Provocation and martial law | Things heat up in Donbass

SLAVIANSK - 15 AVRIL 2014 - 08H41 Un cosaque pro-russe, suspecté d’être un mercenaire, garde l’entrée de la mairie de la ville occupée depuis peu par les forces séparatistes qui réclament l’indépendance de la région du Donbass. SLAVIANSK – APRIL 15, 2014 – 8:41AM A pro-Russian Cossack, suspected of being a mercenary, guards the entrance to the Town Hall, which has recently become occupied by separatist forces demanding independence for the Donbass region; photo by Guillaume Herbaut
December 20, 2018  
Categories: Op-Eds

Many publications and pundits are predicting resumption of “full-scale conflict” in Ukraine soon. The term full scale is an ambiguous one, but most seem to agree that the current sporadic, small unit fighting (which never completely went away) is going to expand into a much larger conflict involving entire military formations. Accusations of aggression and provocation from both sides against the other are routine but are increasing in frequency. One must wonder if this had to do with the sudden withdrawal of US troops from Syria – and how far Putin is willing to take it.

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Cover photo by Guillaume Herbaut.

Many people much smarter than me are predicting a “shootin’ war” between Ukraine and Russia in the coming months, if not sooner.  That’s a description that might irritate many of those who’ve been on the sharp end there the last couple of years, but it’s certainly something we should be paying attention to. Tensions in the region, particularly around the Sea of Azov and the Kech Strait, have increased steadily over the last few months.

The timing is interesting (in the Chinese curse sense) given very recent events: US reconnaissance aircraft aggressively intercepted by Russian fighters, the recent conclusion of a massive NATO exercise in Norway (Trident Juncture, the largest of its kind since the Berlin Wall came down), an increased Russian operational tempo in the Arctic, and the abrupt announcement that US forces are to be withdrawn from Syria. Whether this has anything at all to do with events in Ukraine is a matter of conjecture, though it must necessarily be viewed in the larger regional context – and let’s not forget US forces have allegedly engaged Russian forces on more than one occasion in Syria, including the fight in Khasham earlier this year.

Ukrainian soldiers in Donbass (Reuters)

Ukrainian soldiers near Donbass. (Reuters)

The Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada) recently declared martial law after three ships of the Ukrainian Navy were attacked by Russian Coast Guard vessels in the Kerch (near Crimea) and their crews captured. The Russian FSB confirmed the attack, saying it was prompted by Ukrainian entry into Russian territorial waters. Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula four years ago and has effective total military control over the strait.

Many current clashes are between the Ukrainian military and what have been called “Russian hybrid forces”, most recently near the towns of Maryinka and Krasnohorivka.

These appear to include Russian military personnel of “special services” units, separatists, local militia units, Private Military Companies (like PMC Wagner, which trains in Russia’s Krasnodar Territory just across the bridge from the Crimean peninsula), and some ethnocentric units such as an all-Chechen sniper element. The latter is interesting (if nothing particularly new) because Chechen nationals have long been reported in Ukraine fighting against Russian-backed separatists – but have also, according to the National Police of Ukraine, been a source of significant criminal activity. (Note: Ukraine has been described as the “second front of the Chechen War, and has seen military operations conducted on both sides by fighters formerly operating in Syria and the surrounding region.)

There are many nationalities represented in the fighting in Donbass, including individual volunteers (and no doubt some voluntolds) from Serbia, Italy, the US, the UK, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, and other places. It’s a veritable stew of backgrounds, languages, and kit, made more confusing by the presence of such foreign nationals on both sides of the conflict – meaning Poles and Hungarians fighting for pro-Ukrainian Kolomoisky battalions could be trading rounds with Poles and Hungarians working with the separatists…who might also be performing social work against neighboring pro-separatist Cossacks or Uzbeks

Who themselves are pretty salty after fighting in the Tajik civil war, or in Chechnya (back to Chechens on both sides again).

Except it’s not funny at all, especially the million and a half Ukrainians who’ve been displaced, or the families of the thousands who’ve been killed on all sides of the conflict.

It is the state actors that deserve the most attention, however, at least during the current confluence of events.

The United States has backed Ukraine with military-technical assistance for some time, including ISR support, and has been asked to provide Harpoon Block II ER+ anti-ship cruise missiles to what’s left of Ukraine’s navy. US military personnel (including the 278th ACR of the Tennessee National Guard) assist in training,  and the US Army maintains an armored brigade in Eastern Europe year round (this will soon be the 1st BCT of the 1st Cavalry Division and the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade of the 4th ID).  The Marine Corps is a part of the Black Sea Rotational Force (with elements of the Navy’s 6th Fleet), training frequently with such regional nations as Romania and Georgia, and the Air Force (which recently concluded Exercise Clear Sky 2018) is routinely shadowed by Russian fighters in the area.

HMS Echo (H87) of Her Majesty's Royal Navy moored at the Ukrainian port of Odesa in the Black Sea 12-19-18.

HMS Echo arriving at Odesa, Andriy Klymenko via Facebook. 

As was the case with many historical flashpoints, especially during the Cold War, the United States is not the only foreign power taking action in the region. Great Britain is involved, for instance, with a ship of the Royal Navy (HMS Echo) arriving at an Odesa berth just yesterday (19DEC18). She arrived at the Black Sea port just a day after the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution decrying the militarization of Crimea (for all the good that will d0). NATO also supports Ukraine (for all the good that will do).

This could mean a lot or nothing. Cooler heads have prevailed before, and few people expect this to flare up sufficiently to have Americans, Brits, and others officially shooting at the Russians. But no one expected Russia to actually annex Crimea, either.

This could be an interesting Christmas season indeed, for those who’re paying attention.

A Ukrainian soldier in a defensive position near the Donbas "Grey Zone." 

A Ukrainian soldier in a defensive position near the Donbass “Grey Zone” (Ukraine Defense Ministry).Read more on South Front.

Get a look at the US military order of battle on the Military Times.

See why Ukraine was recently called “Europe’s forgotten war” on Financial Times.

Read what some of the soldiers on the ground have to say at Cyberdefense.

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