Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 21.06.2018
“A Strip Providing Enhanced Safety”: that’s how the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) of the Armed Forces of Ukraine announced the completion of a defensive buffer zone. The “strip” or “lane” runs along the battlefront in Donbas where Russia is invading Ukraine. The announcement stated that the JFO had begun this defensive measure at the start of its mandate, which was May 1. Working largely by stealth, Ukrainian army engineers created a strip with a depth of up to two kilometres.
The purpose of this “lane” is primarily to stop the Russians from shelling Ukrainian towns and villages. It also serves to reduce the opportunities for Russian armed forces to launch a sneak attack or to deploy intelligence-gathering teams. Taking control of the battlefield in this way, the Ukrainian army is now more capable of deploying reserves and of inflicting fire damage to the enemy.
The JFO statement took special note of the difficulties encountered by Ukrainian troops in the Luhansk sector of the battlefront. Russian occupation troops have been constantly shelling Ukrainian defenders along the Bakhmut Road, particularly in and around the village of Novotoshkivske. The Russians are conducting intensive intelligence operations, as well. Nevertheless, the security strip was successfully created.
With this announcement, questions have arisen about the status of the village of Zholobok. While Novotoshkivske is under clear Ukrainian control, nearby Zholobok is in the “grey zone” and is contested.
Zholobok is not under Ukrainian control. The village is under Russian control, but it is not firmly held.
In a video released on June 18, the Russian military’s propaganda channel "Anna News" showed soldiers of the 2nd Army Corps (Luhansk or so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic”) of the Russian army in Zholobok. Twitter user “English Luhansk” confirms from a local source that Zholobok hasn’t been liberated yet.
The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine, in its report of June 20, says that Zholobok (47km west of Luhansk) is “non-government-controlled.” The OSCE SMM was following up reports of a civilian casualty from Zholobok, a 63 year old woman, who was injured when an explosion caused the roof of her house to collapse on her. The OSCE SMM says its team could not access Zholobok “due to security considerations.”
Ukrainian news site dsnews.ua published an article on June 20 by Mikhail Zhirokhov: “Silent Offensive: How the Armed Forces of Ukraine Crawled 2 km Closer to Luhansk.” In this article, dsnews.ua published two maps that were created by me – without giving attribution. I created these maps on 2 June 2017 and published them on Twitter. The first map showed the last time that Zholobok was clearly under Ukrainian control, which was 25 May 2015. The second map showed the site of a small territorial gain by the Ukrainian army north of Zholobok, and showed Zholobok itself to be in Russian-held territory. dsnews.ua reversed the maps and stripped away the date information. dnsnews.ua has “jumped the gun” and implied that Zholobok has been liberated.
It is most likely that — with the successful creation of a defensive strip — the Ukrainian army has gained ground on both sides of Zholobok along the Bakhmut Road. If the Ukrainian army securely holds the Bakhmut Road west of Zholobok, then the defences of Novotoshkivske are more secure. If the road east of Zholobok is more securely held by Ukraine, then “Block Post 31” may be recaptured on the road to Luhansk city.
Zholobok is a salient of the Russian armed forces which is not under their firm control. Zholobok is supposed to be controlled by Ukraine, according to the Minsk Agreement. In this respect, Zholobok in Luhansk region is the same as Pivdenne (Chyhari) in Donetsk region. Pivdenne was liberated in May. While it has not been liberated yet, Zholobok is invested to the west, north, and east by the Ukrainian armed forces. The village of Zholobok will be liberated from the plague of Putin’s army soon.