July 28, 2014 6:52 pm

Ukrainian separatists face crunch point after army offensive

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GRABOVO, UKRAINE - JULY 22: Pro-Russia rebels guard the area around the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 during monitoring by investigators from Malaysia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe on July 22, 2014 in Grabovo, Ukraine. Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it crashed killing all 298 on board including 80 children. The aircraft was allegedly shot down by a missile and investigations continue over the perpetrators of the attack. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)©Getty

Pro-Russia rebels have faced a month-long counter-offensive by the Ukrainian army

The downing of Flight MH17 has focused attention on the sophistication and firepower of the Ukrainian rebels’ arsenal but it has obscured a broader fact: that the pro-Russia separatists are sliding toward a battlefield defeat.

A month-long counter-offensive by the Ukrainian army has pushed rebel forces back into urban centres in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions and is reaching crunch point.

Kiev’s fightback began in late June, when Ukrainian forces attacked rebel positions after a 10-day ceasefire deal broke down. Bolstered by intelligence and advice from western powers, the army pushed rebels out of the cities of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk after brief but violent sieges, forcing separatists to abandon tanks and artillery in a hasty retreat south.

While the first phase of the campaign recovered swaths of largely rural territory, it left the hardest work for later. The second phase is coming to a head as Ukrainian forces grapple with just how to oust what remains of the separatist fighters from entrenched bases in the cities of Donetsk and Lugansk.

“We are seeing the makings of a breakthrough,” says Anton Mikhnenko of the Kiev-based Centre for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies – though he warns Russia’s actions may, as ever, tip the balance.

Kiev has so far been unwilling to countenance a direct assault on either of the two cities, apparently wary that a high civilian death toll would cost it local support. But it has succeeded in weakening rebel positions by other means.

The key objective of the second phase of the campaign, which Kiev dubs “ATO” – for antiterrorist operation – has been to isolate rebels from huge flows of increasingly sophisticated weaponry supplied by Russia.

Ukrainian military planners initially aimed at creating a 5km sanitised corridor along the border. Using three isolated brigades stationed south of Donetsk – the 24th and 72nd mechanised and the 79th airborne – Kiev seized key crossings, such as that at Dolzhansky, which had been main transit points for Russian-supplied materiel.

While efforts failed to reinforce those brigades by air – MH17 was on the same flight path as Ukrainian transport planes to the positions – land forces this weekend broke through at Amvrosievka. On Monday they announced they had taken Saur-Mogila, a strategically important elevation from where rebels had conducted artillery bombardments.

Together, the victories mean Kiev now has a continuum of territorial control along the border as far as Chernovopartizansk.

Holding such territory has become costly and complicated, however, as Russia has reportedly begun using rocket artillery from within its own territory to fire on Ukrainian positions along the border, as US intelligence officials disclosed on Sunday.

“Their task was to establish a 5km buffer zone along the border, but now they need a 30km zone if they are going to stay out of the range of Russian rocket fire,” says Igor Sutyagin, a Russian military expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “If you want to do that you have to fight in the cities and that is very difficult to do. They are stuck.”

Ukraine may redouble efforts to isolate Donetsk first, rather than the entire rebel region. On Monday Kiev said its forces had reached the outskirts of Horlivka, a town to the northeast of Donetsk that has been under rebel control since April, and have now surrounded it. Fighting continues around Debaltseve, east of Horlivka.

From the south, meanwhile, alongside the assault on Saur-Mogila, Ukrainian forces on Monday attacked rebels in Torez and Shakhtarsk. If the army can consolidate its positions in those towns, it will have surrounded Donetsk in a pincer movement. “This means that Donetsk will be cut off from supplies of arms and manpower from across Russia’s border with the Lugansk region,” says Mr Mikhnenko. “The Ukrainian army can now tighten its hold on Donetsk.”

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In Lugansk, a similar, more localised move to isolate the rebel urban centre is under way with an attack on Lutugine, to the city’s south.

None of which is to say that the rebel strongholds will fall quickly – or peaceably. “Fighting in steppe has been easy for the Ukrainian army. They have superiority,” says Mr Sutyagin. ‘But as soon as they are in cities, it’s terrible.”

Russian arms supplies, meanwhile, appear to be continuing apace.

The US reports transfers of advanced rocket launchers and other heavy weaponry across the 100km of border rebel forces still control. Ukrainian military sources said two convoys of cars, tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery systems had been seen moving towards Gukovo, just on the Russian side of the border, on Saturday.

“The breakthrough will only come when Russia stops supplying arms, money and manpower to the rebels, and I don’t see that happening in the foreseeable future,” says Oleksiy Melnyk of the Razumkov Centre, a Kiev think-tank. “Russian interference is the key factor.”

It is telling that Ukrainian lawmakers approved a third wave of national mobilisations last week, Mr Melnyk says: “[Kiev] has enough manpower to stabilise the situation in the east, but not to achieve a breakthrough, let alone real victory.”

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