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Published in Stream:
Ukraine Live Day 477
Press by
The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Assessing The Russian Strategy In Eastern Ukraine
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On June 3 the Russian-backed fighters in eastern Ukraine launched a major attack against Marinka, southwest of Donetsk. The United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, did not bury the U.S. assessment -- she said that the Russian Federation and its "separatist allies" had launched a joint attack west of the Minsk demarcation line at Marinka and Krasnohorivka, and then their own contradictory statements undercut their narrative that Ukraine started the fight. 

Over the last week we have made several attempts to explain the strategic importance of this battle and the escalating campaign in eastern Ukraine, but each day new fighting occurs across the front. The question, then, is how well the trends and models are holding up in light of new evidence and developments on the ground.  

In our initial assessment, we noted that when the battles are mapped, a pattern emerges:

The capture of Marinka, southwest of Donetsk, would advance the goals of the Russian-backed fighters in several ways. The first and most obvious is that it would help secure Donetsk. The second, though, is that it would put the Russian-backed fighters one step closer to cutting off Mariupol, to the south.

But across all of the front lines -- near Mariupol, Donetsk, Gorlovka, and Schastye -- we see a similar pattern emerge. The Russian-backed fighters are advancing in what could be described as "fingers," narrow points of focus which are fairly evenly spaced. The pattern is that regular, but not constant, fighting is reported at alternating fingers on different days. This has several effects -- it tests Ukraine's lines and keeps them guessing where the next attack will come. As a result, the Russian-backed forces have been able to advance in narrow "spiky" channels, and each advance carries with it a new threat -- encirclement. As two or more neighboring fingers advance deeper into Ukrainian territory, the Ukrainian military is in danger of being trapped in a pincer between two fronts, a strategy that has proven to be highly effective in the conflict, most notably at Ilovaisk and Debaltsevo.

The theory, then, was that an assault which pushes outwards from Donetsk accomplishes two main goals -- to threaten the highway that runs to Mariupol to the south, and to possibly catch Ukrainian military positions closer to Donetsk, either north or south of the city, in a pincer. 

Two days later the Institute for the Study of War published their own assessment which closely corresponds to this theory: 

For ISW's report:

A sustained Russian-backed offensive on these frontline positions may function as component of a larger maneuver to push south along the strategic Donetsk-Mariupol highway. The maneuver around Donetsk may also be part of a coordinated tandem offensive, a signature of Russia's hybrid operations in eastern Ukraine. Russian-backed separatists may synchronize the offensive west of Donetsk with a maneuver operation around the city of Artemivsk, a gateway to Ukraine's regional military and administrative headquarters.

Yesterday, a new assessment of the fighting, written by The Interpreter's managing editor James Miller, was published in Foreign Policy:

In the days since the attack on Marinka, Russian-backed forces have launched smaller offensives north and northwest of Donetsk and from positions east of Mariupol. On June 8, the Ukrainian military reported that heavy fighting is once again raging in Marinka, and the Ukrainian military also seems increasingly concerned about attacks on the towns of Artyomovsk and Gorlovka, both north-northeast of Donetsk. Clearly, the June 3 attack on Marinka was part of a wider pattern and, presumably, a wider strategy of the separatists.

The target of this new offensive is not necessarily Marinka or Donetsk, the area of this newest wave of fighting, but the areas north and northwest of Luhansk, north and west of Gorlovka, and north and east of Mariupol. By conducting surprise attacks along the narrow corridors of the front lines, the rebels have been able to secure finger-like strips of land which, once expanded, could threaten to trap pockets of Ukrainian troops and the towns they defend in "pincers," grinding Kiev's forces like dough between fingers as they close into a fist. The separatists employed this same strategy to great effect last August in the battle for Ilovaisk and in the capture of Debaltseve in February.

Just in the last several days we see more evidence that Artyomovsk and Gorlovka are focal points for Russian-allied fighters:

We also carried a report on fighting at Svetlodarsk, northeast of Gorlovka and southeast of Artyomovsk, near an important reservoir. In order to advance further toward Artyomovsk, Russian-backed forces would have to secure this area, and Ukrainian troops defending these positions are already in danger of being cut off and backed up against the water:


See our assessment here: 

We also see Russian-backed fighters intensifying attacks on positions north and west of Donetsk airport:
Fighting also continues to be reported along a key river crossing northwest of Lugansk:

Details from the latest OSCE reports can also be used to track trends in fighting and troop movement. Here are some excerpts from the SMM report from June 7, 19:30 Kiev time:

On 7 June, while at a Ukrainian Armed Forces checkpoint in the vicinity of government-controlled Marinka (23km west, south-west of Donetsk), the SMM heard and saw SALW fire (7-10 single shots and at least 3-4 bursts) incoming from a north-easterly direction and impacting 3-5m next to SMM vehicles in sand bags and concrete blocks. The soldiers laid down for cover. The SMM immediately left the scene. No injuries or damage were reported.

An SMM UAV spotted a concentration of 40 military-type trucks in Petrovskyi district (“DPR”-controlled, 20km south-west of Donetsk city centre).

The  Petrovskyi district played a key role on the Russian-backed assault on Marinka on June 3. The Interpreter's editor-in-chief Michael Weiss wrote in The Daily Beast:

The two main towns hit today were Marinka and Krasnogorovka, both not far from the major industrial city of Donetsk. The nearest separatist lines to these targets are the Petrovsky district of the city to the east, Aleksandrovka to the southeast and Novomikhailkovka to the northeast. Video footage, purportedly shot in Petrovsky today, clearly recorded the sounds of outbound artillery fire, with the attendant description of the footage claiming that the separatists were firing from positions in the immediate vicinity of residential high-rises. (Of course, firing from civilian areas doesn’t just violate Minsk II, but the Geneva Conventions.)

Can Anyone Stop Putin's New Blitz?

It looks like Vladimir Putin will spend his second summer in a row going to war. So now the question becomes: What-if anything-will the United States and Europe do in response? On Wednesday, Ukrainians awoke to the all-too-predictable news that Moscow-backed separatists-a contingent that consists of quite a lot of Moscow-dispatched Russian soldiers-launched a fresh, multi-pronged assault on Ukrainian-held territory.

View full page >
Jun 09, 2015 22:36 (GMT)

The June 7 OSCE report also carried another interesting excerpt about troop movement south of Donetsk (though, since the Ukrainian government was so blatantly attacked and said they were mobilizing their heavy weaponry in response, the lines about the Minsk agreement being broken are no longer really relevant):

Despite claims that the withdrawal of heavy weapons has been complete, the SMM observed the following weapons movements/presence in areas that are in violation of the Minsk withdrawal lines: in government-controlled areas, 14 main battle tanks (MBTs) and three artillery pieces; and, in “DPR”-controlled areas, 16 MBTs and five artillery pieces.

Of particular note – amongst the weapons observed by SMM UAVs was a concentration at a railway station between the “DPR”-controlled Komsomolske (45km south-east of Donetsk) and Andriivka (45km south-east of Donetsk), namely seven MBTs. In the same area, the UAV spotted 35 military trucks and 25 armoured personnel carriers. Also, of note was a concentration around “DPR”-controlled Oktyabr (85km south of Donetsk), namely, three artillery pieces and two MBTs.

On June 8 the OSCE saw more Russian-proxy armor southeast of Donetsk -- note how large the convoys are in this area compared to other areas where military hardware was spotted:

In “DPR”-controlled Rozdolne (47km south-east of Donetsk) an SMM UAV spotted a concentration of nine main battle tanks (MBTs) in a residential area, one self-propelled howitzer (2S1) and 16 armoured personnel carriers (APCs). Eight towed artillery guns were seen by an SMM UAV in government-controlled Paraskoviivka (27km south-west of Donetsk). In “DPR”-controlled Yakovlivka (7km north-north-east of Donetsk) the SMM UAV saw three artillery pieces set up under camouflaged nets. In other “DPR”-controlled areas the SMM UAV saw five MBTs. At another location in a government-controlled area, the SMM observed a 120mm heavy mortar.

All this armor could easily strike positions between Donetsk and Mariupol, like at Volnovakha and/or Telmanovo, which would give the Russian-backed fighters two advantages -- it would provide another angle to attack positions west of Donetsk, and it would apply even more pressure to Mariupol. Volnovakha was also highlighted by both the ISW's and The Interpreter's maps as a possible target.

In other words, the evidence-based assessments made by The Interpreter in the last weeks continue to bear fruit, even though most of the battles in eastern Ukraine are not making it to international headlines.

-- James Miller