Newest maneuvers continue trend of creeping Ukrainian offensive in “grey zone”
The Ukrainian Armed Forces announced the capture of Vilny (also known as Volny), a settlement in previously disputed territory in the Luhansk Oblast. This small settlement was located on the outskirts of the village of Zolote-4, which Ukrainian forces consolidated control over in July of this year, as detailed by @DFRLab in previous analysis.
This recent event is the latest in a series of minor offensive maneuvers from the Ukrainian Armed Forces. None of these advances came after intense fighting or notable ground offensives — instead, they are examples of gradual consolidation of Ukrainian control in contested territory without fortified military positions. While most focusing on the war in the Donbas direct their attention to the relatively densely populated areas near Donetsk city, especially Avdiivka, the Ukrainian military has been most active in the Svitlodarsk Bulge and in the Zolote area of the Luhansk Oblast (near the Zolote disengagement area), as most recently indicated by the capture of Vilny.
Where is Vilny?
Though Ukraine’s government and military celebrated their capture of Vilny, it is more of a small settlement within the Zolote area than a separate town. As detailed in a previous @DFRLab post, the boundaries between the various towns numbered as Zolote 1 through 5 are confusing not just to those from the outside, but even contradictory among locals. In short, the western and northern areas are under firm Ukrainian control, the southern region is under soft Ukrainian control, and the southeast is under Russian-led separatist control, with Ukrainian forces gradually consolidating control in the buffer zone between Zolote-2 / Zolote-4 and Zolote-5. Below, the location of Vilny (highlighted in yellow) is indicated in the context of the current approximate situation of territorial control, with non-government-controlled territory shaded in red.
In particular, the Zolote disengagement zone, as defined by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine, can be seen in shaded yellow below, courtesy of LiveUAMap.
Vilny lies in an area that was without firm territory control on the western outskirts of Russian and separatist-controlled Zolote-5, in between the slagheaps (террикон in Russian, as seen in the map below) on the edges of Zolote-4 and Zolote-5 (Maryivka). As seen on Wikimapia below, Vilny (Вольный in Russian) lies in between territory under relatively firm control by opposing factions to the west in Zolote-4 (government-controlled) and east in Zolote-5 (non-government-controlled).
Strategically, this settlement can act as a buffer zone for Ukrainian forces to push Russian-led separatist troops from the territory along the front-lines without clear control from either side and into Zolote-5, as Ukrainian officials claim that Russian-led separatist forces conducted shellings of Ukrainian positions from Vilny. Any future maneuvers from Ukraine to take Zolote-5, which would include a fairly significant mobilization of troops and possibly armor to uproot fortified Russian-led separatist positions, requires Ukrainian consolidation of power in Vilny, which was achieved this week.
Verifying Claims from Ukrainian Sources
Ukrainian media outlets and the Ukrainian military released a series of photographs and videos supposedly from the recently-captured settlement of Vilny.
Two Ukrainian channels went on the same tour in Vilny with Ukrainian soldiers soon after it consolidated control over the settlement, including filming the raising of a flag and soldiers singing the Ukrainian national anthem.
Footage from both broadcasts were geolocated in Vilny. Specifically, the building onto which the troops raised a Ukrainian flag, visible in the preview image in the two videos above, is in the middle of the settlement. In the image composite below, the perspectives of the camera in video frame is indicated by the arrow with the corresponding color:
This building is located in the center of Vilny, corroborating Ukrainian claims of control over the settlement. This is an important step to take when considering how Ukrainian authorities exaggerated their gains in Zolote-4, and paraded out their “capture” of the area despite the fact that for years prior, pro-Ukraine organizations worked out of the building where a Ukrainian flag was raised to signal their military “victory.”
Life and War Continues in Vilny
The Ukrainian Joint Forces Operation (formerly the Anti-Terrorist Operation, or ATO) also shared photographs of recently damaged structures in Vilny from September 23 of this year. These photographs are difficult to geolocate due to a lack of notable geographic details, but supposedly show the result of shelling conducted by Russian-led separatist forces.
Yuriy Klimenko, a Ukrainian official from Luhansk, shared an update from a few days after the Ukrainian capture of Vilny, claiming that Russian-led separatists targeted new Ukrainian positions in the settlement with sniper fire. This claim has not been independently verified.
Depending on which media or government report you consult, there are somewhere between 150 and currently 225 civilians living in the small settlement of Vilny, the majority of which are elderly, as is common in villages along the front line.
Military or Communications Maneuver?
Russian and Russian-led separatist media and officials pushed back on Ukrainian claims of victory and territorial gain in Vilny, pointing to previous exaggerations from Ukrainian media and military officials on their “victory” in Zolote-4. As @DFRLab detailed in July, Ukraine did indeed greatly exaggerate their successes in Zolote-4; however, the consolidation of territorial control in Vilny is a more concrete military advance towards, presumably, the eventual goal of — at best — recapturing Zolote-5 or — at minimum — eliminating potential positions for Russian-led separatists to carry out artillery and sniper attacks against Ukrainian forces.
Ukraine’s victory in Vilny does not necessarily indicate a significant military advance in the near future, as we have still not seen major skirmishes outside of the grey zone throughout the Donbas in 2018. Although Ukraine’s minor advances in the grey zone throughout 2018 are not major victories, Russian-led separatist forces have not reciprocated the same advances, making very few successful moves in consolidating new territory in the grey zone near their own strategic positions. However, there have been spikes in activity in among Luhansk’s Russian-led separatist forces near Zholobok in fortifying their position following a deadly skirmish between Ukrainian and the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic’s (LPR/LNR) forces just outside of the village.
With the assassination of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR/DNR) leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko and the likely ascension of electoral favorite Denis Pushilin, Russia and its proxies may take a new position towards the Minsk accords. Ukraine’s creeping advances into the grey zone, with a focus on eliminating potential positions for separatist forces, grants the government more flexibility in dealing with any of the unpredictable actions of Moscow’s proxies in the Donbas.
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