Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 23.05.2018
The developing Battle of Horlivka is a demonstration of how the Joint Forces Operation differs from the Anti-Terrorist Operation that preceded it. For the first time since 2014 and the first year of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Armed Forces of Ukraine are initiating security operations against illegal armed formations instead of only responding to their attacks. The Joint Forces Operation has a righteous mission: to restore the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. That means that one way or another foreign, Russian invasion-occupation troops must leave Ukraine – all of Ukraine.
The Joint Forces Operation of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in 2018 is worlds apart from the volunteer battalions of 2014. Today, Ukraine fields an army which is larger, better-armed, and more professional. Russian forces in occupied Donbas have fragile morale and have no meaningful local support. This gives rise to a strategy by Ukraine with regard to occupied Horlivka that is designed to break the will of the Russian terrorists to fight, without necessarily destroying them in open battle.
An anonymous source close to the Joint Forces Operation told that the purpose of Ukrainian military actions around Horlivka is to “tighten the noose” around Donetsk. The source claims that Ukrainian forces have a plan to take heights of land around Horlivka, thus commanding to city. With the territory around Horlivka controlled by Ukrainian forces, the Russian illegal armed formations inside the city “will surrender Horlivka without a fight. There is just no point in dying there. Everything is clearly visible,” said the source.
The map tells the story of what would happen should Horlivka be liberated by Ukrainian forces. A bridgehead would be opened to the liberation of Yenakiyeve and Debalseve. Should the Russian invader-occupiers lose those cities, the M-04 highway connecting Donetsk region and Luhansk region would be lost to them – so would the Debaltseve railhead. The city of Donetsk itself would then be in as exposed position for the Russians, militarily, as the city of Horlivka is now.
A lot of what the anonymous source is saying sounds like wishful thinking. Ukrainians yearn for a victory and want to hear that such a plan exists and will be carried out. But what is more likely going on is that the Ukrainian army is reaping the rewards of its greater professionalism and the weaker morale of the Russian side. The result is that Ukraine is winning combat actions and Russia is losing them, with the result that the noose truly is tightening around Horlivka.
Ukraine was reacting to Russian illegal armed formations harassing the village of Pivdenne in the ‘grey zone’ when they mounted an operation to take control completely. Ukrainian forces also took under their protection a part of Pivdenne village closest to Horlivka, called Chyhyri. Despite frenzied Russian counter-attacks, the 24th Mechanized Brigade hold this territory securely now. Ukrainian forces are two kilometres farther towards Horlivka, and have a commanding position over western neighbourhoods (which have been evacuated by the Russian occupation regime and effectively abandoned). Unconfirmed reports on May 22 claim that Ukrainian forces have liberated or are fighting in the Haharina coal mine complex to the north of the Chyhyri hamlet of Pivdenne village, and the mine’s slag heap (which is a dominating height of land) to the north of that.
That was to the west of Horlivka. Active raiding benefited the Joint Forces Operation to the city’s north. The Russian invader-occupiers have been regularly shelling civilians in Zaitseve, which is on the free Ukraine side of the battlefront directly north of occupied Horlivka. The Russians have been firing artillery from positions in the occupied village of Holmivskyi, which is to the east of Zaitseve. On May 20, a subversive and reconnaissance group of the 46th Separate Assault Battalion (“Donbas-Ukraine”) captured three enemy troops when they came across an observation post for artillery spotting. The three Russian soldiers were turned over to the Security Service of Ukraine.
Planned operations to control villages in the ‘grey zone’ and active raiding is what sets the proactive Joint Forces Operation apart from the reactive Anti-Terrorist Operation. Given the professionalism of the Ukrainians and the fragile morale of the Russians, the Ukrainian army controls the battlefield and the Russian army does not. Ukraine is liberating territory and Russia is failing to take it back. The practical effect of small Ukrainian victories and small Russian defeats is that Ukraine is beginning to command the heights of land around Horlivka.
The best outcome for Horlivka would be a repeat of what happened in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk in July 2014: the Russians give up, and withdraw down the highway to the city of Donetsk. Ukraine is tightening the noose around Horlivka, and it’s coming up to decision-time for the Russians for “fight or flight.” One way or another, sooner or later, liberation will come for all of Russian-occupied Donbas and Crimea. Wishful thinking or not, let us hope that the Russians give up Horlivka sooner rather than later.