Russian-Backed Rebels Are Restarting the War in Ukraine

The “pincer” tank strategy has returned to the battlefields of eastern Europe.

A Pro-Russian rebel T-72 tank crew drives along the road near the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Febuary 2, 2015. Russian conscripts are coming under growing pressure to sign up as professional soldiers and fear they might dispatched to fight alongside separatists in Ukraine, rights activists said. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET        (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)
A Pro-Russian rebel T-72 tank crew drives along the road near the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk on Febuary 2, 2015. Russian conscripts are coming under growing pressure to sign up as professional soldiers and fear they might dispatched to fight alongside separatists in Ukraine, rights activists said. AFP PHOTO / DOMINIQUE FAGET (Photo credit should read DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine launched a significant offensive against Marinka, a town less than 10 miles west-southwest of Donetsk, the separatists’ capital. While the Ukrainian military repulsed the attack, there is now renewed fighting across eastern Ukraine. Not only has this fighting shattered February’s “Minsk II” cease-fire, which was already frayed, it may also have permanently destroyed the peace process with which the international community was seeking to end this war. And the rebels’ latest moves give a sense of what the Kremlin and its proxies could have planned next.

On June 3, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk warned that Russia’s “terrorists” had launched a major military offensive in eastern Ukraine just hours after Moscow canceled a meeting of the trilateral contact group — which includes representatives of Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and is tasked with negotiating a settlement to the crisis.

As the fighting began, citizens in Donetsk took video of outgoing artillery fire from positions right next to residential high-rises, seemingly another example of a pledge made by a separatist military commander nearly a year ago to burrow into the city of Donetsk and use its residents as human shields.

Within hours, it was clear that hundreds of rebel fighters were leading a direct ground assault on Marinka. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine witnessed around 100 separatist artillery attacks, but they also saw dozens of separatist armored vehicles, trucks, artillery pieces, and Grad rocket launchers deploying to the battle, including T-72 Main Battle Tanks. Other accounts of the June 3 battle corroborate the OSCE report.

The OSCE report and other testimony make clear that the separatists, not the Ukrainian military, were the aggressors. According to the OSCE, their attempts to contact separatist leaders and calls for a renewed cease-fire were ignored. Moreover, many of the separatist tanks observed by the OSCE were T-72s, tanks that Ukraine has not used in this conflict — indicating that they were almost certainly supplied or perhaps even directly operated by the Russian military.

By the end of the day, at least five Ukrainian soldiers were killed, according to Ukrainian authorities, and another 39 were wounded. Both the Ukrainian government and the separatists report that 10 to 14 separatist fighters were killed and more than 80 were injured. Though the reports are disputed, a number of civilians were also killed or injured. According to one United Nations official, nine civilians were killed in Marinka alone.

In order to fend off the rebel attack, Kiev had to mobilize a significant number of troops and equipment; the government is warning that the real fight is just over the horizon. President Petro Poroshenko told parliament on June 4 that the assault on Marinka represented a “colossal threat,” and his government is preparing for the prospect of a “full-scale invasion” of Russian troops.

Indeed, Russia and its eastern Ukrainian proxies appear to be gearing up for a renewed fight. Throughout the end of April and the beginning of May, significant numbers of military convoys in separatist-held Ukraine were spotted by citizen observers, journalists, and OSCE international monitors. Those convoys included T-72 tanks, as well as Strela-10 anti-aircraft weapons, designed to guard against fast-moving strike craft on the front lines.

In recent months, both NATO nations and the Ukrainian government warned that the Russian military was once again escalating its support for the separatists by supplying new weapons. In April, Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, warned that Russia was preparing for a new offensive and was taking advantage of the nominal cease-fire to reposition its troops and equipment and to train and supply the separatists. The separatists don’t seem to disagree: In late April, Alexander Zakharchenko, the head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, told Vice News that he did not want the Minsk cease-fire to hold.

In the days since the attack on Marinka, Russian-backed forces have launched smaller offensives north and northwest of Donetsk and from positions east of Mariupol. On June 8, the Ukrainian military reported that heavy fighting is once again raging in Marinka, and the Ukrainian military also seems increasingly concerned about attacks on the towns of Artyomovsk and Gorlovka, both north-northeast of Donetsk. Clearly, the June 3 attack on Marinka was part of a wider pattern and, presumably, a wider strategy of the separatists.

The target of this new offensive is not necessarily Marinka or Donetsk, the area of this newest wave of fighting, but the areas north and northwest of Luhansk, north and west of Gorlovka, and north and east of Mariupol. By conducting surprise attacks along the narrow corridors of the front lines, the rebels have been able to secure finger-like strips of land which, once expanded, could threaten to trap pockets of Ukrainian troops and the towns they defend in “pincers,” grinding Kiev’s forces like dough between fingers as they close into a fist. The separatists employed this same strategy to great effect last August in the battle for Ilovaisk and in the capture of Debaltseve in February.

Each of these recent attacks has begun with little warning, much like the assault on Marinka. Each attack seems to benefit the Russian-backed fighters in several ways: They test the Ukrainian force’s front lines and force leadership to constantly second guess where the next attack will come from. Meanwhile, each attack threatens the possibility of driving these “fingers” deeper into Ukrainian-held territory. This strategy has been successful in retaking territory without the benefit of requiring a headline-making major offensive. In fact, the Ukrainian government released a report on May 6 saying that since the signing of the second Minsk cease-fire deal on Feb. 18, the separatist fighters have captured 28 towns or villages — a significant number considering that this occurred during what was supposed to be a cessation of hostilities.

The battle for Marinka may have ended in defeat for the rebels, but Ukraine could still be losing the war. From their positions around Donetsk, the rebels have the ability to strike at any number of important towns and key highways, further encroaching on territory held by Kiev’s forces. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military has been forced to mobilize a significant amount of soldiers just to defend Marinka.

It’s not clear if the government in Kiev can sustain this strategy, since a large amount of its forces and heavy equipment are stationed near Mariupol, the key coastal city south of Donetsk, near the Russian border and on the road between Russian territory and Crimea. It’s not clear if the Russian-backed separatists have enough firepower to ever capture Mariupol, but it is clear the Ukrainian military cannot risk losing the city, which is both the most important economic prize on the coast and a crucial bulwark against Russia establishing a land bridge to Crimea.

Not only are large parts of its military resources stuck defending Mariupol, the Ukrainian military also has to take any enemy advances north of the city very seriously in order to ensure that it does not become surrounded. The focus on the front lines between Donetsk and Mariupol, which include towns such as Marinka, could leave the Ukrainian lines between Donetsk and Luhansk more vulnerable to the creeping advances of the Russian-backed fighters, which have been progressing — despite multiple cease-fires — since August.

In many ways, the Minsk deals of August and February have been farces. Fighting has not stopped, and the rebels have continued to retake territory. The Russian military took advantage of the deals and continued to supply weapons and troops to the separatists, and this conflict is not any closer to resolution than it was before the deals were signed. On the other hand, each carried with it at least a temporary de-escalation in fighting, bringing needed reprieve for civilians who have been stuck in the crossfire.

On June 3, amid the heaviest fighting, the Ukrainian military general staff announced that it would have to redeploy its heavy armor and artillery to the front lines — equipment which had been withdrawn to comply with Minsk II — in order to confront this new threat. The Kremlin, predictably, has already called that development a provocation, again twisting the reality that it is Moscow, not Kiev, driving this fight. This serves as yet another piece of evidence, however, that Russia may escalate this conflict — with tanks and rhetoric — in the coming weeks and months.

But the battle for Marinka has also already had at least one tremendous consequence. Three days after the attack, Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini, who was in charge of the OSCE mission, resigned. She had been overseeing not just the monitoring of fighting in eastern Ukraine but also the cease-fire negotiations between Kiev, the rebels, and Russia. Tagliavini’s resignation is a sure sign that there is frustration within the OSCE about the deterioration of the situation in eastern Ukraine. But with Tagliavini out, it may not be possible to find a replacement who both Russia and the West can agree to support.

If such an agreement cannot be met, the peace process in eastern Ukraine is dead. The consequence could be open war between Ukraine and Russia, war that has been so carefully avoided and yet war which some have feared has always, thanks to Putin’s aggressive intentions, been unavoidable. The Marinka attack does not augur well for the prospects of peace.

Photo credit:  DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

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