Ukrainian forces creep into war’s gray zone

Kyiv Post - - National - BY I SAAC WEBB

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.

New po­si­tions

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.”

Se­cu­rity con­cerns

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)

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