Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Six Lessons from the Debaltsevo Debacle

Paul Goble


            Staunton, February 18 – The Debaltsevo cauldron is coming to an end, Nikolay Mitrokhin says, and Ukraine is going to lose. Several thousand Ukrainian soldiers will “in the  best case” become prisoners, enormous stockpiles of military equipment will be lost, and “the moral spirit will suffer from the strongest possible attack.”


            At the same time, he writes in a commentary on today, “the war with Russia will not end with this but only stop and it will be a good thing if this is for several months.”  But now is the time to try to answer two important questions: Was this loss necessary? and What should Ukrainians and others learn from it? (


            The answer to the first is “not so simple,” Mitrokhin says.  On the one hand, the Debaltsevo salient after the successful advance of the Ukrainian army last summer gave the Ukrainian military significant strategic advantages, including the ability to attack key rebel cities, block transportation routes between Donetsk and Luhansk, and thus affect the region’s economy.


            But “from the first half of August, the situation changed fundamentally,” he writes. “The Ukrainian army was no longer opposed by divided and poorly armed groups of militants.” It was facing a Russian army with dozens of tanks and artillery pieces, and that army was led by an experienced Russian general.


            As a result, “the Debaltsevo salient became a problem for the Ukrainian army.” It simply didn’t have sufficient forces to hold it against a concerted attack although it did have enough to repulse smaller ones. That should have led to the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces to prevent loss of lives and materiel, but it didn’t. Why is currently the subject of dispute.


            Some blame the Ukrainian military command which “turned out to be incapable” of assessing the situation and husbanding its resources. Others blame the political leadership which did not want to pull back anywhere and which presented the defense of the Debaltsevo salient as a new “Stalingrad” for Ukraine. That of course makes its loss all the more bitter.


            That makes it critically important, Mitrokhin says, to answer the second question and see what lessons can be drawn “from the sad history of the Debaltsevo cauldron.” He suggests there are six that Ukrainians and their supporters should be drawing now.


  1. “The Ukrainian army showed that it on the whole could effectively mount a defense” not only against irregular militias but even against individual Russian units armed with tanks, something that should give Kyiv some basis for hope in the future.
  2. But at the same time, Zebaltsevo showed that the Ukrainian forces “could not attack a strong opponent,” something that won’t change until there is a new group of commanders, more troops and better weapons. As a result, “as long as Russian forces remain in the Donbas, one cannot talk about any decisive attack” by Ukrainian forces there.
  3. During these battles, “the Ukrainian army experienced problems with the supply of everything except bullets, and it remains unclear when Ukrainian civil society will have the means, forces and patience to support it.”  That will require major reforms of “the entire state apparatus,” which are currently taking place “too slowly.”
  4. The Ukrainian army is “too small and too poorly equipped with contemporary weapons.” It needs to receive them from abroad, but it also needs to think about producing more “not so much for an attack as for defense” because that is what it will be engaged in over the coming months.
  5. “The Minsk agreements have not led to a complete ceasefire and even if they work, after the final defeat of the Debaltsevo grouping, the war will continue.” That is what the militants want because they cannot exist in peacetime: they don’t know how to deal with the social and economic challenges of peace, and they don’t want to give up what they see as the glory of war.
  6. “The losses among the Russian irregular army for the last month and a half … have been so great (no fewer than 1,000 men)” few will want to take part in another offensive.  If the pro-Moscow forces are to advance then, regular Russian military units will be needed. “That is something for which Russian society and Ukraine and the co-sponsors of the peace process must be prepared.”

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