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There has been a significant amount of fighting in eastern Ukraine over the last 24 hours. As far as we can tell, the new agreement between Ukraine and Russia which emerged from the talks in Berlin late at night on January 21 have accomplished little or nothing.
We predicted that at the time:
A closeup of the map shows that there is a significant amount of fighting around Donetsk Airport, which as far as we can determine is now mostly in control of the Russian-backed separatists, and Debaltseve which Ukraine still controls but which is surrounded on three sides by Russian and Russian-backed forces:
Near the airport, we just carried a report that 20 Russian-backed fighters have been killed. But in that report we also see that new territory is now being fought over, and despite this reported victory, the Ukrainian government appears to still be losing ground.
From Debaltseve, Kyiv Post’s Maxim Tucker has a similar report:
Tucker’s report from the besieged city is ominous and suggests that, just like at Donetsk Airport, with each victory the Ukrainian government’s soldiers win, the fighting still brings them closer to ultimate defeat. In this battle, however, there are more civilians who are trapped:
“The road we’re standing on now is the connection between Ukraine and Rostov-on-Don, Russia,” the Ukrainian soldier said as he motioned to an icy, cratered road punctuated with concrete-clad blockposts and demarcated on both sides by deep virgin snow.
“On the left side, the LPR (separatist Luhansk People’s Republic), on the right, the DPR (separatist Donetsk People’s Republic),” the soldier went on. “People are trying to leave there and come here, so we need to keep the road open. But this means the enemy can see us, and they are constantly attacking our position.”
Those attacks intensified as separatists surged forward, having forced Ukrainian troops to abandon Donetsk Airport after 242 days. Now Debaltseve, with a pre-war population of 30,000 residents and once a working railway center, stands as the easternmost bastion of Ukrainian forces in Donetsk Oblast.
UNIAN reports that one civilian died in Debaltseve on Friday morning, hit by incoming artillery fire from Russian-backed militants.
“According to [Interior Ministry in Donetsk region Viacheslav Abroskin], there is no light, water and heat in Avdiivka and Debaltseve.”
But this is just the situation on the northwestern front of the fighting. The Russian-backed rebels are still on the offensive on the Bakhmutka Highway, between Lugansk and Donetsk. And there are still reported attacks near Mariupol and elsewhere on the southern front as well.
In other words, this is a major offensive, and it’s not clear whether Ukraine has the military capacity to stop the advance of the Russian-backed fighters.
NATO says they’re worried that the Russian-backed rebels have launched a new offensive and have rejected peace negotiations:
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has dismissed the head of the counter-terrorism centre within the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU).
According to a presidential decree, published this afternoon on the president’s website, Gennady Ivanovich Kuznetsov has been “relieved of his duties as head of the Centre for special counter-terrorism operations, the protection of participants in criminal justice and law enforcement personnel of the Ukrainian Security Service.”
The centre commands the Alfa special forces unit.
Kuznetsov was appointed to this post on March 7 by the then-acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, replacing Oleg Prisyazhny.
He was wounded near Slavyansk in April, when his car was fired on.
President Poroshenko has now appointed a replacement for the position, one Boris Hennadievich Balioz.
— Pierre Vaux
Does that mean that the DNR is now going to execute all Ukrainian POWs?
We’re looking for more details now, but as we have been reporting today, Zakharchenko has said that he rejects the notion of a truce. The DNR will continue to fight.
— James Miller
There are reports that two columns of Russian and separatist fighters have been destroyed today after they moved on Ukrainian positions near Donetsk Airport.
Yuriy Biryukov, an adviser to President Poroshenko, wrote on his Facebook page that, at dawn today, two trucks carrying personnel and several MT-12 anti-tank guns, escorted by BMPs and BTRs, approached Ukrainian positions.
We note that Biryukov says that the Russian-backed force was moving to assault Donetsk Airport, however, since the main position at the new terminal has now fallen, we can only assume this refers to positions on the northern or western perimeters of the airfield.
The Russian, pro-separatist militarymaps.info still claims that a radar station, just north of the runway, is still under Ukrainian control. This site meanwhile claims that Peski has almost entirely fallen to Russian-backed forces, something we have not seen supporting evidence of so far. The most recent map from the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council claims Peski, while under attack, is still in Ukrainian hands.
We note that in Biryukov’s photos from today, windbreaks are visible running perpendicular to a road with arrow markings.
The only route we can see that runs perpendicular to windbreaks in the immediate area, and that has such markings visible on Google Earth images (as of September last year), is the bypass road running between Peski and the M04 highway.
It seems likely then that the engagement took place somewhere along this route, though we cannot say for sure.
With the convoy detected by Ukrainian scouts, artillery fire was brought to bear. According to Biryukov, the advance was halted and, after two hours of shelling, during which he claims the enemy fighters “dug their own graves,” the column was destroyed.
The presidential adviser claimed that more than 20 Russian and separatist fighters had been killed and around a dozen taken prisoner. After receiving first aid, they were, he wrote, being interrogated.
Biryukov said that he and other activists had been asked by the ATO command to gather evidence at the site, and that a journalist from the Los Angeles Times was also on the scene.
He posted photos of knocked out vehicles, dead fighters, Russian rations, and military identity cards for both the Russian Federation and the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic.’
— Pierre Vaux
Yesterday, there were unconfirmed reports that Russian-backed forces had captured the village of Krasny Partizan, between Gorlovka and Donetsk:
Today, a video on a pro-separatist YouTube channel shows militants and a crew from Russia’s state-owned Rossiya 24 TV walking around the village and showing off the bodies of at least four Ukrainian soldiers who, a militant says, had refused to surrender.
The video is here (warning graphic images):
There were unconfirmed reports on social media of even higher casualties:
Translation: Hurts like a bitch for the guys at Krasny Partizan, one more tragedy of this war that official media is staying silent on. According to soldiers, out of 34, 9 got out.
— Pierre Vaux
Yesterday a shell fell in an area of Donetsk far from the fighting, landing near a bus and killing 13 civilians. The problem we identified yesterday is that the shell landed so far away from the fighting that it looked unlikely that the Ukrainian military could have fired the shot. But if Ukraine did not fire it, then evidence suggested that it may have been fired to frame the Ukrainians. Regardless of who fired it, the Russian-backed militants were quick to respond, parading captured Ukrainian soldiers, many of them the ‘Cyborgs’ who defended the now-fallen Donetsk Airport, through the streets, allowing them to be beaten by angry residents.
Journalist Oliver Carroll has released his report from Donetsk where he interviewed nearby residents and examined the scene himself. He observes angry residents, and at least some additional indication that the claims that the separatists are making don’t quite add up.
Much confusion remains as to who, or what, was behind the bus attack. Craters at the scene suggested they were consistent with shorter-range, high-trajectory missiles. Rebel authorities at the scene also put forward a mortar theory, contending that they had been launched by pro-Ukrainian partisan groups from within the city.
At the same time, the rebel leader Alexander Zakharchenko declared there had been artillery strikes in the area, and a rebel representative claimed a 152mm howitzer had landed in a factory alongside the bus terminal…
An American military specialist who saw photographs of the damage said he believed it was probably caused by “a 120mm mortar, of type 2B11”. The most common variant of this mortar munition is the so-called Sani (Sleigh), developed by the Soviet Union in 1981. The maximum range of such missiles is 4.7 miles, less than the nearest known Ukrainian military position.
Yesterday Carroll also reported that journalists were unable to inspect another of the reported locations where shells had landed that morning, a nearby factory.
As Carroll notes, the situation will calm neither the residents of Donetsk, nor the Ukrainian people who believe that they are being blamed for crimes for which Russia and its proxies are responsible.
— James Miller
Ukrainska Pravda reports that sources have told them that investigators for Ukraine’s Prosecutor General have questioned Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest oligarch, who has huge investments in the Donbass and has long been suspected of involvement with separatist activities.
According to Ukrainska Pravda‘s sources, Akhmetov was questioned as part of a criminal investigation into the “financing of terrorism and illegal armed groups” on January 22 for six hours.
However, Akhmetov was not questioned as a suspect, but as a witness.
Ukrainska Pravda notes (translated by The Interpreter):
The decision to question Akhmetov was made after a video emerged from the separatists, in which his name, that of Natalia Korolevska and also Oleksandr Yefremov, were mentioned in the context of funding.
This video has been included amongst the materials for the criminal case.
— Pierre Vaux
Semyon Semyonchenko, commander of the volunteer-based Donbass Battalion and a Rada deputy, has claimed on his Facebook page that Russian forces have withdrawn from the front line on the Bakhmutka highway in the west of the Lugansk region.
The announcement, posted in both Russian and English, read:
The terrorists have left checkpoint 31. Yesterday the Ukrainian army artillery did an excellent job. Having caught it hot, the terrorists and parts of Russian troops have been withdrawn from the front line in many places in the area of checkpoints 25, 29 and 31. The units of the Ukrainian army, National Guard and Donbas battalion haven’t recovered the checkpoint yet and are now on their positions. The territory is free. Why? – Because all the installations at the strong point have been completely destroyed and the area is fully exposed to fire from both sides.
This report has not been confirmed by other sources so far.
Checkpoint 31 fell to Russian forces on January 20, after a tank assault. Russian forces were then reportedly preparing to move on the next Ukrainian position, checkpoint 29, but, Semyonchenko announced yesterday, they were attacked while attempting a flanking maneuver and withdrew.
Here is a map of the combat zone around the highway:
Semyonchenko also called on the Ukrainian military command to change tactics and go on the offensive:
It is necessary to change the tactics from the passive expectation of attacks at strong points to attacking the concentrations of armored vehicles and tanks on the territory controlled by the enemy.
It is necessary to use the means of radio and electronic search instead of reading the tea-leaves. It is necessary to use the units of “big” drones which still exist in the Ukrainian army. It is necessary to use our aviation in order to destroy the arriving convoys and not tell that “the aircrafts can be shot down”. It is necessary to attack the regions from where the terrorists and Russian troops withdraw part of their units in order to strengthen the others.
It is necessary to fight since such a plague has come to our country. The enemy will not vanish miraculously from our land by himself. We are the only ones who can defend Ukraine. Glory to Ukraine!
— Pierre Vaux
The ‘prime minister’ of the self-declared ‘Donetsk People’s Republic,’ Aleksandr Zakharchenko, has told Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency that his Russian-backed separatist faction “will not make any more attempts at discussing ceasefires.”
He continued, (translated by The Interpreter):
“Now we will see how Kiev responds. Kiev doesn’t understand now that we can attack in three directions simultaneously.”
The report continues:
Zakharchenko added that “there will not be any more ceasefires, no more rotations. There will be prisoner exchanges, because our lads, who are in captivity, need pulling out.
With regards to plans for combat operations, Zakharchenko remarked that “we will beat them until they are trounced, until we reach the borders of the Donetsk region. If I see a threat to the land of Donetsk from any settlement, I will destroy that threat then and there.”
As Roland Oliphant of The Daily Telegraph notes, statements of this kind are nothing out of the ordinary for Zakharchenko, who has previously stated his intentions to take control of the whole Donetsk region.
But given the dramatic escalation in attacks from Russian and separatist forces in the last two weeks, and the loss of Donetsk Airport, this message is more alarming than usual.
— Pierre Vaux