Ukrainian forces creep into war’s gray zone
NOVOLUHANSKE, Ukraine – After days of open fighting along the Luhanka River in Donetsk Oblast, a covert operation launched by Ukraine’s 46th Battalion ultimately brought this town of 4,000 people fully under government control.
Hiding his men and their arms in a column of trucks taken from a factory in the nearby city of Bakhmut, 46th commander Vyacheslav Vlasenko ordered his battalion to move into the town on Dec. 23, shortly before a Christmas Eve cease-fire was set to commence.
“Neither the fighters nor the locals recognized us,” Vlasenko, who goes by the nom de guerre “Filin” (eagle owl), told the Kyiv Post. “It was 1 p.m. They figured out what had happened at 8:45 p.m. and began firing artillery, striking near our defensive positions on the east side of the pig farm” on the outskirts of Novoluhanske, some 736 kilometers southeast of Kyiv. Over the next several days, his troops went door to door, checking apartments and houses for separatist fighters.
In the weeks since, Ukrainian forces have staged what has become known as a “creeping offensive” to regain control over territory in the “gray zone” - the no-man’s land that divides separatist and government forces in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Since the beginning of the year, the gray zone has shrunk along the line of conflict, with notable incursions near the cities of Debaltseve, Horlivka and Dokuchaevsk. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, this creeping offensive threatens the relative stasis protected by the Minsk agreements, the first signed in September 2014 and the second on February 2015.
Alexander Hug, the OSCE’s deputy chief monitor in Ukraine, told the Kyiv Post that his team had recently recorded the construction of new military positions and the presence of heavy weaponry in the gray zone, and had warned both sides against trying to create “new facts on the ground,” saying doing so would “jeopardize further implementation of the agreement.”
“The overrunning of Debaltseve… by the so-called DPR,” he said, referring to the Kremlin-backed separatists, “remains the most egregious example of such an attempt in eastern Ukraine.”
Debaltseve fell to separatist forces following a bloody battle in January and February 2015 that left hundreds of soldiers and civilians dead. The battle for the city was seen as an effort by separatist forces to create “new realities” on the ground in the immediate aftermath of the signing of the Minsk II Agreements.
Not an offensive
But now Ukrainian forces may also be trying to create new facts on the ground.
Semen Semenchenko, a member of parliament and founder of the Donbas Battalion (which broke off from the Donbas Ukraine Battalion— now the 46th Battalion—and integrated the Ukrainian National Guard), argued that the tactics used to take the city came from the separatists’ playbook: “This wasn’t an offensive, but rather a tactic of seizing the ‘gray zone,’ which the militants and Putin usually use against us. They decided to stop firing temporarily… and then, before the cease-fire began, moved forward slightly and took Novoluhanske.”
Authorities in Kyiv insist their troops are not violating the Minsk agreements or imperiling the peace process because the territories retaken by Ukrainian forces fall on the government side of the line of demarcation, as designated in legislation passed by the Verkhovna Rada in accordance with the Feb. 12, 2015 accords. Because Novoluhanske falls on the government side of this line, Vilyen Pidgornyy, a military spokesman for the Presidential Administration, wrote in an e-mail to the Kyiv Post, it “should be monitored, controlled and governed by the Ukrainian authorities.”
Still, Ukrainian soldiers, officials, and analysts offer varying explanations for the decision to retake Novoluhanske and other parts of the gray zone, and it remains unclear why Kyiv is risking so much for such little territory.
One explanation is that the Ukrainian government is trying to curb the illegal flow of goods into the occupied territories: Filin told the Kyiv Post that he had been given orders to shut down the meat smuggling business emanating from the pig farm east of the village.
Pavlo Zhebrivsky, the governor of Donetsk Oblast and former military commander who saw combat action in Donbas, also called attention to the smuggling problem, saying that since Ukrainian forces retook Novoluhanske, “98 percent” of the trafficking has been stopped.
Some analysts, however, say the decision to push further into the gray zone was driven by military prerogatives. Sergei Zagurets, a military analyst and the editor-in-chief of Defense Express, told the Kyiv Post that Ukraine’s General Staff chose to retake Novoluhanske shortly before the cease-fire in order to “maximize the safety of Ukrainian forces.”
Sides too close
But the forward movement into the gray zone is doing more to threaten the Minsk agreements than to reinforce them, according to Hug, the OSCE’s deputy chief monitor. Hug emphasized that “those responsible for actions in violation of what has been agreed may seek to justify them including through reference to intention to provide security or to deter subsequent attacks. The same people must take responsibility for the consequence, which includes of course, copycat reactions on the other side.”
“In most cases,” Hug said, “fighting happens where weapons are too close to each other or positions are too close to each other. Anywhere where the sides are too close, we are concerned. This is one of the major reasons why civilians are still suffering… and we continue to see high numbers of civilian casualties. This is unacceptable.”
Indeed, the 46th’s bunkers and trenches meander perilously close to separatist positions. And they’re fortifying their own positions quickly: Roman, the commanding officer of the battalion’s forward operation in Novoluhanske, who prefers to be called “Stalker,” told the Kyiv Post that his men are able to build “a bunker a day.”
Now, little more than month after the 46th first took Novoluhanske, all that separates government and separatist positions is 400 yards and a small cemetery, which locals still visit.
Soldiers of the 46th Battalion build trenches near Novoluhanske in Donetsk Oblast on Dec. 25, two days after they brought it under Ukrainian government control. (Anastasia Vlasova)
Vyacheslav Vlasenko is commander of the 46th Battalion, formed out of the former volunteer Donbas Battalion. (Courtesy)