One of the deadliest skirmishes of 2018 leaves five soldiers dead
The Ukrainian Joint Forces Operation (JFO, formerly called the ATO) acknowledged the death of five of its soldiers this week, along with another seven wounded. This news comes after claims from the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) that numerous Ukrainian soldiers were killed and wounded during an unsuccessful attempt to seize a position near Zholobok on August 23; however, a number of reports indicated that the 4th Brigade of the LNR initiated the attack.
This article describes the digital materials that help explain this deadly skirmish, and provides a contextual background for the recent military maneuvers of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Zholobok and other nearby villages.
Casualties Come After Series of Manuevers
The Ukrainian Armed Forces have had a series of minor victories in the summer of 2018, especially along the northern regions of the front line in both the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. As detailed by the @DFRLab over the past few months, Ukrainian forces have made moves into villages within the so-called “grey zone” —the area along the front lines that is not under firm Ukrainian or Russian/separatist control.
The LNR would claim that these recent moves mark a preface to a Ukrainian advance near Zholobok, while the Ukrainian government would note that these moves do not constitute violations of the Minsk accords, and have no connection to the recent LNR attack near Zholobok.
Back in May, Ukraine made an aggressive advance into a small village near the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) stronghold of Horlivka, sustaining an artillery barrage from Russian and separatist hardware from more favorable positions.
Last month, Ukraine consolidated its control over the village of Zolote-4, located near the LNR-controlled village of Maryivka (also called Zolote-5) east of Svitlodarsk. However, many have criticized the Ukrainian Armed Forces for claiming “victory” there, as the village has been under soft Ukrainian control for years.
These maneuvers preceded the deadly skirmish near Zholobok, where both Ukrainian and separatist officials accused each other of initiating an attack. Below is a map of the northern area of the contested areas of the Donbas, indicating these three incidents — one of which was a successful Ukrainian maneuver in Zolote, one was a Ukrainian maneuver that brought mixed results near Horlivka, and the final one was the Zholobok skirmish. The red shaded area indicates territory controlled by Russia and the so-called republics of eastern Ukraine.
Zholobok: Incidents Leading Up to Skirmish
The village of Zholobok has been the site of some of the more intense skirmishes of 2018, with the town currently under the control of the Russia-backed separatists of the LNR. The village is strategically important due to its position on the P66 highway, often called the Bakhmut Route (“Bakhmutskaya trassa”), which the Ukrainian Armed Forces control in segments both west (in its entirety) and east (in part) of Zholobok.
Ukraine has held entrenched positions near Zholobok for at least a year, with geotagged photos from Ukrainian soldiers in trenches to the east of Zholobok confirming this claim, as seen below.
In June, Ukraine’s Joint Forces Operation claimed that Ukrainian forces had moved within only two kilometers from Zholobok, surrounding from the north, west, and east. Ukraine has frequently conducted shelling of Zholobok and the surrounding area over the past few months, particularly in June and August of this year. The aftermath of a Ukrainian artillery strike that hit civilian housing was shared by the (not impartial) official YouTube channel of the LNR’s armed forces. It should be noted that the village of Zholobok is mostly, if not entirely, abandoned by civilians.
In the past two weeks, well-known Ukrainian volunteer and military commentator Yuriy Mysyagin shared a few (optimistic) updates about the activities of the Ukrainian Armed Forces near Zholobok — in particular, the work of the Aidar Battalion, which, in 2014, was accused by Amnesty International of committing human rights abuses and “war crimes”. According to Mysyagin, much of the region around Zholobok is the “zone of responsibility” for the Aidar Battalion, who allegedly destroyed “four BMPs” [infantry fighting vehicles] last week. Additionally, on August 17, Mysyagin wrote that Aidar forces found a disguised enemy tank in a forested area, and damaged it after a “mysterious third power” [sarcastic reference to Ukrainian Armed Forces] carried out an artillery strike on the coordinates specified by the Aidar fighters.
The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine has relatively little presence near Zholobok, with more of their monitors deployed elsewhere in the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts, but their observation drone did spot some activity near the village that could correspond with the incident described by Mysyagin. On August 17th, the same day as the Ukrainian artillery strike near a forested area of Zholobok, an OSCE SMM to Ukraine drone observed a large fire in eastern Zholobok that affected over a dozen houses. It is unclear if these incidents are related.
The same day, an SMM long-range UAV spotted at least 16 houses engulfed in fire in an eastern part of Zholobok (47km west of Luhansk) and a house engulfed in fire in a southern part of Dolomitne (53km north-east of Donetsk).
While there is no footage of the August 23 battle itself, the Aidar Battalion shared a drone video of military positions (both Ukrainian and Russian/LNR) near Zholobok from August 2018 on their Facebook page. They deleted the video soon after publishing it, but it was saved and republished on a private YouTube channel, below:
Additionally, Aidar’s official Facebook page took a screenshot from the drone footage and republished it in a post.
Zholobok: Unsuccessful August 23 Attack
According to the spokesperson of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, forces of the LNR attacked a Ukrainian position on August 23:
“At around 6am under the cover of artillery and mortar fire, the enemy approached the forward positions of one of the mechanized brigades near Krymske and attempted to seize the observation posts along the Bakhmut Route.”
Krymske is a government-controlled village just northeast of Zholobok, near some of the entrenched positions where Ukrainian soldiers have left geotags over the last year. Below, the LiveUAMap situational control map shows the village of Zholobok (bottom-left) and Krymske (top-right).
The battle lasted for hours until midday, eventually leaving five Ukrainian soldiers dead and another seven wounded. Ukrainian President Poroshenko echoed much of the information from the Ministry of Defense, adding a claim that Ukrainian forces killed eight and wounded eleven Russian-led separatist forces in the battle.
The LNR press service, in contrast, claimed that Ukrainian forces launched an offensive against separatist positions in Zholobok from the direction of Krymske at around 7:50am. In a rare underestimate of Ukrainian casualties, the LNR spokesperson stated that four Ukrainian soldiers died and only three were wounded during the incident.
With the available information, it is not possible to confidently assess who attacked whom, as with nearly every incident, both the Ukrainian government and Russia-led separatist press services will accuse the other of initiating the offensive. However, two “insider” accounts pointed to the LNR’s 4th Brigade initiating the skirmish.
On the LostArmour.info discussion board, one of the most active areas for in-depth research into the war in the Donbas, the well-known user “Wayne Howell” shared what he claimed to be insider information about the attack. This Russian user previously fought in eastern Ukraine and has a number of contacts with are still active in fighting along the front lines of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.
Regarding the August 23rd battle. Very succinctly and pared down, and I don’t know more than what I’m writing about, so don’t ask further questions.
Our guys attacked, the fourth brigade [of the LNR]. We decided to dislodge the Ukrops [derogatory term for Ukrainian soldiers] from the position that we previously lost. They went out in the morning, attacked them, knocked them out. Then, Ukrainian artillery joined in [the battle]. It started to lay into this position and from where our guys attacked from. Our artillery quickly joined in and started to lay into the Ukrops. As a result, the position that was attacked by both artilleries was shot to shit and as of yesterday it was a tie, and will likely remain as such because there’s nothing left to fight for there. Among our ranks, ten wounded and no dead.
An account from Ukrainian military insider Yuriy Butusov both contradicts and corresponds with the account of “Wayne Howell”, but generally agrees with the main events of the day. In particular, both agree that the Russia-led separatists initiated the fight with an assault group from the LNR’s 4th Brigade, and both sides traded artillery fire for hours.
“August 23rd at 5:55am, the enemy started its powerful artillery attacks. And in the course of this artillery activity, the enemy used smoke rounds to blind our observers. Already in the course of the artillery activity we suffered losses. One of the soldiers at the observation post was wounded and went to the rear. The tank fire was especially dangerous, as up to three enemy tanks were firing in the battle. Simultaneously with the shelling, an assault group with sixteen people went on the attack. The distance was short, the fire stuck to the ground, and the smoke screen did not let our nearest units to strike at the attackers. As a result, the group of Russian mercenaries burst onto the position right after the shelling was over. None of the remaining three Aidar fighters were captured — all stuck to fighting, and they were pelted with grenades. (…) Soon, our guys got a direct hit on the stronghold of the 4th Brigade [of the LNR] on the other side of the [Bakhmut] route — ammunition exploded at the enemy’s position. Then, a direct hit on the position that the enemy occupied. And then the enemy assault group retreated. For several hours, artillery fire was exchanged, and the battle lasted all of four-and-a-half hours.
Nazar Prihodko, the spokesperson for the Right Sector-aligned Ukrainian National Assembly — Ukrainian People’s Self-Defense, shared the names and photographs of four of the soldiers who died in the August 23 attack. All four of these soldiers were from the Aidar Battalion. The fifth casualty was a man named Heorhiy Olkhovsky of the 128th Mountain Assault Brigade.
There have been no names of Russian or separatist fighters who have been confirmed or rumored to have died in the skirmish.
Currently, the situation in Zholobok is pretty much where it was before — Russia-led separatists control the village along the Bakhmut Route, and Ukrainian forces surround it in trenches that were dug long ago, as both sides occasionally trade artillery fire after nightfall.
How do we know what we know?
Collecting information and analyzing the situation in the Donbas is especially difficult due to the inherent biases and agendas of various sources. For that reason, the @DFRLab thinks it is useful to detail where we gathered our information to synthesize our analysis, along with the sources’ potential biases and goals in publishing their information.
— The Ukrainian government, including its President, Ministry of Defense, and Joint Forces Operation. While information from these sources is usually roughly accurate, they will rarely, if ever, admit to committing violations of the Minsk accords, and will overestimate the number of Russian and separatist casualties they inflict during skirmishes.
— The press service of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) and its militia. Their information is less reliable than that of the Ukrainian government, but is still important to assess in conjunction with other sources. In a rare move, they underestimated the number of casualties they inflicted during the skirmishes near Zholobok. Like the Ukrainian government, they will rarely, if ever, admit to committing violations of the Minsk accords.
— Geotagged photographs from Ukrainian forces along the front lines. These materials are relatively reliable, as they are consistent across multiple profiles and correspond with satellite imagery showing Ukrainian positions near Zholobok.
— Drone imagery from the Ukrainian Aidar Battalion. These images can be geolocated and verified independently in order to locate newly-dug trenches and military positions near Zholobok.
— Popular Ukrainian military analyst Yuriy Mysyagin, who is often embedded with military forces of Ukraine along the front lines and has close contact with a number of deployed units. He often shares interesting and useful accounts from the front lines and photographic/video materials, but is also overly optimistic about the progress and effectiveness of Ukrainian military maneuvers.
— Popular Russian source “Wayne Howell,” who was previously a fighter among Russia-led separatist forces in the Donbas and currently an active source of information on the LostArmour.info discussion boards. He relays information received from friends and contacts among separatist forces, and is generally more reliable for “insider” information than propaganda fronts, such as News-Front or the DNR/LNR press offices.
— Ukrainian military insider Yuriy Butusov, who frequently reports accounts from the front line. Like Mysyagin, he is often overly optimistic about the results of Ukrainian maneuvers, but has good sources for many of his reports.
— LiveUAMap situational map, showing a general overview of territorial control along the front lines. This assessment is not always completely up-to-date and cannot be trusted when considering exact trenches and positions, but is useful for considering the general situation and approximate position of the front line in the Donbas.
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