Weekend of Fighting in Eastern Ukraine

Assessing latest bloodshed near Avdiivka, including recent satellite imagery

Detail of the trenches in the eastern part of the Promzone on January 20, 2017 (Digital Globe / NextView License)

Dozens of Ukrainian and separatist soldiers were injured and the city of Avdiivka has lost power due to recent fighting near the industrial area of southeast Avdiivka, often called the “Promzone.” This post is separated in three sections, covering:

— The reported death of separatist commander Ivan Balakay, better known as “Grek”

— The competing narratives of the location, casualty toll, and reason of the fighting

— A view of the Promzone via recent satellite imagery

Death of the Greek

One of the fighters who reportedly died during the fighting was the separatist commander Ivan Andreyevich Balakay, known by his codename “Grek” (The Greek). Grek was the commander of the 1st Battalion of the 100th Brigade of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic army, but was better known as a commander in the Vostok Battalion, led by Aleksandr Khodakovsky. The Vostok Battalion founder posted a message on his own Facebook account confirming Grek’s death:

“Behind me here is the battalion commander Ivan Andreyevich, my old friend and faithful ally, and one of the first who came to “Vostok” and helped me build it up. This morning, he personally led reinforcements to a destroyed position. And now, he’s gone. One of the wounded men who was withdrawn from the battle told us about this tragic news. I am writing about this so that he will live a long life, in case the wounded soldier was mistaken.” [note: Khodakovsky is referring to a folk belief that if a person is wrongly reported to be dead, then they will live a long life] (source) (archive)

Additional details of Grek’s death come in an interview with a separatist source in the Russian Interfax news agency, reporting that he died during a large-scale battle with Ukrainian forces, supposedly including members of the far-right nationalist organization Pravy Sektor (Right Sector). Almost the entire article is worth highlighting, as it shows one of the early versions of the separatist account of the events of January 29:

“Today while repelling the enemy attack, which included the participation of fighters from the terrorist organization “Pravy Sektor,” the battalion commander of the Armed Forces of the DNR with the codename “Grek” died heroically. The battalion commander personally led one of the division while repelling the Ukrainian punishers’ attack. As a result of the battle, Grek’s division drove the enemy back to their original positions. In this battle, the enemy suffered substantial losses due to the skilled actions of Grek’s division: fifteen dead and more than twenty wounded. (…) Moreover, the enemy fired at themselves from Pravky Sektor positions. As a result of this friendly fire, the punishers suffered additional losses: five dead and more than ten wounded.” (source) (archive)

This is a dramatic narrative of the events of January 28–29, with massive Ukrainian casualties, incompetence from friendly fire, and no mention of any separatist casualties other than Grek. How does this narrative match up with other accounts of the fighting, both from Ukrainian forces and journalists, and other separatist sources?

Competing narratives in Avdiivka

While the anonymous separatist source speaking to Interfax claims that at least twenty Ukrainian soldiers died during the overnight fighting, this number also comes boasting about the “heroic death” of Grek, so is inherently suspect. As we saw in the case of a Ukrainian fighter from Pravy Sektor in a previous DFRLab piece, narratives of soldiers’ deaths are often exaggerated, multiplying the number of enemy soldiers they take down with them.

Ukrainian version

On Monday, a Ukrainian military spokesperson said that five Ukrainian soldiers were killed and another nine were wounded on January 29, and another two were killed and five injured on the 30th. The bulk of these casualties were in Avdiivka.

The Ukrainian Novoye Vremya (The New Times) news site compiled official and unofficial versions of the first and second day (January 29 and 30) of fighting in Avdiivka. Both versions agree with the primary narrative that separatist forces launched an attack to seize the Promzone early in the morning, but Ukraine’s 72nd Brigade repelled the attack. Per the official version of January 29, from Ukrainian officials, the following events took place:

At around 5am, the occupants [separatists] began intensive shelling in the area of the Avdiivka (Kamenka and Krutaya Balka) Promzone. Small arms, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades were used in the attack. After two hours, they decided to lead an assault to seize positions from the ATO forces. It should be noted that the exact same tactics of hybrid warfare were used in the Svilotdarsk Bulge [note: see previous DFRLab piece on this incident here], when they [separatists] suffered a crushing defeat.
The enemy attacked with two groups of 25–30 people. Ukrainian soldiers conducted a counterattack, and did not only stop the attack on Avdiivka, but also took important, strategic positions. However, this did not completely stop the fighters: the continued shelling, however they dared not attack.
At 1:45pm after the shelling of the Ukrainian positions from rocket-propelled grenades of various caliber, the occupants [separatists] made a fresh attempt to drive out the ATO forces from the positions in the Avdiivka area (Butovka Mine from the Spartak direction). But yet again, the assault turned out unsuccessful for the fighters. The enemy was forced to retreat.

In sum, the battles lasted about 19 hours on January 29. Furthermore, one Ukrainian official claims that nine separatist fighters were killed, one was taken prisoner, and about twenty-four were wounded (seven seriously). Another official from the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO) claims that 15 were killed, 24 wounded.

The unofficial version gathered by Novoe Vremya is not too different than the official one, but provides additional details, including that the battle was between the 100th Brigade of the DNR (which Grek led a battalion for) and Ukraine’s 72nd Separate Mechanized Brigade.

For the second day (January 30) of fighting, less information is available. Novoe Vremya reported that separatists continued their attack against Ukrainian positions in the Promzone with 120mm and 152mm artillery, firing from south (near the village of Spartak) and southeast (Yakovlevka) of Avdiivka.

In sum, Ukrainian officials reported that separatists began an assault to seize the Promzone at around 5am on Sunday (January 29) morning, leading to seven deaths among Ukrainian soldiers, and between nine to fifteen for separatists.

Separatist version

Sources from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic have quite a different story than their Ukrainian counterparts. Separatist spokesperson Eduard Basurin claimed on Monday that “more than twenty-five Ukrainian soldiers died and more than forty were wounded in the past 24 hours.” He added that “five people died, and another seven were wounded” on the separatist side. Basurin also claimed that Ukraine broke the Minsk agreement 2000 times in 24 hours.

The press service of the DNR military shared a video reportage one of their officials, Daniil Bezsonov, on January 29:

“Today, January 29, at around 5am in the area of Yasynuvata [note: separatist controlled], Ukrainian fighters began an unsuccessful attempt to break through the frontlines of the DNR army. As a result of this, per the most updated data, the enemy lost 20 men, and more than 30 were wounded. After this, the Ukrainian terrorists used their usual tactics of warfare and launched a massive artillery strikes with 122mm and 152mm caliber weapons, as well as mortar attacks on DNR army positions in residential areas of Donetsk and Makiivka.”

In sum, separatists claim that Ukrainians attacked separatist positions near Yasynuvata, but Grek’s battalion pushed them back to the Promzone. Separatists claim that twenty men died (per one source, five of these came from friendly fire), while separatists only lost five men, rather than the nine claimed by Ukrainian officials.

View from above

The most recent satellite imagery from Digital Globe/NextView comes from January 28, 2017 — the day before the battle erupted. Analyzing imagery from January 28, along with previous imagery from January 20, shows us the positions controlled by Ukrainian and separatist forces.

Firstly, the Promzone southeast of Avdiivka.

Digital Globe / NextView License
Digital Globe / NextView License

There is little to no difference between the two images, with no visible deployment of equipment at the locations on January 28, the eve of the attack. However, we can see the system of trenches dug out on the eastern part of the Promzone, extending down into the former residential area to the south of the Promzone.

Detail of the trenches in the eastern part of the Promzone on January 20, 2017 (Digital Globe / NextView License)

According to some reports, Ukraine made advances in between Avdiivka and Yasynuvata near the Donetsk Filtration Station (see this previous DFRLab report on shelling near this area) and H20 (N20) highway. This area is visible in January 20 and 28 imagery, showing military positions that were apparently previously controlled by separatists.

Area north of the Promzone and near the Donetsk Filtration Plant. (Digital Globe / NextView License)
Detail of military positions between the Promzone and Donetsk Filtration Plant. (Digital Globe / NextView License)

One of the areas attacked by separatists was the Butovka mine, currently controlled by Ukrainian forces. This position is located in between government-controlled Avdiivka and separatist-controlled Donetsk, just east of Spartak. The area is quite vulnerable, due to its proximity to the separatist-fortified Donetsk Airport.

The Butovka mine, January 20, 2017 (Digital View / NextView License)
The Butovka mine, January 28, 2017 (Digital View / NextView License)

A detailed view of the mine shows the heavy damage at the position before the battle.

Detail of the Butovka mine, January 20, 2017 (Digital View / NextView License)
Detail of the Butovka mine, January 28, 2017 (Digital View / NextView License)

Conclusions

The battle near Avdiivka is ongoing, with uncertainty around the exact casualty figures and circumstances as to who initiated the battle. Due to the likely exaggerated figures for Ukrainian casualties after the death of Grek, the Ukrainian government numbers seem more reliable than the separatist figures, not least because there are no reliable accounts indicating that the supposed friendly fire incident that led to five Ukrainian deaths actually occurred. Furthermore, the names and identities of the soldiers from the 72nd Brigade who died are now known, lending more evidence to the Ukrainian claims.

There are some claims that can be confirmed:

— Both Ukrainian and spearatist forces have fired artillery that have landed in residential areas, notably in separatist-controlled Makiivka and government-controlled Avdiivka.

— Separatist commander “Grek” died during fighting on January 29, between Ukraine’s 72nd Brigade and the DNR’s 100th Brigade.

— Between the two sides, over a dozen soldiers perished on January 29 and 30 in fighting near Avdiivka and Yasynuvata.

The remaining claims — specifically regarding the current positions of the Ukrainian Army, territory lost by separatist forces, and who first launched an assault at 5am on January 29 — are still unclear, but should be assessed by the available witness, video, and satellite data.

According to a Ukrainian official, Avdiivka is currently without water, power, or heating.


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