Modern Wargaming: Conflict In The Ukraine Part One – Overview & First Engagements

October 26, 2015 by crew

Community members at Beasts of War may be familiar with my articles revolving primarily around gaming in the Second World War. In an effort to keep things interesting and to “expand my range,” this new article series will shift to a much more current conflict, the ongoing fighting in the Ukraine.

Tanks Roll In

Such conflicts, however, can be tricky topics to handle in a wargame. After all, while you won’t ruffle too many feathers with a battle from the 1400s, when it comes to a war that is much more recent, delicate care must be taken in how the subject is approached.

“Today’s War” – Why Game It?

Perhaps the first question when setting up current-conflict wargames is “why do it?” The roots may lie in why we play wargames in the first place. Sure, it’s always to “have fun,” but what defines “fun” at a gaming table can vary widely from group to group. In all honesty, current-conflict wargames may not be for you.

Many people who play modern wargames are themselves veterans of the armed forces, who have a keen, personal interest in the conflict in question. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this, but bear in mind that such games might not be terribly objective. It’s hard not to see one side or the other as the bad guys when it’s “your” war.

McDonalds & Military

Other gamers see themselves more as “analysts.” They want to examine actual battles (whether they occurred five centuries ago or five minutes ago) and see what made them unfold the way they do. For many such gamers, research and game design are as important as building and painting miniatures.

There are some gamers for whom current-conflict wargames may not be a great fit. Competitive gamers should be especially careful. Wiping the floor with your opponent is always fun in Warhammer 40,000 or X-Wing, but perhaps not when CNN and BBC are still showing crippled civilians and masses of refugees straight from “your table.”

Soldiers

Also, detail-driven “rivet-counters” might have a hard time with the pervasive ambiguity when it comes to conflicts this recent. No one’s written dozens of books on these wars yet. Much of the information will still be classified and ALL of it will be horrendously slanted one way or the other. Prepare for a lot of guesswork.

For those who choose to pursue current-conflict gaming, the rewards can be great. After all, this isn’t dusty, boring history (yawn) no one cares about – nor the “geeky” Sci-Fi or Fantasy that cause non-gamers to patiently roll their eyes. This is happening NOW, every time people turn on the television. If done right, current-conflict wargaming comes with an almost “built-in” respectability. After all, you’re not a gamer. You’re an analyst!

Armour In The Streets

Fortunately, there are some great systems and product lines to help you get started. Spectre Miniatures have great 28mm moderns and have recently started rolling out rules. Empress Miniatures also have great rules and miniatures, especially vehicles that have been featured on recent Beasts of War “What’s In The Box” episodes.

Ambush Alley Games also has the “Force on Force” system, a favourite of many community members who tackle modern-era wargames. In fact, this is the system we’ll be using for many of our games depicting skirmishes that have taken place recently in Ukraine.

Map Of Conflict

Perhaps the simplest reason to wargame current conflicts is that it keeps you informed about important events of our time. In Syria, the Cold War may have restarted. Putin seems to pose an ever-greater threat. China’s shadow stretches ever-longer across the Pacific. Not to sound preachy, but these are events about which we should all be at least somewhat aware.

The Ukraine – Origins Of The Conflict

To understand how and why the Ukrainian War was fought (and who was fighting it), we should take a quick look at the recent history of Ukraine.

Note that I’m referring to the war in the past tense, in just the last month or two the Minsk II cease-fire seems to be finally taking effect. Knock on wood, touch cloth, and call me an optimist, but as of this writing the war seems to be drawing to a close.

Hot Spots

Formerly part of the Soviet Union and before that the Russian Empire, Ukraine has only been an independent country since 1991. Ethnically and culturally, the country is sharply divided between east and west, and it is along this fault line that the country broke in early 2014.

In November 2013, the faltering Ukrainian government (long plagued by rampant corruption) was poised to sign a historic trade agreement with the EU. President Viktor Yanukovich, however, was secretly negotiating closer ties with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

On November 21st, the government about-faced and announced no EU agreement would be signed. Protesters immediately flooded into the “Maidan,” the Independence Square in the capital of Kiev. Huge demonstrations demanded an immediate change in government.

Rally

The government crackdown was brutal, especially by the “Berkut” (Eagle) police paramilitaries. The protests lasted ninety-two days, during which central Kiev was effectively a warzone. Constant clashes would ultimately kill 125 people, with almost 2,000 injured and sixty five still ominously “missing.”

Finally, Yanukovich caved on February 22nd, 2014. He fled the country via helicopter in the middle of the night and was given asylum in Russia. The interim government called for the election of a new president on May 25th, and eventually signed an agreement to join the EU. The Berkut was disbanded, but reformed under Russian control.

Reaction In The East

While the Maidan movement was widely celebrated as a populist victory against a corrupt and brutal government, reactions in Ukraine’s eastern districts were a mixture of horror and rage. In many cities like Khar’kov, Donetz, and Luhansk, counter-protests immediately broke out and government buildings were stormed and occupied.

Occupied Buildings

In all fairness, these fears are not completely unfounded. Eastern Ukrainians saw the Maidan movement as the “Kiev Junta,” an illegal overthrow of their elected government. Pro-European leaders in Kiev have a long history of corruption and embezzlement, and there was even talk of outlawing the use of the Russian language.

Also, there is a dangerous far-right streak in western Ukraine, most notably in the group known as “Right Sector.” Pro-Kiev Ukrainian militia have been photographed wearing swastikas and giving Nazi salutes. Certain “volunteer battalions” have insignia clearly drawn from the Waffen SS. Many are also admitted “Banderists,” named after a Ukrainian nationalist leader who briefly collaborated with invading German forces in World War II.

Street Life

While such elements certainly do not represent the majority of the pro-Ukrainian forces, it should be kept in mind that there WERE two sides to this war. The people in Eastern Ukraine do not trust Kiev, the EU, or the West, and want to remain close with Russia. When the Maidan movement swung Ukraine toward Europe, they reacted.

The War Begins

On April 7th, 2014 a referendum was held in the east Ukrainian city of Donetz, proclaiming the Donetz People’s Republic (DPR). A similar republic was soon declared in nearby Luhansk (Luhansk People’s Republic, or LPR). Together they formed the “Federation of Novorossia” (New Russia), announced they were no longer part of Ukraine, and reached out to Russia for help.

Rebels

April 18th saw the first large-scale Ukrainian military movement into these areas, naturally intent on shutting down these pro-Russian separatists. But the Ukrainian Army, after years of neglect and corruption, was hardly ready for a war.

Ukrainian troops were also often reluctant to fire on “fellow countrymen.” Whole armoured columns allowed themselves to be stopped by crowds of civilians, disarmed, and sent walking home. The weapons and vehicles were promptly handed over to the growing separatist militias of the DPR and LPR.

Checkpoint Attack

Pro-government Ukrainian militias, however, were all too ready to engage separatist rebels. Fighting quickly broke out, with one particularly intense skirmish taking place near Krasnoarmeysk on May 1st, 2014. This was the focus of our first “Force on Force” game detailed in the photos above.

A New President, A New War

On May 25th, the promised elections for a new Ukrainian president took place. Petro Poroshenko was the clear winner, a wealthy businessman widely known as the “Chocolate King” because of his huge candy business. He promised to follow through on most of the demands posed by the Maidan movement.

Conflict #1

Within hours of Poroshenko’s election, DPR separatists attacked and occupied the Donetz International Airport. Poroshenko, however, decided to start his administration with a show of strength. In the first set-piece battle of the war, the Ukrainian Army assaulted the airport, complete with jet aircraft and Mi-24 “Hind” attack helicopters.

This was a big fight, tackled through an obviously-modernized variant of Avalon Hill’s classic Panzer Leader. The Ukrainians won this battle, mostly through overwhelming firepower, and retook the airport by morning of May 26th. The war was just getting started. Many more battles were to come, some at this very same airport.

Conflict #2

Thus begins our new article series on the Ukrainian Conflict. What do you think so far? What are your thoughts on wargaming this conflict, or modern wargaming in general? Post below and keep the conversation going, and of course stay tuned for more to come.

James Johnson

If you would like to write an article for Beasts of War then please contact me at ben@beastsofwar.com for more information!

"If done right, current-conflict wargaming comes with an almost “built-in” respectability. After all, you’re not a gamer. You’re an analyst!"

"Whole armoured columns allowed themselves to be stopped by crowds of civilians, disarmed, and sent walking home. The weapons and vehicles were promptly handed over to the growing separatist militias of the DPR and LPR..."