DEBALTSEVE CAULDRON –Ukrainian army vs forces of Novo-Russia, January 20 – February 22, 2015.
PART 1 – the beginning and Uglegorsk.
War In Donbass : 2014-2016 Battle of Debaltseve became one of the major events of the war in Ukraine and the first operation to be coordinated and executed by both separatist republics, Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) and Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) also called Armed Forces of Novo-Russia (AFNR). The main idea was to cut and eliminate the Debaltseve pocket defended by ATO (Ukrainian) forces and gain control over the important communications node between two separatist republics. The pocket has been established during Ukrainian (ATO) advance to recapture Shakhtersk and other towns in summer-fall 2014 and in general remained a relatively calm region since the armistice of September 2014.
The numbers of the confronting parties differ from source to source but in general it looks to be some 4-5,000 men of ATO and 5-6,000 AFNR. In terms of armor, there are no certain estimates as both sides used dozens of tanks and hundreds of APCs that mainly can be counted by the photo evidence but no real (registered) numbers available.
During the fall of 2014 AFNR got a huge number of reinforcements in terms of manpower, armor and ammo and has been reorganized to establish brigade-level structure, in fact the front-line units were mostly untrained, poorly equipped and lacked any kind of communication and rear support.
The forces were “salad” consisting of regular army units, volunteers and militants. The militants were most combat-capable but were ruled by their commanders and acted by themselves (“Ghost” brigade for example). Command chain was ineffective to such an extent that the brigade HQs proved to be just buffers between the General Command and the field units with no real decision-making capability.
Ukrainian forces were not much better having the same “salad” structure of regular army units, police force and volunteers. Much of the armor and machinery existed mainly on the paper and was in unworkable condition but has been perfectly painted (as one source said). Besides, the units were just rotated during the armistice in the late fall 2014 bringing fresh combat inexperienced soldiers to the front line.
It looks that this operation has been designed by Russian advisors who considered they had a very well equipped and trained force and wanted to replicate the 2008 5-day blitz in South Ossetia giving it only 3 days to surround and destroy the ATO forces entrenched in Debaltseve pocket. In reality nothing close to this ever happened, as I mentioned the attacking units mostly lacked basic training, communications and maintenance support plus cannot be ruled effectively.
The leaders were not familiar with the soldiers, the tank and armor crews were not appropriately trained, and most equipment came after many-many years in Russian storage without being properly checked and restored to workable conditions. According to the witnesses most tanks and APCs lacked inside communications, basic radio and even spare parts kits.
Should I explain what this means in combat?
The radios were a “fairy tale” most of them produced in the mid-80s, having void batteries and no chargers. Much of the communications were done using cell-phones under the coverage of Ukrainian KyivStar mobile carrier. All the fancy aerial recon drone pics and other stuff were just a media pitch of Russia. The “private” units like the “Ghost” brigade in Lugansk have been equipped much better due to private sponsorship. As I said Ukrainians were not much better or even worse – besides poor equipment and being mainly untrained and demotivated they were hostages of the General Staff mythos communicated to the country leadership that “everything is fine ”.
Even the recon reports about AFNR gatherings and reinforcements were neglected to satisfy the general policy – President Pert Poroshenko was keen to report to Americans that he is in total control (who likes the weak??). In this situation ATO soldiers in Debaltseve pocket were destined to fall into the trap even before the fighting began.
The first stage of the battle began on January 19-20, 2015 with the attack of AFNR at the north (south in Ukrainian sources) from two directions – one was a “false one” another had to cut off the whole pocket. The “false” worked well and ATO forces started to move the reinforcements without taking in account any alternative. The real one stuck in a heavy fighting over a couple of ATO strongholds without any considerable gain but with heavy losses.
The main contribution to AFNR casualties was done by ATO artillery that proved to be very effective and, in many cases, had precise targeting and good communications with field units. Interestingly, AFNR had plenty of rocket artillery, mainly BM-21 Grad that appeared to be quite useless against entrenched Ukrainians despite the amounts of wasted ammo and both sides agreed on this point.
By this point the tanks were used occasionally from both sides mostly as long range “sniper rifles” but there were some notable episodes of close combat like during the mark 307.9 attack (near Sanzharovskaya) on January 23-25.
On January 23, 3 tanks and BMP of Lugansk “August” battalion tried to attack the ATO 128 Separate Mountain-Rifle Brigade manned “Valery” stronghold (mark 307.9) covered by a thick fog. Ukrainians had one T-64 tank and 2 BMPs (one disabled). The tanks started to fire one at another mostly upon the noise of the engines.
The “August” tankmen looked to be disoriented and moved in various directions while one T-64 got close to the stronghold and was hit by RPG, started to move back and finally stuck in the trench. Another tank was hit by ATGM at the turret but managed to get close and rescue the crew. Later Ukrainians managed to recover the abandoned tank and put it to service.
The next day 2 tanks attacked the stronghold from 2-2.5km distance. At least one was hit but also an ATO tank got its portion plus the captured T-64 gun jammed making the tank a piece of junk for the long-distance duel.
On January 25, 2015 the stronghold received reinforcements and had 2 tanks, 4 BMPs and MTLB (from them 1 T-64 and 2 BMP-2 were unworkable). Positions were attacked by 5 tanks of LPR “August” battalion without any infantry support (it is still not clear why the infantry did not accompany the tanks). One tank was hit by a Ukrainian T-64 and retreaded another three reached the trenches and managed to inflict numerous casualties, especially the T-72 that smashed the trenches, but all have been destroyed by PRGs. The last tank retreated. In total one AFNR T-72 and 2 T-64 were destroyed plus one ATO T-64 was disabled and a BMP-2 destroyed. All but one AFNR crew member and 7 Ukrainians were killed during the fight; another 3 ATO members were heavily wounded.
By the end of January AFNR managed to capture several key heights controlling the main route to the Ukrainian mainland (M-103) and started to knock off the ATO traffic. In general AFNR command realized the failure of the blitz and changed to plan “B” while Ukrainians continued to report that “all was fine and under control”. The casualties of AFNR were very high and the reinforcements were taken from every possible source – tank and artillery crews were cut to fill in infantry, the support units came forward.
There were cases when several AFNR “private” units refused to fulfill the orders as those were considered inappropriate by the COs (this actually saved many lives like in “Ghost” brigade in example). The fact of the casualties played its role as field units shrunk to the manageable size becoming fast and maneuverable plus they gained some experience. AFNR prepared to capture Uglegorsk that actually had a major effect on the whole operation while ATO missed the point.
On January 30, a battalion size group with tanks, BMPs and BTRs approached ATO positions at Uglegorsk. 3 tanks were lost on mines, but all the other armor moved forward and attacked the garrison. Uglegorsk ATO forces were totally unprepared and were pushed to the eastern outskirts of the town. The town was hard to protect due to the numerous “green zones” of agricultural plantations and natural woods that made it easy to approach unnoticed from any direction plus most of the ATO units were militants without any heavy weapons. Supporting Ukrainian artillery was useless as there was simply nobody to target it lacking any kind of communications with field units. The later attempts to recapture Uglegorsk were countered with the cost of severe casualties paid by ATO.