Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The bloody August of 2014

In the fourth year of the war, after a number of reports and investigations, the public has not yet received a definitive answer regarding all the causes of the Ilovaisk pocket debacle
17 August, 2017 - 11:32
Photo by Mykola TYMCHENKO, The Day

The Ilovaisk tragedy has become not only the largest defeat of the anti-terrorist operation (ATO), but also a decisive event in the course of the Donbas de-occupation campaign. Its decisiveness came from the fact that, firstly, Ilovaisk had attracted excessive attention and too many forces, thus largely taking the focus away from other, no less strategically important, sections of the front. Secondly, it was during that period that the Russian Federation’s troops had massively and openly entered our territory, and not only in the direction of Ilovaisk, but also towards Luhansk. Prior to that, Ukrainian troops had had some experience of direct Russian intervention in the ATO, when the positions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) were fired upon from the territory of the Russian Federation. However, Russia was sending its mercenaries, saboteurs, regular troops, and equipment into the Donbas in a gradual manner. For example, as early as June 2014, Luhansk webcams recorded repeated entries of military equipment into the city, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and tented trucks which were used, in particular, to transport military personnel.

Talking of the Luhansk direction, the militants were in a parlous state there by August 2014. Ukrainian battalions had surrounded Luhansk from several directions. The mercenaries who called themselves “militiamen” were mostly busy changing from camouflage outfits into civilian clothes, and Russian troops were waiting to be rotated from the war zone. The rotation was scheduled for early September. It was then, on August 11, 2014, that the ATO high command issued an order according to which the command of the B sector developed an operation plan which involved the UAF blockading the city of Ilovaisk and mopping up the unlawful combatant units inside it. Besides the UAF, the operation involved volunteer battalions.

The attempt to liberate Ilovaisk turned into a prolonged bloody battle for reasons including the complicated layout of the city itself (it is literally crisscrossed with an immense quantity of rail tracks, which greatly slowed the advance of military vehicles), and most importantly, due to our forces overlooking the city’s fortifications. Our soldiers were effectively lured into a prepared ambush, and several attempts to break the blockade led to even greater losses. All this took precious time, and the culmination of the events came with the already mentioned entry of a powerful contingent of Russian troops, which finally resolved the situation in favor of the occupier.

In parallel with the Ilovaisk pocket, another one was being formed near Luhansk in the Lutuhyne area. However, Ukrainian soldiers there managed to escape from the encirclement planned by the enemy south of the regional capital. The situation in Ilovaisk turned out to be more dramatic. Chief of the General Staff Viktor Muzhenko personally conducted phone conversations with the Russian side, who assured him of a safe passage “corridor” that would allow Ukrainian soldiers to leave the pocket. In fact, Russians literally shot a column of Ukrainian forces to pieces.

In an interview with The Day (No. 17, March 14, 2017), Muzhenko said: “I can say that the events around the Luhansk Airport did not get major media coverage, and it helped us to successfully carry out the operation. Turning now to Ilovaisk, the General Staff made a detailed analysis of these events. These materials are available to anyone who really wants to understand the causes of the tragedy. Time will put everything in its place.”

Indeed, as early as October 2015, a thorough analysis of the Ilovaisk events was published on the website of the Ministry of Defense. The report says that up to 250 militants were in Ilovaisk at that time. On the southeastern outskirts of the city of Mospyne (located to the southwest of Ilovaisk), the enemy equipped a fortified area and concentrated up to 500 militants there. Bridges across the Hruzka River were mined. In the area of the city of Laryne (to the east of the city of Mospyne), units of Russian thugs had also equipped a fortified area. All approaches to Donetsk were blocked by militant strongpoints. Thus, if you look at the map showing the positions of the Ukrainian troops and the enemy forces on the morning of August 24, 2014, just as the parade was starting in Kyiv, a fortified wedge filled with the militants had formed by then to the south and east of Donetsk, and in the absence of external interference (in other words, without a direct invasion of the Russian troops), they could hardly last for a long time. The Ukrainian forces were literally squeezing the enemy out from the western and southern directions as they were breaking through towards Savur-Mohyla, Khartsyzk, Shakhtarsk and Torez. Encircling Ilovaisk itself looked an easy task under such conditions. However, the situation was such that the “knife” which our military used to cut off the attack from the south turned into a vulnerable “wedge” itself, as it became surrounded on several sides.

So, what prevented the Ukrainians from finishing the militants? The invasion of the Russian troops is a very obvious explanation. However, could it have been prevented and, accordingly, could plans to encircle the militants and reach the Russian border have been adjusted? Why was a possible active intervention of Russian troops not considered as a factor, given previous experience of repeated attacks on Ukrainian positions on the part of the Russian Federation, including those near the town of Zelenopillia, the town of Pobieda, etc.?

On August 14 this year, the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) published its long-awaited conclusions regarding the events near Ilovaisk.

It lists three main causes of the tragedy:

1) low level of combat readiness and combat capability of the UAF;

2) numerous cases of desertion, unauthorized abandonment of assigned posts and failure to execute superior orders among Ukrainian military personnel at the time;

3) some mistakes committed by the ATO high command during planning and conducting military operations.

These factors, in the opinion of the PGO, “are in a direct cause-and-effect relationship with the actions of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, which carried out a treacherous invasion of the Donetsk Region on August 23-24, 2014 and a treacherous murder of Ukrainian soldiers.”

Taking into account the fact that the PGO is a body that should not only determine the causes of events, but also look for those guilty, one feels entitled to ask: are not the conclusions of that body, made in the fourth year of the war, way too generalized? Their first point clearly blames the previous national leadership which has fled the country. The second point accuses the soldiers who were literally brought to panic. To put it even more concisely, it says it was all the fault of uncontrolled volunteer battalions. It is only in the third point that the GPO modestly mentions “some mistakes” committed by the ATO high command.

By the way, bodies involved in the investigation of the Ilovaisk events can freely use the work of the relevant commission of the Verkhovna Rada of the previous convocation which was headed by Andrii Senchenko. The sitting parliament has not created such a commission at all.

“Of course, the Russian Federation and the Putin regime are to blame for what happened in both Ilovaisk and the whole of the Donbas,” Senchenko commented for The Day. “However, this does not absolve our political and military leadership of responsibility. They should be held responsible not for the deaths of people, because war always brings deaths, but rather for not complying with the laws of Ukraine which led to disorganization of the national defense. They should be held responsible for failing to take timely decisions when there was enough information, as well as for taking criminal decisions when people were sent to their certain deaths without any hope of achieving any objective. The essence of political manipulation surrounding the Ilovaisk events is as follows: in 2014, the PGO’s investigative group and the parliamentary investigation commission were investigating the Ilovaisk tragedy. The investigation involved the following episodes: 1. Events in the D sector during the month that preceded the encirclement in Ilovaisk. Certain events that occurred in that sector prevented the free entry of regular Russian troops for the Ilovaisk encirclement. 2. Investigation of all factors that affected the planning of the Ilovaisk operation. We were particularly interested in the fact that, despite the fact that the plan of the military operation was approved by the General Staff, it was essentially volunteer battalions, which had been assigned to the police and equipped only with small arms and 82-mm mortars without ammunition, which were sent to conduct it. Meanwhile, it was called an army operation. In addition, two attempts to break the encirclement were investigated. The commission began to investigate these attempts immediately, but the PGO did not pay attention at the time. Then, as chairman of the commission, I informed then-Prosecutor General Vitalii Yarema that these two episodes had been overlooked. The materials of the investigation include the Prosecutor General’s written reply, which says that it was a fair rebuke and he had given the relevant instructions to the PGO investigating team to investigate them. The PGO’s latest report does not mention this story at all. Another point is the negotiations on the withdrawal of our soldiers from the pocket. The report offers a very one-sided answer to this question, although the PGO has enough information on how they were held and on the inaction of this country’s top political leadership. This moment is simply silenced. It is difficult to reproach the PGO for it, though, because, in my opinion, we will not receive honest answers to the questions about the Ilovaisk events, and not only them, until a change of national leadership occurs.”

The tragedy requires us not only to look for those guilty of it. First of all, it requires us to engage in a careful “after-action review.” The trouble is that often enough, such a review involves taking responsibility and recognizing one’s own mistakes. We had very little time to learn how to fight, and the enemy we had was very powerful, cunning, and insidious. The wall of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, which is dotted with photos of the soldiers who died near Ilovaisk (and whose true number has not yet been established, according to experts), is a painful reproach to contemporary Ukrainian society and a reminder of our duty not only to look for those guilty, but to learn from our mistakes as well.

By Valentyn TORBA, The Day