- Rebels are able to win most artillery duels around Debaltsevo bulge
- But Ukraine retreat is out of the question for political reasons
- The only remaining option for Ukraine officers is to counter-attack - which they have, so far to mixed results
Yurasumy is a Russian blog with often interesting insight into the more military-technical side of the war in Ukraine.
Like most Russians the author is sympathetic to the rebels which reflects in his language (the Kiev government is referred to as a "junta"), but his technical analysis is realistic.
This article originally appeared at yurasumy. Translated by J. Hawk at Fort Russ
The last two days saw rather active combat operations by both sides. Novorossia forces spent them testing the Ukrainian defenses for weak spots in order to determine where to launch the main blow. At the same time they were tying down Ukrainian reserves along secondary sectors of the front.
Before the beginning of the active phases of the operation (beginning of January), Ukraine managed to create up to 10-12 BTG (battalion task groups) in their operational and strategic reserves. Due to the growing level of activity on the front caused by Novorossia offensive operations near Donetsk, Gorlovka, Debaltsevo, Bakhmutka (the Lisichansk-Lugansk road), Schastye, Granitnoye, Mariupol, Ukraine had to “spend” 8-10 of its reserve BTGs.
This allowed the junta to stop forward movement by Novorossia forces, and launch counterattacks in some places (Bakhmutka, Peski, Elenovka). At the same time the main Novorossia reserves are still undergoing their concentration phase and are constantly maneuvering in order to avoid enemy artillery strikes.
Artillery deserves special attention. Positional warfare implies this arm acquires a special role. Up to 80% of casualties on both sides were caused by artillery fire. Whichever side is superior in artillery duels will ultimately win the entire battle. The number of “tubes”, the level of training, command and control systems, quantity and quality of ammunition, all of those are components of victory or defeat.
Ukraine has problems with each of those components. This was evident in the outcome of the first battles. The fire damage caused by Novorossia artillery was key to the militia victory at Donetsk Airport. Ukrainian forces were pushed back around Bakhmutka also thanks to artillery fire. The enemy notes the well coordinated and skillful work of Novorossia artillery crews, describing them as Russian contractors (the highest praise a Ukrainian soldier is capable of).
A few words about junta’s counterattacks. What do they signify. They signify that their generals have common sense and understand that remaining on the defense facing superior Novorossia artillery is suicidal. Therefore they have to attack. Novorossia is in effect provoking the enemy to be active. Having forced them to bring up mobile reserves which are now exposed to continuous artillery fire, they left the enemy no choice. Ukrainian forces have to either retreat, which is unacceptable for political reasons, or stand and wait until they are destroyed by endless shelling, or to counterattack with some hope of success, which is what they do. So far with mixed results.
I expected such a turn of events because I, unlike many other writers, do not consider Ukrainian generals to be idiots. It’s obvious that will not save the Ukrainian army, but will delay Novorossia’s decisive success. Introducing reserves allows the junta to control the situation for maybe three more days (assuming the intensity of the battles will not increase). Then they will melt and time will come for more active Novorossia operations which the Ukrainian army will have nothing to repel. So far we are observing meeting engagements around Elenovka, Maryinka, Bakhmutka.
We are also seeing signs of disorganization of the chain of command of Ukrainian forces. Here what the editor-in-chief of Tsenzor.net, Yuriy Butusov, writes on his facebook page (between various patriotic “nonsense”), which I view as a positive development:
“The Ukrainian army turned into an armed Maidan. In the absence of competent leadership each military unit lives its own life. The key figures in the Ukrainian army and the national guard are company and battalion commanders. Their personal qualities fully determine the conduct of operations on a given sector of the front. If the commander has initiative and independence, inadequate higher command cannot get in the way of effective fulfillment of combat missions and preparation. Where a good commander is missing, the combat worthiness of the unit is only nominal and depends on various factors.”
Ukraine also has a problem in that the level of training and political reliability of different units varies widely. Therefore the junta has to employ “barrier detachments” (noted in Debaltsevo sector, where Ukrainian forces face the most difficult situation). That, and sizable reinforcements, stabilized the front around the Debaltsevo salient for a while, but whose opening is slowly narrowing.
The key point Troitskoye is still under junta control, although they faced a crisis two days ago when they could have lost control over that town. From the other side, Novorossia was able to push junta forces back and now the Artemovsk-Debaltsevo road is not quite under their control, but certainly under their artillery fire (when there is no fog). There exists a real danger of encirclment at Debaltsevo, especially if Novorossia commits its main reserves to battle.
Just to clarify. The Debaltsevo salient is a mousetrap for Ukrainian forces. The junta cannot deploy heavy artillery units in the salient, and long-range artillery outside the salient is insufficient to support troops within it. It means that, no matter what reserves are thrown into the salient, they will sooner or later be destroyed by Novorossia artillery which is overwhelming on this sector of the front. The only option is to ATTACK. A suicide option, to be sure. But it’s a chance to inflict significant losses on the militia and pin down reserves which Novorossia has prepared for the offensive.
Ukrainian forces concentrated powerful reserves (up to 5 BTGs) in the vicinity of Donetsk, which allowed them to launch a counteroffensive near Peski and push Novorossia forces back. Simultaneously there are maneuver battles to the west and south-west of the city, but without results.
Gorlovka. This is the main Ukrainian headache. The large Novorossia reserves assembled here can attack in three directions and sooner or later they will show their power, but for now they are waiting. They are waiting for their hour, which has not yet come.
Mariupol can become the main prize of the winter battles. But it’s still too early to speak about that (although Ukrainian sources talk of a sizable increase of Novorossia forces on this sector). The main blow should be around the city (Dokuchaevsk-Granitnoye), not frontally. But there’s time for everything.
Novorossia forces conduct shellings and attacks around Schastye and Stanitsa Luganskaya. So far without major results.
A few words about losses. The junta lost 1800 soldiers by January 21, of which 500-600 were killed. In the last week their losses totaled another 2000, of which 500-600 were killed. Most of the killed are still on the battlefield and cannot be evacuated.
For example, Ukrainian remains are still being found at the Donetsk airport. They already carted out 100 corpses. And it’s not the end.
Novorossia losses are harder to estimate, since there are no open sources, and Novorossia keeps its secrets better than Ukraine. But judging by the intensity of the battles and the nature of operations we can assume significant losses here as well. No less than 200-300 killed, and no fewer than 1000 wounded.
Civilian casualties are the simplest to count—nobody bothers to conceal them. According to DPR representative Basurin, “the number of civilians killed can be counted in hundreds.”
Only three individual provocations (Volnovakha, Bosse, Mariupol) took the lives of more than 50 people. And those were only three fateful minutes. The multi-week shelling of Gorlovka, Donetsk, and other cities add to the list every day.