Search This Blog


Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Donbass Order of Battle: Some Unanswered Questions

Columns of Russian-made tanks flooding through the streets of Donetsk. So-called humanitarian aid convoys from Russia entering Luhansk with cargo unseen by external observers. Unmarked green Kamaz military trucks sweeping through East Ukrainian border towns hauling artillery and ammunition with buses full of armed men trundling on behind. Since the end of August these images, in what the Ukrainian government deems "temporarily occupied territories" in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, have become so frequent as to barely elicit comment even from those scholars and journalists focussing on the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

Such movement of military equipment from Russia into parts of Ukraine seized by Russian-backed militants and now partially occupied by barely concealed members of the Russian armed forces certainly constitute a serious breach of international law. Despite all denials by the Russian leadership, their current primary goal seems to be to entrench a frozen conflict, using emerging yet barely economically functional statelets in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to destabilise the Ukrainian state and hamper its ability to follow through on European integration. In undermining the national sovereignty of a neighbouring country and trampling on innumerable international conventions, the Russian government has engaged in a course of action that is isolating it from the EU and the United States as well as cementing a deeply hostile relationship with post-Maidan Revolution Ukraine. 

While the long term goals of trying to prevent Ukraine from leaving an (ever-shrinking) Russian sphere of influence are quite clear, the short and medium term strategy and tactics the Russian government will use to pursue these goals remain much less so. During the most recent build up conflict media analysts such as Conflict_Report or UkraineatWar were initially inclined to assume that this was a build up for an imminent offensive designed to clear Ukrainian forces out of key strategic positions such as Donetsk Airport or the Debaltsevo salient. As evidence of a surge in Russian arms and equipment across Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts grew in the first week of November, concerns spread among journalists and scholars that these reinforcements could even be the first step of an operation to seize Mariupol, Berdyansk and Melitopol in order to take control of a 'land bridge' that could connect Crimea with the Russian Federation itself.

Yet in the weeks since this surge by units that most likely belong to the Russian army there has been very little change in the front lines between the Ukrainian army and Russian or Russian-backed militias. Daily exchanges of artillery fire and skirmishing have continued, with all the unnecessary and tragic loss of life that entails. More Russian fighters and material have been sent in while OSCE observers and others on the ground have also seen the rotation of military units back into Russia proper. As temperatures plunge and the first snow storms hit Ukraine, the likelihood of a Russian charge suddenly overwhelming Ukrainian forces before they can inflict significant damage on attacking forces is beginning to seem less likely.

In fact, the continuing mystery surrounding the actual purpose of the Russian surge in material, equipment and to a lesser extent fighters in the first two weeks of November point to four unanswered questions about the order of battle in the Donbass region that need to be grappled with before analysts or policy-makers can come to firmer conclusions about the future direction of this conflict. While speculation about Russian capabilities and intentions (fuelled by the virtual rumour mill on social media) remains intense, the lack of clear information from observers on the ground that could help answer these four key questions makes it difficult to develop a clear sense of how the Russian surge affects the balance of forces on the ground and what this says about Russian intentions.

These key questions are:

1) How many available Ukrainian combat troops are there and how are they distributed in the conflict zone?

In order to assess the impact of Russian reinforcement and resupply, it is necessary to develop a better picture of the forces opposing them.  The Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council (NSDC) has, for understandable reasons, only provided vague figures varying from 35 000 to 50 000 Ukrainian combat troops on the battlefield at any one time. Indications whether this is a conservative or a wildly optimistic estimate could give observers an indication of how far recent Russian troop movements represent an acute threat to key targets, or whether they are faced by equally large forces that can match each attacking fighter with a soldier in a defensive emplacement. Since well-motivated defenders can often hold off even better equipped attackers for some time, information on the numerical balance between both sides could illuminate exact capabilities and intentions of Russian forces on the ground.

Directly connected to the issue of the exact size of Ukrainian combat forces is their distribution in the conflict zone and the extent of available reserves outside it which they can draw on it in an emergency. Looking back at the of the Battle of Ilyovaisk, which fundamentally changed the dynamic of the summer campaign for the Ukrainian military, force distribution and available reserves magnified a tactical fiasco into a strategic disaster. While Russian forces sweeping onto the battlefield had the advantage of surprise, the overstretched nature of Ukrainian military units combined with a lack of available reserves that could help cover a retreat south of Donetsk and west of Novoazovsk shattered a still fragile Ukrainian Army, giving it no time to recover once the extent of Russian intervention had become clear.

However unsatisfactory, the 5 September Minsk Agreement significantly lowered the pace of hostilities, giving the Ukrainian forces time to regain their balance and prepare defences across the region. Under constant pressure, Ukrainian troops have effectively been given a doctoral course in holding ground under heavy artillery fire, increasing levels of experience and steadiness that were sorely lacking in those crucial days in August. Of decisive importance to countering or preferably deterring a Russian assault in the next months, is whether these troops are distributed in a way that can maximise damage on any attacking force and whether there are mobile reserves available to counter potential moments of crisis in key areas such as the Bakhmutka road, the Debaltsevo salient or the roads connecting Volnokhava with Mariupol. As of yet, we still have little to go on when it comes to these factors.

2) How high are the losses among Russian-backed militiants and regular Russian forces, and how are these losses affecting military cohesiveness?

One of the great guessing games of this conflict has concerned the size and make up of pro-Russian forces in the occupied portions of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Most recently, Ukrainska Pravda and Joinfo described claims by Russian peace activists and more informed circles within Ukraine's NSDC putting the number of Russian backed fighters at 15 000 to 25 000 and the number of regular Russian forces at anywhere between 5 000 to 14 500 men. In terms of force distribution, the Kyiv military analyst Dmitro Tymchuk, who is close enough to Ukrainian security circles that we could see him as their 'nightingale', has claimed that the bulk of these forces are manning frontlines with three separate mobile reserves massed to cover the Debaltsevo salient, areas near Donetsek and the districts near Mariupol respectively.

 As frustrating as these vague figures are, exact pro-Russian and Russian losses are even more difficult to get a handle on. Elena Vasilieva, a Russian human rights activist in contact with many military families, has claimed that losses among regular Russian Army personnel are nearing 5 000, though she has remained vague as to the evidence she has to confirm that figure. The figures presented by the NSDC concerning pro-Russian and Russian losses have varied enough over the course of the conflict that they need to be treated with some scepticism. Yet mounting evidence from sources as varied as a recent harrowing documentary for Germany's ARD, several reports by experienced journalists on the ground and a proliferation of posts spotted by conflict watchers on social media outlets such as VKontakte does indicate that losses among both pro-Russian fighters and regular Russian soldiers have been considerable in the last few months. More clearly sourced estimates of the exact quantity of losses among Russian-backed forces could give us a stronger idea of how the conflict has affected their ability to enact effective operations on the ground and whether the impact of these casualties on the home front may begin to act as a deterrent to any further Russian moves in the Donbass region.

Moreover, as important as the quantity of those killed or wounded in action is the experience and military quality of those who can no longer contribute to the pro-Russian campaign. From the first seizures of Ukrainian state buildings in April, Russian special forces and contract soldiers as well as local militants with extensive combat training have spearheaded pro-Russian military operations. Yet neither group is an infinite resource. While Russia has a considerable number of special forces units and regiments staffed by contract soldiers, Donbass is not the only area in which their services are required. Ongoing counterinsurgencies in various parts of the Northern Caucasus as well as the need to maintain special forces reserves to deal with potential crises in Central Asia and the Far East mean that only a fraction of the 40 000 or so of Russia's 'little green men' can be available to provide the discipline and expertise on the East Ukrainian battlefield that recently trained conscripts cannot. As casualties among special forces and contract soldiers mount, it is an open question as to whether Moscow can easily replace such highly trained and disciplined soldiers, or whether the combat capabilities of a key cornerstone of President Putin and Minister of Defence Shoigu's reforms of the Russian military is being slowly ground down in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts.

Meanwhile, often used as cannon fodder in such situations as the battle for control of Donetsk Airport, heavy losses have been reported among the initial wave of motivated local militants and enthusiastic nationalist volunteers from Russia committed to the formation of a new state of "Novorossiya" in Ukraine's Southeast. Such an accumulation of casualties month after month may in itself have an impact on the continued willingness and ability to fight among what was to become the core of any kind of "Novorossiya Armed Forces". Yet significant numbers of wounded or killed in action leading to a decline in numbers and fighting quality of such proxy forces could make it more difficult to establish military units to police and defend the territories now under pro-Russian control without a major commitment of regular Russian contract troops that are thinly spread as it is. 

Throughout this conflict, the quantity and quality of Russian and pro-Russian losses has remained unclear. More details about these issues would enable observers and policy-makers to develop a better picture about the combat capabilities of those forces defending pro-Russian enclaves in the Donbass region. In particular, an understanding of how far losses have affected the ability of pro-Russian currently deployed to swiftly overwhelm dug-in Ukrainian troops rather than getting dragged into protracted battles of attrition could help us assess the likelihood of any sudden offensive action in the short to medium term.

3) What kind of equipment are the Ukrainians using on the battlefield and how is it being deployed?

Throughout the conflict the consensus among analysts has been that the Ukrainian Army is technologically outclassed by its Russian adversaries. There is no doubt that if the Kremlin decided tomorrow to use the full range of military assets at its disposable and deployed the number of troops used in the Georgian and Chechen campaigns, the Ukrainian Army would ultimately be overwhelmed. However, despite the initial concentration of large numbers of Russian forces at the Ukrainian border in the run up to the seizure of Crimea, the Russian leadership has proven markedly reluctant to abandon so-called hybrid warfare tactics it has relied upon in its Ukrainian adventure. Backing putatively local partisan forces it has trained and financed, the Russian government has tried to maintain a sheen of plausible deniability, however threadbare, as much to avoid any opposition to open warfare in Russia itself as to confuse the Western Alliance over President Putin's intentions. 

Yet attempting to defeat the Ukrainian Army while still trying to maintain the fiction that pro-Russian forces have armed themselves with advanced Russian military equipment that has miraculously appeared from thin air has put significant tactical limitations on the Kremlin's Donbass campaign. The drip-drip feeding in of special forces troops and equipment from May to August gave Ukrainian military units just enough time to pull themselves together and prevent an expansion of hostilities into oblasts neighbouring Donetsk and Luhansk. Even after the initial Russian offensive in August, the Kremlin quickly ramped down hostilities after having saved what remained of the pro-Russian militias in the forlorn hope that seeming moderation would avoid any retaliatory measures from the European Union. Most crucially, the Russian military has avoided deploying airpower in any decisive fashion in order to sustain the appearance of an internal revolt rather than an externally manipulated conflict.

As a consequence, after the Minsk Accords of 5 September the Ukrainian Army has had the space to replace losses of heavy equipment and bring forward more tanks, artillery and anti-tank weapons into the conflict zone to build a more effective line of defence. Facing Ukrainian troops are pro-Russian and Russian forces that have been equipped by the Kremlin, but have by no means been given every newest and most effective piece of kit in the hands of the regular Russian military. It is entirely possible that, while still on the back foot, a once badly equipped and underfunded Ukrainian Army may find itself on equal terms in some sections of the battlefield. Though there have been sporadic reports in the media of concentrations of Ukrainian equipment at key locations, there has been remarkably little investigation of such movement of tanks and artillery as well as whether new weapons deployed on the battlefield are balancing the inevitable losses incurred in combat.

Establishing the exact nature of Ukrainian military equipment as well as clearer estimates of the numbers of Ukrainian tanks, artillery and anti-tank weapons would provide some indications as to whether Ukraine is now in a position to deter any further impulsive actions by the Kremlin. Of course Russia ultimately has the power to destroy large amounts of military gear. But if Ukrainian forces are in a position to inflict major casualties on Russian troops first, giving the EU time to respond, then they are more likely to make the Kremlin think twice before taking such a vast gamble.

4) How much ammunition and equipment are pro-Russian forces expending in the current positional battles around Donetsk Airport, Debaltsevo and the Bakhmutka road? And can the surge in Russian logistical support since November build up reserves that go beyond immediate needs?

War is always an expensive business. Even in minor skirmishes, hundreds of rounds of ammunition can be fired off without injuring combatants. As the conflict has dragged on, each side has deployed heavy artillery, tanks and Multi-Launch Rocket Systems in ever greater numbers, equipment which after a certain point requires extentensive logistics chains in order to remain effective on the battlefield. Not only do they need constant resupply with shells and diesel fuel to sustain operations, both the T 64 tanks used by the Ukrainian army as well as the T 72b tanks supplied to Russian and pro-Russian forces need constant access to spare parts that ensure that regular breakdowns do not impair the effectiveness of combat units. The constant shelling of key stretches of the front line ensure that artillery deployed by both sides consume a large number of shells over the course of a single day, also requiring near constant resupply.

Yet the most ammunition hungry weapons systems used extensively in the Donbass region are various Multi-Launch Rocket Systems commonly known as Grads. BM 27, BM 21, Smerch and Uragan systems in the possession of Ukrainian as well as pro-Russian forces can spread destruction over a wide area in a single salvo. Often inaccurate rockets can stray away from targets and cause terrible casualties among the civilian population. Yet in firing multiple rockets over and over again, a single Grad battery can use up enormous amounts of ammunition and require an extensive logistics chain to stay combat ready. For example, with each BM 27 MLRS truck firing 16 rockets at one blow, a standard six truck Grad battery can shoot off 96 rockets in a single salvo, while BM 21 batteries can even reach 120 rockets fired. With multiple Grad batteries in operation several times a day, potentially thousands of Grad rockets are being fired at targets across the Donbass region each week.

While the Ukrainian Army can rely on an extensive, if ramshackle, network of arms factories across Ukraine to produce ammunition and spare parts needed to continue such a logistically demanding campaign, pro-Russian forces in the Donbass region do not have similar independent resources under their control. With the war severely undermining the industrial production capacity of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, pro-Russian militias as well as Russian regular forces are now almost entirely reliant on the Russian government for the logistical assistance needed to sustain the current stalemate. And this does not include the efforts required to clothe, feed and pay the thousands of Russian and pro-Russian troops who need stable numbers in order to avoid being gradually overwhelmed by an expanding Ukrainian military. At a time at which falling oil prices and a fluctuating ruble are putting the Russian economy under strain, such commitments are also likely to be drawing in ever greater financial resources from various Russian state agencies. 

In this context, the sudden surge in ammunition and equipment from Russia as well as the near constant 'humanitarian convoys' that followed could be seen in another light. Rather than marking preparations for an offensive to achieve the Russian government's maximalist goals of a land bridge to Crimea or perhaps even the 'Novorossiya' project that at the moment only exists in the fevered imaginations of certain members of the Kremlin staff, this build up may merely be an effort to ensure that the minimum goals achieved in the battles of late August could be held in the medium term. Thus the constant shelling and other attacks on Ukrainian forces despite the ceasefire agreement could be designed to seize very limited slices of territory throttling whatever minimal economic viability pro-Russian enclaves have rather than marking the beginning of another grand offensive. Such attacks could also usefully keep Ukrainian forces off balance, though at great, perhaps unsustainable, cost to pro-Russian forces themselves. 

More detailed information on these issues is therefore needed in order to determine whether the logistics chain the Russian state has established in the Donbass region represents an attempt to sustain an expensive status quo, or is actually a first step towards a much greater assault. Such calculations could also help analysts get a better grip on the financial costs this commitment is directly or indirectly exacting upon the Russian state budget, a consideration that may influence the Kremlin's stance towards this conflict. In particular, at least some rough expert calculations over pro-Russian forces' rate of ammunition expenditure could give us an indication as to whether the Kremlin's resupply effort is building up enough of a reserve in munitions and other key supplies to enable a concerted offensive by forces based in the Donbass area while still maintaining the thin veneer of deniability which seems so important to President Putin.


Since the Ukrainian crisis gained momentum in January 2014, there have been many outstanding examples of journalism and scholarship that have provided fascinating perspectives on the Maidan Revolution and the tragic conflicts that have followed. Yet there has also been a lot of commentary based on incomplete information (something I have occasionally been guilty of myself) that has helped to confuse rather than illuminate the debate surrounding the war in the Donbass region. The claims and counter-claims about Russian intentions and Ukrainian weakness during Russia's worrying and illegal military surge in early November was only the latest in a succession of moments in which a frenzy of speculation has clouded our understanding of this crisis. As the overestimation of Ukrainian strength by many observers before the disaster of Ilyovaisk demonstrated, fragments of information can be worse than useless if they fail to provide a systematic understanding of key tactical and strategic factors that can influence the direction of the conflict. Clearer estimates of current Ukrainian troop strengths in the conflict zone, casualty rates among Russian and pro-Russian troops, the equipment available to Ukrainian forces and expenditure rates of ammunition among pro-Russian forces could help provide scholars and journalists with the tools needed to develop robust analysis of the direction this conflict between Ukraine and Russia may take.  

These issues underline some of the problems that arise from our growing reliance on uploaded videos and other social media content to gain insights into evolving conflicts. Undoubtedly these new sources of information represent a remarkable new means with which to track developments on the battlefield as well as the responses of soldiers and civilians as warfare begins to grip their societies. Scholars have much to learn from the virtuosic ability of skilled conflict media analysts such as Eliot Higgins to track the circulation of weapons systems and even provide crucial evidence on the role played by specific units in war crimes. Yet in a conflict zone many developments take place beyond the lens of a camera while key structural issues such as the strength of logistics chains, fortifications and troop numbers are very difficult to determine through the kind of fragmented video material that usually circulates through social media. As a consequence, ominous video clips of seemingly endless hordes of enemy troops may sow panic among the public, potentially stampeding Ukrainian and Western leaders into taking impulsive and dangerous decisions.

And that may be exactly what the Kremlin wants.

1 comment:

  1. It's a pity that otherwise fine post contains factual errors. When one reads post, one can think that BM 21, BM 27, Grad and Uragan are four different weapon systems. Actually that's not the case. BM 21 is the same as Grad. BM 27 is named as well Uragan (see and Typical Uragan has 16 rockets on a truck, and typical Grad - 40 rockets (altough variants with 36, 12 and 1 rocket exists as well). Battery of Grad contains 6 trucks, and therefore, in one salvo of BM-21 Grad up to 240 rockets could be fired.