Modern Wargaming: Conflict In The Ukraine Part Three – Escalation

November 9, 2015 by crew

We embark on Part Three of our continuing article series on modern wargaming, specifically the recent conflict in the Ukraine. In Part One, we discussed “current-conflict” gaming and took a quick look at the context of the 2014-2015 war in the Ukraine. Part Two took a more detailed, tactical look at the conflict’s early engagements.

Airport

Now we move into the middle phase of the conflict, where fighting continued through the winter of 2014-2015 despite the agreements of the Minsk Protocol (implemented September 5th, 2014). We’ll discuss how the conflict escalated as foreign involvement became more overt, and how these influences affected continuing engagements.

DONETSK INTERNATIONAL (October 2nd, 2014)

As discussed at the end of the Part Two, the Minsk Protocol failed to even slow down the fighting in the eastern Ukraine. In fact, certain areas of the warzone saw the combat intensify further. One of the worst areas was an old battlefield, the Donetsk International Airport.

Donetsk, of course, was the capital of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), larger of the two rebel states trying to break away from Ukraine. Yet right on the outskirts of the rebel capital, government troops had maintained control of the sprawling airport since seizing it in May, 2014 (see Part One of our series).

Armoured Cover

Four months later, the separatists were back, this time with help. Whether or not Russian soldiers actually took part in the battle is, for some, an open question. But, Russian aid seems to be beyond dispute. BM-21 “Grad” rocket launchers, modern APCs, and especially T-72B1 main battle tanks; stark evidence lays in the wreckage on the field.

This is important because without heavy support, it’s doubtful the DPR could even have contemplated an assault on the airport. Just as no amount of arrows ever made can knock down a castle, no amount of AK assault rifles could ever storm this airport. Only with heavier, military-grade artillery does such an attack become feasible.

Under The Bridge

For the separatists, the first step in re-taking the airport would be clearing government troops from the surrounding neighbourhoods, especially to the south. These included the Kyivs’kyi District of Donetsk (ironically named for Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine).

Fighting in these approaches to the airport started as early as September 29th and our next engagement takes a look at one of these initial clashes. As outlined in these photographs from our table, we used Force on Force to see how tanks could support a militia-based drive into the outskirts of a modern city.

Underpass Ambush

Frankly, we had some difficulty. In addition to the AT-5 antitank missile’s minimum range (see the photos), separatist infantry could also clear many Ukrainian RPG teams before they could get flank or rear shots on the T-72. Typically, these are the only shots with which an RPG has any hope of hurting a modern tank.

RPG Teams

Yet our game table doesn’t have basements, indoor rooms, sewers, or truly hidden movement. So, was the T-72 unrealistically safe? Did the Ukrainian tank hunters never have a chance at getting a proper angle on their quarry? The cardinal rule is: “never send tanks into cities.” Yet here the separatists seemed to be getting away with it.

THE AIRPORT FALLS (January 21st, 2015)

Study enough military history and you’ll find that almost every war has its “Stalingrad.” In Normandy it was Caen and St. Lo. In World War I it was Verdun, in Vietnam it was Hue City. Here in the Ukrainian Conflict, it was Donetsk International Airport.

While the First Battle of Donetsk Airport lasted just one “blitzkrieg” day in May 2014, the second battle lasted from September 29th all the way to January 21th, 2015. Having surrounded the government troops inside the airport, separatists then subjected them to a withering siege lasting almost four months.

Scale Of Conflict

Built during the Cold War and recently modernized with a new terminal, the Donetz International Airport was a gargantuan complex. Covering some fifteen square kilometres, it included huge terminals, tunnels, bunkers, even entrances to nearby mines and the Donetsk sewer system.

The airport was also well-defended. Some sources place elements of three Ukrainian Army brigades (95th Airmobile, 75th, and 93rd Mechanized) in the battle, plus volunteer militia. Ukrainian media was soon calling their soldiers “cyborgs” or “Terminators,” a testament to their indestructible resilience.

Terminal Conflict

These men, however, were not “terminators.” With every building in the airport gutted by fire, rockets, and artillery, they were steadily pushed back into a single terminal. Fighting continued, floor by floor and room by room. The wounded could not be helped, and calls for reinforcement, supply, or evacuation went unanswered.

Artillery Strikes

The hammer finally fell on January 21st. Cut off, starving, out of ammunition, and mostly wounded, the last surviving Ukrainians were overrun by a final separatist assault. About 400 Ukrainians had been killed, over a thousand wounded, and the rest captured. The Second Battle of Donetsk International Airport was finally over.

DEBALTSEVE (February 17th, 2015)

This was only one of several Ukrainian setbacks during the winter of 2014-15. With their hands intermittently tied by a series of failed ceasefires, and facing separatist rebels with ever-growing Russian support, Ukrainian Army and militia fighters faced an uphill struggle.

Another such setback was the collapse of the wedge that Ukrainian forces had driven between Donetsk and Luhansk back in the summer of 2014. One of the key battles in the resurgent separatist drive was the Battle of Debaltseve, fought in January and February of 2015.

Ghost Brigade

At least one source has dubbed Debaltseve “The Shame of the Generals” – probably because once again nearly 6,000 Ukrainian troops found themselves in a pocket, surrounded by Russian-backed separatists. These rebels pushed into Debaltseve itself on February 17th, which is the engagement we’ve recreated here.

After weeks of hard fighting and ceaseless shelling, the Ukrainian position had become untenable. Haunted by what had happened in the “Ilovaisk Cauldron” (see part two), Ukrainian leaders finally managed to get most of their troops out, mostly through farmers’ fields since the main roads had all been cut by separatist artillery and armour.

Machine Gun Team

The professionalism of the “rebel” troops again hinted strongly that Russian regulars were now in Ukraine, actively fighting government forces. Many of these “little green men” (as they came to be called) were clearly Asian in heritage, suggesting a Siberian division and not “local patriots” as Russian media claimed.

In one incident, “separatist” troops, despite being pinned under devastating Ukrainian artillery fire, did not retreat or break. In fact, they simulated a gun battle with THEMSELVES to cause Ukrainian artillery spotters to mistake some of them for friendly troops. The artillery was lifted just long enough for the “separatists” to escape.

Devastation

It is interesting to note that pro-Russian civilians in these areas freely admit these are Russian Army troops, who are characterized as “well-behaved” in comparison to DPR militias (sometimes feared even by pro-Russian civilians). In any event, American journalists in Debaltseve noted that much of the city welcomed the separatists as “liberators.”

MINSK II AGREEMENT

One of the worst things about the Battle of Debaltseve was that it raged straight through the implementation of yet another ceasefire agreement, Minsk II. Signed on February 11th 2015, this protocol broke down almost immediately as separatist rebels continued to press their advantage at Debaltseve and elsewhere.

But as winter turned to spring, the Ukrainians were getting international help as well. Military advisors from the UK, Poland, the US, and Canada arrived to help train the rebuilding Ukrainian Army. German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged 500 million euros in guaranteed credit lines to help in reconstruction. At last, the world was watching.

Pushing The Front

Needless to say, such support drew a sharp response from the Russian Federation, who still claimed that they “weren’t involved” in the Ukrainian Conflict. Both sides accused the other of escalating the situation, while Ukrainian and separatist forces continued to fight in violation of the Minsk II ceasefire.

In our fourth and final instalment, we’ll look at some of the last battles of the Ukrainian conflict, and pose possible reasons that the fighting has finally (and thankfully) reduced to a fraction of previous levels. Finally, we’ll try and draw some conclusions from the conflict, and how it has shaped the current (and future) state of modern war.

James Johnson

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"The cardinal rule is: “never send tanks into cities.” Yet here the separatists seemed to be getting away with it..."

"...they simulated a gun battle with THEMSELVES to cause Ukrainian artillery spotters to mistake some of them for friendly troops. The artillery was lifted just long enough for the “separatists” to escape"