If you think the ceasefire between Ukraine and Russian-backed militants is fragile today, wait until next week. After Easter Sunday, pro-Moscow forces could begin a spring offensive lasting until (Russian) V-E Day, or May 9.
That’s the prediction of retired Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO supreme allied commander and U.S. presidential candidate, who recently visited Ukrainian commanders and forces.
V-E Day, known as Victory Day in Russia, marks the surrender of Axis forces to the Allied forces at the end of World War II, and holds a special significance for Russians. “We see planning in Russia to celebrate this. It would be wonderful for Putin if he could wrap up his conquest and celebrate it on that day if the allies are boycotting his celebration,” said Clark.
“Why are they reporting that? Because they feel that Putin’s forces require a certain reorganization period. That period began in mid-February with the ending of the Debaltseve campaign, in eastern Ukraine. It normally takes at least a couple of months, maybe longer” for pro-Russian forces to regroup after major campaigns, Clark said Monday at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.
Fighting in the area of Debaltseve began in mid-January and although a ceasefire began on February 12,, Russian-backed forces took control on February 21. The Minsk II ceasefire agreement is largely holding, according to Clark. Despite the veneer of relative tranquility, all is not well in Donbass.
Pro-Russian separatist forces essentially gamed the entire ceasefire, according to Clark. First, under the auspices of the agreement they convinced the Ukrainians to pull equipment back from the front line while separatists kept heavy artillery close to battle zone but concealed. How did they pull it off? The monitoring organization charged with policing the ceasefire agreement, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, has fallen down on the job and can’t provide unbiased monitoring, according to Clark.
“More than half of OSCE are Russian military,” Clark said. The Russian monitors were “on the honor code” not to pass information on Ukrainian positions back to separatist military forces.
“The Ukrainians have pulled back their heavy weapons systems. They’re already at a disadvantage because if an attack were to occur they have to first put their weapons into position and move them forward to be able to engage, whereas the separatist equipment is there. Russian equipment is regularly coming over. Russian units are regularly coming over,” said Clark.
Other reports corroborate that statement. On Monday, Ukrainian officials reported 22 tanks rolled into the region according to Newsweek, which also reported firing in the area over the weekend. “Sunday night 15 separatist Grad missiles were fired at the Ukrainian city of Horlivka. The Donetsk administration explains that pro-Russian fighters had received 122mm Grad missiles as part of one of Russia’s so called ‘humanitarian convoys’, which continue to arrive in the rebel-held regions.”.
“Russians delivered more and more tanks and troops,” Natan Chazin, a Ukrainian battalion commander told Defense One. He also reported that shots were being fired everyday and called the ceasefire not “real.”
Clark predicted that in the next round of fighting, separatist forces will likely look to finish what they started. Clark dismissed predictions that further fighting would be limited to port city of Mariupol, calling Mariupol, “the cork in the bottle,” and adding that Putin’s ultimate goal probably lies beyond even the Ukrainian provinces, or oblasts, of Donestsk and Luhansk.
“They’ve been told to cease up the oblast boundaries but it makes sense that they would try to link up to Crimea at some point, because otherwise Crimea is economically unsustainable … In the January offensive, the Russians were given the objective … to secure the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast, up to the oblast boundaries. Apparently, this has some political significance in the Russian mindset … They launched in mid-January … they never made it to the oblast boundary and took very high losses,” said Clark. “The Minsk II agreement essentially stopped them along a 400 KM line of conflict well short of the oblast boundaries. On our recent visit, we found them there.”
Based on current positions, Clark says that the Russian-backed separatists are well placed to launch a potentially devastating offensive, noting that Russian tank forces were engaging the enemy at 7,000 meters, well beyond Ukrainian tank capabilities. Clark also discussed how effectively the separatist forces were using drones for reconnaissance and targeting, describing a situation where Ukrainian forces would spot a drone overhead and experience incoming artillery shells less than ten minutes later.
The Obama administration should prepare an aid package, including long-range counter battery radar and short-range (lethal) anti-tank weapons such as Javelins, equipped with thermal imaging said Clark. Even if the United States does not actually send the package but readies it for immediate deployment, the existence of the aid package and a firm show of willingness to send it in the event of additional Russian ceasefire violations, could offer some sort of deterrence, if only temporarily. Until then, Clark suggested the U.S. could provide the Ukrainian side with better intelligence and analysis.
“Provide joint indications and warning analysis to Ukraine to provide the missing information they need to have firm warning of a Russian offensive,” he said.