Modern Wargaming: Conflict In The Ukraine Part Two – Civil War In The Donbas

November 2, 2015 by crew

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Welcome to Part Two of our continuing article series on modern wargaming, specifically the recent conflict in the Ukraine. In Part One, we discussed many of the pros and cons of “current-conflict” gaming, and a summary background of the Ukraine conflict.


Now we push forward into the summer and early fall of 2014, looking at some of the more pivotal engagements of this conflict, and discussing in greater detail what gaming can teach us about the specifics of modern warfare.


Due in part to problems in funding, supply, morale, and corruption, the Ukrainian Army was relatively slow to react to the uprisings in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics (DPR and LPR, respectively). Once the Ukrainian Army got moving, however, they did so in a big way.

A powerful drive was launched southeast between the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, aimed at dividing the rebels and cutting them off from Russia, from whom they were suspected of receiving support, recruits, and supplies. One of the towns in the way was Sloviansk, a known rebel haven.

Armoured Transport

The town was soon surrounded by Ukrainian Army, National Guard, and “volunteer militia” forces. Although President Poroshenko offered a ceasefire, this was never observed around Sloviansk. DPR separatists repeatedly fired on Ukrainian forces, who deeply resented their own government for tying their hands with a ceasefire.

Flags Flying

Finally, the Ukrainians launched a new offensive against Sloviansk on June 3rd. Renewed fighting raged for the better part of a month before the separatists started to break. Ukrainian troops pushed into Sloviansk itself during the first week of July, which is the engagement we’re featuring in the third simulation of our series.


The government push into Sloviansk was a large operational undertaking, involving perhaps up to 15,000 troops of the Ukrainian Army (95th and 25th Brigades), National Guard, and supporting volunteer battalions. Up to 500 tanks and APCs may have been used. If there was any doubt regarding the gravity of the situation in the Ukraine, it was gone now.


The pro-Russian separatists finally withdrew from Sloviansk on July 5rd. In the aftermath, government forces continued their push down through Artemivsk and toward Debaltseve, still intent on separating the DPR in the south-west from the LPR in the north-east, and preventing them from supporting one another.

DPR Militia

Trouble, however, was brewing to the east. Already there were strong suspicions that Russian support for the separatist rebels was coming over the border. Well-armed and armoured professional soldiers, notably free of insignia, started to appear in the conflict area, soon earning the nickname of “Little Green Men.”

NEW FRONT AT NOVOAZOVSK (August 26th, 2014)

As fighting continued into August, there could no longer be realistic doubt that Russian soldiers had entered the Ukraine and were fighting alongside DPR and LPR separatists. Satellite photographs showed Russian armoured columns, including BTR-90 and BMP-3 armoured personnel carriers, T-80 battle tanks, and self-propelled artillery.


Russian soldiers were also taking “selfie” photos and posting them on VK, a social media site based in St. Petersburg. In interviews, separatists freely spoke of Russian troops fighting alongside them. President Putin even awarded the Order of Suvorov to the 76th Guards Air Assault Division...for a battle that supposedly “didn't happen.”

One of these incursions came in the south, near the coast of the Sea of Asov. A column of Russian armoured vehicles came across the border and supported local separatists in their assault into Novoazovsk. This was an important town because it controlled the road to Mariupol, a large industrial city just twenty miles further west.

Police Station

Ukrainian National Guard and militia were unable to hold the town for long. In interviews, National Guard troops bitterly lamented their lack of heavy weapons and armoured vehicles. Meanwhile, fleets of modern tanks and APCs were driving down Kiev streets in Ukraine’s Independence Day parade, gear that was sorely needed at the front.

In general, the soldiers of the Ukrainian Army was not terribly well supported by its government or its people. Fund-raising drives had to be held on Facebook and other social media sites so they could have flashlights, web gear, rain ponchos, and body armour. Their weapons dated back to 1988, and one batch of ammunition was dated to...1947.

All this from a country that until recently was one of the fastest-growing arms manufacturers in the world. The T-84 “Oplot” battle tank has advanced explosive reactive armour, ground search radar, ballistics computers and a gyro-stabilized main gun.

Post Office Fortress

Yet these were sold for export and profit, while their own army faced Russian T-80s with upgraded T-64s that were sometimes forty years old.


Perhaps the most telling evidence that Russian support had truly entered the equation was the sudden string of reversals suffered by the Ukrainian army in August and September, 2014. The most grievous of these came at Ilovaisk, where a sizable pocket of Ukrainian forces were surrounded by pro-Russian (and allegedly Russian) forces.

Engagement 05

Details are very murky here. Some sources claim that in addition to various militia and National Guard units, the Ukrainians also had elements of the 79th and 72nd Guards Mechanized Brigade in Ilovaisk. Others claim that Ukrainian Army forces “never came to help” the embattled militia and National Guards troops in the town.

Whatever the case, the Ukrainians were soon in very deep trouble. In late August, a deal was struck that would allow the Ukrainians to evacuate through a “green corridor.” However, this didn’t happen. As the Ukrainians started to move, someone opened fire.

Armoured Assault

On one hand, it’s tempting to say that the separatist rebel militias, some of which have a less than perfect human rights record, pulled the trigger. In militia-driven conflicts around the world, these ad-hoc forces can sometimes commit acts that a disciplined, trained, and accountable army would not.

On the other hand, the attack on the evacuating Ukrainian convoy seems to have been carried out with great precision. Video footage from the site show turrets are blown completely off of tanks and APCs bowled over. There are no scorch marks from “misses,” the area was not simply blasted with indiscriminate “Grad” rocket fire.

Sparta Battalion

Chillingly, it’s almost certain that a “real” army did this. The Ukrainians say they lost over 300 men in this tragedy. Pro-Russian sources say it was over a thousand.

In any event, the disaster at Ilovaisk sent shockwaves through the Ukrainian military and government. The Ukrainian Defence Minister would be forced to resign in October. Meanwhile, it’s been suggested that this calamity, along with other setbacks, helped compel the Kiev government toward a cease-fire agreement being worked out in Minsk.

THE MINSK PROTOCOL (Sept 5th, 2014)

In Minsk, capital city of nearby Belarus, a cease-fire agreement was signed on September 5th between the Ukraine, the Russian Federation, the DPR and the LPR. The agreement was reached thanks to facilitation by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Conflict Zone

However, within two weeks of the signing, repeated violations were committed by soldiers on both sides of the conflict. Meanwhile, the separatist republics set up government elections in November. While these elections were widely supported by the local populace, they weren't recognized as legitimate by the international community.

Thus ends Part Two of our Modern Wargaming; Conflict in the Ukraine series. Response to our first article was certainly spirited. It may not be for everyone, just please bear in mind we’re not “making sport” of any of this. If anything, we’re raising awareness of these issues (at least in our little community), and trying to learn something about how these conflicts unfold.

James Johnson

If you would like to write an article for Beasts of War then please contact me at [email protected] for more information!

"Well-armed and armoured professional soldiers, notably free of insignia, started to appear in the conflict area, soon earning the nickname of “Little Green Men”..."

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" drives had to be held on Facebook and other social media sites so they could have flashlights, web gear, rain ponchos, and body armour. Their weapons dated back to 1988, and one batch of ammunition was dated to...1947"

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