Rus­sia’s Don­bas army is po­tent fight­ing force


Any­one with even pass­ing knowl­edge of events in Ukraine knows that the war in the coun­try was ini­ti­ated, stoked, and is now be­ing con­tin­ued by Rus­sia.

From the very first days of the con­flict, video was shared of un­marked Rus­sian T-64 tanks ap­pear­ing in the border ar­eas of Ukraine, rolling west. Other ex­clu­sively Rus­sian mil­i­tary hardware has reg­u­larly been pho­tographed and videoed in Ukraine.

Rus­sia stead­fastly de­nies be­ing a party to the con­flict, de­spite the masses of ev­i­dence to the con­trary. Even in 2017, af­ter three years of war and over 10,000 deaths, Moscow has not changed its nar­ra­tive.

“The main sources of weapons at the rebels’ dis­posal are Sovi­etera stores in Ukrainian ter­ri­tory,” claimed Ilya Ro­gachev, a Rus­sian rep­re­sen­ta­tive tes­ti­fy­ing at the In­ter­na­tional Court of Jus­tice said on March 7.

“Most of these stores were left in Don­bas coal mines and fell into rebels hands,” Ro­gachev added – an ab­surd com­ment that was im­me­di­ately ridiculed in Ukrainian so­cial me­dia.

Un­de­ni­able ev­i­dence

But the fact that Rus­sia has armed, equipped, and aided the anti-gov­ern­ment forces in Ukraine, and con­tin­ues to do so, is now un­de­ni­able.

For in­stance, the British pro-Krem­lin video blog­ger Gra­ham Phillips un­wit­tingly videoed T2–3B tanks – a type used by the Rus­sian army but never ex­ported to Ukraine – near De­balt­seve on Feb. 15, 2015, days be­fore the city fell to an as­sault by Rus­sian-backed forces.

Both Ukrainian and Rus­sian me­dia later found ev­i­dence that the tanks had come from Rus­sia’s 5th Guards Tank Brigade from the Re­pub­lic of Bury­a­tia in the Rus­sian Far East.

And UK-based on­line in­ves­ti­ga­tions out­fit Belling­cat, in a se­ries of stud­ies, iden­ti­fied and re­traced the move­ments of the Buk TELAR anti-air­craft mis­sile unit that Dutch in­ves­ti­ga­tors sus­pect shot down Malaysian Air­lines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014.

Belling­cat iden­ti­fied the unit as num­ber 332 of Rus­sia’s 53rd An­tiAir­craft Mis­sile Brigade, based in Kursk, Rus­sia. Us­ing pho­to­graphs and video from so­cial me­dia post- ings, Belling­cat re­con­structed the route of the Buk unit as it was trans­ported from Kursk to south­ern Rus­sia, into Ukraine, to the site of the launch of the mis­sile, and then back out of Ukraine to Rus­sia, via the city of Luhansk.

Ev­i­dence is now emerg­ing of the full ex­tent to which Rus­sia has armed its proxy forces in the Don­bas. More­over, Rus­sia ap­pears to be us­ing the Don­bas as a test­ing ground for new mil­i­tary tac­tics.

‘Peo­ple’s mili­tia’

Due to the Rus­sian-backed forces re­fusal to co­op­er­ate in full with Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Se­cu­rity and Co­op­er­a­tion in Europe mon­i­tors, not much is known pub­li­cally about the strength of the “rebel” army Rus­sia has built in the oc­cu­pied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

But ac­cord­ing to fig­ures pro­vided to the Kyiv Post by sources in Ukraine’s mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence, as of March 20, 2017, Rus­sian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine had at least 390 main bat­tle tanks, 800 in­fantry fight­ing ve­hi­cles and ar­mored per-

son­nel car­ri­ers, 630 units of heavy ar­tillery, 200 mul­ti­ple-launch mis­sile sys­tems, 400 anti-air­craft units, and as many as 30,000 sol­diers.

If those num­bers are ac­cu­rate, Ukraine’s forces in the east are op­posed by a mil­i­tary power that has a tank force greater than those of Bri­tain, France, Ger­many and Spain. The Rus­sian-backed forces also have more rocket and ar­tillery pieces than any of these Western coun­ties.

The Rus­sian-backed forces have more light ar­mor than the armies of Ser­bia, Croa­tia, Bel­gium or Aus­tria. The com­bined forces of lo­cal col­lab­o­ra­tors and for­eign mer­ce­nar­ies in­clude 10 mo­tor­ized ri­fle brigades and reg­i­ments, 9 spe­cial op­er­a­tions and re­con­nais­sance bat­tal­ions, two sep­a­rate tank bat­tal­ions and two field ar­tillery brigades, all with com­pletes lo­gis­tic sup­port, ad­vanced drone surveil­lance, and elec­tronic war­fare cover.

The core ground force of Rus­sia’s proxy army in the Don­bas is made up of So­viet T-64 and T-72 main bat­tle tanks, re­paired and mod­i­fied at seized en­ter­prises in Donetsk and Luhansk and in Rus­sian ter­ri­tory, along with BMP-1 and BMP-2 in­fantry fight­ing ve­hi­cles and BTR-80 ar­mored per­son­nel car­ri­ers. The ar­tillery force con­sists of 122-mil­lime­ter D-30 how­itzers and C-21 self-pro­pelled guns, to­gether with BM-21 Grad mul­ti­ple launch rocket sys­tems.

Many of the weapons used by the mil­i­tants are op­er­ated by Ukrainian forces as well, al­though the Kyiv Post’s sources in Ukraine’s in­tel­li­gence ser­vices say only from 5–8 per­cent of the mil­i­tants’ hardware was cap­tured from Ukraine on the bat­tle­field. A large amount of the mil­i­tary equip­ment at the mil­i­tants dis­posal, mostly T-64s and ar­mored per­son­nel car­ri­ers, was sup­plied to them from cap­tured Ukrainian mil­i­tary bases in Crimea af­ter Rus­sia in­vaded the ter­ri­tory in 2014.

Shadow army

On­line sleuths in Ukraine have tracked the growth and de­vel­op­ment of the Rus­sian proxy armies in the Don­bas.

“In sum­mer 2014, amid the heav­i­est bat­tles in the re­gion, the mil­i­tant forces were united into two so-called army corps,” says Simeon Kabakaev, head of the Stop Ter­ror vol­un­teer project, which fol­lows the ac­tiv­i­ties of mil­i­tants in Don­bas us­ing open-source in­tel­li­gence meth­ods.

“These 1st and 2nd army corps were re­spon­si­ble for the cam­paigns in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts re­spec­tively, and they co­or­di­nated the nu­mer­ous paramili- tary troops, sup­ported by Rus­sian reg­u­lar units.”

Af­ter the sec­ond Minsk cease­fire and sub­se­quent seizure of the Ukrainian-held town of De­balt­seve in Fe­bru­ary 2015, the front­line even­tu­ally sta­bi­lized, and the Rus­sian­backed army in the Don­bas had to adapt to the new re­al­ity of static war­fare against Ukraine.

In sum­mer 2015, Rus­sia trans­formed the army corps into two “op­er­a­tional tac­ti­cal com­mand units” in Donetsk and Luhansk, with the com­bat units fur­ther split into lo­cal task forces. For in­stance, the Donetsk op­er­a­tional tac­ti­cal com­mand unit be­came the core of a net­work of com­bat teams de­ployed in the oc­cu­pied cities of Novoazovsk, Kom­so­molske, Donetsk, Maki­ivka, Snizhne and Hor­livka.

“This process was fin­ished by spring 2016, and this was a huge leap for­ward from old So­viet doc­trines,” Kabakaev says. “The troops in­creased their mo­bil­ity and in­ter­op­er­abil­ity all along the front­line, so shift­ing and com­mand­ing forces be­came much eas­ier for the Rus­sian gen­er­als.”

Amid these changes, many of the Don­bas war­lords head­ing pro-Rus­sian mil­i­tant forces were as­sas­si­nated – al­legedly by the Rus­sian se­cret ser­vices. Among them were com­man­ders like Alexey Moz­govoy, Pavel Dre­mov, Arsen Pavlov (known as Mo­torola), and Mikhail Tol­stykh (known as Givi).

These com­man­ders had from the early days of the war fought to cre­ate “Novorossiya” in south-eastern Ukraine. When the Krem­lin dropped that idea and switched to its new ap­proach, they be­came ex­pend­able.

“When the idea of ‘ Novorossiya’ was ul­ti­mately aban­doned by the Krem­lin, many of those use­ful id­iots were sim­ply taken out – and their peo­ple sent to re­in­force other com­bat units,” Kabakaev says.

Ad­vanced war­fare

The elim­i­nated war­lords have now been re­placed by more re­li­able Rus­sian army com­man­ders. Ac­cord­ing to Stop Ter­ror es­ti­mates, cur­rently up to 80 per­cent of all com­mands in the “rebel” army are oc­cu­pied by Rus­sian of­fi­cers, al­though in pub­lic they are claimed to be com­manded by high-rank­ing lo­cal mil­i­tants.

“Rus­sian mil­i­tary ad­vi­sors, spe­cial­ists or ca­reer of­fi­cers are de­ployed on 3- to 4-month ro­ta­tions,” says Kabakaev. “And over the past three years, we’ve seen peo­ple from vir­tu­ally ev­ery Rus­sian se­cu­rity agency – the FSB, GRU, army, elite spe­cial forces like Vym­pel and so on. In the oc­cu­pied ter­ri­to­ries, no­body hides the fact that Rus­sian of­fi­cers are de­ployed in the Don­bas to gain what they call ‘in­valu­able com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence on the ground.’”

As the Rus­sian air force gets com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence in Syria, in the Don­bas Rus­sia is prac­tic­ing a new mil­i­tary doc­trine – net­work-cen­tric war­fare. This model of war im­plies es­tab­lish­ing a wire­less com­puter net­work be­tween all com­bat units on the ground, con­vert­ing an in­for­ma­tion-shar­ing ad­van­tage over the en­emy into an ad­van­tage in com­bat.

Con­nected by a ro­bust net­work, all units en­gaged in mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions rapidly share all re­con­nais- sance and com­mand data with each other, thus es­tab­lish­ing near-to­tal bat­tle­field aware­ness. With such ad­vanced net­work­ing in com­bat, all units can be un­der cen­tral­ized com­mand and con­trol in real time, which gives them an enor­mous ad­van­tage in bat­tle.

The net­work-cen­tric war­fare con­cept was de­vel­oped by Pen­tagon think tanks in the 1990s and ini­tially put in ac­tion by U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003–2011. In par­tic­u­lar, dur­ing the 2003 in­va­sion, the prin­ci­pal as­sault forces of the U.S. 5th army corps shared real-time data on the lo­ca­tions of Iraqi forces via satel­lite links be­tween all com­bat units from the com­pany level up­ward.

Prac­tic­ing these tac­tics, Rus­sian mil­i­tary spe­cial­ists re­struc­tured the mil­i­tant forces in Don­bas into smaller op­er­a­tional tac­ti­cal units and en­hanced their elec­tronic war­fare and drone surveil­lance sup­port. In par­tic­u­lar, drone and elec­tronic war­fare bat­tal­ions have been formed for both the Donetsk and Luhansk forces, and un­manned aerial surveil­lance is now used to di­rect pre­cise ar­tillery fire against Ukrainian army po­si­tions.

Rus­sian-backed troops with­draw from Petro­vske, some 50 kilo­me­ters from Donetsk, on Oct. 3. (AFP)

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