Rebel Forces Prepare Spring Offensive in Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 69

(Source: Reuters)

All parties to the Minsk Two agreement, which has resulted in a shaky ceasefire in southeastern Ukraine since February 12, express varying levels of concern about a possible full resumption of hostilities. On April 10, the pro-Russian Ukrainian rebel leader who heads the Donetsk “People’s Republic” (DPR), Alexander Zakharchenko, warned that the conflict could resume, pointing to Kyiv’s reluctance to implement the Minsk Two agreement. In fact, Zakharchenko implied that the possible targets of a fresh rebel offensive might by the key cities of Mariupol (Mariupil) and Slavyansk—lost to the regular Ukrainian army last year. “The problem is that we must recover territories that were temporarily occupied, preferably by peaceful means,” he said on April 8 (PressTV, April 9).

Zakharchenko’s warning and the wider fears concerning a fresh outbreak of violence in Donetsk are also reflected in recent statements from both Kyiv and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). On April 8, a Ukrainian military spokesman said that rebel forces were placed on “full alert” for a military offensive that Kyiv and Washington believe will occur within the next two months. “According to intelligence reports, the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic have put their troops on full alert, calling on the militants to return back from health treatment in Crimea, and Russia, as well as in other places,” Ukrainian military spokesman Colonel Andriy Lysenko said (, April 8).

By April 12, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (SMM) expressed disappointment over the eruption of renewed kinetic contact between the Ukrainian forces and the Russia-backed rebels. The SMM’s Ambassador Ertugrul Apakan said in an official OSCE press release: “The renewed fighting followed three days of calm in Shyrokyne facilitated by the SMM, which had allowed monitors the opportunity to re-enter the village on April 9 and April 10 to assess the humanitarian needs of the remaining local population. The SMM monitors had observed and recorded severe destruction in the town, as well as the presence of vast amounts of unexploded ordnance.” Members of the SMM witnessed renewed engagement on April 11 between Ukrainian and rebels forces in Berdianske and Shyrokyne. By April 12, fighting was reported again in and around Donetsk airport. Apakan noted that rebels had prevented the SMM monitors from entering Shyrokyne on April 11–12 (, April 12).

Indeed, rebel forces, including snipers, frequently open fire on Ukrainian positions within fifteen minutes after OSCE observers leave an inspection area. This suggests that members of the SMM are not receiving full cooperation from rebel forces or gaining a fuller picture of the on-the-ground developments (, April 10). These developments also coincided with a hardening of Zakharchenko’s rhetoric and clear dissatisfaction with Minsk Two and Kyiv’s political willingness to implement the agreement. On April 10, in another ominous sign, Zakharchenko cancelled military leave for rebels serving in the local DPR separatist forces (,, April 11; Interfax, April 10).

Meanwhile, sources within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), though sparse on specific details, have alleged that since the latest ceasefire began Russia has continued to arm the rebels. According to a high-ranking Ukrainian officer in the command of the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), as of April 8, the combined rebel forces in Donbas (eastern Ukrainian region encompassing Donetsk and Luhansk provinces) possess approximately 700 tanks, 600 artillery systems and more than 300 multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS). If true, on a comparison of the tank holdings alone, the Donbas rebels have more tanks than France, Germany and the Czech Republic combined (, April 9).

However, the movement of weapons and hardware into the hands of the rebels also implies the existence of a Russia train-and-equip program that has largely escaped the attention of Western commentators. In fact, this Russian train-and-equip program in southeastern Ukraine has resulted in the rebel force order of battle coming to reflect that of the Russian Armed Forces: in other words, it is a brigade-based system with the maneuver units deployed as battalion tactical groups (BTG). This has given rebel forces a powerful edge in the field, not only benefiting from Russian direct and indirect support, but exploiting the fact the BTGs are significantly more likely to win the day over the ATO battalions (Live Journal, February 27). A recent analysis of the weaknesses of the ATO in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye provides insight into the type of lessons being drawn and no doubt addressed in these rebel exercises (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 4). Eyewitnesses report combined-arms maneuver warfare being rehearsed regularly in southeastern Ukraine in which rebels and regular Russian military personnel participate. This is explicit in video footage of such exercises uploaded by the separatists showing the involvement of hardware that is exclusive to the Russian Armed Forces (InformNapalm, January 20).

Russia’s unofficial train-and-equip program to aid the rebel forces in Donbas appears to be intensifying, and perhaps not without reason; ahead of what is likely to be a decisive period in the crisis and supporting Western and Kyiv-based suggestions of a renewed rebel offensive within 60 days. One illustration of this train-and-equip program recently emerged in Yenakiyeve. Russia-backed rebels were conducting military exercises outside this southeastern Ukrainian town. According to the rebel battalion commander, Ostap Cherny, an important visitor was delighted by the progress on show: “The general is very pleased,” he told his troops. The general in question was not named, but the implication was that he is a Russian general. Cherny had referred to an individual observing the exercises surrounded by five camouflaged armed guards, who later stayed at a Luhansk hotel under high security (The Moscow Times, April 5).

If, indeed, the Russian train-and-equip program in Donbas presages a fresh rebel land-grab, it is likely to be masked as an entirely rebel offensive. The initial target seems most likely to be Slovyansk, using combined-arms joint operations that draw on units of the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” and utilize the same pincer movement used in Debaltseve in February. The risk to Mariupol is also considerable. And with sufficient Russian support, including regular troops and logistical support, the risk of the city falling to the rebels is particularly high. But the ongoing Russian train-and-equip program for rebel forces and Zakharchenko’s belligerent statements and actions, including freezing leave for personnel, should raise concern.