The Battle for Iloviask and Highway 21 in the Ukraine
One Road Too Far
There have been two key battles where Russian troops crossed the Ukrainian border and became the decisive element in the war inside the Ukraine. The first was at Ilovaisk, a town of 18,000, near the strategic Highway 21, which ran from the urban center of Donetsk eastward and eventually into Russia. The other key battle happened in January-February, 2015, at Debeltseve. In this battle, Russia poured even more troops to support the opposition, the Donetsk People’s Army, a pro-Russia proxy fighting for a piece of the Ukraine that had separated from Russia.
In both battles, it ended in disaster for the Ukrainian Army as numbers do prevail in any battle. Technology can only do so much.
Situation in August, 2014
By August, after months of fighting, the Ukrainian Army was nearing a critical point of success. It had managed to corral the DPA forces into large isolated groups within the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. They had been connected via roads forming one big area held by the DPA. The Ukrainians had decided to create smaller pockets after success had created two large pockets. With the two groups of DPA cutoff from one another, the Ukrainians began to isolate them into smaller groups and cut them off from Russian supplies pouring across the borders. Much of it was completed by August. All the DPA forces in the pockets had been severed from Russia except for Highway 21. The DPA in all these pockets had to rely on whatever stockpiles had been captured or saved.
Highway 21 was the DPA’s lifeline to Russia. They had to keep it open under their control at all costs. The Ukrainians had managed to interdict the road several times before but failed to keep it in their possession. This would continue for most of August until Russia invaded for the first time. The DPA in the urban area of Donetsk, which they controlled, proved to be fanatical in their fighting in regards to this road and the isolated towns south of it. From the north, Ukrainian units had managed to take Sharktarsk on Highway 21 in early August, just to lose it in a few days. They tried from the north again to seize Torez, also on the highway, and failed there. Bitter battles for both towns would exchange hands several times during the first two weeks of August. These usually ended with the DPA controlling them. Meanwhile, Russian Spetnaz units had already infiltrated the area to help and advise the DPA manage their units in battle and supplies continued to arrive.
South of Highway 21
In this area, the Ukrainians had substantial control of most towns and roadways. Unlike north of the highway, which was in a constant state of flux due to DPA resistance in most towns and cities, it was a relatively quiet battle zone. Apart from the constant Russian artillery fire coming from across the border (which could reach most of the area), fighting had been contained and sporadic. The DPA had pockets of resistance in Mospyne, Hrzuko Mezhove, and Ilovaisk. Each of these pockets contained several hundreds of men and could pose a threat if not surrounded, which the Ukrainian Army did.
The ATO forces were even less trained in combat, many were weekend warriors or former policemen and volunteers. Both were lightly armed compared to real military units. The Ukrainian Army had decided to try to seize part of Highway 21 from the south in early August, yet had few available forces to use. They really had no more reserves. It was decided to seize the already surround DPA town of Ilovaisk. Intelligence had said not more than 100 men were defending this important road and rail hub. The main Ukrainian army unit in the whole was the 51st Mech. Brigade, but it was already scattered about. There lots of other National Guard and Anti-Terror forces (ATO) also in the area. The National Guard units were really not trained well and were for defensive actions only
The plan was to take Illovaisk and proceed to cut Highway 21. Iloviask is only about 7 miles from the highway and a little more to Khartsizek near it or Zugres, which was near the road junction from Iloviask. In hindsight, the Ukrainians probably would have had more success had they bypassed Iloviask and head straight for Highway 21. The DPA was not strong along the highway, but was in most towns on or near the highway. In any case, this focus on taking Ilovaisk proved to be a fatal one as time went.
The forces used for the three attempts at taking the deserted town relied on not more than five T-64 tanks and several ATO units with some parts of some real military units or their remnants. The first attempt on Aug. 7 failed after the 40th Bn Kryvbas (actually company strength), some elements of 51st, tried for a day. The second attempt, on Aug. 10th, had the Donbas, Azov, and Shakhtarsk ATO units (totaling a few hundred men) also failed after facing withering resistance.
The Aug. 18th attempt would be their strongest. Oddly, it was still unclear how many DPA units were holding the town. It is now known that about 500 men from the DPA Oplot, Motorola, Sparta and others. At the time, the Ukrainians still believed it was just 100 in a fortified area. Keep in mind that the DPA had forces surrounded in Mospyne and Hruzko and kept in check by Ukrainian units. Russian artillery fired with high accuracy by using drones to locate and spot enemy units. This had a huge impact on the Ukrainians who refused to silence the guns with Su-25 aircraft or artillery because these guns were across the border. The DPA also had a good amount of artillery in Shakhtarsk that pounded enemy units around Ilovaisk.
By the 18th, after wasting a week with two failed attempts, the situation was becoming rapidly unfavorable for the Ukrainians. More and more weapons and supplies had reached the DPA. Cutting the highway would be much more difficult now than had it been done between the 1st-12th. The lure of Ilovaisk soaked away precious time now and a turning point was near.
The Last Attempt
While the Ukrainians continued to mistakenly think that only 100+ DPA men defended Ilovaisk, their last attempt would consist of mostly ATO units: Donbass, Dnipro-1, MOI, Kherson, Ivano, Azov, Shaktarsk. These totaled around 500. The only trained army units were a company from 51st Mech Brigade, four T-64 tanks from the 17th Tank Brigade, remnants of 28th and 93rd Mech Brigades. The grand total was near 950 men. The 2ndBn\51st Mech was mostly south of the town at Styla and Mnohopillya, the 3rd Bn at Dzerkalnoye, parts of the 17th Tank Brigade were also at Norodvirske. The 40th Bn was just north of Ilovaisk, a few miles from Highway 21. The 39th Bn and 20th National Guard battalions provided a screen from DPA forces from Donetsk. Artillery support came from the 55th and 27th Bns in Mnohopillya and Horabachevo.
The Ukrainian units were not at full strength, in fact, a battalion usually had only 200+ men or so, while a company, maybe 50 men. The Donbass ATO Bn has 220, while the Dnipro-1 and 40th Bns, just 80. Contrast this to the remnants of 93rd Brigade with just 300 left. The DPA were no better off, so things were even but they were growing stronger each day.
When the attacked began on the 18th, it proved to be a stalemate. Part of the Azov was not able to join the attack due to enemy artillery fire and the Shakhtarsk ATO was not in position. However, the Donbass ATO managed by the 19th to secure half of the town from the west, it was the non-fortified zone. Azov and Dinipro-1 ATO still struggled east of the town. The 40th Bn tried to advance towards the highway, as did some of the 93rd, but enemy resistance was just too strong now. More ATO forces (not more than 150 men) joined in the siege. These were Kherson and Ivano ATO units but nothing changed by the 20th. But the Russian aid and soldiers in unmarked uniforms did arrive to help the DPA keep control of the highway by the 21st. This forced any further attempts to cut the highway moot.
The battle for the town was at a stalemate and the Ukrainians were being pressured from the north and east forcing them to pull back further and further. The real tipping point came in the night of the 23rd when some of the Russian 31st Guards Airborne units and 8th Independent Mechanized (not more than two battalions) had crossed the border south of Pobyeda and another battalion from the 331st Airborne Regiment\98th Gds Division crossed also. These units would run into Ukrainian units in the morning of the 24th.
Putin has finally decided to invade Ukraine to save his proxy pro-Russian forces under the DPA. Of course, denials would continue well into 2016 that Russia intervened in the Ukrainian civil war but the evidence became clear via social media, as Russian men used Facebook and Twitter to post their photos and discussions. Even Putin eventually just admitted it using justifications. In any case, a total of 4000-6000 Russian soldiers entered on or after the 24th. Well armed, high in morale, it was the death kill to the Ukrainians that came from their rear, which no one really had expected to ever happen. Many units just ran when faced by them, or , did not understand what to do. However, several Ukrainian units took them on with good results, but the additional men simply made the situation a debacle.
Russia invaded with 4-6 battalions. These units came from a diverse number of larger units: 18th Gds Mechanized brigade, 21st Mechanized Brigade, 8th Independent Mechanized Brigade, 2nd Spetsnaz, 331st Gds Airborne Reg.\98th Airborne Division, 137 Gds Airborne regiment\106th Gds Airborne Division, 6th Tank Brigade. A total of 60 tanks, 320 APC, 60 artillery guns eventually crossed.
By the end of the 25th, the forces trying to take Iloviask had been cutoff in all directions for the most part. For the Ukrainians, an inferno had started. About 1600 men were now struggling to save themselves via backroads, as not all roads had been blocked. About 200 became trapped in Ilovaisk, while another 1000 tried to escape in two columns. By the 27th, all the Ukrainian units in the area were cutoff from the west by enemy forces.
On the 29th, a ceasefire was eventually agreed to and Putin demanded that his men allow the two columns to proceed to safety along two different routes. One column had about 1000 men from many diverse units, and the other, 600 or so. The agreement stated that the Ukrainians would be able to retain all their weapons during this evacuation, however, the Russian commanders on-site changed the terms to what Putin agreed to. They demanded that all weapons be surrendered by the Ukrainian forces. That set a bad precedent.
Thus, as the Ukrainian columns traveled their routes, both would come under unified, deadly fire from the Russian ambushes hiding in the very tall grass fields along the roads. The exchanges of fire became real battles or as one Ukrainian soldier said, a “meatgrinder”. On the 30th, the Ukrainians managed to contact the local Russian commanders to halt the fight. It was agreed to allow the Red Cross to escort the retreating columns to safety.