On August 10, a battalion-sized strike force supported by artillery and armor of the Russian-led “Donetsk People’s Republic” (“DPR”) attempted to break through Ukrainian lines at Starohnativka, on the distant approaches to Mariupol from the north. This attack came promptly after Ukraine had declined to sign the new document on military disengagement measures, which Russia and its proxies most recently proposed in the Minsk Contact Group (see accompanying article).
Starohnativka’s heights command the Donetsk-Mariupol highway, a possible avenue for enveloping and attacking Mariupol from the north. The site forms a part of the Ukrainian defense “Sector M” (Mariupol).Ukrainian forces at Starohnativka repulsed the attack with small losses of their own. To defend their position the Ukrainian forces had to respond with heavy artillery, banned from that area under the terms of the Minsk armistice (Sprotyv.info, August 11, 12).
The Minsk Two armistice (February 12) requires Ukraine and the Donetsk-Luhansk “people’s republics” (“DPR, LPR”; never mentioning Russia) to pull back missile systems and artillery with calibers over 100 millimeters to certain distances on either side of the “contact line” (battlefront). The pullback distances are variously 25 kilometers, 35 kilometers, or 70 kilometers on either side of that line, depending on the caliber and range of the artillery and missiles systems, as specified in that document. Those zones on either side of the line are confusingly named “safety zones.” Their only attribute, however, is the ban on stationing those types of heavy weapons there; otherwise, the “safety zones” have remained the scenes of Russian-led attrition warfare against Ukraine.
Kyiv has often cautioned all sides that it would have to bring heavy artillery back into position, if necessary, to halt breakthrough attempts by the opposite side. This is what transpired recently in the Marinka battle and now in Starohnativka; both qualify as aggressive probing actions or reconnaissance in force by Russia’s “DPR” proxies. Following the Starohnativka action, the Ukrainian defense ministry confirmed that it would redeploy heavy artillery forward in such situations, and would switch from static to flexible defense (Ukraiynska Pravda, August 13).
Military clauses of the Minsk Two armistice, variously unimplemented or breached by Russian-led “DPR-LPR” forces, include: “immediate [sic]” and comprehensive ceasefire, withdrawal of foreign armed formations, disarmament of “unlawful” armed groups, restoration of Ukrainian control on the Ukraine-Russia border. Any putative implementation (even of the artillery pullbacks) remains unverifiable on that side because it is largely inaccessible to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) monitoring and verification operation (see below).
Both after the Minsk One armistice (September 2014) and after Minsk Two, the Russian-led side has seized Ukrainian territories well beyond the armistice line, while Western governments and international organizations looked on silently. The Minsk Two armistice has simply incorporated the “DPR-LPR’s” territorial gains in breach of Minsk One.
The second Minsk armistice speaks of two different contact lines. For the Donetsk-Luhansk forces, it is “the line according to the September 2014” armistice, although their line de facto runs more deeply inside Ukrainian territory. For the Ukrainian forces, it is the “existing contact line” as of February 12, 2015, i.e., the one running more deeply inside Ukraine. The territory between those two lines gives the measure of Russian/”DPR-LPR” territorial gains at Ukraine’s expense in the interval between the two armistices. Minsk Two has ratified those gains. The apparent discrepancy between the two lines, moreover, potentially creates disputable grey zones.
The same process continued after the signing of Minsk Two. Only six days later, Russian forces, with “DPR-LPR” in a supportive role, seized the Debaltseve area. And subsequent to that, the “people’s republics” additionally captured 28 towns and villages, completely or partially, until early May (Kyiv Post, May 6, citing Ukrainian government documents) and at least two more in July (Den, July 27).
Ukrainian forces forestalled another “DPR” breakthrough at Starohnativka on August 10, thereby also protecting Mariupol from possible envelopment from the north (see above).
Ukraine’s most influential Western partners seem to lack a clear comprehension of the events on the ground. In Washington, the State Department’s spokesman admonished the Russian-backed separatists that “they cannot simultaneously talk peace and fight” (Reuters, August 11)—as if the West’s adversaries, from the Bolsheviks (“no war, no peace”) to the North Vietnamese communists (“talk, talk, fight, fight”) to Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, had ever deemed their thinking along those lines as internally contradictory. And in Brussels, the European Commission called on “all sides” to implement the Minsk armistice on schedule by the end of this year (EurActiv, August 11). This is not even as even-handed as it might look; it actually pressures Ukraine, since the only calendar date in this armistice is for Ukraine to legalize the Donetsk-Luhansk authorities by the end of this year.
The OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine was unable, for several consecutive days, to access Starohnativka and proved irrelevant to the events in that general area. At the same time, it desisted from installing an SMM post in Shyrokyne, on the eastern side of Mariupol. The SMM, a civilian mission, lacks the means to monitor the ceasefire and verify the implementation of armistice clauses. Russia blocks the approval of the necessary mandate, resources, technology, and personnel for the SMM in the OSCE’s Permanent Council in Vienna; while Russia’s proxies block or restrict the SMM’s access on the ground.
On August 6 and 9, anti-SMM protest rallies were held in Donetsk and Luhansk, respectively. Mobs set fire to OSCE/SMM cars, destroying four and damaging more cars. OSCE observers were also shot at in several separate incidents in “DPR-LPR”-controlled territory. The SMM’s rules require observers in such situations to leave the scene immediately, so as to avoid risk to life and limb (one shot in the air would suffice to compel SMM observers to depart). According to the SMM’s leader on the ground, Swiss observer Alexander Hug, these latest incidents were orchestrated to intimidate the SMM and deter it from performing its duties (Osce.org, August 6–11).
The Russian-Ukrainian Joint Center for Control and Coordination (JCCC), comprised of senior military officers, also performs some monitoring and verification tasks related to the implementation of the armistice. But the JCCC is a consensus-based forum by definition, in no way a reliable arbitration instance from Ukraine’s standpoint. Russian officers on the JCCC have been known to advise “DPR-LPR” forces prior to, or subsequent to, these same officers’ rotating duty tours on the JCCC.
The existing armistice terms, while arguably better than nothing, are entirely unenforceable against Russia; largely unenforceable and unverifiable with regard to Russia’s proxies; but are enforceable with regard to Ukraine, and verifiable on Ukrainian-controlled territory only. This armistice has left Ukraine continually exposed to risks and isolated in the field. Instead of implementing those military clauses that could protect Ukraine from further attacks, the Minsk Contact Group and Ukraine’s Western partners support a fresh set of measures that Ukraine finds dubious and that, in any case, fail to remedy the deeply flawed Minsk Two armistice clauses (see accompanying article).