Minsk II is on the edge of outright collapse. There has been no progress on almost any of the provisions since our last post. Fighting continues in and around Shyrokyne and Donetsk. The Donetsk fighting remains a distraction, with sides doing just enough to prevent the other from withdrawing. The main theater is in Shyrokyne, down by the coastal city of Mariupol.
The fighting in Shyrokyne has intensified. Reports that the Ukrainians had been pushed out of Shyrokyne proper seem to have been correct; Ukrainian forces are holding the high ground above the village. In the last 24 hours, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) has started using multiple rocket launcher systems, a clear violation of Minsk II. This has been verified by the OSCE. The Ukrainians have claimed the DNR is also using big gun artillery, but that remains unverified. The Ukrainians supposedly are retaliating.
The OSCE spotted over 25 tanks on the DNR side of Shyrokyne. I would bet that this is actually a full battalion. The OSCE has only a handful of observers; moving the tanks out of view would not be terribly hard. There are reports that another 22 tanks have crossed the border at Novoazovsk in the last few days.
Additionally, General Lentsov has moved down to Mariupol. Lentsov appeared at the Donetsk Airport before it was overrun and outside Debaltseve: he took command in both and pushed out the Ukrainians. Take note here. The tone Lentsov takes is not very aggressive for a Russian. At one point he states the Ukrainians are the problem, not his people and he will take care of the problem.
There is some evidence that the Ukrainian chain of command is breaking down. The volunteer Donbas Battalion refused an order to withdraw. The Ukrainian army claims they need to be rotated out for a bit. The Donbas Battalion is claiming that someone is attempting to weaken the Shyrokyne’s defenses. This is a worrying development, considering that three other territorial defense battalions (Aidar, Dnpro and Azov) are defending Shyrokyne alongside the regular army.
The Russians appear to be waiting for two things: the end of the spring rains and more political and economic deterioration on the Ukrainian side. At that point, Lentsov is going to try to take Mariupol some time in the next four weeks. My guess is no sooner than the Orthodox Easter (April 12) and no later than May 10.
As we pointed out here, Russian forces were at the forefront of taking Debaltseve. They have now stopped pretending that they they don’t have regular troops in Ukraine. The linked interview would not have been allowed unless the Russians were testing to see how the West reacts. A damning quote from a Russian volunteer soldier: “If the E.U. and the USA wanted to prove that Russia’s forces are located here, I think it would be easy to do. They would just go and photograph the armor and everything. But they’re not doing that, they’re closing their eyes.”
Russia followed the same pattern with Crimea: denying the presence of soldiers while sending up small test balloons to see how the West would react. They are a step away from confirming the Russian forces are fighting in the Donbas.
It’s pretty much time to call a duck a duck: Russia invaded Ukraine.