Russia’s intervention in Syria is distracting the public’s attention away from Ukraine, but the war for the East rages on. Where is the conflict headed, and what is Russia planning?
It’s been almost two years since the conflict in Ukraine began, yet the conflict shows no sign of letting up. Rebels have established long-term control over Luhansk and Donetsk, supported by a Russian military that seems willing and able to offer its long-term support despite supply and equipment shortages. It seems that Russia is determined to continue the conflict, regardless of the economic and personnel toll.
Before the Storm
On an April night in Donbas, journalists reported a mass exodus of seemingly average individuals. However, this collection of coal miners, drivers, and handymen actually represented a gathering of pro-Russian rebels ready to depart in military trucks for Russian-established training camps. The next day these individuals, most with no military experience, participated in combat exercises involving hundreds of recruits and several armored vehicles. Their commander was not pleased with their performance. When journalists asked one of the rebels, who identified himself as “Kesha,” what he learned in the camp he responded bluntly, “All kinds of things.” He specifically highlighted training in the use of sophisticated Russian military equipment.
Representing yet another aspect of Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine, these camps have a twofold purpose: to serve as training camps for pro-Russian fighters and as staging areas for active-duty Russian forces slotted for deployment to Donbas. Russia established the camps at a rapid pace, merely days after the annexation of Crimea. No evidence suggests these camps existed before the annexation. Most are in the Rostov or Belgorod Oblasts, allowing for close access to Ukrainian territory, but they are scattered across a variety of locations according to a Ukrainian Security Service report. Most are relatively close to the fighting in Donbas: 39 in Russia, 20 in Luhansk, 34 in Donetsk, and 13 in Crimea. There is one training camp in Abkhazia, a pro-Kremlin breakaway republic in Georgia. Russia also conducts training for Donbas rebels in Trandsniestria, a pro-Russian breakaway region in Moldova. The Ukrainian Security Service (Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrayiny; SBU) report maintains that Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate (Glavnoye razvedyvatel'noye upravleniye; GRU) and Federal Security Service (Federal'naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii; FSB) handle most of the training. One rebel also reported training with a Russian soldier who served in the French Foreign Legion.
The camps also serve as staging grounds for Russian military equipment and personnel eventually deployed to Donbas. Russian forces train and conduct exercises at the camps before their deployments to eastern Ukraine. For example, the Kuzminsky camp, located 46 kilometers from the Russo-Ukrainian border and established in July 2014, served as the staging ground for hundreds of Russian military vehicles and soldiers before they engaged in key battles. Some of those personnel and vehicles came from the Ulan-Ude-based 5th Separate Tank Battalion which participated in the battle for Debaltseve. The 5th Battalion was stationed at Kuzminsky from October to November 2014.
Two other camps, Kuybyshevo and Pavlovka, served as launch sites for artillery strikes on Ukrainian territory. Built following the Euromaidan protests and located two km from the Ukrainian border, Pavlovka served as a site for dozens of military vehicles. At the time of the camp’s expansion, the 7th Airborne Division’s Unit 54801 was also stationed there along with several battalions. Pavlovka served as launch site for Grad launchers that fired barrages into Ukrainian territory in July 2014. Kuybyshevo is three km from the Russian border and also served as a staging ground for Grad rocket attacks against Ukraine in July 2014. The Grads reportedly came from the 291st Artillery Battalion. According to a Russian soldier who called himself “Arkadiy,” Russian forces would lie to the local populace, telling them that they were conducting training exercises. According to Arkadiy, however, most of the people knew that the military was actually conducting combat operations against Ukraine. Reports indicate that Russia has also established a military field hospital in the Bryansk region 20 km from the Russo-Ukrainian border.
In a more brazen move, Russia appears to have established a military staging ground for its own forces on Ukrainian soil. A Ukrainian volunteer battalion, Dnipro-1, located the camp using unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) reconnaissance. Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi funds Dnipro-1 as does the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs. The base is different in layout than any previously established camp. It is designed in a professional military style even though there are officially only separatist forces in the area. According to Dnipro-1, the rate at which the camp was constructed – around 15 days – along with the equipment present indicates the order for the camp’s construction came from a high level of the Russian military command. The volunteer fighters speculate that the order came from at least two levels above battalion command and may have even come from the General Staff. The camp is located in Donetsk along the River Kalmius near the village of Solncevo. It is also less than 12 km from Granitoye and Novolaspa, settlements along the Ukrainian frontline. The base exists within striking distance for Ukrainian artillery. Most importantly, the camp is strategically positioned in relation to Mariupol. From this camp supplies, weapons, and military personnel can easily move across the Russian border to Donetsk and Mariupol. There has been a steady build-up of Russian troops and armor in the surrounding area with subsequent increases in violence. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also reported a large number of armored vehicles and troops in Komsomolskoye and Razdolnoye 15 and ten km respectively from the Solncevo camp. The training camp in Razdolnoye has tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), and Grad rockets.
The Dnipro-1 battalion observed the Solncevo forward operating base (FOB) in two UAV flights over the course of two weeks. The first reconnaissance flight took place on 20 May when the volunteers observed a small number of tents and combat engineering vehicles. The UAV also spotted a communications vehicle, a backhoe, petrol tanker trucks and three mobile kitchen trailers. Though most of the vehicles present seemed meant for base construction there were also several military vehicles including two older-model T-72 tanks and Ural trucks surrounded by at least 70 individuals in camouflage fatigues.
The second flight took place on 4 June, and documented a virtually completed FOB. There were now nine T-72s, including one with a mine-clearing attachment, and several fuel trucks located in protected dug-outs. There was also one communications vehicle and a T-12 “Rapira.” The T-12 is a 100 mm anti-tank cannon. Also present were six MT-LB armored personnel carriers (APCs) and 12 BMD IFVs the latter of which is an Airborne Troops (Vozdushno-desantnye voyska; VDV)-exclusive armored vehicle. Based the on the vehicles present, the volunteers speculate that the FOB is host to a VDV unit reinforced by a tank company, rifle units, and artillery. The base appears designed to disguise the presence of Russian forces as the structures seem to be laid out to hide the tanks from ground-view. In addition, dense forest surrounds the whole FOB. Another new addition to the base was a road network lined with light-reflecting stakes spaced five meters apart from each other. In two weeks the Russians also managed to dig one hectare worth of trenches. Other additions to the FOB include a cooking complex, parade square, leisure area, repair facilities, an intelligence and command tent, and a field for training soldiers and field testing artillery.
Onward, Russian Soldiers
Experts continue to speculate where fighting will erupt next should the Minsk II ceasefire break. Russian forces have recently begun shelling Granitnoye and Starognatovka, two of the nearest frontline towns to Sontsevo. This has been a regular occurrence despite the Minsk II ceasefire. The aforementioned villages are also near the Solncevo FOB. The main strategic objective for pro-Russian elements is to maintain the existence of the Donetsk People’s Republic (Donétskaya Naródnaya Respúblika; DPR or DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (Luhanska Narodna Respublika; LPR or LNR). The Ukrainian military has suffered considerable losses as a result of the battle for Debaltseve. Most experts seem to agree that the next target will be Mariupol, a key industrial hub. Russian and rebel forces have already relocated from Debaltseve to areas surrounding Mariupol.
The Dnirpo-1 volunteer battalion believes that the Solncevo FOB will play a key role in any offensive against Mariupol. Mariupol serves as Donetsk’s economic powerhouse, and rebel leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko has stated that the separatists possess no territory strategically comparable to it. The base is also close to the Donetsk-Mariupol highway which is a key transportation point between the two cities. Ukrainian forces currently control the highway, and there has been an increased number of attacks along the road as well as an increased flow of supplies across the Russo-Ukrainian border. Russian forces from the Solncevo FOB could allow pro-Russian fighters to conduct a pincer movement to cut off Ukrainian forces in Mariupol from reinforcements in the north. Pushing the Ukrainians back from the area southwest of Donetsk and off the nearby highway would allow the Russians to isolate and pin down Ukrainian forces in Mariupol from the north. Meanwhile, pro-Russian forces would continue to press through Shirokino on the Azov coast.
Despite apparent preparations for a new offensive, the Russian military may be having difficulties sustaining the conflict. Russia has a limited capacity to maintain an operation of this size, and the Kremlin’s limited amounts of military and financial resources already appear to be reaching their limits. The spring 2014 offensive required 28 military units to generate the 90,000 Russian troops stationed on the Russo-Ukrainian border and in Crimea with Russia deploying units from a limited geographic area. In the later phases, however, Russia needed to call upon more units to sustain the deployment. Casualties were a major factor in this decision. While the southern and western military districts were able to generate battalion tactical groups (BTGs) during the spring offensive they were only able to generate company tactical groups in the autumn/winter offensives. There also appears to be a shortage of military vehicles evident by Siberian units transporting troops to Donbas with their own assets.
Regardless of logistics issues, the Russian military continues to operate in Donbas at the Kremlin’s insistence while the Russian public receives only a limited perspective of the conflict’s true nature.
Concluded in Part VI
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia