By Gordon M. Hahn
In August the forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) rebels were largely surrounded after weeks of retreat and were on the verge of being destroyed at Ilovaisk. Suddenly, seemingly miraculously the tide turned, and Ukraine’s forces were encircled and routed, forcing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to agree to ceasefire talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin under the intermediation of Germany and France at Minsk in September. Through autumn the ceasefire gradually weakened.
Prior to Ilovaisk, the direct Russian intervention with Russian army forces had not been significant if at all a fact, despite poorly documented Western claims to the contrary; claims often based on false data supplied by Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). However, it was clear that the turnaround in the fortunes of the DNR forces was the result of a well-timed, limited intervention by Russian spetsnaz and tank and/or artillery support in accordance with the so-called ‘hybrid warfare’ model. But the mechanisms of intervention remained unclear.
In January Minsk 1.0 broke down, fighting renewed in full force, and by mid-February Ukrainian forces were again being encircled at the kotyol or salient caused by the partial encirclement of Ukrainian forces the strategic transportation hub at Debaltsevo. Again Ukrainian forces were routed; a rout that might have been worse if Petroshenko had not again met Putin and the Europeans at Minsk, producing a more detailed and thus far more effective Minsk 2.0. This time, Russian journalists have been able to clearly document the mechanism of hybrid military intervention, which to some degree matches that hypothesized in previous accounts.
Two days ago, a Russian opposition, pro-democratic newspaper, Novaya gazeta, published an interview with a wounded ethnic Buryat soldier from Russia’s eastern Republic of Buryatiya who described in detail the recent intervention at the kotyol in Debaltsevo (www.novayagazeta.ru/society/67490.html).
Russian Armed Forces’ Stealth ‘Hybrid War’ Technology
Twenty-year old private Dorzhi Batomunkuev and his tank battalion were mobilized from Buryatia to Rostov some time around October 26th from where they would cross the Ukrainian border in early February as the Debaltsevo kotyol took shape. Batomunkuev’s battalion and, even moreso, according to his account, a spetsnaz unti form Khabarovsk that Batomunkuev came to learn had to be cobbled together from separate other units. He also witnessed the Moscow-based Kantemirskii Brigade being mobilized in a proximate echelon (www.novayagazeta.ru/society/67490.html).
Batomunkuev’s battalion included 31 tanks and around 120 servicemen divided into three tank regiments with supply and communications equipment. “To every 10 tanks were joined three armored personnel carriers (APCs, in Russian BMPs), a mobile medical unit and ‘Ural’ trucks with ammunition.” This was capped off with 300 infantrymen. All were from Buryatiya, and the majority were ethnic Buryats. The composition was in part made up of conscripts, in part they were contract servicemen. The men were not told where they were going, nor were they told they were going on maneuvers. Most seemed to understand that they were going to Ukraine. Some, including one officer, refused to go, according to Batomunkuev. They crossed the border and entered Donetsk at night (www.novayagazeta.ru/society/67490.html).
Batomunkeuv’s group did not fare well. On February 19th he was severely burned when his tank was hit by an artillery shell fired from a Ukrainian tank. His commander was similarly wounded some time around February 12-14 (www.novayagazeta.ru/society/67490.html).
Batomunkuev had little to say about the rebels, but what he said did not impress. They are “unorganized” and “strange”; they fight intensely and then suddenly stop as “at work” (www.novayagazeta.ru/society/67490.html).
Batomunkuev had little impressive to say about the Ukrainian forces. They largely tried to sneak out of the kotyol, usually at night under cover of dark. He said that 2-3 thousand of the approximately 8 thousand encircled forces were conscripts; the rest were not and did not have to come. He, thus, condemned them for killing women and children, which he apparently witnessed in some way. Batomunkuev also related an exchange with a Ukrainian soldier who admitted that his comrades were killing peaceful civilians and had done so himself. He also relayed a Ukrainian radio message they overheard: “Listen carefully Moscow, Petersburg and Rostov freaks. We will kill you all. First we we will kill you, your wives, children and we will get to your parents. We are fascists. We will not stop at anything. We will kill you, like your Chechen brothers, and cut off your heads. Remember this. We will send you home in zinc boxes in pieces.” Apparently as a result of these experiences, despite the stealth mobilization and intervention, Batomunkuev, considers that he “fought for a rightful cause” (www.novayagazeta.ru/society/67490.html).
Four points stand out from this account. First, the interventions are stealthily prepared and executed. Second, they appear to be limited to key strategic interventions when a turning point in the civil war is at hand on the battlefield. Third, the tendency to bring units in from the east could create a reliance on ethnic minority-dominated units like Batomunkuev’s, which could exacerbate ethnic divisions with the army and in the country. There is little record of poor relations between Russian and Buryats, so this approach could create a new problem for Moscow. Fourth, the nature of the mobilization, lacking in any motivational propaganda or preparation for the troops, as Batomunkuev reports, will limit the effectiveness of such interventions to some degree.
There are three political implications. First, Putin seems to be using these interventions to not just affect the correlation of forces on the battlefield but also to force Kiev to the bargaining table. Second, Putin is engaging in perhaps effective propaganda, perhaps not, when he taunts Kiev with claims its army is being defeated by miners and factory workers. Although this is largely true, it appears that at least once – at Ilovaisk in August – the rebel forces had proved incapable of defending themselves from a concerted Ukrainian offensive. That might have changed by now, with supplies and training gaining apace. Nevertheless, Putin knows the West will not risk a larger war by officially supplying Kiev with lethal weapons. However, it is likely that the more anti-Russian NATO member-states on Russia’s border – Poland and the Baltic states – will join Putin in hybrid war by stealthily providing fighters and lethal weapons to Kiev in the near future. We will find out, if and when Minsk 2.0, like its predecessor, breaks down, perhaps in April.
Finally, although it does not appear to be the case with Batomunkuev, who says he supports Putin and the war, the effort to cover up the mobilization and intervention is bound to fail in the long-run and could have explosive political ramifications for the Kremlin down the road.