Polskie Forum Bezpieczeństwa

Wiedza, Niezależność

10 sierpnia 2014

The Ukrainian battlefield

The war in Ukraine, called the anti-terrorist operation by Kiev, has lasted five months already. The separatist forces, estimated at 10-15 thousand people, mostly local volunteers, armed and supplied by Moscow, have put up effective resistance against 45-50 thousand soldiers and members of Ukrainian security forces, and volunteers of extreme political groups. Progress associated with recapturing subsequent cities, such as Slavyansk or Kramatorsk are, on the one hand, spectacular successes as regards the capabilities of the Ukrainian army, but on the other, expose the command, training and equipment shortcomings of the fighting units. Subsequent operations at unlocking units encircled at the southern border, designed to stop Russian support for the separatists, only confirm the bad reputation of the commanders of the anti-terrorist operation.

Units of the Ukrainian Army, National Guard and Border Guard were cut off for 28 days under artillery fire of the separatists and the Russian Army. Conducting effective operations to seal off the border was unrealistic, but no orders were issued to redeploy forces, and more importantly it was not decided to withdraw the troops to maintain their combat potential. Today, these units require reconstruction because their equipment was destroyed during defensive fighting, and their morale has been strongly weakened.

The retreat was possible only after recapture of the strategically important Saur-Mogila hill, which - according to elementary rules - should have been the beginning of the operation to blockade the border. Further progress of the Ukrainian side, the attack on Thorez has been stopped. In turn, the operation to cut the separatists grouped in Donetsk off from their supplies and cut in parts the territory controlled by separatists, although partially successful, was not a good basis for further action. Troops used in the fighting were redeployed from the region of Lugansk, which was reflected in the decline of the Ukrainian Army activity in that direction. The control of over 100 km of the border by the enemy meant that free flow of supplies, weapons and reinforcements to Lugansk separatist grouping was still possible.

Ukrainian leaders face a dilemma, how to capture Donetsk, a city of nearly one million people before the war, or Lugansk with a population of 400 thousand. And how to avoid a Russian intervention in that. On the one hand it is difficult to effectively lead street fighting against hard defence of the separatists, and on the other to save the inhabitants and cities from the fate of Grozny. Massive artillery fire on subsequent parts of the city, without precise means of reconnaissance, leads to massive losses among the civilian population, which is trying to leave the two cities by the so-called humanitarian corridors.

Fighting in a highly urbanized area is very difficult, and even information and technological superiority does not provide enough overwhelming superiority to avoid civilian casualties, as the Americans have found out in Iraq a few years before. The Ukrainian Army cannot count on effective support from the air, it lacks proper reconnaissance tools, and indigenous UAVs purchased in emergency cannot, especially at night, meet the hopes pinned on them. Ukrainian artillery is the legacy of the Soviet Army, with all the advantages and disadvantages. Without proper reconnaissance and command system it is easy to cover large areas with fire, but difficult to destroy a single tank or bunker.

Further fighting highlights lack of interoperability between different ministries. The army alone is not able to throw whole brigades into the fight. Individual battalions or even companies enter action, operating in distant directions, which significantly hinders the command process. Elementary cooperation between subunits is lacking. In street battles, interaction of such amalgams of different entities is even less possible.

The key problem is the position of Moscow, which supports the separatists and organises next manoeuvres, gathering troops on the borders of Ukraine. Suppression of separatists by the Ukrainian Army is a matter of time, but Russia has not created the rebel forces to abandon them without asking for anything in return. Moreover, the sanctions imposed by the EU and the USA might, after a while, become expensive enough to make entering Ukraine by Russian troops Kremlin’s only way out. Bloody storming of Donetsk and Lugansk, with large numbers of civilian casualties, can be used by Moscow as a pretext to invade. Kiev must be aware of this, which further complicates the decision-making processes.