KYIV, Ukraine-Ukrainian troops are slowly advancing in the
country’s eastern war zone, testing the limits of a shaky stalemate in the
five-year-old conflict against Russia and its separatist proxies.
In the last year, Ukrainian military forces retook 24 square kilometers (about 9.3 square miles) of territory in the country’s embattled Donbas region, officials said, underscoring the slow and steady progress of a so-called creeping offensive that dates back to late 2016.
“It is impossible to win the war by defending, you need to
counterattack and push your opponent along the whole line of delimitation,
otherwise the enemy will easily move forward and seize our positions,” Serhii
Morugin, a Ukrainian conflict journalist who has reported from the Donbas war
zone, told The Daily Signal.
The leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany negotiated a
February 2015 cease-fire, known as Minsk II, which locked the war in eastern
Ukraine along a relatively static, roughly 250-mile-long front line. The deal
also required both sides to pull weapons with calibers above 100 mm back from
the contact line.
Nevertheless, the Donbas conflict is ongoing and has killed more than 13,000 Ukrainians, according to United Nations estimates. Of that number, more than half have died since Minsk II went into effect.
Today, about 60,000 Ukrainian troops are deployed to the Donbas
war zone where they remain hunkered down in trenches and ad hoc forts opposite
about 38,000 combined Russian-separatist troops-a force funded and financed by
Moscow, which includes roughly 3,000 Russian regulars, Ukrainian military
Wary of heavy casualties, as well as the imposing prospect of
spurring a Russian counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces have advanced in fits and
starts over the past few years, mostly relying on small-unit raids to take
pockets of territory and overrun isolated enemy positions.
Ukrainians recaptured the town of Shyrokyne on the Sea of Azov in
2016. Then, beginning in early 2017, Ukrainian forces intermittently recaptured
a string of settlements, notably around the combined Russian-separatist
strongholds of Horlivka and Donetsk. Ukrainian military personnel refer to this
glacial, cautious advance as a “creeping offensive.”
At the cost of about 100 soldiers killed in action, Ukraine’s
territorial gains over the past year are roughly equivalent to one-quarter the
acreage of the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.
These incremental advances aren’t enough to turn the conflict’s
tide in Ukraine’s favor, but the moves could spur Russia to retaliate, some
experts and officials warn. However, others argue the offensive operations are
needed to boost Ukrainian troops’ morale, cut down on smuggling across the
front lines, and help square the real-world battlefield map with the front-line
geography laid down by the Minsk II negotiations more than four years ago.
“Of course, there is a risk [of Russian
escalation], in addition to more casualties of Ukrainian soldiers,” said
Oleksiy Melnyk, a former Soviet fighter pilot who
is now co-director of foreign relations and international security programs at
the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center think tank.
“However, it is important to emphasize that even
if these actions may be considered as cease-fire violations, [they] do not
violate the agreed-upon separation line,” Melnyk said.
A key part of Ukraine’s strategy has been to occupy tracts of
territory within no man’s land-colloquially known as the “gray zone” among
At some places, opposing forces are separated by several
kilometers of no man’s land, with each camp hunkering down in defensible
positions that offer the best natural protection from shelling and sniper fire.
Outside the town of Novomykhailivka,
Ukrainian dugouts were located at the
edge of a wood line before a flat expanse of shrubland, which offered little
cover or concealment. The combined Russian-separatist positions were on a
far-off rise, unseen to the naked eye, the Ukrainian soldiers explained to this
correspondent. Advancing into no man’s land at this location would be a
dangerous endeavor, exposing the troops to indirect fire with scant protection.
Yet, despite the increased exposure to enemy fire, Ukrainian units
have pressed forward into no man’s land at multiple locations over the past
year, achieving “a tactical advantage at some
spots,” said Melnyk, the former Soviet fighter pilot and think tank expert.
As the Ukrainians advance, the distance to their enemies has narrowed
to within dozens of meters at some places-close enough to shout verbal insults
to the other side.
“The positions of the parties are converging,” Morugin said,
adding that the status quo of immobile, trench warfare is “psychologically
intolerable” for Ukrainian troops.
“For five years, the army has grown tired of defensive actions,”
Morugin said. “It’s psychologically important to release every meter of
Ukrainian land, even if such attacks and counterattacks are associated with
Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Ukraine of violating
the Minsk II cease-fire. Ukrainian officials, however, say the territory
they’ve recaptured should have been under Ukrainian government control, anyway,
according to the agreement.
During a recent visit to the war zone, outgoing Ukrainian
President Petro Poroshenko said the territorial gains did not violate the
“We are clearly aware that Russia has not
abandoned its aggressive intentions, and our state, unfortunately, is still in
danger,” Poroshenko said during a May 6 speech to front-line soldiers,
according to a readout published to the presidential administration’s website.
“The enemy must know clearly that any attempts to undermine our frontiers will be doomed to failure,” Poroshenko said.
Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian and TV star with
no political experience, defeated Poroshenko by a landslide in an April 21
presidential runoff. Zelensky said during his campaign that he’s unwilling to press an
end to the Donbas conflict with military force, and left the door open for
peace talks with Putin.
“We will continue with the Minsk talks, we will
reboot them,” Zelensky said during his election night victory speech.
Putin, for his part, said he’s open to dialogue
with the new Ukrainian president.
“If we ever meet in order to hold talks-and I don’t rule out
such a possibility-we will first and foremost have to discuss ways to end the
conflict in southeastern Ukraine,” Putin said at an April 27 press
conference in Beijing, the Russian news agency TASS reported.
No Military Solution
There’s little enthusiasm in Kyiv for ramping up combat operations to bring the war to a quick and decisive conclusion. A major Ukrainian offensive to retake the entire Donbas territory would exact a heavy toll in civilian and military casualties and wreak havoc on the infrastructure of a region already scarred by five years of war. Also, such a move would likely spur Russia to escalate the conflict or invade, experts say.
It’s so far unclear whether Zelensky will halt
the creeping offensive strategy for the sake of a negotiated peace deal with
Moscow. While the consensus opinion among Ukrainian politicians and
military brass is that there is no military solution to the conflict, the prospect of diplomatic compromises with Russia
risks domestic backlash.
Many Ukrainian soldiers remain skeptical of
diplomacy with the Russian president.
“Any negotiations with Putin are a deal with the
devil. We already have the Minsk agreement, and should move to it. There is
nothing more to negotiate,” said Oleksiy Bobovnikov, an officer in the
Ukrainian army. “Any compromises with Russia means their victory, and heavy
losses to Ukraine.”
Volodymyr Sheredeha, a combat veteran of the
pro-Ukraine Dnipro-1 volunteer battalion, was similarly skeptical of peace
talks with with Russia.
“All diplomatic negotiations and agreements can’t
resolve the conflict, because there does not exist, and won’t exist, real
consensus between the two sides,” Sheredeha said. “That way can only lead to an
eternally frozen conflict, regularly igniting and calming down combat from time
to time, again and again, like we have seen for the past four years.”
New Name, Old War
In 2018, Ukraine rebranded its war effort. The “Anti-Terrorist
Operation” became the “Joint Forces Operation,” or JFO.
A parliamentary law approving the measure formally labeled Russia
as the “aggressor country” and dictated an administrative shake-up in which the
military took overall control of the war effort, subordinating the role of the
Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU.
Despite the name change, the daily rhythm of combat along the
trench lines in eastern Ukraine remains similar in nature to that of the
Western front in World War I-although on a much smaller scale and with some
technological perks, such as the use of drones and electronic warfare.
It’s a bizarre conflict in which the opposing camps are
essentially sitting in place, weathering daily artillery and sniper fire
without trying to achieve a strategically significant breakthrough.
Psychologically, it’s a tough war. There’s simply no escaping the danger-the artillery can start at any time and the sniper threat is never-ending. In the end, a soldier’s chances of survival depend on good luck and the odds of not being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Outside the war zone, life goes on relatively as normal across
Ukraine. Still, the conflict constantly teeters on the edge of escalating into
a much bigger and far deadlier cataclysm.
Moscow has deployed about 80,000 troops along Ukraine’s borders
capable of launching a rapid, armored invasion within two to four weeks,
current and former Ukrainian defense officials say.
Within the two breakaway territories in the Donbas, combined
Russian-separatist forces maintain a force of roughly 700 tanks, of which about
500 are operational, according to Ukrainian military officials. That’s about
three times more operational tanks than the number currently possessed by the
United Kingdom, according to data from Jane’s 360.
An additional 40,000 Russian troops are currently garrisoned in
Crimea, along with missiles and bombers capable of striking mainland Ukraine.
With so much Russian combat power amassed on Ukraine’s borders, there are some in Ukraine who say the creeping offensive strategy is too risky.
Andrii Telizhenko, a former Ukrainian diplomat to the U.S. who is
critical of Poroshenko, condemned the creeping offensive as a “very dangerous”
gambit made for “political propaganda motives.” Yet, despite his misgivings,
Telizhenko also acknowledged the need for some element of dynamism in Ukraine’s
long-term war planning for the sake of preserving soldiers’ morale.
“The military in a war zone cannot stand static, or it will
demoralize. So it was also necessary for Kyiv to take action on taking new
ground to please the psychological and patriotic moods of the soldiers who are
in the [war zone], not in the best conditions, and are being killed almost
every day,” Telizhenko said.
‘The New Armed Forces’
This month more than 130 troops from the U.S.
Army’s 101st Airborne Division deployed to a base in western Ukraine, taking
the reigns of a U.S. mission to train Ukrainian troops that dates back to 2015.
The United Kingdom and Canada also maintain long-standing training missions in
With Western help, Ukraine’s armed forces have moved away from the
strict, top-down Soviet chain of command structure, adopting in its place a more
Western approach to military leadership, which empowers troops to be more
autonomous in combat.
Today, Ukraine’s combat forces are more nimble and able to react to battlefield realities without relying on play-by-play micromanagement from commanders safely ensconced behind the front lines.
Still, many Ukrainian soldiers complain about burdensome paperwork
and a military bureaucracy run amok, underscoring how the daily grind of
managing a frozen, low-intensity war-in which combat loses its urgency and
becomes a business-like affair-can be just as harmful to morale as the
“We have a long road ahead of us,” Bobovnikov
said. “But comparing where we are in 2019 with where we were in 2014, it’s more
than just a huge step forward-it’s some kind of giant leap.”
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