Hard pounding in Donbass

The war in Donbass is turning more and more into a war of artillery. Between May and August, large amounts of territory switched owners as first the government forces and then the rebels carried out dramatic manoeuvres. For the last few months, however, the front lines have hardly moved, and in the past week the volume of artillery fire has reached unprecedented levels. As the Duke of Wellington allegedly said at the Battle of Waterloo, ‘Hard pounding this, gentlemen, let us see who will pound the longest.’

The lack of manoeuvre, the dominance of the artillery, and the seemingly pointless battles over tiny pieces of territory – most notably Donetsk airport – increasingly resemble the First World War, with the important exception that combat is taking place not in the countryside but in cities. Civilians, therefore, are suffering in large numbers. A hundred years ago, generals dreamt of breaking through ‘the mud and blood to the green fields beyond’, as the motto of the Tank Corps put it. If the warring parties in Ukraine are unwilling to make peace, the only way for the suffering to end is for one or other of them to achieve this.

Right now, the rebels appear to have the initiative. In the past week, they have captured the new terminal of what remains of Donetsk airport, entered the nearby village of Peski, taken ‘checkpoint 31’ in Lugansk Province, and advanced a short distance towards Mariupol. This has been made possible by what appears to be a substantial increase in military support from Russia (above all, there must have been a supply of a copious volume of artillery shells). But is not clear how far Russia is willing to go. The signals are confusing. On the one hand, Russian officials have been uttering what sound like threats, saying that in escalating military activity the Ukrainians have made a blunder which they will regret; on the other hand, the Russian government has announced that it wishes to work to produce a new ceasefire. Russia seems to be willing to give the rebels what they need to avoid defeat, but it doesn’t seem to be willing to give them what they need for victory.

The resources available to the Ukrainian state far outweigh those available to the rebels – a population of some 40 million people, and huge stores of military equipment left over from the Soviet era (much of it in a poor state of repair, but theoretically usable given a bit of effort). Were Ukraine to wage total war, committing its entire population and economy, it could crush the rebellion (albeit with enormous bloodshed, and assuming that doing so did not provoke a massive Russian response). Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko recently announced a new round of conscription designed to increase the size of the armed forces to 250,000. This is not total war, and insufficient to defeat the rebels. Knowing that anything more would produce serious social, economic, and political problems, Kiev is still fighting its war half-heartedly.

Imperial Russia’s most famous military theorist, M.I. Dragomirov, commented that war consisted of two components: the physical and the moral. Put another way, war is a matter of mass and of will. The rebels have the will, but not the mass. The Ukrainians, by contrast, have the mass but not the will. For the stalemate to be broken by military means, one or other of these has to change.

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8 thoughts on “Hard pounding in Donbass”

  1. Can Ukraine make such a compromise with the rebels? Why does Moscow believe that Ukraine is willing or even able to negotiate a cessation of hostilities? What I mean is – will Ukrainian domestic politics permit Poroshenko to make any worthwhile concessions? It is no secret that PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk is the leader of the “War Party” along with Arsen Avakov. Not too mention Igor Kolomoiski and the Pravvy Sektor, Patriot of Ukraine, UNO-UNSO who all have taken a strident and aggressive position with regards the rebellion.

    Negotiation with the rebels is tantamount to surrender and acknowledging defeat for Euro-Maidan supporters. Poroshenko’s political career would be jeopardised if he was to pursue that course..

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    1. I agree with you – there is no sign of any willingness to compromise. My suspicion is that the Russian government had hoped that the defeat of the Ukrainian army in August last year would force Kiev to negotiate, but they underestimated the Ukrainian side’s stubbornness.

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    2. There are bigger forces behind all of this and it is called the US. They are the ones pulling the strings going back to the Maidan coup.

      Poroshenko, Yats etc are all puppets and in the long run interested in filling their pockets.

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  2. This, along with so much else that’s going on around the world (sometimes described as “the empire’s chaos”) fits quite well with the topic of your current course. To ask a Hegelian question: is there any rationality to be found in this reality? Is there any way to make sense of what is patently nonsensical?

    The bottom line remains: Kiev opted for a military solution at the very outset of tensions; it went on the attack, lost badly, and yet persists in attacking. It is very difficult to account for these actions on their own terms, to take at face value Kiev’s own stated reasons for doing what it is doing. There’s simply no *viable* victory to be had here; there may be some sort of pyrrhic victory, but not anything remotely sensible given an actually available alternative, namely talks and compromise. As such, the facts require reference to “external” factors by way of explanation: either they’re in the grip of some sort of insanity, or they are subject to some sort of external influence or pressure that tips the balance in favour of more war.

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    1. Good point. I think that to explain why Ukraine persists in pursuing an obvious failing policy, we have to look at factors such as the sunken cost fallacy (to which gamblers are prone – I’ve lost so much that I will gamble even more in an effort to regain what I’ve lost); honour – the loss of face which admitting defeat involves is unacceptable; politics – you may know that your policy will fail but are more interested in the political gain you get from following that policy, or perhaps internal bureaucratic pressures prevent you from doing what you know to be right. Probably it’s a combination of all these things and some more. We’ll take a look at them all during my course.

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      1. Here’s some evidence of what I say above, from Ukrainian journalist Iurii Butusov: http://censor.net.ua/blogs/166/srajenie_za_terminal_proigralo_komandovanie_ato_esche_do_shturma

        He says ‘For Ukraine the defence of the airport has the same same significance as the battle of Valmy for France in 1792 … It is proof of one’s ability to defend oneself and the tenaciousness of a young free nation. … The war continues. And the fact that we left the ruins of the new terminal changes nothing in military strategy. The struggle continues, and for the sake of those who fought to the end in the new terminal we will fight on.’

        So, he admits that the battle for the airport had no strategic significance, but it was necessary to prove Ukraine’s toughness, and the war must go on for the sake of the dead. In other words, honour and the sunken cost fallacy.

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  3. Indeed! But … if we’re to accept Donetsk Airport is Revolutionary Ukraine’s Valmy, wouldn’t we need to witness an actual victory here? (And to the extent the “cyborgs” held out for so long, there’s been some suggestion that the rebels were actually compelled, by Moscow, for political reasons, to allow regular resupplies and personnel rotations – which, if true, would just add another layer to the irony cake.)

    Still, this magnificent comparison to Valmy brings up a larger point: at Davos, it was announced that Ukraine is locked in an existential battle in defence of European “values”. And so we might have an even more explicitly (pseudo-) Hegelian account here: all these small, local bits of “irrationality” pale in significance where the grand sweep of historical-rational progress is concerned … kids holed up in dank, dark, freezing basements are all just doing their part in securing the gains of The Enlightenment. Perhaps Mr. Poroshenko even believes this to be true … “glory to the heroes!”

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  4. I think the rebels announced (but it is still not widely known) that they want to secure the Donbass oblast, i.e. as Kiev’s forces have refused to pull back their artillery or even pretend too implement the Minsk Agreement and in the meantime have continued to lob shells in to Donetsk city proper, the only solution is to push them as far back as possible to be out of range.

    The rebel PR has improved significantly, but the message of their aim is to stop the shelling of Donetsk is simply not getting through. This absence cedes a propaganda advantage to Kiev who will no doubt claim that the rebels want it all and will be at the gates of Kiev (or Lvov) lobbing shells indiscriminately at civilians.

    There isn’t any real western pressure on Kiev to comply with anything. By pressing their advantage in the counter attack, the rebels are a) buying time; b) buying territory as a buffer; c) degrading Kiev’s experienced forces by as much as possible before there is any significant influx of raw and inexperienced recruits.

    What the counter-offensive also shows is that the rebels aren’t repeating a predictable military strategy, i.e. responding to a Kiev attack and then simply stopping for beer, cigarettes and a rest as they have done before. They are pressing their advantage but are still cautious in their advance lest they fall in to a cauldron of their own making.

    I would argue that neither is time particularly on their side. The longer it goes on the bigger risk there is of significant reversal or the known and unknown unknowns.

    Europe’s paper-thin political unity is also fraying badly so a decisive rebel victory would make it much easier to say to Kiev, ‘Look, for your own good, stop, or we cut you totally adrift’ – not that it would be said in those words. The economic repercussions and blowback from sanctions have also strengthened the hand of those looking for an end to the fighting and feelers have been put out*, but who in the EU is going to tell the US go ‘Go home?’. As I’ve read somewhere else, ‘the US is ready to fight to the last Ukrainian’. I guess that is the price you have to pay for the US backing you.

    More is stunning is that the Pork Pie News Networks have simply ignored that shelling cities is a war crime (sic Sarajevo and judgments at the ICTY in the Hague) and that western politicians are totally silent about this. I suspect that we shall soon be hearing that the rebels are committing these war crimes in Mariupol etc. and demands that they be indicted by the ICC. Also the ignoring of the humanitarian situation in the eastern Ukraine. Silence again, except from aid groups and just recently the EU.**

    * Nato to re-establish contact with Russian military
    https://euobserver.com/tickers/127336

    Russia to pick which EU states can export food
    https://euobserver.com/foreign/127318

    though this:
    Russia denies it will lift EU food ban
    https://euobserver.com/tickers/127330
    has curiously disappeared from the EU Observer only leaving the former story…

    ** Stylianides heads to eastern Ukraine, as aid groups warn of humanitarian disaster
    http://www.euractiv.com/sections/europes-east/stylianides-heads-eastern-ukraine-right-groups-warn-humanitarian-disaster

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