The purpose of this analysis is to consider the present situation in Donbass between the opposing forces and what might take place from here. This evaluation is primarily based on the September 15th map of hostilities and may, therefore, be somewhat out of date.
Due in part to the widespread dissemination of photos of Ukrainian punitive battalions wearing Nazi insignia and to reports of their atrocities against civilians, volunteers from all over the world have come to the aid of the Novorossiyan cause, boosting their numbers considerably in August and September. This substantially evened the odds of the conflict, which had initially been heavily in Ukraine’s favor.
Over the course of August, Ukrainian forces lost several brigades and over a hundred armored combat vehicles and artillery pieces, due to these units driving too far into NAF-held territory in an attempt to encircle Lugansk. Instead of encircling the city, they were themselves encircled and pinned down in a pocket called a “cauldron”, referring back to the Battle of Kursk in World War II. In a “cauldron” or “boiler”, the advancing armored forces were slowed down and stopped by defenders, and then encircled from behind to cut off their supply lines. The NAF forces then hammered the encircled battalions with artillery and direct fire until they were either destroyed or ran out of ammunition and surrendered.
Several Ukrainian units were still encircled in pockets inside NAF territory at the beginning of the ceasefire on September 12th and remain dug in their positions.
Reports from the field indicate that Ukraine forces currently number forty thousand combatants while the NAF forces number thirty-two thousand, made up of a mixture of Donbass residents as well as several thousand international volunteers, many of whom were are combat veterans of the Russian Army.
Given that the military doctrine requiring requires a 3:1 numerical advantage when by the attacking forces, this means that Kiev has lost the numerical superiority needed to decisively win by brute force.
Ukrainian forces have pulled back into a defensive arc from the North of Lugansk circling West and South around to Mariupol on the Azov Sea, and are now digging in.
During the previous three months of the ATO, Ukraine’s primary “punitive” strategy was to pound batter the civilians into submission by destroying their cities with heavy artillery. As of September 22nd, Kiev has pulled its heavy artillery twenty kilometers behind the defensive line, out of firing range of the Donbass population centers.
The Southern Front
In the final week before the ceasefire, NAF forces succeeded in opening a second front by driving to the Sea of Azov, securing the town of Novoasovsk, and were well on their way to capturing the port of Mariupol. The reasons reported in the mainstream media for this NAF offensive or “second front” were generally mistaken.
The primary motivation for this action was neither a need for sea-based supply lines, nor an alleged desire by Russia to take make a “land bridge to Crimea”. It can be assumed that the NAF are being primarily supplied through volunteers, donations and “voentorg” [ED. E.g.http://www.voentorg.ru/] via the porous border with Russia to their rear. Therefore, possession of the Azov coastline confers no advantage to the NAF in terms of supply lines. The NAF has no navy by which to be supplied.
Neither does Russia require or nor desire a land bridge to Crimea through southern Ukraine, as has been speculated in the Western media. The deep-water port of Sevastopol is far more efficient for resupplying Crimea than several hundred kilometers of road through hostile territory. Even for land transport, there is a ferry at the Strait of Kerch which gives vehicular access to Crimea directly from Russia without passing through contested territory. It is expected that within a year Russia will complete a bridge over the Kerch Strait. Therefore, the speculations that Russia intends to “seize a land bridge to Crimea” are misguided.
The primary purpose for of the NAF offensive to Azov was to secure their southern flank;. This is similar to the “race to the sea” that occurred in World War I after the Battle of the Frontiers.
With the southern flank anchored on the sea, and with sufficient troop strength, the NAF will be in a good position to drive the front forward to the Dnieper River in the coming months, or to hold the front against a Ukrainian offensive. However, the NAF currently has neither the manpower nor the armor to advance to the West.
The Northern Front
The Northern Front is being defended by the NAF “Ghost Brigade”, commanded by Alexey Mozgovoi. Their primary objectives – for the present – include preventing the Ukrainian Army from regaining artillery firing positions capable of bombarding downtown the city centers of Lugansk and Donetsk. It remains important to prevent the Ukrainian forces from breaking through to the encircled battalion in Zhdanovka by driving South of Gorlovka in order to break through to the encircled battalion in Zhdanovka, which would also cut off and encircle the NAF defenders in Gorlovka.
Anatomy of an Impasse
Neither Kiev nor the NAF have the strength to achieve an outright military victory. It remains to be seen if forces coming from outside of Ukraine will tip the balance in favor of one side or the other.
Kiev has thrown away their best military forces and equipment in the disastrous “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO) from May through September. Their professional cadres were decimated and have now been replaced by second and third conscriptions of untrained men, boys, and now, women. The low morale of the Ukrainian Army is evidenced by the hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and entire combat units that have thrown down their weapons and fled to Russia to surrender. The Ukrainian Air Force has likewise lost over a dozen aircraft to rebel missile fire, and has lost air superiority over the contested region.
Several NATO countries have allegedly begun supplying Ukraine with new weapons. However, merely putting new weapons in the hands of demoralized conscripts is unlikely to substantially improve the situation for Ukraine.
Ukraine has fielded several volunteer battalions, which have gained notoriety by attracting Neo-Nazi volunteers from Scandinavia and Western Europe. However, these ideologically motivated volunteers do not seem, in most cases, to be combat veterans, and the Azov battalion has suffered several notable and embarrassing defeats, including the deaths of certain well-publicized foreign volunteers.
Short of direct NATO intervention, with the commitment of two or more armored divisions, it seems unlikely that Ukraine will be able to put together a task force capable of decisively winning this war. When Poroshenko claimed, for the umpteenth time, that Russia had invaded Ukraine, his goal was to convince NATO to commit ground forces. His recent speech to the joint houses of the US Congress further escalated his desperate calls for direct US military intervention.
Novorossiya Armed Forces
The volunteers who have been swelling the ranks of the NAF are mostly combat veterans who believe in the cause and have come to lend their aid to their “brothers”. The majority of the volunteers are from the sphere of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS; Russian: Содружество Независимых Государств), however, many Western veterans have volunteered as well. This was recently highlighted in the media by a group of French veterans who joined the NAF because they see the movement fighting against Nazis and representing the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution.
The average NAF soldier has both combat experience and the determination in his heart to win. The NAF also have a majority of the civilian population who support them both at home and in the neighboring regions. Kiev greatly fears a spread of the rebellion to the adjacent regions and it is reported they have sent Sloboda punishment squads into the Southeastern areas to terrorize the population to prevent any further uprising.. However, this tactic may backfire by further polarizing the population against Kiev.
Given the successes that the NAF have enjoyed using guerilla small unit tactics, they can be expected to send Sabotage & Reconnaissance Groups (SRGs) into the neighboring oblasts regions to recruit and train militia forces, to in an attempt to achieve their vision of Novorossiya extending from Lugansk to Odessa.
One of the necessary criteria necessary for success to in fighting a long-term guerrilla war is to have a “refugium” in an adjacent country from which the guerrilla force can freely operate and resupply, given that national forces cannot pursue the guerilla forces across the border without creating an international incident. Examples of this principle include the Viet Cong’s successful use of Laos and Cambodia for supply lines in the Vietnam War, as well as the Kurdish Peshmerga’s operations across the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Using guerilla warfare, the NAF may eventually be able to attain their objective of independence for the larger Novorossiya region, provided that Russia continues to allow them to resupply from Russian territory.
It has become clear from the many skirmishes and battles since the ceasefire was announced a week ago that Kiev intends to take advantage of the ceasefire to strengthen their position, rescue their pinned units, and beg for international military aid. Poroshenko has publicly admitted that Ukraine cannot win this conflict militarily. Yet, his diplomatic strategy betrays a plan to win by duplicity what he cannot win on the battlefield. He has openly stated that he has no intention to of granting the breakaway provinces what they demand — political autonomy.
Instead, the newly passed law concerning the Donbass region seems to create a military dictatorship or martial law over those these provinces. These are the sorts of terms one might expect a defeated foe to submit to;. it seems highly unlikely that the unsubdued provinces regions will accept such terms unless they are sold out by weak-willed political leaders.
In this situation, it is to the NAF’s advantage to accept the ceasefire line that Russian diplomats are trying to get carved into the stone—thus “freezing the conflict on the ground”. The Minsk Agreement calls for a 30 km wide no-heavy-weapons zone along the demarcation line. This is probably good for the Donbass republics because it will keep Ukrainian artillery out of range of Donetsk and Lugansk. However, they have already achieved de facto independence, even if Kiev has not acknowledged it yet.
Poroshenko cannot win with his army—and he knows it—but he has not conceded defeat. The ceasefire has put the conflict on a footing where Poroshenko is able to maneuver via political negotiations. Kiev can be expected to attempt to buy off or assassinate the leaders of the Donbass republics in order to achieve through political subterfuge what they failed to achieve with the sword.
Despite the fact that the “ceasefire” has seen continued skirmishes and artillery fire from both sides, Russia can be expected to take the ceasefire in all seriousness because it provides a legal framework from which to negotiate the autonomy or independence of the Donbass.
Russia is suffering economic sanctions from the US/EU despite having opposed the secession of Donetsk and Lugansk from Ukraine. Due to the strong moral support of the Novorossiya Movement by the Russian population, Putin cannot abandon them without losing the support of his own people. Consequently, Russia unofficially supports the NAF by permitting the movement of volunteers and materiel across the border, collection of donations in Russia, and the recruitment and training of new volunteer units on Russian soil.
While not neutral, these actions do not represent a Russian “invasion” any more than China invaded South Vietnam in the Vietnam War. Yes, Russia is clearly enabling the NAF to fight their own battle to defend their territory; but Russian regular army units are not believed by impartial observers to have entered Ukrainian territory.
Why Hasn’t Kiev Conceded?
Though Although Poroshenko’s military has been butchered and humiliated on the battlefield, NATO and the USA have him on a short leash with the IMF bailout loans, and have been pushing Kiev toward the “final solution” since the beginning of this conflict. Prior to the military disaster in early September, Poroshenko had never made any serious attempt to negotiate with the breakaway provinces, preferring to crush them militarily.
The rout of Ukrainian forces by the NAF counter-offensive forced Kiev to the negotiating table, but they are still not willing to talk about autonomy or independence for the Donbass. This intransigent attitude is coming from numerous “strings” attached to the IMF loans and Western aid packages, which require Ukraine not to give up any territory and—at the same time—to subdue the uprising. Without Western backing, Poroshenko would have been forced to the negotiating table long ago.
It is unlikely that we will see an end to this conflict until one of the following scenarios happens:
a) The EU/USA lose the economic ability or political will to continue propping up the Kiev regime, leaving Poroshenko without any money. This could happen if the Dollar loses its status as the world’s reserve and trade currency.
b) DPR & LPR politicians sell their brethren down the river by negotiating a surrender on Kiev’s terms.
c) NAF-allied guerrilla units succeed in breaking another oblast away from Kiev, forcing Poroshenko to cut his losses.
d) NATO militarily intervenes forcing Russia to enter the conflict in earnest.
e) Ukrainians reject the junta at the polls in October.
f) Winter arrives and Kiev is desperate for natural gas.
Once winter arrives, Kiev will be forced to the bargaining table lest the freezing population of Ukraine will break into openly revolt. Time is on the side of Russia and the Donbass republics. They need only take advantage of the ceasefire to strengthen their defensive positions, secure food and shelter for their civilian population, and wait for cold weather to bring their opponents to their knees.