Bite and hold

In the First World War, armies developed the tactic of ‘bite and hold’. Rather than trying to break through ‘the mud and the blood to the green fields beyond’ (which almost always failed), they would carry out well-prepared and thoroughly rehearsed operations of limited scope designed to seize (‘bite’) a small patch of enemy territory, after which they would halt and defend (‘hold’) what had been captured against the inevitable counterattack.

Judging from recent reports, the Ukrainian army has adopted similar tactics in its war against the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics (DNR and LNR). Over the past few months, the Ukrainians have carried out what RFE/RL calls a ‘creeping offensive’, occupying ground in the so-called ‘gray zone’ between the Ukrainian and rebel front lines. The Ukrainian attacks are not the result of local commanders getting out of hand and ignoring the official ceasefire. According to one analyst, they are the product of intense planning and rehearsal, and use surprise to bite off a small chunk of the gray zone and then hold onto it. Until recently, the rebels’ response has been fairly limited, perhaps because the DNR and LNR are under instruction from their Russian ‘curators’ not to escalate the conflict. This week, however, the rebel forces reacted strongly to the latest Ukrainian incursion in the area of Avdeevka. The result has been the most severe fighting for several months. Both Avdeevka, on the Ukrainian side of the front line, and nearby Yasinovata, on the rebel side, have been cut off from heating and water. Several soldiers and civilians on both sides have been killed.

There seems to be little doubt that the Ukrainians began the latest upsurge in fighting. Even RFE/RL, which is normally very pro-Ukrainian, admits as much. According to RFE/RL:

Observers say the Ukrainians appear to be trying to create new facts on the ground … since mid-December Ukraine’s armed forces have edged farther into parts of the gray zone in or near the war-worn cities of Avdiivka, Debaltseve, Dokuchaievsk, Horlivka, and Mariupol, shrinking the space between them and the separatist fighters.

Especially following the election of Donald Trump, Ukraine is anxious that it is losing Western support. Some commentators have therefore concluded that Ukraine is trying to provoke to a violent response from Russia and the rebels, in order to confirm its victim status in the eyes of the West and to put pressure on the West not to improve relations with Russia. This may be the case, but I’m not totally convinced, as it implies a capacity for strategic thinking which I doubt Kiev actually has. The fact that the current fighting began while Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko was meeting German chancellor Angela Merkel, and that Poroshenko felt obliged to cut short his visit to Germany, suggests that he was rather taken by surprise by the scale of the fighting. That in turn suggests to me that Ukraine’s ‘creeping offensive’ is more tactical than strategic in nature. It is a case of the Ukrainian army opportunistically seizing territory whenever it thinks it can get away with it, but on this occasion discovering that the rebels were willing to fight back.

Those in the West who are naturally inclined to support Kiev come what may, will no doubt take recent events as an excuse to urge their countries to increase their backing of Ukraine. The Globe and Mail newspaper, for instance, today ran an editorial drawing attention to the fighting in Ukraine and calling for Canada to renew its military training mission in that country ‘perhaps with some adjustment upwards’.

Given that RFE/RL says that one of the causes of the recent fighting is that ‘Ukraine’s army appears to feel emboldened’, emboldening it still further in the manner proposed by the Globe and Mail seems to be a recipe for even more violence.

In any case, Canada is rather exceptional in its pro-Ukrainian stance. Elsewhere, it isn’t obvious that Kiev’s creeping offensive will serve its strategic aims. When even RFE/RL notices that the Ukrainian army is responsible for major violations of the ceasefire, one may be certain that others have noticed too. According to RT:

A report in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung said Berlin is increasingly laying responsibility for such incidents on Kiev. The latest tensions may have been provoked by the Poroshenko administration, which is concerned with a possible lifting of anti-Russian sanctions by US President Donald Trump, some figures in the German government believe, according to the newspaper.

Rather than consolidate international support for its struggle, Ukraine’s military offensives may, therefore, have the opposite effect. This highlights the poverty, or perhaps total lack, of strategic thinking in Kiev, which seems to have no coherent plan for regaining control of its lost territories. The creeping offensive sabotages any effort to find a political solution to Ukraine’s problems, but it doesn’t substitute a military solution. The rate of advance is so slow that the Ukrainian Army can never hope to retake the whole of Donbass this way. ‘Bite and hold’ may recapture small bits of territory, but it cannot end the war.

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22 thoughts on “Bite and hold”

  1. … or, maybe, because since 1 Feb there’s another really, really big (shamelessly big!) hike in utility bills, and Poroshenko needs to distract his populace?

    “The fact that the current fighting began while Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko was meeting German chancellor Angela Merkel, and that Poroshenko felt obliged to cut short his visit to Germany, suggests that he was rather taken by surprise by the scale of the fighting. “

    Or maybe it’s just theatrics? What’s the point of talking with Merkel – what, she’d give the much caveted and seemingly magickil “Javelins” for the invincible Ukrainian army, instead of boringly droning on and on about the lack of reforms and outrageous corruption?

    Besides, if the ruling camarilla in Kiev wants some stupid nationalistic laws passed – they now have the pretext of the need to “answer the agression” in kind.

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  2. According to this video, Poroshenko already met with everyone he wanted to meet when he ‘broke off’ his visit to Germany, so another possible theory could be that he didn’t get what he wanted from Merkel because the start of the current round of heavy shelling was meant to coincide with the day he talked to her.

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    1. The OSCE has no mandate to stop this sort of thing. Its job is just to report it. So, as long as the OSCE guy in the picture mentioned the tanks in his report, he did his job.

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      1. “The OSCE has no mandate to stop this sort of thing. Its job is just to report it. So, as long as the OSCE guy in the picture mentioned the tanks in his report, he did his job.”

        Future Cardinal Mazarini immortalized himself by riding between the armies once. His “mandate” as both the diplomat and a man of cloth did not had this in their job description.

        I wonder, can the racially Superior, Enlightened and Superbly Culture people of the OSCE mission do something like that?

        No, of course not. They buggered off from Donetsk today.

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  3. I watched a Russian talk show today (with Orkhan Dzhemal) where they did a on-air poll on whether Russia should escalate its military support to the Donbas republics, or (as Orkhan Dzhemal suggested) to halt all support.

    The vote was 55%-45% to escalate, which seems amazingly low to me. I would expect something like 85-15 split, or even stronger, considering the wording. What’s going on there?

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    1. “The vote was 55%-45% to escalate, which seems amazingly low to me.”

      According to the general opinion, Poroshenko is trying to draw Russia into war that will make impossible the normalization of relations with the Western powers. Normalization – is a complete failure for the Poroshenko

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  4. …as for “When even RFE/RL notices that the Ukrainian army is responsible for major violations of the ceasefire, one may be certain that others have noticed too“, I don’t see it.

    Every anglophone ‘news’ headline I see (except for RT, Sputnik, and globalresearch, obviously) is “Putin tests Trump”, “X Ukrainian troops killed”, “Ukraine’s president appeals” and such.

    They won’t notice, we’ve seen this before, day after day, year after year. At best, it’ll be ‘the sides blame each other for the escalation’.

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  5. Despite what you point out from RFE/RL, the Washington Post, in an editorial, expressed their absolute certainty that Russia initiated the violence. They did not reference an anonymous source in the US government as proof (as, for example, in their story about Russia hacking the Vermont electric grid). They just know.

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      1. They won’t stop until they are discredited or get a new paymaster who tells them to stop.

        How could they get discredited when anything that contradicts them is ‘fake news’ spread by ‘Putin’s fake news machine’? That’s a logical impossibility.

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      2. By discrediting the “fake news Putin machine”-narrative.
        Admittedly, that is very unlikely, hence why I am hoping for the more likely Anglo-American self-destruction.

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  6. “In the First World War, armies developed the tactic of ‘bite and hold’. ”

    Ukrainian press http://vesti-ukr.com/strana/222489-pryzhki-ljahushki-ili-za-chto-ukraintsy-hibnut-v-avdeevke-

    “According to Igor Romanenko (ex-head of ATO headquarters ), in the near future, the fighting could expand to the area of about 1500 sq km, including Avdiivka and Debaltsevo . “the militants refused to leave these places , so all of it could potentially become the area of combat operations, he said. The tactics of our fighters in the Second world war was used by General MacArthur, who called this tactic “frog jump”. But it is important not to increase the level of hostilities to “medium” and “heavy” as under Debaltsevo in January 2015.”

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  7. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-un-ukraine-idUSKBN15H2TS

    U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, blamed Russia on Thursday for the surge of violence in the eastern Ukraine since late January.

    “I consider it unfortunate on the occasion of my first appearance here I must condemn the aggressive actions of Russia,” Haley said, making her first public remarks inside the Security Council since being sworn in as the United States’ representative last month.

    “It shouldn’t happen, or be that way. We do want to better our relations with Russia. However, the dire situation in eastern Ukraine is one that demands clear and strong condemnation of Russian actions.”

    So much for the new ‘pro-Russian’ administration.

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