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.
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.
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.
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.
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)