Landbridge to Crimea

Putin Is Winning the Ukraine War on Three Fronts

Russian-backed rebels are making gains near Donetsk, Lugansk, and Mariupol. Just how long can Kiev hold off their advances?

01.26.15 10:11 PM ET

It’s been a lousy week for Kiev.

Between January 24 and 26, Ukraine’s military spokesman Colonel Andriy Lysenko has claimed, 14 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and another 92 have been wounded in fighting across the country, with many of those casualties incurred near Donetsk, Lugansk, and Mariupol. These three cities now represent three fronts on which Ukraine is currently losing against forces armed, trained and backed by Vladimir Putin.

Near Lugansk, the separatists are pushing north and west in an apparent attempt to secure more border crossings with Russia and a key highway that runs between the city and Donetsk. This front is important for several reasons, not the least of which is that border crossings can more easily allow the transfer of Russian soldiers and military hardware into Ukraine. (The more border crossings the separatists control, the easier it its for them hide these movements from international observers and reporters.)  Ukraine’s forces have largely held their ground here, though they have lost territory on the Bakhmutka Highway. If the separatists can secure this highway, the time it’d take them to resupply the front in Donetsk would be greatly reduced.

The battle for Donetsk has seen the heaviest fighting in the last few weeks.  Last week Russian-backed fighters overran Ukrainian positions at Donetsk International Airport, which for months had served as an effective (even legendary) chokepoint keeping the enemy from pushing deeper into Ukraine. 

Its loss is already a devastating morale blow to Kiev; video evidence has now emerged of rebels with the Somalia Battalion of the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) torturing and humiliating Ukrainian POWS, fighters who were colloquially called “Cyborgs” for their brave, months-long resistance. 

Operationally, too, the fall of the airport has allowed the separatists to launch an offensive and is leading many to question whether Ukraine has sufficient forces to fight a more free-wheeling war in the east. With the loss of Donetsk Airport, the Russian-backed fighters have the ability to strike directly north from Donetsk, which ultimately opens up the possibility that in time Avdeyevka could become surrounded as separatist forces push outward from Gorlivka and the newly-captured Ukrainian stronghold at Krasny Partizan, as well as through Pisky, near the airport.

These separatist victories leave the city of Debaltseve, a town positioned on a key highway leading toward Lugansk, nearly encircled. That city is now surrounded on three sides by the separatists, and Ukrainian troops are in danger of being completely cut off from reinforcements. On January 24, the “prime minister” of DNR, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, declared that “in a few days we will swallow the Debaltseve Kettle.” Given the available evidence, there is every reason to believe that his optimism may be warranted. If that position falls, the separatists will then have a united front and Donetsk city will be completely secured, allowing them to push on to their next targets.

The key to the southern front, Mariupol, is the site of the latest separatist onslaught.  On the morning of January 24, residents of the coastal city were hit with multiple volleys of Grad and Uragan rockets, which landed in busy marketplace killing at least 30 civilians and wounding between 70to 100 more. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Human Rights Watch, journalists and eyewitnesses all agree that the rockets came from territory held by the Russian-supported forces. The videos and pictures from the scene showed bodies lying in the streets, entire parking lots filled with cars on fire, and damage to apartments, stores, and even schools. Worse yet, the location where the rockets landed was at least 2 kilometers away from the nearest Ukrainian military checkpoint.  

A key port city, Mariupol lies south of Donetsk on the Azov Sea, uncomfortably close to the Russian border—and it would be a necessary gateway for any possible “land-bridge” to Crimea. Because the Ukrainian peninsula, which Russia invaded and “annexed” a year ago, relies on the mainland for its water and electricity, a popular theory as to Putin’s military end-game has it that he won’t stop until he can physically run pipes and power-lines from Russian Federation territory to Crimea. But Mariupol’s strategic importance also lies in its economic potential.  The city accounts for about a third of all industrial output in the Donetsk region, producing over 70 percent of its steel. About two thirds of that amount was sold in exports in 2013.  So Ukraine’s manufacturing economy would be severely debilitated if the city fell out of Kiev’s control. No doubt this fear prompted President Petro Poroshenko to sign the now-infamous Minsk Agreement—a “cease-fire” in name only—last September. Ukrainian defense sources told us at the end of the summer that all available military resources were going to fortify Mariupol.  However, with the army and its consortium of volunteer battalions now diverting arms and men to the other two fronts, and with the border-town of Novoazovsk firmly in separatist hands, the city now stands to be cut off from the north and east.

What happens next is anyone’s guess, but few doubt that Putin’s immediate objective is to batter Ukraine’s already anemic economy. According to Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s military at New York University, the battle for Mariupol may be Moscow’s way to forcing Kiev into concessions necessary to allow Putin to “declare peace with honor and negotiate an end to the sanctions regime [on Russia] while still retaining hegemony over Ukraine.”  With control of both Donetsk and Mariupol, Galeotti argues, Russia’s proxies would have both a port and a working airport at their disposal, making the “Donetsk People’s Republic” a “more viable pseudostate. That way, if the conflict does become frozen, Moscow has a less needy dependent to look after, as well as a potential basis for a subsequent push to force a land bridge to Crimea, if need be.”

Economist Anders Aslund doesn’t see the land bridge theory playing out, principally because it’d be prohibitively expensive for the Kremlin, which is now said to be spending around $4 billion a year to keep its dirty war next door afloat. Aslund wrote recently in The American Interest that he anticipates Russia’s GDP to fall by 10 percent in the next year, although he said in an interview that the figure could be as high as 14 percent. “What I see of military activity in the Donbass, the purpose is to destroy as much as possible,” Aslund told us. “Two thirds of the mines have been flooded. The Russians are taking out bridges and railroads, and the two big steelworks in Mariupol are running at 57 and 60 percent capacity, respectively. They can’t get raw materials out of the city because the bridges have been blown up. Anyone trying to rebuild the bridges, the Russians simply shoot.”

Russians and pro-Russian forces also have two other assets favoring their greater advance—money and messianism.  At Davos last week, Poroshenko said that there are 9,000 Russian soldiers now fighting in Ukraine. While no one doubts the Russian presence is real, it is also undeniable that eastern Ukrainians are increasingly being drawn into the separatist ranks, if only because of the decent salaries being offered.  “When I was there last, men with the Oplot Battalions were getting 8000 hyrivna per month,” Oliver Carroll, a Ukraine-based journalist said, referring to the separatist militia commanded by Zakharchenko. “That’s $500, which is a bloody good wage in these parts.”  

Based on his observations from the ground, Carroll reckons that about 60 percent of the separatist fighters are also hardcore ideologues who believe that Kiev belongs to Russia, as Zakharchenko recently proclaimed at the start of the Mariupol offensive, and will fight until they’ve taken the Ukrainian capital or until they’re dead.

In his latest fit of Freudian projection, Putin today described Ukraine’s embattled military as a hireling army, or “NATO foreign legion”.  If only that were true, it might not be losing so badly to Russia’s.