Talks could save Ukraine’s Donetsk from destruction

Talks could save Ukraine’s Donetsk from destruction

Victory over the ‘terrorists’ in eastern Ukraine is imminent, Ukraine Defence Minister Valeriy Heletey told the BBC on August 3, 2014.

His statement came as the encirclement of the industrial city of Donetsk was about to be completed, and as forward units of the army were moving into the northern suburbs, writes Professor Stefan Hedlund.

The ‘liberation’ of the last and most important stronghold of the rebels has begun. Soon it will be over, and law and order can be restored.

But not so fast. What are we talking about here? Donetsk is a city of a million inhabitants, or about two million if the surrounding area is included. It is true that over the past couple of weeks the Ukrainian army has made substantial gains in open territory and in capturing minor towns and villages. Its superior number of troops, tanks and artillery has been decisive. But during that time, the rebels have had ample opportunity to prepare for urban warfare. Their threat of turning Donetsk into the bloody battle that was Stalingrad should not be taken lightly.

The West has also been forced to witness how the Kremlin has responded to increased economic sanctions - not by backing off but by substantially increasing its support for the rebels. Nato has repeatedly claimed to witness columns of T-72 tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery and anti-aircraft guns crossing the border.

The rebels, one must assume, also have access to anti-tank weapons, air-defence weapons and large amounts of small arms with ammunition. Their numbers are variously estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000. And they have nowhere else to go.

If Mr Heletey believes speedy victory will be won by sending armoured columns into the city, he should read what happened to Russian forces entering the Chechen capital, Groznyi, on New Year’s eve 1995. The vastly superior Russian army sent the 131st Maikop mechanised brigade with some 1,000 men into the city centre to finish the job.

It was obliterated. Its commanding officer and 800 men were killed with 20 of 26 tanks, and 102 of 120 armoured vehicles destroyed.

There are reasons why urban warfare is the nightmare of military planners. The Russian side did eventually ‘win’ in Chechnya, but at the cost of turning Groznyi into a heap of rubble, reminiscent of Berlin at the end of the Second World War.

An alternative is to send in troops to clear the city street-by-street, house-by-house, running into heavy resistance by pro-Russian rebels on every corner and being ambushed after every advance.

The rebels will have a heavy advantage with knowledge of the terrain and access to weapons suited for urban combat.

Victory would take time and would claim many lives, military as well as civilian. It is questionable how the government in Kiev would hold up when the body-bags started arriving, and it is even more questionable how long the Kremlin will sit idly by before it launches a ‘humanitarian peace-keeping’ operation to make short shrift of the Ukrainian army.

The sad truth is that while Kiev and its Western supporters refuse to consider negotiating with the rebels and Moscow, there will be nothing but bloodshed, be it quick and massive - or slow and unrelenting.

Will future history books really have to record the ruins of Donetsk as the main symbol of the rebellion in eastern Ukraine?

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