Ukrainian Forces Reportedly Have Rebels In Donetsk Surrounded
End game? Or the potential spark of a wider war?
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.