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Four battles that broke the Ukrainian army

The latest fighting in and around the eastern Ukrainian town of Avdeevka is being represented as the product of a supposedly new Ukrainian ‘infiltration’ tactic whereby Ukrainian troops are said to insert surreptitiously into no-man’s land thereby gradually gaining territory and putting the eastern Ukrainian militia at a disadvantage.

In my opinion this is wrong.  The latest ‘infiltration tactic’ is simply a variant of the same tactics the Ukrainians have used throughout the war, which is to attack headlong, putting their troops in an untenable position, which causes them to suffer heavy losses for no actual gain, and in which certain cases leads them to becoming surrounded in pockets which the militia calls “cauldrons”.

The militia use of the term “cauldron” (sometimes translated as “kettle”) to describe how these pockets work.

The Ukrainian troops cut off in these “cauldrons” are deprived of resupply and reinforcement.  Over time their position becomes completely untenable.   The militia does not try to storm the “cauldron” but instead lets it slowly ‘heat up’ until resistance finally collapses.  Any Ukrainian troops still left in the “cauldron” when the collapse comes are then generally exchanged for militia prisoners taken by the Ukrainians.  The heavy weapons left behind – the tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery – are however taken by the militia and refurbished in the militia’s workshops.  The Donbass being a major industrial area there is no shortage of the necessary tools and skills to do this. They are then reused by the militia, becoming weapons in its increasingly sophisticated army.

An unknown but probably very large percentage of the large number of heavy weapons the militia now possesses have probably come to it in this way, with no less a person than President Poroshenko admitting in September 2014 that the Ukrainian military had as of that point lost 65% of its armoured vehicles (see my discussion here).  It is likely that a good percentage of these vehicles are now in militia service.

The fighting in Ukraine most of the time now has something of the static quality of trench warfare.  Whenever the Ukrainians have however attempted large-scale offensives the result has however almost invariably been “cauldrons”, which are the result of the Ukrainians’ own tactics.

A list of the most important of “cauldrons” (there have been other smaller ones) would include the following:

(1) The “southern cauldron”

Arguably the most important and decisive of them all, though one which has been entirely unreported by the Western media.  This arose in July 2014 as a result of a Ukrainian attempt to outflank the militia and cut it off from the Russian border.  The result was that a large Ukrainian armoured column itself got cut off and found itself pinned down against the border.  The Ukrainians tried to resupply this force by dropping supplies by air, but to little effect, and lost several aircraft in the process, for which they blamed the Russian air force.  Without going into the details of this contentious topic, I would here merely say that MH17 was shot down during this fighting.

This “cauldron”  finally collapsed in early August, providing the Ukrainian militia with many of the heavy weapons (including armour) they used in the counter-offensive they launched in late August.

(2) Ilovaisk

This arose in mid August 2014 as a result of a Ukrainian attempt to split the two militia strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk from each other.  A large Ukrainian force advanced into the town of Ilovaisk only to be rapidly surrounded there.  Ukrainian losses in this “cauldron” were exceptionally heavy, but were limited by Russian President Putin’s call to the militia to allow the Ukrainians to retreat.

The Ukrainians have consistently blamed their defeat in Ilovaisk on the intervention of the Russian army, and this has become an article of faith in Ukraine and amongst the Ukrainian regime’s supporters in the West.  Ilovaisk is also often cited as the decisive battle which caused the defeat of Ukraine’s military campaign in the Donbass in the summer of 2014, which up to that point was supposedly going well.

Neither of these claims should be allowed to go uncontested, though in the West both invariably are.

The reality is that by the time of the battle of Ilovaisk the Ukrainian offensive launched to suppress the Donbass on 1st July 2014 was already in serious trouble, with the defeat in the “southern cauldron” having already happened, and with Ukrainian troops elsewhere becoming increasingly bogged down and unable to make progress against the strongly defended militia positions in Donetsk and Lugansk.

Far from being an unexpected defeat brought about by Russian intervention in a hitherto successful campaign, the advance on Ilovaisk looks more like a desperate last throw to rescue a campaign that was already failing.

As for claims of Russian military intervention in the battle, the supposed ‘proofs’ of this are nothing like as clearcut as is usually said.

The excessive emphasis given by the Ukrainians and their Western supporters to the Ukrainian defeat in Ilovaisk, and the blame for it which they put on the Russians, is arguably explained by a wish to conceal the extent of the Ukrainians’ previous unreported failure in the summer campaign.  In that incidentally it has been largely successful, creating a false narrative of a decisive defeat in August brought about by Russia, which supposedly threw into reverse a previously successful campaign.

(3) Donetsk airport

The temporary ceasefire agreed between the Ukrainians and the militia in Minsk in September 2014 left the Ukrainians in control of a part of Donetsk airport.

The Ukrainian defeat in August 2014 left the Ukrainian troops holding the airport in an untenable position.  However despite this, and despite suggestions by some in Ukraine that the Ukrainian troops in the airport should be withdrawn to more defensible positions and militia claims that the September 2014 Minsk Protocol required control of the airport to be transferred to them, the Ukrainian leadership ordered its troops in the airport to dig in, and reinforced them with some of Ukraine’s best Special Forces troops, whose prowess was talked up by the Ukrainian media, which called them “cyborgs”.

This is very typical of the approach taken by the Ukrainian leadership throughout the conflict.  It persistently refuses to give up a centimetre of territory however indefensible it has become, an attitude that has repeatedly doomed Ukrainian troops to heavy defeats and heavy losses.

The result was that throughout the autumn and early winter of 2014 and 2015, despite the supposed ceasefire, fighting in Donetsk airport continued unabated until Ukrainian resistance finally collapsed in January 2015 after hundreds of Ukraine’s best troops had been killed, with hundreds of others captured.

As in the battle of Ilovaisk the Ukrainians have blamed their defeat at Donetsk airport on military action by the Russians, with President Poroshenko making the fantastic claim that no less than 9,000 Russian troops were involved (presumably defeating the “cyborgs” needed that many).

In reality the Ukrainian defeat at Donetsk airport was the result of the Ukrainian leadership’s insistence that the Ukrainian troops hold an indefensible position long after that fact had become obvious.

(4) Debaltsevo

Debaltsevo is an important town and railway junction which was captured by the Ukrainian army during the summer 2014 campaign.  The ceasefire in September 2014 left it in Ukrainian hands but surrounded on three sides by militia controlled territory.

In January 2015, following a Ukrainian offensive coinciding with the battle of Donetsk airport, a militia counter attack caused the Ukrainian troops – supposedly the ‘heart’ of the Ukrainian army and numbering according to some reports as many as 8,000 men (some reports put the number much higher) – to become trapped there.

The Debaltsevo “cauldron” caused panic amongst Ukraine’s supporters in the West, with concern that the best part of the Ukrainian army would be destroyed there.  This led to a frantic round of negotiations spearheaded by Angela Merkel, who flew to Moscow for private talks with Russian President Putin leading to further talks in Minsk which eventually resulted in the February 2015 Minsk Agreement.

During the negotiations in Minsk Merkel and French President Hollande, who also participated in the talks, discovered the same intransigent refusal by the Ukrainian leadership to face reality and retreat from an untenable position in Debaltsevo that has been a consistent feature of the whole Ukrainian war.

Not only did Ukrainian President Poroshenko refuse their pleas to order his troops to retreat from Debaltsevo, but he refused even to admit that they were trapped there.  This is how I described his behaviour in an article I wrote at the time for Sputnik

The denial reached farcical levels during the negotiations in Minsk. Half the 16 hours of negotiations were reportedly taken up with attempts to get Ukraine’s President Poroshenko to admit the obvious, that his troops in Debaltseve were encircled. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko refused to do so, refusing to order his troops to retreat and rejecting all offers from others to arrange this.

There is no logic behind this denial of reality. No military objective was achieved by continuing to defend Debaltseve when its capture by the militia was just days away.  As commander in chief President Poroshenko owed it to his men to agree the terms of their withdrawal when it was clear their further sacrifice was in vain. At an earlier stage in the war militia commander Strelkov withdrew his men from Slaviansk when it had become clear Slaviansk was undefendable and that no purpose was served sacrificing the lives of his men defending it. That is the basic duty owed by every commander to his men.

President Poroshenko failed in that duty.

The result is scores of Ukrainian soldiers (thousands by some counts) who might be alive are now dead.

In the event the Ukrainian troops did eventually retreat from Debaltsevo after suffering heavy losses and in great confusion, and apparently without waiting for orders from Poroshenko, after which Poroshenko preposterously claimed a “victory”.

As I have written previously, reports of the fighting in Avdeevka suggest that nothing has been learned from these repeated disasters.

The Ukrainian leadership continues to order its men to take and hold indefensible territory.  The Ukrainian ‘infiltration tactics’ near Avdeevka have not resulted in any significant change in the overall military situation.  What they have achieved is to expose the Ukrainian troops to heavy artillery fire by the militia, which has caused them to suffer heavy losses whilst threatening them with encirclement in another “cauldron”.

Realistically, just as peace in Ukraine is impossible whilst the present regime remains in power there, so a change in tactics is hardly likely whilst the same people remain in charge.  It is Ukrainians in the meantime who pay the price.

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