August 26, 2014

Ukrainian military moves to endgame

Tim Ripley, London - IHS Jane's Defence Weekly
22 August 2014

  • Ukrainian soldiers rest in their 2S19 MSTA-S self-propelled howitzers on 14 August before moving to the front line in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. Source: AP/PA
  • Key Points

Government forces are continuing to gain the upper hand in eastern Ukraine
Both sides are using heavy weapons in the worst fighting witnessed in Europe since the Balkan conflict
Ukrainian troops have continued their offensive aimed at clearing pro-Russian rebels from the Donetsk and Lugansk regions despite strong resistance.

Both the Ukrainian and rebel forces are using tracked armour, heavy artillery, and rockets in the heaviest fighting seen in Europe since the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.

The operation by Ukrainian troops, underway for more than a month, has pushed deep into rebel-held regions, with fighting now reported in the suburbs of the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk for several days. Reports on 20 August indicated that in Lugansk, Ukrainian troops had recaptured a central city police station.

Ukrainian forces appear to be trying to cut rebel forces in the two cities off from each other, as well as severing land routes to the Russian border to block supplies and reinforcements from reaching them.

The rebel setbacks of the past weeks have prompted three prominent rebel leaders - including their military commander, Igor Girkin, known as Strelkov; the political leader in Donetsk, Alexander Borodai; and the rebel head in Lugansk, Valery Bolotov - to step down.

The Organization for Security in Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has reported daily artillery fire in both Donetsk and Lugansk for more than a week, as well as regular breakdowns in power, water, telephone, and other utilities because of the fighting.

Rebel fighters claimed to have shot down a Ukrainian Air Force Mikoyan MiG-29 fighter jet near Lugansk on 17 August, although a Kiev government spokesman reported that the pilot was rescued by friendly forces. A further air loss occurred on 20 August when a Ukrainian Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack aircraft was shot down over Lugansk, with the pilot reported missing.

Controversy continues to surround an alleged incursion by an armoured column from Russia into eastern Ukraine on 15 August. UK government sources told IHS Jane's that the column comprised some 23 armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) that were subsequently engaged by Ukrainian artillery and anti-tank weapons, resulting in 12 AFVs being destroyed. Two Western journalists working just inside the Russian border confirmed seeing the column cross into Ukraine but did not see the reported engagement. The Russian Foreign Ministry denied the incursion, calling Ukrainian claims "fabrications".

Both the Ukrainian military and rebel forces have been observed using BM-21 Grad multiple rocket launchers, which have caused widespread military and civilian casualties as well as extensive damage to property and transport infrastructure.

On 7 August the UN reported that at least 2,119 people had been killed in Ukraine since the conflict started in April. Local authorities in Donetsk reported that about 951 people had been killed in the city during the previous five months of fighting. The Ukrainian government reported on 21 August that about 620 its military and security service personnel had been lost in the conflict, including around 70 in the week 12-19 August.

The continued determination of the Kiev government to prosecute its offensive into eastern Ukraine appears to be bearing fruit, although at a heavy cost in human life and damage to civilian property.

Ukrainian army and national guard units appear to be better trained and motivated than the units that first engaged the rebels in the early days of the crisis back in April.

The Ukrainian Interior Ministry has reported that about 25 battalions of national guard volunteers were fighting on the Donbas front and appear to be performing better than expected, considering they were only formed a few months ago. However, the OSCE reports a number of these units have been implicated in the abuse of civilians.

What has surprised many observers is the reluctance of Russian president Vladimir Putin to intervene directly to prop up the self-proclaimed People's Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. So far the Russian armed forces do not seem to have been sent to fight openly alongside the rebels, although NATO claims Moscow is regularly allowing resupply convoys to cross the border.

This might indicate the threat of Western economic sanctions is having some impact, but it is more likely Putin is concerned about public reaction to heavy casualties among conscript soldiers in regular army units. The experience in Afghanistan in the 1980s and Chechnya in the 1990s has made Kremlin occupants very reluctant to risk Russian lives in foreign adventures that could turn into protracted and bloody conflicts.

So far Putin has been content to let 'deniable' intelligence operatives and ultra-nationalist volunteers carry the burden of the fighting in Ukraine.

An all-out conventional war with Ukraine would also cost a lot of money and impose a heavy burden on the Russian economy. It appears that the Kremlin is hanging its erstwhile allies in Donetsk and Lugansk out to dry.

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