By Álvaro Peñas
When analysing a conflict, such as the one currently taking place in eastern Ukraine, the most common thing to do is to consult the opinions of politicians, journalists and analysts from the countries involved or from the major powers that may have an influence on the events to come. Soldiers rarely speak out, and when they do, their opinions are often not indifferent. For example, General Polko did not mince his words when he called for the West to take the initiative against “an aggressive Putin and his unpredictable subordinate Lukashenko”. The views of military officers with first-hand knowledge of the conflict are the subject of this article.
On 9 December in the Ukrainian capital, a meeting of defence headquarters, centres that provide training for territorial defence forces and are prepared to support the regular army in the event of an invasion, was held in the Ukrainian capital. An analysis of the war in the Donbass and the current situation, a conflict that has claimed the lives of some 4,500 Ukrainian soldiers, was presented at this congress by Major Denis Prokopenko, commander of the “Azov” regiment.
The Azov regiment was born as a nationalist volunteer unit, then a battalion, in May 2014. Closely linked to radical Ukrainian nationalism and with the presence of numerous foreign volunteers, the unit seized the city of Mariupol from pro-Russian separatists in its first combat action (in fact, a display case in the Ukrainian Army Museum commemorates the battalion’s recapture of the city). Because of its ideology and the strong presence of foreigners (from up to a dozen countries, including Russians and Georgians), the unit was labelled “extremist”, “Nazi” and “supremacist”. Not only by Russia, which after all went so far as to present the conflict as a ‘war against fascism’ and has skilfully used propaganda against its enemies, but by Western countries such as the US, whose House of Representatives passed an amendment in 2015 blocking any military aid and training to the unit (an amendment that was eventually withdrawn in November 2016). In October 2019, Democrats called for Azov to be placed on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organisations, a request that has not yet been successful and which provoked protests from the Ukrainian government, which has far more pressing problems.
In Ukraine, however, the perception is very different and since November 2014 the unit has been part of the Ukrainian National Guard and therefore under the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In January 2015 it became a “special operations regiment” and as a result of its professionalisation it maintains institutional relations and contacts with military units in Latvia (Latvian National Guard – Latvin Zemessardze), Poland (Territorial Defence Forces – Wojska Obrony Terytorialnej), Estonia or Lithuania. The unit also belongs to the Croatian Frankopan Veterans Association, led by retired General Bruno Zorica, former commander of the “Frankopan” battalion, a special operations unit of the Croatian army created in 1991 and organised by Croatian military men who, like the General, served in the French Foreign Legion. As for the ideological component of the unit, its first commander, Andriy Biletskiy, is a former member of parliament and the current leader of the National Corps political party.
One case in which the unit was once again in the media spotlight was that of Belarusian dissident blogger Roman Protasevich. When the Ryanair plane on which he was travelling with his girlfriend from Athens to Vilnius (Lithuania) was forced to land in Minsk, the Belarusian capital, by KGB agents. Days later, in a Soviet-style recording, the dissident confessed his crimes on television and asked for forgiveness. One of the evidence presented against him was his involvement in the 2015 Ukrainian conflict with the Azov soldiers, although Protasevich always claimed that he had been in Donbass as a journalist, not as a fighter.
Returning to the 9 December meeting, Prokopenko noted that “Ukraine today faces a very serious threat, due to the large concentration of Russian regular troops (according to intelligence services, some 175,000 troops), accompanied by constant political pressure from the Kremlin on the Ukrainian government“. Tension has been mounting in recent days with reports of the presence of elite Spetsnaz soldiers with separatist fighters, “unofficial” videos of Russian soldiers heading for the border and reports of attacks on Russian consulates in Ukraine. In the military’s view there are only two possible scenarios at the moment: the “big bluff”, which seems the most likely, and a full-scale war.
This “big bluff” achieves two objectives. On the one hand, it serves as “a real strategic training of command and staff with all the practical issues such as reconnaissance, deployment of troops in base camps, determination of avenues of approach and areas of firing positions, lines of attack, etc. In other words, as a practical training in future battlefield areas“. Although, logically, maintaining this level of pressure is costly in terms of materials and resources, and cannot be prolonged over time and even less so in winter. On the other hand, and as the main objective of this “big bluff”, blackmail and pressure on the Ukrainian political leadership “in order to make them take a wrong or unfavourable decision for Ukraine, which will lead to further collapse of the state“. Some analysts point out that the ultimate goal of all this pressure is to turn Ukraine into a ‘failed state’ and that in the diplomatic field Russia has the upper hand.
In the event of an invasion, Prokopenko says that “the large-scale offensive will be in the north, on Bryansk, Gomel – Kyiv and Mozyr (Belarus) – Kyiv, with the aim of taking control of the capital and taking advantage of the chaotic situation to force the government to capitulate“. A major offensive would be accompanied by a smaller offensive in southern Ukraine with the “main objective of restoring water supplies to Crimea and creating a land corridor to the peninsula“. The major does not consider the numerical superiority of the enemy in such a possible offensive, a ratio of 3:1 in favour of the Russians, to be crucial “because it takes into account the total number of troops on both sides and not the specific number to be deployed in the area of operations“. However, he is aware that “the enemy will attack in vulnerable directions, which are not prepared for defence due to the absence of troops and engineering fortifications“. Despite this vulnerability of the Ukrainian defence, Prokopenko assures that Ukraine is prepared: “We will fight to the end and it will not be, as they imagine, an easy walk“.
Source: El Correo de España