By Colonel Cassad
The overall military situation
At the end of the summer, the military situation in Donbass remains complex. The parties are deployed and both sides say that the enemy is preparing to move to the offensive, while hostilities continue to evolve, mainly in key positions, where artillery continues to play the main role.
Attempts by the Ukrainian Armed Forces (APU) to carry out small offensive operations at the front, to the south of Donetsk [city], in general, have not brought success to the enemy, and this kind of activity had decreased slightly by the end of the month. Statements by the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) leadership about areas of Ukrainian troop concentration and potential directions of the main attacks apparently forced the Ukrainian General Staff to adjust its plans, which has already led to troop movements behind the front line. In turn, APU activity in the direction of Volnovakha forced Novorossiyan Armed Forces (NAF) commanders to send reinforcements.
Overall, the last week was marked by a number of small tactical successes for the NAF and increased losses for the enemy, while leaving the general strategic situation largely unchanged.
The overall political situation
By the beginning of autumn, the political and diplomatic situation surrounding the DNR and the Lugansk People’s Republic (LC) remains close to deadlock. The talks in Minsk and communications between Putin, Merkel and Hollande have not led to major changes in the realization of a political settlement based on the Minsk agreements. As before, the main problem is a different understanding by the parties of points in the Minsk accords, which, in the context of the structural antagonism between the U.S. and Russia, makes a diplomatic solution to the conflict impossible.
The issue of elections in Donbass and Ukraine gradually moved to the fore, which also reflects the different understanding of the settlement by the conflicting parties. [The DNR has scheduled local elections for October 18; the LC for November 1.] The DNR and LC wish to hold elections according to their own laws, which do not provide for the participation of Ukrainian political parties. In Ukraine, it was decided that election will not be held in the APU-occupied territories of the DNR and LC, and France and Germany simultaneously made statements to Moscow about the inadmissibility of the election scenario in the DNR and LC. These statements were accompanied by threats of new sanctions if this “red line” is crossed. At the moment, the sides continue to prepare for parallel elections in Ukraine and the People’s Republics, which will consolidate the deepening division of Donbass and Ukraine.
Regarding military points of the Minsk Agreement, the items on removal of heavy weapons and the ceasefire are still not satisfied, and only part of the paragraph on exchange of prisoners of war, which have just resumed, without speaking of the “all for all” exchange of prisoners.
In general, the “Minsk-Norman” format used for the past six months can’t lead to the establishment of peace in the Donbass, and is used by both parties to the conflict as cover for a variety of military-political actions.
The situation at the fronts of the DNR and LC
The main events, as before, unfolded on the territory of the DNR. Already for quite a long time, the number of attacks and clashes in the LC is markedly lower than in the DNR, due to the fact that the main forces of both sides are deployed on the fronts of the DNR and that is where the parties expect action from each other.
Nevertheless, recently there have been incremental “territorial” victories in the LC, where the NAF seized part of the territory of Spartacus and Zhabunkov formerly held by the APU. Such successes are more of a propaganda victory, as they do not lead to significant changes in the operational and tactical situation.
On the territory of the DNR, despite the ongoing shelling and fighting near Donetsk and Gorlovka, the main events took place to the south. APU activity in the direction of Volnovakha since the beginning of August led to a series of battles and clashes in Rheine, New Balaclava, Starognatovki and White Kamenka. The initial tactical successes of the APU came to naught by the middle of the month, but closer to the end of August led to a series of painful setbacks. The reason for this is quite simple — seeing the activity of the APU in this direction, the command of the NAF brought up reserves, including additional artillery forces, and as a result the APU forces that tried to achieve success have become inadequate to the task.
Strengthening of NAF artillery groups increased enemy losses as the fighters of the intelligence services reinforced the companies, tactical groups and routine shellings at the front. The most resounding achievement was the defection of the 40th territorial-defense battalion (former “Kryvbas” battalion), which was subjected to concentrated NAF artillery fire and lost, according to various estimates, from 21 to 27 people killed and several dozen wounded, then fled from their positions, leaving equipment and ammunition (according to some sources, the NAF captured several artillery battalion positions and pieces of equipment). This showed that the weak stability of APU units can turn into a stampede under serious pressure.
Nevertheless, this NAF tactical success did not lead to serious changes of position at the front. The APU received a painful lesson, and lowered its activity in this area. Taking into account the losses near Mariupol and other clashes near Starognatovkoy, the enemy lost up to 50 dead and more than 120 wounded over the past week. The bulk of the losses came from the mortars and howitzers of the NAF.
In general, it is evident that without sending mechanized units into battle and amassing artillery in key areas, it will be difficult for either side to make significant progress.
It should also be noted that the DNR began to cut down on the military commanders that stay in the rear, indicating that the NAF command is quite confident in its abilities and believes it unlikely that the APU will be able to carry out deep operations which could disrupt communications in the rear. Rear commandants, who played an important role in 2014, have now become less urgent, although the front-line cities are unlikely to get rid of them.
The situation in the frontline villages of Lugansk, Shchastya and Slavyanoserbsk, remains unchanged. Hysterical rumors on both sides that the APU plan to leave Shchastya or arrange a war there with “Aydar” have generally remained confined to the Internet. Shchastya is still regarded as one of the key nodes of defense on the Severoluganskogo front.
The main reserves are still located northwest of Slavyanoserbsk and in Crimea. The group configuration is offensive.
Overall, Bahmutki remains the most favorable site for both sides to engage in active offensive operations [in Lugansk] — at this stage, the terrain and weather favor it. Territories at the front in the Novotoshkovskoy, Popasnaya, Svetlodarsk arc have a tendency to preserve the positional nature of the fighting, though the enemy is still anticipating activity by NAF groups in the direction of Artem and Artemovsk-Debaltsevo.
A current trend worth noting is the APU’s departure from terrorist tactics of shelling front-line cities of the DNR and the LC and the transfer of the main shelling efforts to the positions of the NAF, which is obviously due to international pressure on Ukraine from Europe. Shelling of NAF positions does not bring as much media and public attention, so this positional activity completely meets the demands of maintaining the medium-intensive conflict.
Also worth noting is a reduction in the number of exploratory incursions by the end of August, due to fairly sizeable losses and unsatisfactory results. After limited success in late July – early August, when the APU was able to use such tactics to take several plots in the neutral zone, the NAF adapted and in the second half of August had effective counteraction.
In general, given the current diplomatic situation, the war, as before, will continue. The basis of armed hostilities will be positional fighting; both sides will seek opportunities to demonstrate activity at the tactical level, preparing for offensive and counter-offensive operations. The offensive is a tool for withdrawal from the diplomatic impasse, and in Kiev, there will be increased temptation to disrupt the DNR elections by unleashing intense fighting. At the moment, the offensive is complicated by the fractured junta [reflected in the infighting of regime supporters in the streets of Kiev on August 31], the exposed APU plans, and pressure from the EU for a freeze in the conflict and prevention of a new escalation. In early September there will be another attempt to move the fighting into a low-intensity phase and reduce the number of attacks. [On August 30, Merkel, Hollande and Putin called for a new ceasefire to begin September 1, ahead of the next meeting of the Minsk Contact Group on September 8.] Here, much will depend on Kiev and Washington, who may be reluctant to indulge Berlin’s plans to restructure the conflict.
PS. It should be added that even as this was being written, it became known that the DNR and LC do not recognize the law on decentralization which Poroshenko dragged through the Verkhovna Rada, since it does not match what was signed in Minsk.
Translated by Greg Butterfield