Friday, May 23, 2014

The conflict in the Ukraine as seen by a professional soldier

I have recently come into contact with "Juan" who currently resides near the conflict area in the Ukraine. I don't personally know Juan but I am confident that he/she is a person with a military background and a first-hand knowledge of the Russian military, including elite units. In our email exchanges we soon established that while I was "one of 'them' who was buried under 15 kilometers of concrete, rock and steel" "Juan" was one of the "poor ground pounders had to slog through the mud and slime, rain and snow'. This gave me the idea to ask "Juan" to provide the readers of this blog with an analysis of the conflict in the Ukraine written from the point of view of somebody whose career was on the front lines and not, like me, in air-conditioned rooms with fancy computers and communication gear. I sincerely think that this latter perspective is something this blog sorely needed and I am delighted to be able to share it with you today.

A big thank you to "Juan" for agreeing to share his views with all of us!

The Saker


The conflict in the Ukraine as seen by a professional solider:


I have been asked by The Saker to share my view of the current conflict in the Ukraine. I will provide no information that is not publicly available if one wants to dig and one is observant with the many videos available on the internet amongst other places. I will give my opinion on the fighting capabilities of Russian soldiers (By Russian Soldiers I mean ethnic Russians and citizens of the Russian Federation serving in the Russian Army. This includes most, but not all, on both sides of the Donbas and Lugansk fighting. It is meant as neither a compliment nor a denigration.) but I will not answer any questions, that will be up to the Saker, although he is free to consult me about questions. I am apolitical publicly but I will give an opinion in private. I have served. We will leave it at that with the exception of stating while Saker was safely ensconced under more than a few inches of concrete and steel, I was boots in the mud, therefore he and I have a totally different view of events, his world wide, mine what I could see through my weapon sights and not much more.

I will give my assessment of the military situation and forces arrayed against each other in the Donbas and Lugansk Oblasti but first I will say a little something about War. War is not a nice vocation, it is not a nice event. War is almost always, operative term being almost, a result of failed diplomacy. War is in essence an extension of diplomacy and as such is almost always political one way or another. Politics be damned, to us who have been to war, to us who have fought, actually fought, we hate war more than anyone. For those of you who have not been to war, and don't mean those of you who have served in one way or another in your army, but those of you who never picked up your weapon and went nose to nose with the proclaimed enemy, fought him and won, you have no idea what it is like. You see the videos, you see the AAR's (After Action Reviews, the synopsis of what went right and want went wrong and why.), you read the endless pontifications of the talking heads in the news media and the politicians, but you have never seen real War unless you have stood and fought, watched your enemy fall, watched your comrades fall, seen the toll on civilians, walked the field after a battle, seen the destruction, smelled the smells, heard the sounds, felt the fear (We are always afraid before combat. It is our training and experience that allows us to hide the fear from our comrades and the younger men in the unit.). No, unless you have stood in the line you don't know War.

For most of you War is an abstract happening, something to talk about, to play video games about, to laugh and joke about in the cafe or bar after work, to urge one side or the other to attack, fight, do something. If you only knew the reality of combat you would never even whisper the word 'war', you would hang your politicians from the nearest lamp post at the first beat of the war drums. We are soldiers. You ask us to do this and we do this for you. In the West we are as likely to be spit upon as thanked. When the war clouds gather you scream for us to help you, to save you. We do what you ask and for this many of you denigrate us. In Russia we are honored, welcomed home, thanked for what we did. Yes, we who have been to war, who have stood in the line and fought, we hate war. We also understand more than most that there times, much as we hate it, that one must fight. In my opinion this is one of those times when men have to fight for Donbas and Lugansk.

One more thing before I turn to the topic at hand: If you want to understand Russia, Russians and Russian culture you must start by studying Byzantium, it's history, culture, politics and religion. Russia and ethnic Russians are the inheritor of this culture and religion lock, stock and barrel, and study of Byzantium explains a very great deal about Russia and Russians and points you in the direction of further studies.

The context

The events in Kiev starting in very late November and going on to today. The current government in Kiev came to power by way of a coup d'etat in late February of this year. Shortly after that coup the citizens of Crimea and Sevastopol felt threatened by the new government and seized power in Crimea and Sevastopol. Shortly after seizing power the citizens ask Russia for help and protection. Russian responded with alacrity and within a few days Russian forces landed in and around Kerch from Novorossiysk. The assistance to Crimea was a bloodless accomplishment but in the event all the Ukrainian Army, Navy and Air Force based in Crimea were surrounded and cut off. Many immediately surrendered and the soldiers and sailors were offered the choice of repatriation to Ukraine with their families or to join the Russian Federation Armed Forces. Roughly 80% of the soldiers and sailors, both officers and rankers, opted to join the Russian Armed Forces. This tells a great deal about the morale of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. For 23 years the various Ukrainian governments had treated the armed forces budgets as a cash cow to be milked to oblivion. The soldiers and sailors for the most part in Crimea, and in reality of all Ukraine, were poorly equipped, poorly trained, poorly fed and many of the lower ranks had not been paid since November. Their armored vehicles, equipment, weapons and ships were a disgrace. At least 8 of the Ukraine Navy ships were refused repatriation by Kiev and are in the bone yard at Inkerman being cut up for scrap as I write or scheduled to be towed there shortly. Some tanks, BTR's and BMP's had not moved for literally years and had to be towed to the rail heads for repatriation to Ukraine. Of the 39 aircraft at Belbek Air Base 4 were airworthy. The others could not fly and some had been cannibalized to keep the 4 serviceable aircraft flying.

After Crimea voted to become part of the Russian Federation and were accepted in the Federation, several regions in the east of Ukraine became dissatisfied with the new government in Kiev and started to demand more autonomy from Kiev, in other words they wanted to elect their own leaders and administration heads and do away with the Kiev appointed heads of same as was the practice for 20 odd years. Kiev refused and Donetsk Oblast and Lugansk Oblast then seized their local governments, ousted most of the appointed department heads and declared themselves independent. Kiev promptly sent units of the Ukraine Army to quell the unrest and most of the units refused to fight their fellow countrymen and in some cases changed sides and turned their armored vehicles over to the new Donbas Republic's armed forces. This is to be expected in an army where most of the lower ranks are conscripts, in for a year or two and then gone. The main fallacy of the Ukraine Armed Forces is they do not have a professional non commissioned officer corp, in other words sergeants, as a general rule. In the basic infantry units the sergeants are generally a conscript who has a bit more education or other attributes that set him a slight cut above the average conscript. He is selected and usually but not always sent to a short 'sergeant school', returns to his assigned unit and is then out when his conscription term us over. Sergeants are the backbone of a modern army and have been for well over 100 years. They are the 'shop supervisors' so to speak and translate the officer's orders in to words and actions the troops understand and perform. Without professional and long service sergeants the junior and senior lieutenants have to do the sergeant's work in addition to their own work. This adversely affects the work of the lieutenants and often results in their captains doing some of the lieutenant's work, which in turn adversely affects the captains work.

Basic weapons

The basic infantry weapon in the Ukraine Army is the AK 47 and it's later derivative the AK 74.

The AK 47 is an old design but reliable to an extreme. The weapon was designed as an automatic rifle for a very large conscript army and is quite simple and inexpensive to manufacture. It is easy and simple to field strip and maintain and it generally is not affected by the dirt and debris present on all battlefields. I have no idea how many rounds of ball and blank I have fired from one but it is certainly in the many thousands in both training and operations and I have never had that weapon fail to operate reliably nor have I had a single instance of the weapon jamming and failing to fire. 

I have also seen many other varieties of rifles and automatic hand held weapons, most notable being in one video an SKS semi automatic rifle was seen dating from, if my memory is correct, right after the second world war, a PPSh41 of World War 2 fame, short, stubby and with a round drum magazine attached to the bottom of the weapon and basically a lead hose that is not much use at ranges over 200m if that, and a Maxim machine gun on a metal two wheeled hand pulled carriage probably dating from the first world war. I did not see any ammunition for the Maxim so it may have been just for show. The first two I have seen in the hands of both the Federalists and the Kiev troops.

Both the Federalists and the Ukraine Army use the Automat Kalashnikov in it's many variants, both the 47 and the 74.

The medium machine guns generally seen in the Donbas and Lugansk area are mostly of the PK variety. The PK went in service in the early 1960's and and is still standard issue today. The weapon was designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov of AK fame. It is a reliable and simple machine, easy to use, clean and maintain and quite robust. It feeds from the right side using either open belted ammunition or boxed belts, the box attached to the bottom of the weapon receiver housing. The weapon fires the standard Russian round of 7.62 x 54 size, ever so slightly longer than the NATO round of the same caliber. Cyclic rate is between 700 and 800 rounds per minute and range is optimistically listed at 100 to 1500 meters. The weapon fires from the 'open bolt' system. When you release the trigger the weapon fires the round in the chamber and the bolt locks open rather than staying closed as on the AK variants. This it to facilitate belt changes when milliseconds count. The weapon is usually seen with a bipod attached to the front of the barrel but is also capable of being used on a tripod.

When listing the cyclic rate of an automatic weapon, in particular a machine gun, while the instruction sheet tells you that for instance the weapon will deliver up to 800 rounds per minute, the gunner does not want to fire that many rounds in one minute. The normal gunners rate of fire is in 3 to 6 round bursts. The only time you will hear sustained firing of a machine gun is generally when there is either a massive target of opportunity or if the bad guys are close enough to see the whites of their eyes. To fire a sustained burst of 800 rounds in one minute will lead to rapid barrel erosion and overheating and may well jam the weapon. This can put you in a decidedly awkward situation when the bad guys hear the weapon go silent.

Again, both the Federalists and the Ukraine Army use this weapon in several variants.

Tactics and morale

I have watched as much as time allows the videos and read both news reports and reports from other sources about the situation in the two oblasti. I will neither give the Kiev regime advice by publicly telling what I think they are doing wrong tactically nor will I reveal all I see that the Federalists are doing correctly beyond what is publicly available via news or the internet.

The coup government in Kiev was taken aback when some of the first Ukraine Army units arrived in Donbas and promptly refused to fight. Not only did they refuse to fight but some units went over to the Federalist side bringing with them their weapons and BMP light armored tracked fighting vehicles. These events were a tremendous psychological and morale boost for the Federalists. The young soldiers and their officers had been told they would be fighting 'terrorists' and 'separatists' and they were shocked when in the villages they passed through or near the local citizens, dozens of them, came unarmed and physically blocked the light armored units advancing in the direction of Slavyansk with their very bodies. After sometimes extended negotiations the units would either go over the the Federalists or simply turn around and return to their base or lager. In some instances this return to lager move had fatal consequences for some of the soldiers as they were executed by Right Sector operatives that very day. These executions were a mild variant on the old French philosophy of 'we'll execute a few soldiers for the encouragement of the others'. Reality is all armies have done this from time to time, either openly or, as the saying goes, 'accidents happen'.

The reluctance to fight their visibly unarmed fellow citizens who were obviously not terrorists and insisted to the boys that they were not separatists but simply wanted more autonomy and had no intention of leaving Ukraine was a turning point in the Donbas situation. I don't know what the coup government expected but obviously they have precisely zero experience in motivating soldiers and in tactics and strategy.

Some Ukraine Army units have fought, albeit not too well from what I know. Will the remains of the Ukraine Army fight in what is to be the final push tomorrow and Saturday? I do not know the answer to that question. Only time will tell.

Now, the 'national guard'. These units are almost exclusively right sector, the 'victors' of maidan. They have had some of the best advisors money can buy, all supplied from The West. Some of them have been trained in musketry in their extensive system of training camps in the west of Ukraine but most do not have any real military training or experience. Those who signed up for the 'national guard' units were given a crash course in 'soldier 101' lasting two weeks at best and generally less, uniformed after a fashion, armed and sent east. Will they fight? I don't know. I do know they are quite good at appearing in towns and villages suddenly and in numbers, heavily armed but never have I personally seen or heard of them actually fighting in a stand up fight. They seem to be pretty good at spreading terror amongst unarmed citizens and not much else. Most of them are highly motivated and believe in what they are doing. It remains to be seen how well they will fight when their adversaries are shooting back. They do have some numbers on their side.

The overall situation with the Ukraine Army is everything they have is now in the East. They have large numbers of BMP and BTR light armored infantry carriers and fighting vehicles. They have brought just about every tank they have that will run and some of them, while aging platforms, have been extensively upgraded and modernized with the latest night vision devices and weapon sights and quite good reactive armor packages. Most of the serviceable artillery, both towed and self propelled

Air assets are thin. When the Ukrainians first began to use their Mi24 attack helicopters, which is an excellent close support, anti personnel and anti vehicle weapon, they lost several in two days. Ukraine also has several Sukhoi ground attack aircraft and some, actual number serviceable unknown, Migs of various types. The comment of air assets being 'thin' is a bit misguiding in that the Federalists have no air assets.The Federalists do have at least a few shoulder fired anti aircraft missiles and that is what brought down the 5 known destroyed Mi24 helicopters.

Tactics on the part of the Ukriane Army have been poor. While few if any of the actual Ukraine Army units have attacked the Federalists, the Mi24 choppers do seem to be piloted by airmen who will, indeed, attack. I have watched a slow but steady incremental increase of types of attacks and weapons used by the 'national guard' units attacking the Federalists. On 17 May the first mortar shells were fired, just a few and of 82 mm caliber, fired at a Fed blocking post. Kiev nervously looked over their shoulders at the Russian Army glowering at them from across the border, saw no repercussions to the first mortar bombardment, and decided to up the ante the next day, 18 May. That day the first 12 cm mortars were used in addition to the 82 mm mortars of the day before. Also that day the first patently civilian targets were hit and one single 12 cm howitzer shell was fired. Again, no reaction from Russia.

By 20 May, with no visible reaction from Russia concerning the increasing use of heavy weapons against both civilian targets and the Federalist positions, Ukraine began to systematically bombard targets of their choosing. The number of patently civilian casualties from 15 May to 23 May numbers over 50, some dead, most wounded.

On 22 May the first overt attack by 'national guard' units against a Ukraine Army unit that refused to attack civilians occurred near Volnovakha. The tactics used by the national guard were interesting but almost standard for them of late. They arrived at the Ukraine Army lager outside the village in lime green vans and at least one white van, announced they were 'friends' and then started shooting at the Ukraine Army soldiers. While they managed to kill and wound most of the Army unit some did survive and most, after the initial surprise, fought back with spirit. Casualties in the Army unit seem to be in excess of 60 dead and wounded, on the national guard unit not as many but more than a few.After the fighting stopped and the wounded from both sides were removed, two Mi24 attack helicopters identified as 'national guard' helicopters, attacked the area and destroyed most of the trucks, ambulances and BMP's of the Ukraine Army unit and the damaged national guard vans left in place. An entire Ukraine Army armored company was thus destroyed by 'national guard' units for refusing what in reality was an illegal order, to wit, attack an unarmed village full of civilians.

This incident alone will have very serious repercussions for the Kiev government, although the international community is dead silent about the killings. It shows that if you do not do what the Kiev government tells you to do you will be killed. Every unit in the entire Ukraine Army knew of this incident within an hour of it's happening. This will adversely affect the morale and combat effectiveness of the Ukraine Army from top to bottom. It is very possible that some Ukraine units may either attack 'national guard' units or simply change sides. That remains to be seen, but it is a fact that soldiers can not be made to attack with weapons pointed at their backs from the rear. They will be just as likely to turn on the enforcers as they are to attack the perceived 'enemy'. There are already, as of 08:15 local time on 23 May, unconfirmed but reliable reports of two Ukraine Army units going over to the Federalist side.

On the Federalist side, tactics have been developed ad hoc using the available units and soldiers. They have several advantages in that most are local boys and they know the surrounding areas like the backs of their hands, having grown up there. After seizing several weapons storages in both Donetsk and Lugansk Oblast the Federalists are now reasonably well armed and supplied with ordinance including anti air missiles and anti tank weapons, antitank being both missiles and RPG's plus a few old but as new condition antitank rifles which have no trouble ventilating any BTR or BMP.

It is obvious from their tactics that they hold no area that they are willing to fight to the last man for at this moment that has been aggressed by the Kiev forces. From what I have seen on the scattered but continuous attacks on their 'blocking posts' they will generally withdraw at the first sign of national guard presence in attack mode, sit back and wait. The national guard unit will then take the post, do the obligatory 'burn the barricade' drill, take what food is lying around and leave. The Feds then return, rebuild the barricade, sit back and have lunch. The Feds have lost men in these raids but the losses have been low.

The Federalists do often attack national guard units and the one Ukraine Army unit that does seem willing to fight. The national guard units, being generally on the defensive de facto, are in the position of having to defend a large area and lack the manpower required to do that. The Nats (I will do a name change now, or a shortening of names. The Federalists will be known as the Feds, the national guard and their allies will be known as the Nats) do have many strong positions in some areas that the Feds are smart enough to not attack. However, from readily available information it is obvious that the Feds to attack and/or ambush Nat units often. They use the classic tactic of having a local preponderance of force or, as the Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard said 150 years ago, 'I got there fustus with the mostus', in other words local superiority at the moment. Local superiority does not necessarily mean superior numbers, it can, and often does, mean local surprise and instant domination of the battle area by fire. The Feds do this drill by day or night.

These tactics seem to be working, at least for now. The Nats casualties for the last month are well in excess of 600 dead and a like number of wounded, wounded meaning anyone who is hurt one way or another badly enough to be off duty for a time to full blown intensive care. For the Feds casualties are not reliably known but have not been anywhere near the numbers of Nat casualties. Civilian casualties there are no reliable numbers for but from reliable sources do run over 200 dead and wounded in the last month in the two oblasti.

If the Kiev regime manages to attack throughout the entire area at one time they will probably win this campaign as they seem to be perfectly willing to accept civilian and military casualties and damage that would not be looked well upon if known or reported by national and international news media. The Feds are seriously, read vastly, outnumbered and woefully under equipped. The Feds have but a very few BMP light armored vehicles and a few captured BTR vehicles, almost no artillery and zero air assets. They do have excellent morale and do believe strongly in their cause.

Strategically, I don't know. I'm not bad at tactics, being just a lowly veteran sergeant, but from what I see Kiev is in the position of having to attack and attack strongly on 23 and 24 May. Their masters are adamant that they solve 'this problem' before the election scheduled for 25 May. I have no doubts that at least some, not all but some, a goodly number of 'some', of the Federalists will fight to the end to hold their very few strategic locations.In reality they have no other option, either fight to the death or be killed after the fact. Is Kiev and their international backers and masters willing to do the massive fighting this will entail in civilian areas and with the very large civilian casualties this act will entail? I think so. Will Russia intervene? I don't know and conjecture is useless on whatever actions Russia may or may not take.

Only time will tell how this unfolding tragedy will end, but my thoughts are that Ukraine as it was last October is dead and gone, never to arise again as we knew it.

(To be continued)