehicles very sparingly. Besides the mechanized brigades, currently only the two recently formed the National Guard brigades currently possess sufficient light armored vehicles – the first is in Mariupol, the other is to the north of Donetsk. They participated in the parade on August 24, and were earmarked for a decisive blow against Lugansk, but the NAF offensive scrapped those plans.
Third, there have been major changes to the balance of forces in the combat zone. If at the beginning of July the UAF confronted about 8 thousand self-defense militiamen, today the Militia numbers are estimated at up to 30 thousand. The number of vehicles, trained crews and specialists has increased significantly. We can definitely say that the UAF have lost their overwhelming numerical superiority over the UAF, both in men and in armor/artillery. If two months ago, as it turned out, the UAF were insufficient for a decisive victory, now it is clearly impossible, even in the most optimistic (for the UAF) scenario.
Possible directions of attack
Considering all these factors, Poroshenko has to understand that—at the moment—a decisive military victory over the NAF is an overwhelming task. The country will soon have parliamentary elections, which in many ways are more important than presidential contests. In order not to derail their electoral numbers with a new setback, Poroshenko needs a victory, even if only a small one. Moreover, the victory does not have to be real. The dependence of Ukrainian Society on the worldview created by the media is enormous. It is worth remembering that the occupation of small village near the outskirts of Lugansk was touted by the Ukrainian media as the storming of the city center just a month ago. Similarly, taking Ilovaysk in the middle of August was apparently going to be billed as the beginning of the assault on Donetsk. Therefore, even a limited success can be interpreted to Ukrainian society—still deluded about their superiority over the NAF—as an important military achievement.
On this basis, if the UAF offensive happens, it will have relatively limited objectives. First, the offensive must degrade the opportunities for Novorossiya to organize more or less comfortable conditions for the approaching winter season. Secondly, this offensive needs to eliminate the consequences of the NAF offensives in the end of August. Thirdly, it has to advance to a point to where a blockade of the centers of resistance can be declared. Fourthly, the UAF will try to regain the ability to carry out terror shelling of Donetsk and Lugansk, to further demoralize the population.
Given these objectives, the offensive will probably be concentrated in three main areas.
Firstly, in the south of Volnovakha, where the UAF reserves are being concentrated, there is going to be held an attack in the direction of Telmanovo and the Russian border. This will cut off the direct connection of the NAF battlegroup in Novoazovsk with Donetsk. Of course, a complete blockade there is unlikely, since the NAF there can still receive supplies via Russia and the Sea of Azov. However, the Security Council will be able to draw the “terrorists” on their maps as “doomed and backed against the sea”. Based on the fact that the UAF has not refrained from indiscriminate shelling cities in the past, Novoazovsk may suffer greatly from such attacks. Nevertheless, a successful assault of the city is not expected, as the steppe terrain here makes an effective UAF offensive nearly impossible, especially since effective use of artillery is one of the NAF’s strengths.
The second direction of impact is likely to be in the Gorlovka area. Here the Ukrainian troops are likely to try to seize Enakievo, to permanently cut off communications with Donetsk. A less likely scenario is an attempt at a major offensive in the south, in the direction of Hartsyzsk, or in the south-east, in the direction of Torez in order to give a try and cut the Donetsk-Lugansk highway, or at least make possible its systematic bombardment with artillery. In this case, the offensive would be supported by the southern group, which is now concentrated in the Volnovakha area. And although such a strike seems too ambitious for the UAF at the moment, increased recon activities of the government units to the south of Ilovaysk and Torez show that it is possible.
The third area is to the north of Lugansk. Here, at the end of August, the NAF pushed government units beyond the Severskiy Donets River, thereby depriving them of opportunities of shelling residential neighborhoods of Lugansk. The UAF may try to regain lost ground, at least taking the town of Metallist, and allowing units still encircled to the southwest of the city to break out. However, there is also the possibility of a major operation here, in cooperation with the UAF units near Debaltsevo. Convergent blows from the north and south through Perevalsk and Alchevsk may blockade the large NAF “Prizrak” brigade commanded by Mozgovoy, and create the conditions for a new blockade of Lugansk.
These tasks would enable Poroshenko to claim a major victory and the final turning point of the war, right before the election. If this comes to pass, even if the NAF do not capitulate immediately, the survival of the region in the winter is in doubt. The humanitarian disaster would be far worse than what happened in a number of Donbass cities during the summer. Perhaps in the final stages of the operation, Poroshenko would act as a peacemaker once again, trying to fix the positions of the parties with a truce for the winter.
And the possible consequences
There is no doubt that the UAF do not have sufficient forces to carry out these tasks. However, such is the communication between the UAF and the politicians, that the Kiev government is not always able to assess adequately the capabilities of the armed forces. This was demonstrated in the border battle, and during attempts to attack Ilovaysk and Saur-Mogila. Precisely because of insufficient planning of operations on the part of the UAF we cannot exclude such risky moves. We can only conclude that this is likely to lead the UAF to a series of new defeats and encirclements, which may result in a new, even more devastating the NAF offensive. Of course, in this operation, Ukraine would be spending the last reserves of its armored vehicles and manpower. The Ukrainian leadership would risk, in fact, the fate of the war. Indeed, in the case of this offensive failing, the second line troops, now composed of police and civilian volunteers, would not be able to shield central Ukraine from the NAF.
If this next UAF offensive fails, we will be able to say that this was the last major offensive by the Ukrainian forces in this war. After it is defeated, the UAF will inevitably have to abandon Donbass (except in isolated pockets of fortifications that will be able to resist for some time). This, in turn, would lead to the loss of the south-eastern provinces. In part, the situation resembles that of the Wehrmacht on the eve of the Battle of Kursk. But this, of course, will happen only if the NAF counter-attack is not held off again, due to broader political concerns.
With regard to timing, if the NAF offensive takes place, it should be expected either this weekend [Ed note: the article is dated 13.09.2014], after September 16, when the agreement with the EU is ratified, or after the end of military exercises with NATO in western Ukraine. It is also worth noting that, although the Ukrainian leadership does not consider itself bound by the signature of ex-president Kuchma in Minsk, some provocation may be used as the pretext for an attack. For instance, such as an incident with mass civilian casualties (shuttle bus or cluster of refugees fired upon, etc.). A similar pattern was observed in the middle of July, when the disaster of the Malaysian airliner was used as a smokescreen for the major UAF offensive aimed at cutting Donetsk off from Lugansk.
In any case, it is worth noting that the General Staff of the NAF realises these possibilities. Today we see an optimization of the front line alignment, leaving or occupying settlements that improve the position of the NAF, and active repairs of captured vehicles, and training of personnel. On a large scale, the UAF offensive would provides Novorossiya with the opportunities for organizing a counter-attack and completing the final liberation of Donbass. Or perhaps, even taking the war to neighboring regions before winter sets in. However, winter may not cause the cessation of hostilities, as Kiev seems to belive. It is also possible that—in the course of repelling the UAF attacks—the Novorossiya forces can use unconventional tactics, like a raid of mechanized units deep into the rear of the UAF, in the neighboring regions. Moreover, the lack of a solid front, the weakness of the UAF second line troops, and steppe terrain are all quite favorable for such maneuvers.
Image: Reuters/Gleb Garanich©