How are Ukrainian Separatist forces able to repel the Ukrainian military? Leksika Analyst Sean Crowley looks at some of the weapons and vehicles being employed on both sides of the conflict.
Both Ukraine and the Ukrainian Separatists are utilizing many of the same Cold War-era weapons systems, but a number of disparities exist. While Ukraine has gained access to a few Western systems and supplies, Russian-made armaments that have allegedly never been exported are appearing in separatist hands. Ukraine couldn’t hope to outmaneuver Russia in full-scale conventional conflict, implying Moscow’s supplies and armaments are only sufficient to sustain the war and freeze the conflict.
Where Did You Get Those Guns?
For the most part, the arsenals of the Ukrainian armed forces and the separatist forces consist of similar weapons systems - namely hardware left over from the breakup of the Soviet Union. Rebels frequently incorporate captured Ukrainian weapons systems into their own arsenals, while the Ukrainian armed forces are receiving military aid shipments from various Western countries, most of which are non-lethal. Certain weapons in the separatist arsenal date back to the Second World War and even the tsarist era, though there are some exceptions to this rule
There have been numerous sightings of weapons exclusively used by the Russian military in the hands of the separatists or assisting them in battle. Analysts believe that Russia uses train cars to transport vehicles, personnel, and supplies to the Ukrainian border. From there, Russian forces cross the border in large convoys of at least 80 vehicles per day carrying troops and towing artillery. Rebel commanders forbid reporters from photographing or following the convoys, but mainline separatist fighters are often more than willing to openly thank the Russians for their assistance. Rebel fighters have confirmed in interviews that Russia supplies them with clothing and ammunition. One rebel, a sniper named “Kvadrat” (Russian for square; rebels use pseudonyms to avoid retaliation on their families from the Kievan government), even referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as “Uncle Vovka” when thanking Russia for military support.
Two Russia-exclusive rifles seen in Donbas are the AS Val and its sniper variant, the VSS Vintorez designated marksman rifle (DMR); the latter being the weapon Captain Yevgeny Yerofeyev, the GRU (Glavnoye razvedyvatel'noye upravleniye; Main Intelligence Directorate) operative captured by Ukrainian forces this year, used. Russia exported one machine gun seen in separatist hands, the PKP Pecheneg general purpose machine gun (GPMG), outside its borders in minimal quantities but never to Ukraine. Rebel commander Igor “Strelkin” Girkin, a former FSB (Federal'naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii; Federal Security Service) colonel, uses a Russian-crafted Stechkin APS sidearm originally designed for service with Russian vehicle, artillery, and rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) crews. Most shotguns in the separatist arsenal are outdated, and there is no direct evidence that Russia supplies them.
Explosives, Rockets, and Missiles
Separatists use the modern RPG-18 and RPG-22 anti-tank weapons as well as the older RPG-7. However the markings on one RPG-7 recovered in Donbas indicate that it was manufactured in the Degtyarev Factory in Kovrov, Russia, in 2001. There have also been sightings of rebels with MRO-A rocket launchers. Often referred to as a “flame-thrower,” the MRO-A is a thermobaric weapon, meaning the fuel-air explosives it fires use oxygen from the surrounding air when they detonate to generate a massive explosion. Russia has never exported the weapon.
The Ukrainian military and separatists use most of the same anti-tank guided weapons (ATGWs), with the exception of the Russian-exclusive 9K135 Kornet, first fielded in 2007. The separatists and the Ukrainian military also tend to use the same man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS); the separatists captured stockpiles in the beginning of the Donbas conflict. Curiously, the only MANPADS system in separatist hands not fielded by the Ukrainian military is the Polish-made PPZR Grom. Poland only exported these weapons to Georgia, indicating Russia captured stockpiles during its 2008 war with Georgia and is now fielding them to the Donbas separatists. The rebels also use various Russian-exclusive landmines.
Main Battle Tanks
The separatists use Ukrainian and Russian main battle tanks (MBTs) of the same model, namely variants from the Soviet era, as well as several tank variants that Russia has never exported; these variants include the T-72B, T-72BA, and T-72B3, the latter being the latest model that was introduced into the Russian arsenal in 2013 and never exported. The T-72B and its subsequent variants are equipped with new sight and fire-control systems. On 21 August 2014 Ukrainian forces discovered documents in a T-72B3 that supposedly proved it belonged to the Russian military.
The T-72BM is also present in Donbas. Distinguished by its Kontakt-5 Reaction Armor (ERA), the tank is a Russian military-exclusive T-72 variant. It provides the separatists with much greater firepower especially in large numbers, and, according to experts, requires substantial training to operate. Even though they are in Ukraine’s arsenal, Russia may also have transferred T-64BV tanks to the Donbas separatists. The separatists acquired 40 T-64BVs between 12 and 16 June 2014, and, though they are no longer in service with the Russian military, many remain in storage. The T-72B1 and T-80 are also reportedly in separatist hands, as well as in service with the Russian military. These tanks are not currently in service with the Ukrainian military, but are in storage facilities or awaiting export.
According to a separatist who referred to himself as “Andrey,” Russian forces employed T-90 tanks to reinforce his platoon of T-72s during the Debaltseve siege. The T-90 is the most advanced MBT in the Russian arsenal apart from the newly-introduced T-14 Armata. No other reports indicate a T-90 presence in Donbas, and a Russian soldier who reportedly served in Debaltseve stated his unit used T-72s.
The separatist and Ukrainian forces share most AA guns and self-propelled AA systems, but there are still Russian-exclusive weapons in the separatist arsenal. Ukrainian forces have reported the presence of Russian-made 9K35 Strela-10 (NATO reporting name: SA-13 “Gopher”) and 9K33M3 Osa-AKM (NATO reporting name: SA-8 “Gecko”) surface-to-air (SAM) missiles in Donbas. Rebel-controlled Buk missile systems in Donbas include both the SA-11 “Gadfly” and the more advanced SA-17 “Grizzly.” The Pantsir-S1 (NATO reporting name: SA-22 “Greyhound”) AA system has also been sighted in Donbas. This system entered service in Russia in 2012. It is equipped with two 30 mm autocannons and 12 SAMs. Russia has exported this weapon, but not to any country that borders Ukraine.
Self-Propelled Rocket Systems
The source of separatist towed artillery and self-propelled guns is difficult to determine as they use many of the same systems as the Ukrainian military. Interestingly, though, a particular 2S19 Mtsa-S 152 mm howitzer (identified by its markings), used by both Russia and Ukraine, was seen in Rostov-on-Don in Russia in July 2014 and then in Novoazvsk, Ukraine in September 2014.
The separatists also employ the Russian-exclusive Tornado Multiple-Launch Rocket System (MLRS) and all of its rocket variants: the Grad, Uragan, and Smerch. All of these rockets in the Tornado series serve as modernized versions of the BM-21, BM-27, and BM-30 respectively. (These systems are also present in Donbas on both sides.) The Tornado-G did not enter service with the Russian military until 2012, and the Tornado-S exists only in prototype stages. Russia has exported no Tornado variants to foreign states. Ironically, though, Russia actually indirectly acknowledged that it sent Tornado MLRS to the Donbas separatists. The Minsk I agreement stipulated that both sides were to “withdraw from the line of contact of the sides artillery systems of caliber higher than 100 mm to the distance of maximum firing range…” The document then goes on to list the Tornado-G (40 km), Tornado-U (70 km) and Tornado-S (120 km); Russia’s emissary to Kiev, Ambassador Mikhail Zurabov, signed the document. Another Russian MLRS in service with the separatists is the Grad-K, a 2B26 Grad launcher mounted on a KamAZ-5350 chassis as opposed to the usual Ural. This platform entered service with the Russian armed forces in 2012.
Armored Vehicles and Other Ground-Based Weapons Platforms
The separatists use Russian variants of armored personnel carriers (APCs) and infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) in the Ukrainian arsenal designed in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They also employ the BTR-82M which entered service with the Russian military in 2012 and was never exported. Witnesses identified a BMP-2 IFV that traveled from Russia to Ukraine in August 2014. The vehicle had “Lavina” (Russian for avalanche) stenciled on the side. The Russian KamAZ-43269 Dozor is also in eastern Ukraine. It serves as a reconnaissance and communications vehicle, and entered service with the Russian military in 2009. Its primary operator is the Russian Border Guard, and Russia only exported it to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, though in a base variant. Russia never exported the version seen in Donbas, which sports advanced electronics and appears designed for Russian military use. Curiously, some Dozors in eastern Ukraine bear camouflage markings similar to those seen at the 4th Military Base in South Ossetia.
Witnesses also reported seeing Russian IL219 Zoopark-1 radar systems in Donetsk in May 2015. An SBU dossier lists four OTR Tochka-U (NATO reporting name: SS-22 “Scarab”) short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) in service with the Russian forces but not the separatists. It is unknown in what capacity Russia employs them. Russia has also deployed eight TOS-1 “Burantino” 220 mm thermobaric MLRS. The TOS-1, mounted on a T-72 tank chassis, primarily targets enclosed spaces and reinforced enemy positions. Its fuel-air rounds suck away the oxygen from confined spaces when they detonate; this is primarily how thermobaric weapons kill. Such capabilities make the TOS-1 an ideal weapons platform for urban warfare situations in Donbas.
Reforming the Separatist Air Forces
Rebels from both the DNR (Donétskaya Naródnaya Respúblika; Donetsk People’s Republic) and the LNR (Luhanska Narodna Respublika; Luhansk People’s Republic) appear to possess their own makeshift aircraft fleets. Ukraine has destroyed the bulk of the DNR air force and supposedly destroyed the LNR air force in 2014. The LNR, however, reformed its air forces on 15 January 2015 with a propaganda video that included an Aero L-29A Delfin trainer aircraft and a Sukhoi Su-25 (NATO reporting name: “Frogfoot”) strike fighter, though analysts debate whether the aircraft are capable of flight. The primary source for these aircraft is the Luhansk Aviation Museum, a former Soviet airbase, which has not suffered the shelling wrought upon the other airfields in Donetsk and Luhansk. Rebel fighters and AA systems, including two Pantsir-S1s, guard the entrance to the museum.
In the video the L-29 appeared functional, however the capabilities of the Su-25 remain questionable. Rebel propaganda states that the captured jets can even reach Kiev and drop bombs and rockets there.
The DNR air force was considered a significant threat until a rocket barrage on Verbovaya Balka, outside Donetsk, destroyed the bulk of the planes, including one Aero L-39 Albatros trainer aircraft, two Antonov An-2 (NATO reporting name: “Colt”) agricultural aircraft, one Yakov Yak-52 trainer aircraft, and four Mil Mi-24 (NATO reporting name: “Hind”) helicopter gunships. “This strike will wipe the smile off the face of the separatists, and make them think twice before bringing in planes from Mordor,” declared Ukrainian parliament member Boris Filatov, referencing The Lord of the Rings to refer to Russia. The Ukrainian government believes Russia is providing the separatists with pilots, training, supplies, weapons, and even the aircraft themselves.
Most of the separatist aircraft Ukraine destroyed were not military-grade. Most are also available in other former Soviet republics, though Kiev speculates that Russia supplied the separatists with some of the more advanced aircraft. The separatists looted most of the aircraft from bases belonging to the former Volunteer Society for Cooperation with the Army, Aviation, and Fleet (DOSAFF), a Soviet paramilitary organization designed to teach basic flight skills. After the U.S.S.R.’s dissolution, the organization became the Society of Assistance to Defense of Ukraine. It has contributed to the war in Donbas, and will receive training from NATO instructors.
The L-39 is a trainer jet and does not carry weapons. However, experts speculated that the DNR most likely used them as distractions to draw enemy fire while fighters on the ground went after priority objectives. Former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein allegedly used L-39s as drone missile carriers (the idea that L-39 drones could carry chemical weapons partially helped make the case for the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq), but the Donbas separatists do not appear to have experimented with this idea. The L-39 requires only basic flight skills to pilot, indicating the feasibility by which some separatists with proper training could have piloted the aircraft.
The An-2 is a piston-powered biplane capable of carrying troops and equipment, and is equipped with special skids that allow it to land and take off in fields, an especially vital feature given the current state of airfields in Donetsk and Luhansk. Craters from tank and artillery fire along with unexploded ordnances have rendered the region’s main airports inoperable. The remaining recreation airfields either have extensive bombing damage or cannot accommodate military aircraft. One likely use of the An-2, according to experts, would be to roll barrel bombs out of its rear bay doors.
The Yak-52 is a two-seat trainer aircraft that experts believe the DNR used mostly for scouting missions. Like the previous two aircraft its base variant cannot carry weapons. The separatists most likely captured it from old DOSAFF airfields.
The only true military aircraft employed by the DNR was the Mi-24. The Hind is an armored attack helicopter equipped with both machine guns and rockets that also serves as a low-volume troop transport. The separatists most likely seized their Mi-24s from Ukrainian military bases, and Ukraine suspects their pilots and additional Mi-24s were provided by Russia. The theory is not unlikely given reported Mi-24 activity on the Russo-Ukrainian border.
Separatists claim that a Su-25 belonging to the LNR carried out an airstrike on 2 February against a Ukrainian military convoy, however some indications suggest that the Su-25 that carried out the airstrike was not a Ukrainian plane captured by the separatists. A 54-year old rebel identifying himself as “Nikolay” insists that the planes at the Luhansk museum are a “smokescreen.” He admitted to journalists that the planes are not operational, and emphasized that there was a Russian airbase 50 km from the museum.
Kiev is concerned that Russia could disguise aircraft from its own fleet as captured separatist air assets and conduct operations in Donbas. The LNR propaganda video showed separatists repainting a Su-25 with the colors of Novorossiya; Russia could easily do the same with its own aircraft.
Further evidence implies Russian involvement in maintaining the separatist air force. Kiev reports that the separatists have received spare aircraft parts and kerosene, absent in separatist-held Donbas but plentiful in Russia, from an unknown source. Likewise, the source of supplies and munitions for the other aircraft seen in the LNR video remains unknown.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
Another aspect of aerial operations in Donbas is Russia’s use of UAVs. Kiev has shot down three Russian UAV variants: the Orlan-10, the Forpost, and the Zala 421-08. None carry weapons payloads; Russia primarily uses its UAVs for targeting and surveillance. Reportedly, more than a dozen Russian UAVs patrol the border with Ukraine. In combat, Russia uses UAVs to feed targeting information to ground-based artillery and rocket launcher systems.
Send ‘Em Packing
The Ukrainian military achieved considerable success against the Donbas separatists in an August 2014 offensive, however their track record suffered considerably once Russia sent artillery, tanks, AA assets, and other weapons systems as well troops across the Russo-Ukrainian border. Two major losses occurred at the battles for the Donetsk airport and Debaltseve. Ukrainian troops put up stiff resistance at the airport before surrendering, and lost Debaltseve to a joint separatist-Russian force despite committing thousands of troops and hundreds of armored vehicles to the fight.
Kievan forces are currently in a sorry state; just last summer, Ukraine lost two-thirds of its armored vehicles to Russian tanks, artillery, and rockets. Ukrainian forces also lack anti-tank weapons to deal with Russian MBTs, a key factor in the war's imbalance. Artillery systems are the weapon of choice for Kievan forces, responsible for over 80 percent of separatist and Russian casualties, however Ukraine is running low on ammunition for these systems, leaving its defensive lines at risk of being overrun by the rebels. The Ukrainian military went through four defensive ministers in the past year and remains rife with corruption, poor leadership, and drunkenness. Its logistics are also lacking; private donors provide most of the food and equipment for Ukrainian troops.
With the official Ukrainian military in shambles, volunteer groups and territorial defense battalions make up the most effective fighting force. A heightened sense of national identity brought about by the Russian-led insurrection and invasion led to the creation of such groups. There are 50 territorial defense battalions with a total of 7,000 volunteer fighters, though their existence also serves as a propaganda weapon for the Kremlin. Some volunteer groups, such as the Azov Battalion, have been accused of having fascist and far-right wing sympathies.
To compensate for military disadvantages, Ukrainian President Petro Poreshenko has asked Western governments to provide the Ukrainian armed forces with advanced military equipment. Ukraine primarily desires anti-tank missiles, UAVs, and radars that can locate incoming artillery fire. Western states, however, remain hesitant to provide lethal aid. Germany and France fear doing so would only escalate the conflict while American President Barack Obama wants to see if the Minsk II ceasefire holds.
However, Ukrainian forces may not need advanced weapons systems from the West. Ukraine is unlikely to hold out against Russia in a conventional confrontation, even though Russia is transferring some of its assets in Crimea to focus on the conflict in Syria. The Russian military in Ukraine is overconfident and believes that is has significantly weakened Kievan forces. With training, particularly Western-led, Ukraine could deal a significant blow to the off-guard Russian military. Upgrading existing weapons systems could also prove more effective than importing and becoming acclimated with new systems, a more lengthy process. Another strategy would be to wage a war of attrition against Russia, making the war unsustainable for both the Russian military establishment and the Russian populace. Ukraine could establish defensive positions around major population centers and use guerillas fighters in concert with MRLS and SAM assets to route Russian and separatist forces.
Continued in Part V