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After 4 Years of a Frozen Conflict, Ukrainians Slowly Retake Ground From Russian Forc

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After 4 Years of a Frozen Conflict, Ukrainians Slowly Retake Ground From Russian Forc

On 05.13.19 12:32 PM posted by Nolan Peterson

KYIV, Ukraine—Ukrainian troops are slowly advancing in thecountry’s eastern war zone, testing the limits of a shaky stalemate in thefive-year-old conflict against Russia and its separatist proxies.

In the last year, Ukrainian military forces retook 24 square kilometers (about 9.3 square miles) of territory in the country’s embattled Donbas region, officials said, underscoring the slow and steady progress of a so-called creeping offensive that dates back to late 2016.

“It is impossible to win the war by defending, you need tocounterattack and push your opponent along the whole line of delimitation,otherwise the enemy will easily move forward and seize our positions,” SerhiiMorugin, a Ukrainian conflict journalist who has reported from the Donbas warzone, told The Daily Signal.

The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany negotiated aFebruary 2015 cease-fire, known as Minsk II, which locked the war in easternUkraine along a relatively static, roughly 250-mile-long front line. The dealalso required both sides to pull weapons with calibers above 100 mm back fromthe contact line.

Nevertheless, the Donbas conflict is ongoing and has killed more than 13,000 Ukrainians, according to United Nations estimates. Of that number, more than half have died since Minsk II went into effect.

The U.S. Army’s training mission in western Ukraine has been ongoing since 2015. (Photos: Nolan Peterson/The Daily Signal)Today, about 60,000 Ukrainian troops are deployed to the Donbaswar zone where they remain hunkered down in trenches and ad hoc forts oppositeabout 38,000 combined Russian-separatist troops—a force funded and financed byMoscow, which includes roughly 3,000 Russian regulars, Ukrainian militaryofficials say.

Wary of heavy casualties, as well as the imposing prospect ofspurring a Russian counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces have advanced in fits andstarts over the past few years, mostly relying on small-unit raids to takepockets of territory and overrun isolated enemy positions.

Ukrainians recaptured the town of Shyrokyne on the Sea of Azov in2016. Then, beginning in early 2017, Ukrainian forces intermittently recaptureda string of settlements, notably around the combined Russian-separatiststrongholds of Horlivka and Donetsk. Ukrainian military personnel refer to thisglacial, cautious advance as a “creeping offensive.”


At the cost of about 100 soldiers killed in action, Ukraine’sterritorial gains over the past year are roughly equivalent to one-quarter theacreage of the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

These incremental advances aren’t enough to turn the conflict’stide in Ukraine’s favor, but the moves could spur Russia to retaliate, someexperts and officials warn. However, others argue the offensive operations areneeded to boost Ukrainian troops’ morale, cut down on smuggling across thefront lines, and help square the real-world battlefield map with the front-linegeography laid down by the Minsk II negotiations more than four years ago.

“Of course, there is a risk [of Russianescalation], in addition to more casualties of Ukrainian soldiers,” saidOleksiy Melnyk, a former Soviet fighter pilot whois now co-director of foreign relations and international security programs atthe Kyiv-based Razumkov Center think tank.

“However, it is important to emphasize that evenif these actions may be considered as cease-fire violations, [they] do notviolate the agreed-upon separation line,” Melnyk said.

A key part of Ukraine’s strategy has been to occupy tracts ofterritory within no man’s land—colloquially known as the “gray zone” amongtroops.

At some places, opposing forces are separated by severalkilometers of no man’s land, with each camp hunkering down in defensiblepositions that offer the best natural protection from shelling and sniper fire.

Outside the town of Novomykhailivka,Ukrainian dugouts were located at theedge of a wood line before a flat expanse of shrubland, which offered littlecover or concealment. The combined Russian-separatist positions were on afar-off rise, unseen to the naked eye, the Ukrainian soldiers explained to thiscorrespondent. Advancing into no man’s land at this location would be adangerous endeavor, exposing the troops to indirect fire with scant protection.

Yet, despite the increased exposure to enemy fire, Ukrainian unitshave pressed forward into no man’s land at multiple locations over the pastyear, achieving “a tactical advantage at somespots,” said Melnyk, the former Soviet fighter pilot and think tank expert.

As the Ukrainians advance, the distance to their enemies has narrowedto within dozens of meters at some places—close enough to shout verbal insultsto the other side.

“The positions of the parties are converging,” Morugin said,adding that the status quo of immobile, trench warfare is “psychologicallyintolerable” for Ukrainian troops.

“For five years, the army has grown tired of defensive actions,”Morugin said. “It’s psychologically important to release every meter ofUkrainian land, even if such attacks and counterattacks are associated withhigh losses.”

Diplomatic Tightrope

Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Ukraine of violatingthe Minsk II cease-fire. Ukrainian officials, however, say the territorythey’ve recaptured should have been under Ukrainian government control, anyway,according to the agreement.

During a recent visit to the war zone, outgoing UkrainianPresident Petro Poroshenko said the territorial gains did not violate thecease-fire’s rules.

“We are clearly aware that Russia has notabandoned its aggressive intentions, and our state, unfortunately, is still indanger,” Poroshenko said during a May 6 speech to front-line soldiers,according to a readout published to the presidential administration’s website.

“The enemy must know clearly that any attempts to undermine our frontiers will be doomed to failure,” Poroshenko said.

Since 2014, Ukraine has rebuilt its military into a formidable fighting force.Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and TV star withno political experience, defeated Poroshenko by a landslide in an April 21presidential runoff. Zelensky said during his campaign that he’s unwilling to press anend to the Donbas conflict with military force, and left the door open forpeace talks with Putin.

“We will continue with the Minsk talks, we willreboot them,” Zelensky said during his election night victory speech.

Putin, for his part, said he’s open to dialoguewith the new Ukrainian president.

“If we ever meet in order to hold talks—and I don’t rule outsuch a possibility—we will first and foremost have to discuss ways to end theconflict in southeastern Ukraine,” Putin said at an April 27 pressconference in Beijing, the Russian news agency TASS reported.

No Military Solution

There’s little enthusiasm in Kyiv for ramping up combat operations to bring the war to a quick and decisive conclusion. A major Ukrainian offensive to retake the entire Donbas territory would exact a heavy toll in civilian and military casualties and wreak havoc on the infrastructure of a region already scarred by five years of war. Also, such a move would likely spur Russia to escalate the conflict or invade, experts say.

A memorial to the fallen on the Ukrainian side of no man’s land outside the town of Novomykhailivka in eastern Ukraine.It’s so far unclear whether Zelensky will haltthe creeping offensive strategy for the sake of a negotiated peace deal withMoscow. While the consensus opinion among Ukrainian politicians andmilitary brass is that there is no military solution to the conflict, the prospect of diplomatic compromises with Russiarisks domestic backlash.

Many Ukrainian soldiers remain skeptical ofdiplomacy with the Russian president.

“Any negotiations with Putin are a deal with thedevil. We already have the Minsk agreement, and should move to it. There isnothing more to negotiate,” said Oleksiy Bobovnikov, an officer in theUkrainian army. “Any compromises with Russia means their victory, and heavylosses to Ukraine.”

Volodymyr Sheredeha, a combat veteran of thepro-Ukraine Dnipro-1 volunteer battalion, was similarly skeptical of peacetalks with with Russia.

“All diplomatic negotiations and agreements can’tresolve the conflict, because there does not exist, and won’t exist, realconsensus between the two sides,” Sheredeha said. “That way can only lead to aneternally frozen conflict, regularly igniting and calming down combat from timeto time, again and again, like we have seen for the past four years.”

New Name, Old War

In 2018, Ukraine rebranded its war effort. The “Anti-TerroristOperation” became the “Joint Forces Operation,” or JFO.

A parliamentary law approving the measure formally labeled Russiaas the “aggressor country” and dictated an administrative shake-up in which themilitary took overall control of the war effort, subordinating the role of theSecurity Service of Ukraine, or SBU.

Despite the name change, the daily rhythm of combat along thetrench lines in eastern Ukraine remains similar in nature to that of theWestern front in World War I—although on a much smaller scale and with sometechnological perks, such as the use of drones and electronic warfare.

It’s a bizarre conflict in which the opposing camps areessentially sitting in place, weathering daily artillery and sniper firewithout trying to achieve a strategically significant breakthrough.

Psychologically, it’s a tough war. There’s simply no escaping the danger—the artillery can start at any time and the sniper threat is never-ending. In the end, a soldier’s chances of survival depend on good luck and the odds of not being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Many Ukrainian veterans remain skeptical of peace talks with Russia.Outside the war zone, life goes on relatively as normal acrossUkraine. Still, the conflict constantly teeters on the edge of escalating intoa much bigger and far deadlier cataclysm.

Moscow has deployed about 80,000 troops along Ukraine’s borderscapable of launching a rapid, armored invasion within two to four weeks,current and former Ukrainian defense officials say.

Within the two breakaway territories in the Donbas, combinedRussian-separatist forces maintain a force of roughly 700 tanks, of which about500 are operational, according to Ukrainian military officials. That’s aboutthree times more operational tanks than the number currently possessed by theUnited Kingdom, according to data from Jane’s 360.

An additional 40,000 Russian troops are currently garrisoned inCrimea, along with missiles and bombers capable of striking mainland Ukraine.

With so much Russian combat power amassed on Ukraine’s borders, there are some in Ukraine who say the creeping offensive strategy is too risky.

Since 2016, the Ukrainian military has carried out a “creeping offensive” in the country’s eastern war zone.Andrii Telizhenko, a former Ukrainian diplomat to the U.S. who iscritical of Poroshenko, condemned the creeping offensive as a “very dangerous”gambit made for “political propaganda motives.” Yet, despite his misgivings,Telizhenko also acknowledged the need for some element of dynamism in Ukraine’slong-term war planning for the sake of preserving soldiers’ morale.

“The military in a war zone cannot stand static, or it willdemoralize. So it was also necessary for Kyiv to take action on taking newground to please the psychological and patriotic moods of the soldiers who arein the [war zone], not in the best conditions, and are being killed almostevery day,” Telizhenko said.

‘The New Armed Forces’

This month more than 130 troops from the U.S.Army’s 101st Airborne Division deployed to a base in western Ukraine, takingthe reigns of a U.S. mission to train Ukrainian troops that dates back to 2015.The United Kingdom and Canada also maintain long-standing training missions inUkraine.

With Western help, Ukraine’s armed forces have moved away from thestrict, top-down Soviet chain of command structure, adopting in its place a moreWestern approach to military leadership, which empowers troops to be moreautonomous in combat.

Today, Ukraine’s combat forces are more nimble and able to react to battlefield realities without relying on play-by-play micromanagement from commanders safely ensconced behind the front lines.

In eastern Ukraine, war has become a way of life.Still, many Ukrainian soldiers complain about burdensome paperworkand a military bureaucracy run amok, underscoring how the daily grind ofmanaging a frozen, low-intensity war—in which combat loses its urgency andbecomes a business-like affair—can be just as harmful to morale as theperpetual danger.

“We have a long road ahead of us,” Bobovnikovsaid. “But comparing where we are in 2019 with where we were in 2014, it’s morethan just a huge step forward—it’s some kind of giant leap.”

The post After 4 Years of a Frozen Conflict, Ukrainians Slowly Retake Ground From Russian Forces appeared first on The Daily Signal.

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