The assault on the eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka (January 28–February 4) was a combined-arms operation by Russia’s proxy forces, aiming to reverse the recent Ukrainian gains on the ground in a sector of key significance (see below) and, more broadly, to seize the initiative in the ongoing positional warfare. This proceeds in several sectors along and between demarcation lines.
Ukrainian forces have held the initiative for the last few months, using small-unit operations to push into “gray zones” that separate Ukrainian positions from those of the “Donetsk people’s republic’s” (DPR) forces. Since last autumn, Ukrainian forces have regained small but valuable portions of territory which the Minsk armistice had left under Ukrainian control, but which were subsequently seized by Russian-DPR forces with impunity.
Ukrainian commentators describe the pushback to recover the lost ground as “creeping [crawling] advances.” The term denotes the crawling tempo of these Ukrainian operations—it can take weeks to advance a few hundred meters in a given sector—and the tactic of enveloping enemy positions with small Ukrainian units in a noose-tightening process (“anaconda tactic”). These operations’ inconspicuous character has kept them out of the media’s limelight (until the Avdiivka battle). Specialized commentators in Kyiv (such as Dmytro Tymchuk, Yurii Butusov, Kostyantin Mashovets and Oleksandr Motuzyanik), however, regard the “crawling advances” as a new chapter in this conflict and a reflection on the Ukrainian forces’ capacity to plan and execute challenging operations (Sprotiv.info, Tsenzor.net, Info.napalm, January 28–February 8; RFE/RL, January 30).
Those are purely tactical operations within the paradigm of positional warfare on a sector-by-sector basis. Whether the local crawling advances are subsumed into a strategic design is unclear. But they do seem to correspond to a common denominator. Ukrainian units in each case seek to improve their defensive positions against possible attack by massed hostile forces. By the same token, the Ukrainians seek to occupy favorable jumping-off locations for possible offensive action. They aim to seize—or position themselves for possibly seizing—key sections of highways, railroads or junctions thereof, electricity and heating plants, water reservoirs, or dominant hills, preferably on the outskirts of DPR-controlled towns.
These moves are certainly not intended to reopen all-out hostilities against superior adversary forces. The more likely intent is, first, to improve Ukraine’s defensive resilience against a possible hostile invasion/incursion across the demarcation line, as Ukraine has repeatedly experienced. Equally, they appear designed to improve Ukraine’s bargaining position in the event—which many in Kyiv fear, rightly or wrongly—that Western powers might pressure Kyiv into a political-territorial accommodation with the Moscow-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk.
The first known (but hardly publicized) “crawling advance” seems to have occurred in October 2016, when Ukrainian troops gained control of the Svitlodar strip, north of Debaltseve. In December 2016, the Ukrainians moved further into the town of Novoluhanske, six kilometers from the railway and highway junction of Debaltseve (the main Donetsk-Luhansk connecting link), which Russian regular forces captured from the Ukrainians in 2015 (see below). By the end of 2016 and in early January 2017, Ukrainian troops gained one or two more kilometers in several sectors, edging closer to the outskirts of the DPR-controlled towns Horlivka and Yasynuvata (parts of the wider Donetsk agglomeration) as well as half-encircling Dokuchaeve (farther south). And from their long-held Avdiivka stronghold, Ukrainian troops edged southward to the village Spartak, three kilometers from the Donetsk city line. They also edged eastward from Avdiivka, poised to interdict the Donetsk-Horlivka highway and even the Yasynuvata highway and railroad junctions (Tsenzor.net, Sprotyv.info, Info.napalm, January 28–February 8).
Ukrainian troops carefully avoid any move that might be interpreted as intending to cross the Minsk One armistice line (September 19, 2014). Kyiv recognizes this line, not the subsequent changes. Russian and proxy forces breached that line massively in two stages, seizing territories that the Minsk One armistice had left under Ukrainian control. The first stage of land-grabs unfolded in the winter of 2014–2015, as Russia supplied overwhelming firepower, compelling Ukraine to request another armistice. Minsk Two (February 12, 2015), officially purporting to implement Minsk One, did the opposite: Russian and proxy land-grabs in breach of Minsk One were ratified by Minsk Two. And within days of the Minsk Two armistice, Russian forces seized a large Ukrainian-held salient, including Debaltseve (see above), which Minsk Two had left under Ukrainian control. Germany and France, purported guarantors of the armistice, kept silent (see EDM, February 14, 19, 20, 2015).
Ukraine takes the position that the Minsk One armistice line is the only valid line, and therefore the only acceptable reference in terms of disengaging military forces on either side. If the Minsk Two demarcation line—indeed the Russian-breached Minsk Two line—is taken as the basis for a disengagement of forces, then Russian-supplied heavy firepower would threaten to reach more deeply into Ukrainian-held territory, adding to Russia’s capacity for coercion. On these and other grounds, Kyiv aims to reinstate the Minsk One demarcation line. Ukraine has reasserted this position in the Minsk Contact Group’s meetings, including the latest (Ukrinform, February 1).
The Minsk One line has validity as a military arrangement in the field: one that was negotiated, officially recognized, never abrogated, and guaranteed (if only on paper) by the top leaders of the “Normandy” powers (see above). This does not imply that the demarcation line has legal validity. The Minsk One and Two documents have no legal force (it is Russia that seeks to turn their political provisions into legal obligations of Ukraine). For its part, Ukraine is determined to have the Minsk One demarcation line reinstated. This means that Ukrainian forces have no intention of crossing that line. It also means that Ukraine is fully justified to recover ground in the gray zone, between the Minsk One and Minsk Two lines, as it has done recently through “crawling advance” tactics.