Ukraine: With Russian Support, Separatists Make Gains

September 2, 2014 | 1614 GMT

Summary

The Ukrainian government's operation against pro-Russia separatists appears to be on the verge of collapse in key areas, with forces suffering considerable reversals and facing the threat of encirclement at multiple points across eastern Ukraine. Given the separatists' rapid advances, considerable equipment range as well as notable artillery and general firepower, it is becoming increasingly clear that Russia has contributed greatly to militant operations -- with Russian units likely even leading a number of key assaults against Ukrainian positions.

At the moment, Russia possesses a significant military advantage in eastern Ukraine. Through this recent push, Moscow hopes to force Kiev into direct talks with militants. Militarily, time is on Moscow's side, but it seeks to press this advantage while separatists retain the upper hand and before sanctions impact the Russian economy.

Analysis

On Aug. 31, artillery or anti-tank weapons allegedly operated by separatists or Russian troops managed to sink one Ukrainian patrol boat and damage another in the Sea of Azov. The attack injured eight personnel, and two remain missing. At the same time, militants based in the coastal town of Novoazovsk near the Russian border probed west along the E58 road to Bezimenne, pushing toward Ukrainian forces gathered at Mariupol.

While militants in Novoazovsk attempted a push toward Mariupol, others based in the Telmanove area managed to seize the town of Novotroitsky on the H20 road, severing the link between Mariupol and troops surrounding the militant stronghold of Donetsk. Separatists also made gains against these forces around the city of Donetsk itself. Militants continued operations against the pocket of Ukrainian forces near Ilovaisk to the east and have even begun striking west along the H15 road toward Kurakhove. This threatens to outflank the main Ukrainian force around the city and push troops to disengage from the small part of the city of Donetsk they now hold, the airport and the area northwest of the railway station.

Ukrainian government forces near Ilovaisk have long been isolated from the main grouping, leading to significant casualties, perhaps in the hundreds. This has led to tension between those troops, particularly the volunteer forces, and the general staff in Kiev. These troops also allege that separatist and Russian forces have violated the agreed-upon "Green Corridor," which was established for the retreat of government troops, by shelling or capturing personnel.

In separatist-held Luhansk, closer to the Russian border, Kiev could be on the verge of its most critical defeat yet. Alleged armored Russian military and separatist spearheads are staging a rapid pincer movement south and north of Luhansk, which could soon completely encircle Ukrainian forces there. To the northwest of Luhansk, militants have also advanced on the lightly held town of Slavyanoserbsk, while to the southeast elements allegedly belonging to a Russian tank battalion have reportedly driven out Ukrainian troops occupying Luhansk airport. This maintains pressure on Kiev's forces and widens the now-open corridor along the E40 highway that runs from the Russian border to the city of Luhansk. Taken as a whole, these advances could potentially cut off the lines of supply to Ukrainian forces around Luhansk.

At this point, Ukrainian forces continue to display considerable unit cohesion. Many troops, however, are rapidly approaching a state of combat ineffectiveness due to sustained exposure to difficult fighting. The Ukrainian military has failed to directly support volunteer battalions with artillery fire or reinforcements, and heavy casualties have reduced their size in the Ilovaisk pocket. Additionally, the Ukrainian General Staff has announced the withdrawal of a Carpathian territorial defense battalion from the line due to heavy casualties.

Separatist and Russian forces have launched strikes in recent weeks in the south near Mariupol and in the border area near Luhansk, forcing Kiev's troops to stretch thin to cover the widening conflict zone. Spreading its meager reserves, especially to bolster Mariupol, has left the government with precious little to counterattack Russian penetrations around Donetsk and Luhansk.

The conflict between Kiev and pro-Russian separatists is far from over. However, as Ukrainian forces stretch progressively thinner and Russia becomes increasingly committed to the war, it will become increasingly likely that Kiev will need substantial foreign intervention to regain the advantage, though it is unlikely to receive such help. Both NATO and the European Union have demonstrated a lack of enthusiasm for direct involvement in the conflict, and continue to rely on sanctions and increased NATO rotations in Eastern Europe. Because of this, Kiev is rapidly running out of options and may soon have to settle with Russia and the separatist leadership at the negotiating table.