Ukrainian Forces Reportedly Have Rebels In Donetsk Surrounded

End game? Or the potential spark of a wider war?

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Ever since the Ukrainian Presidential elections in late May, which was followed shortly thereafter by newly elected President Petro Poroshenko’s decision to end the cease fire that had been in place  in the eastern part of the country, the Ukrainian military has scored significant successes against the Russian-backed separatists. Last month, for example. they dislodged the separatists from Slovyansk, one of the two major cities in the east that they had turned into something of a base of operations. It was largely in response to these victories that the Russians apparently decided to arm the separatists with heavier weapons, including the surface-to-air missile system was apparently responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as well as several Ukrainian military aircraft. Despite those losses, though, the Ukrainians have continued their string of victories over the separatists to the point where they had largely taken refuge in the area around Donetsk. Now, it appears that the Ukrainian military has Donetsk surrounded, and may be ready to deliver a death blow:

Ukrainian forces have seized a key town and are surrounding Donetsk, the largest insurgent-held city in eastern Ukraine, a top rebel commander said Saturday.

The statement by Igor Girkin, a former Russian special services officer, appeared to be a significant admission by the rebels that Ukrainian government forces are gaining the upper hand in the four-month-old fight.

He said the town of Krasnyi Luch, which lies on one of two main roads between Donetsk and the other rebel-held city of Luhansk, “has been taken by the enemy.”

“The Donetsk-Horlivka group of the fighters of Novorossiya is completely surrounded,” he said on a rebel social media page. Novosrossiya, or “New Russia,” is a term widely used by the rebels for the eastern area that seeks independence from the government in Kiev. Horlivka, where rebels and Ukrainian forces are also fighting, is 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Donetsk.

Seizing Krasnyi Luch would cut off many routes to other parts of the rebel-held east.

A spokesman for the Ukrainian military operation, Andriy Lysenko, told reporters Saturday that he could not confirm that the town was under government control.

In Donetsk, a city spokesman said at least one person was killed and several injured Saturday in shelling of the city’s southern area. Spokesman Maxim Rovninsky also told The Associated Press that about 30 apartment blocks came under fire during the night.

The city, whose population was nearly 1 million before the fighting but has seen hundreds of thousands flee, has increasingly come under fire over the past weeks. Ukrainian officials deny that they are shelling civilians, as rebels claim, and say the rebels are putting rocket launchers in populated areas.

Explosions were also heard Saturday on the northern outskirts near Donetsk’s airport.

Concerns are rising about a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Luhansk, where fighting has been heavier and more prolonged. A map released by the Ukrainian military shows Ukrainian forces near the outskirts of Luhansk on three sides, with an opening to other rebel-held territory only at the south.

Russian news agencies quoted Luhansk authorities as saying Saturday that the city has been without water and electricity for a week and most of its stores are closed.

Russia has been pushing for a humanitarian mission into Luhansk, but the Ukrainian government in Kiev and Western countries suspect that could be a pretext for sending in troops. Western countries say Russia has assembled some 20,000 troops just across the border.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it is stepping up work to alleviate the crisis in eastern Ukraine but warned that any Red Cross aid convoy “will be taken in strict adherence to our fundamental working principles of neutrality, impartiality, and independence.”

The deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, Valeriy Chalyi, claimed Saturday that Russian forces wanted to enter Ukraine under the guise of a humanitarian mission but Ukraine had blocked the move.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the claim, saying “there was no attempt by Russian soldiers at penetration,” according to Russian news agencies. But he reiterated Russia’s call for humanitarian action, saying “this catastrophe now is the No. 1 theme for discussion.”

The obvious question here, of course, is how the Russians will react to all of this. When the Ukrainian offensive began, and especially after the fall of Donetsk, they apparently stepped up their efforts to support the separatists, and that set in motion the events that led to the downing of Flight 17. Since then, there have been reports of Russian forces that have crossed the border into Ukraine as well as Russian troop buildups near the border with Ukraine. Some of this has led to fears that the Russian military might actually invade Urkaine in force, however it strikes me that this is an unlikely outcome right now.

Since the beginning of this crisis, the Russians have preferred to advance their interests through surrogates inside the country. This is how they operated in Crimea, and it’s how they’ve been operating in eastern Ukraine as well. It’s likely true that there have been Russian special forces on the ground in these areas from the beginning, of course, but they’ve largely stayed out of the limelight, Indeed, so far there doesn’t seem to be a record of a Russian having been captured by the Ukrainian military and I’m sure they would have announced publicly if that had actually happened.  Given that, it seems likely that the Russians will continue operating behind the scenes rather than acting directly.  Obviously, this could change if the situation becomes so dire for the separatists that Putin feels like the risk of actually sending Russian troops across the border en masse would be worth it.

Let’s assume that the worst happens and Russia does actually go to war in eastern Ukraine, though. Jazz Shaw suggests that it would be unlikely that anyone would try to come in and kick them out and, to the extent we’re talking about NATO, or any of the European powers or the United States getting directly involved, perhaps this is true. However, such an invasion would significantly raise the tensions in Eastern Europe to the point where the West could feel compelled to act more directly against Russia than it at the point. This could include actually starting to base troops in nations like Poland and the Baltic Republics, and it could also include providing military aid to the Ukrainians to try to even the balance with Russia. At that point, Ukraine would become something of a surrogate war between the United States and Russia, and there’s no telling where things would go from there. Of course, the other alternative is that Putin will take advantage of the fact that the world’s attention is presently distracted by events in Iraq and Israel, not to mention an Ebola outbreak in Africa that threatens to reach other parts of the world, to take action.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    The Ukrainians need to bring in international military observers and plenty of international media. Then they need to offer the rebels amnesty in return for a peaceful stand down. And they need to resist retaliating when the rebels fire from civilian locations. This is a PR battle now in addition to being a military one, and it needs to be made perfectly clear that there are no atrocities for the Russians to use as a pretext.

    Transparency helps Ukraine and hurts Russia.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    Stuck in moderation.

  3. Fixed. Askimet seems to be having hiccups today

  4. Ron Beasley says:

    This is a scary situation. Putin is a belligerent man who has a obvious short man’s complex. In addition the people of Russia would like to recreate as much of the old Soviet Union as possible.Increased Russian involvement in the Ukraine will probably force NATO’s hand. I don’t really see how Putin’s ego will allow him to see the the defeat of the Russian separatists. This will not end well..

  5. Jeremy says:

    Two words: Alexander Dugin.

    Two more words: holy shit.

  6. @Ron Beasley:

    I don’t know that the “people of Russia” want to recreate much of anything. I think that like mst people they just want to be able to live something resembling a secure life, and Putin provides them the illusion of that.

  7. Tyrell says:

    @Ron Beasley: I am not sure that the people want the old style Soviet Union, especially considering the disastrous living and economic conditions back then. Putin seems to want some sort of empire with a religious factor. They have been rebuilding churches, and building new ones. Baptist news services reported big increases in attendance and new church plants. Gone is the antagonism and persecution of Christians that occurred in the past. Putin has even expressed the goal of making Moscow the new center of Christianity, replacing Rome.

  8. Ben Wolf says:

    . It was largely in response to these victories that the Russians apparently decided to arm the separatists with heavier weapons, including the surface-to-air missile system was apparently responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 as well as several Ukrainian military aircraft.

    No evidence has been presented that Russia armed the rebels with a BUK anti-aircraft system or any other heavy weapons, for that matter. Nor has any evidence been presented the rebels shot down the airliner. The British have been totally silent on the contents of the black box, no indication of a missile strike has been found at the crash site (which the Ukrainian government has announced is now a free-fire zone but that isn’t getting reported in the Western press), we know for a fact Ukrainian government forces had deployed a BUK in the vicinity and the Russians have released radar telemetry showing two Ukrainian Su-25s in close proximity to the airliner.

    Doug, you are spreading misinformation.

  9. rudderpedals says:

    What little of the shrapnel filmed before the rebels carted it all away was entry-exit flying rod debris that came up around the left hand seat rudderpedals and out through the ceiling following a path generally through the captain’s left shoulder. That’s consistent with the missile came from the launcher in front of and along the airplane’s course, inconsistent with frogfoots letting off a missile in a tail chase.

    Coupled with the number of other BUK shots taken by rebels before after and currently against Su25s (among other things), admissions from rebel leaders, image trails of the launcher in Shizne (?) and moving off to old Russia after the MH17 shootdown, and the rebel looting+cleanup of the crash site and I’d suggest the misinformation is not from Doug this time.

  10. Ben Wolf says:


    1) No investigation has concluded anything about missile fragments.

    2) I have seen no evidence rebels carted anything away.

    3) A BUK which no one can demonstrate exists is not necessary to shoot down a warplane flying at an altitude for for ground support. The rebels have man-portable missiles.

    4) You have ignored the radar telemetry

    5) You have ignored that Ukrainian BUK was confirmed present

    6) Why have the U.S. and the Ukrainian government not released their telemetry?

    7) Why has the Ukrainian government confiscated recordings from flight control?

    8) Rebel leaders have admitted nothing of the sort.

  11. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    What are your views about the truth behind 9/11?

  12. rudderpedals says:

    @Ben Wolf: Those issues and more are addressed pretty much straight up at or not addressed at all but should be (ATC tapes for ex as you mention)

    A very thorough forum thread at is sort of low s/n but I’d commend it to you for the nuggets

  13. dazedandconfused says:

    There is a chance Putin built up his forces on the border to provide the rebels with a place to find sanctuary should they decide, or he decide to ask them, to call it quits. I do not think they will trust their lives to offer from the new Ukrainian government for amnesty. They have a certain nationalistic zeal and associated ruthlessness about them.

    It may be Putin’s support of the rebels was experimental in nature, but of they couldn’t grow their numbers even with his support it wasn’t meant to be. I recall the early days of the conflict when and entire battalion of the old Ukraine’s airborne (elite) infantry defected en mass with all their equipment, and another detachment meekly surrendered their AK47 firing pins in exchange for being permitted return to Kiev. There was certainly reason for Putin to suspect it might be worth trying.

    An anecdotal incident that was recorded when the rebs tried to organize their own Maidan Square type demonstration in one of their towns might have captured the problem. Their was a small crowd but they lacked enthusiasm. A middle aged couple were asked by a reporter what side they supported and he said “The side that screws me the least.” A comment one would expect from a man watching a mud wrestling match between Rosanne Barr and Rosie O’Donnell for the right to claim him as husband…

  14. Ben Wolf says:

    @Neil Hudelson: Criminal negligence and incompetence by the Clinton and Bush Administrations. What’s your opinion of blaming the Russians within a day of a crash with no supporting evidence? Or is a rush to judgement as much a liberal thing as conservative?

  15. Ben Wolf says:


    On Jul 28th 2014 the Ukrainian Government reported that the flight data and cockpit voice recorders’ first analysis results suggest the aircraft came down as result of an explosive decompression after the aircraft had been punctured by shrapnell from an explosion outside the aircraft. There is no such statement from the DSB leading the investigation or the AAIB conducting the read out and analysis of the black boxes.

    So the Ukrainian government knows what is on the flight recorders but the British don’t? I’ll ask again: why have the U.S. and Ukrainians not released their telemetry? That area is continually painted by civilian, battlefield and long-range radars. Russian telemetry shows Ukrainian warplanes in the area, which the Ukrainians deny.

  16. rudderpedals says:

    @Ben Wolf: The quote has it the other way around. The Brits (AAIB) have the CVR but the DSB (what is the DSB?) doesn’t. Someone on the investigation leaked that the last thing on the CVR was a normal transmission from the pilot. The underlying story is here . Nothing on the CVR is what you’d expect from a large missile going off 50 feet in front of you.

    If the other Malaysian casualty is any indication you and I won’t see anyone’s raw radar tapes or other surveillance records, definitely not right away. It took a couple of months before inmarsat let the public have at raw-er timing data.

  17. Grewgills says:

    @Ben Wolf:
    Given all your posts on this topic and virtually all Russia related topics it seems that you think that Putin and Russia are the most honest party regarding the events in Ukraine and the now separate Crimea. Is that the case or are you just a gadfly?