A fog of war in the Donbas

It remains very difficult to assess what is happening on the battlefield in eastern Ukraine amidst a great often deal of contradictory information. What is clear is that the intensity of fighting has escalated and that it is spreading and getting worse rather than abating. Of particular concern are offensive operations by the separatists along the Bakhmutka highway to the northwest of Luhansk and indeed an escalation of fighting at many points along the northern front.

Indeed, it appears that the fighting has gone badly for Ukrainian forces since yesterday, and Kyiv may be at risk of significant additional losses of men, material, and territory. The Ukrainian NSDC is reporting that three Russian motorized infantry battalions (which if true would consist of some 400 troops each) and an artillery unit have come across the border since Sunday and they are reportedly moving toward the front lines near Luhansk. There are also reports that other materials and regular and non-regular continue to cross over as well, and Kyiv seems to be very worried that Russia is preparing for an all-out assault on Ukraine (which I think is unlikely but is not out of the question).

With respect to the Donetsk airport, Ukrainian sources were more cautious today than they were yesterday in their claims about having retaken part of it, including the “new” (now totally destroyed) Terminal 1, where the battle for the airport has concentrated in recent weeks. What is clear is that, one way or the other, the Ukrainians managed to evacuate many of their wounded from the airport. But they may not have retaken and held any ground lost over the past several weeks.

Meanwhile, the separatists and Russian media are claiming that the Ukrainian effort to retake the airport has failed, and that the Ukrainians and have suffered heavy losses as a result. [An aside here: I use the term “separatist” as the most general term I can think of to refer to whatever combination of local Ukrainians, irregulars from Russia or elsewhere, and Russian regulars are fighting on the side of the “DPR” and “LPR.”] I am not aware of any video on the Internet confirming that there are still Ukrainian forces in Terminal 1. Given that there are still artillery and MLRS exchanges at or around the airport, it is possible that the Ukrainians still hold part of the terminal, but they it is also possible that they have regrouped elsewhere or are in the process of abandoning the airport entirely.

Another piece of bad news for Kyiv was video on the Internet showing what appeared to be eight Ukrainian fighters taken prisoner by the separatists. Ukrainian official sources have since confirmed that they were taken prisoner in the vicinity of the airport when their vehicle got lost in the fog, and they also reported their unit suffered one KIA.

There has also been heavy fighting for the Donetsk suburb of Pisky, which Ukrainian forces have been using for artillery and MLRS targeting the airport, although Ukrainian sources claim that the area remains under their control. And there have been regular artillery and MLRS attacks in and around the city generally, with many reports of civilian casualties and damage.

Elsewhere, the sabotage campaign behind Ukrainian lines continues, with more bombings in Kyiv and Odesa and, ominously for Kyiv, what was reportedly the deliberate derailing of a freight train headed east toward the conflict zone in Zaporizhya region.

Ukrainians forces also appear to have lost control of at least one checkpoint on the northern front after it and another checkpoint came under attack by separatist shelling and then a tank assault. Debaltseve is being heavily shelled by the separatists as well, while Ukrainian and separatist forces have been exchanging fire in Schastiye to the northeast of Luhansk. Finally, there have been reports of renewed fighting in the south, and of separatist forces moving in the direction of Mariupul.

My guess continues to be that the fighting in the south is a feint and that the separatists do not intend to try to take Mariupul. Taking Mariupul, which has had months to prepare its defenses, would very likely be a great deal more difficult than taking the Donetsk airport, and in any case the separatists have defensible lines along the Kalmius River.

I also suspect that Kyiv’s counter-offensive was driven primarily by political pressure to relieve the Cyborgs, evacuate the Ukrainian wounded, and if possible maintain their current position at the airport, and not by a desire to retake significant territory.

More broadly, what I think is happening now is a major push by the separatists to drive Ukrainian forces out of the Donetsk airport, the Donetsk suburbs, the Debaltseve salient, and down the Bakhmutka highway, and perhaps to take the power station to the north of Luhansk.

The purpose of this offensive, I suspect, is to establish a more defensible “line of contact” over the long run. If they succeed, I doubt they will press forward to take much more territory (but they might, particularly if Ukrainian defenses break down and Moscow losses control of the separatist forces).

However, if the separatists are successful in obtaining the limited objective of more coherent front lines, I doubt they will seek a stable ceasefire, for reasons spelled out in my “The Ukraine crisis in 2015” post. Instead, I think we will see the continuation of an unstable line of control but with episodic spikes of violence to keep Kyiv under pressure.

For the West, the big risk is that the Ukrainians suffer significant losses, lose a great deal more territory, or are decisively routed. The West cannot afford to see Ukraine decisively defeated by Russia and its proxies any more than the Kremlin can afford to see the DPR and LPR defeated decisively by the Ukrainians.

Nonetheless, it is very possible that the extent of Russian involvement in the fighting is going to grow and become more open. I would not be surprised if at some point Ukrainian fears about Russia providing the separatists with military aviation (e.g., Su-25 ground attack aircraft) were born out.

If so, or if Ukrainian losses otherwise mount, there will be increased political pressure on Western governments, particularly increased pressure on the Obama administration, to provide lethal equipment to Ukraine and otherwise substantially increase military assistance to Kyiv. And that in turn risks increasing Russian assistance to the separatists and asymmetrical responses from Russia elsewhere. That, of course, would make an already dangerous east-west standoff all the more dangerous.

One final point. I am struck by how little coverage there has been in the Western media of the escalating violence in eastern Ukraine. There are of course many hotspots in the world right now, but I don’t believe there are any that would be as dangerous for the United States and Europe if they spun out of control.