The Battles of Zelenopillya: Part 1 of 2

There are three completely separate versions of a battle in Ukraine. One version exists in the United States and western European countries, where it is popular among national security experts, officers, and military strategists. Another version exists Ukraine, where it is a well-known chapter in the history of the Russo-Ukrainian war. They agree on the fact that a battle occurred, but the circumstances surrounding that battle are remarkably different, as are the lessons that each country have drawn from it. The third, Russian version, doesn’t agree with either of the others.

The battle is named for the nearest town—Zelenopillya—and the version that has been popularized in the U.S. and western Europe goes like this:

Two battalions of Ukrainian mechanized infantry gathered during the predawn darkness of July 11, 2014, to seize the last separatist checkpoint along the Russian border. One day, maybe two, left of fighting and they’d have secured their border with Russia, cutting off resupply to the separatist movement. Roaring toward Zelenopillya in a fleet of Soviet-era tanks and armored patrol cars crewed by a motley mix of young, battle-hungry conscripts and grizzled Red Army veterans, the units were no match for a modern army, but more than sufficient for the demoralized Russian-armed separatists. Vehicles clattered by farmer’s fields, one by one down a battered road.

Despite being poorly trained and hastily equipped with vintage Kalashnikovs and anti-tank weapons, morale was high. The units tapped for this final battle had so far enjoyed nothing but victories in their long slog through the secluded hamlets and rusty coal-mining towns of eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.

The advancing units paused to get their bearings in an open field several kilometers west of Zelenopillya. Soldiers spilled out of vehicles to nap or stretch their legs, while sergeants took inventory of fuel and ammo and officers congregated to go over the battle plan one last time. And then, quietly but unmistakably, came the buzzing sound of drones overhead. This wasn’t unusual—pro-Russian forces often flew drones to scout enemy positions—but the Ukrainians had been banking on the element of surprise. Then came another, more startling development: attempts to contact higher headquarters revealed that the radios were jammed. Electronic warfare was not a capability the separatists were known to possess.

Suddenly, shells shrieked down from the sky as if from nowhere, unleashing a maelstrom of fire and steel rain. Brand-new thermobaric warheads and top-attack shells took a horrible toll. Vehicles, some of them still occupied, burst into flames, while soldiers outside were torn to pieces. Within the space of a minute, the field was transformed into a boneyard of smoking wreckage, the quiet morning now sundered by incoherent screaming and shouts for help. The battle was over before it had begun, and Ukraine would never again come so close to securing their border.

Photo from eastern Ukraine circa 2017. Military positions on natural or artificial hills like the one in the background (created as a byproduct of coal mining) offer commanding overwatch of the vast fields beyond. From atop the hill, it is easy to spot buildups in open fields when no effort is taken to conceal tanks or armored personnel carriers, or light infantry positions in bivouac.

This account of Zelenopillya is a nightmare scenario for any military. The Russians used drones to spot a mechanized force on the move. When the force halted, the Russians deployed electronic jamming to prevent the unit from communicating with superiors (or even individual vehicles from communicating with each other). Then, again, using drones for spotters, it used precision munitions to hit the force before it was able to move again—so precisely, in fact, that it “destroyed” the units, reducing their combat power by damaging or destroying vehicles and killing or wounding soldiers to the point where the units ceased to exist. Most American and western units would have difficulty accomplish this feat using drones—that the Russian military possessed this capability and were able to use it with such ease and effectiveness sent shockwaves through the national security establishment.

*****

The version of Zelenopillya one hears from veterans and Ukrainian leaders in places like Kyiv and Kramatorsk is remarkably different from its U.S. counterpart.

In Ukrainian sources and according to veterans of the battle, a poorly-trained force that was unprepared for heavy artillery camped in a field. Vehicles were parked next to one another as though on a parade ground for inspection, and soldiers didn’t dig trenches. That encampment had been stationary for at least a day—some accounts have it there longer—making no effort to conceal itself. It was struck, and sustained heavy damage, mostly due to not having prepared for the possibility of being struck in the first place.

“Zelenopillya is a tragedy. It could have been a small tragedy, but it became a very large tragedy because of the negligence of commanders. Absolute negligence on a tactical and strategic level,” according to Sergii Mandalyna during an interview. Mandalyna, an artilleryman with the 79th airmobile brigade, was at the camp at Zelenopillya the morning of the attack.

In Ukraine, the artillery attack was primarily noteworthy for political reasons: prior to July 11, 2014, the Russian Army had never attempted to destroy a Ukrainian unit with an active duty unit from within Russia. Up until Zelenopillya, the Ukrainian military thought that it was fighting a Russian-led separatist moment—it didn’t occur to anyone that they’d be fighting Russia itself.

According to soldiers and officers present at Zelenopillya, the camp was more like the type of improvised depot for fuel, food, water, and ammunition that one might encounter in a peacetime garrison. It was used by units in the area as they battled separatists and attempted to secure their border with Russia—at the time of Zelenopillya there were platoon or company-size elements from the 24th & 72nd Mechanized Brigades and the 79th Airmobile Brigade, as well as police with a Border Police unit. There were no fighting emplacements; some veterans reported being ordered not to dig. Most of the vehicles were parked in rows, side-by-side, as if for inspection in a vehicle motor pool. And, according to soldiers interviewed, at least part of the reason the strike on Zelenopillya was effective was that many vehicles were loaded with supplies for operations; when struck by rockets the vehicles went up like roman candles.

“The reason it was so damaging was that the grads set off the Ukrainian ammunition,” said Mandalyna. “There was so much ammunition on the vehicles, there wasn’t room for people. That caused more casualties than the grads themselves.”

Ukrainian veterans of Zelenopillya said that there had, allegedly, been harassing fire from grads on July 10th, before the tragedy itself—possibly the Russians bracketing the camp. But single shots fired near or across the border weren’t taken seriously. Sergii Loskutov, a soldier with Ukraine’s 72nd Mechanized Brigade at the time, said his unit had received pot-shots at night from BM-21s by the Russian border on the days leading up to the strike. “There were 5 grad cars that tried to hit us at night, you could see them with their headlights. 2-3 cars, moving across the border 100 meters, shot at us, and then left. The shooting wasn’t very effective. We had trenches and dugouts at our camp [not Zelenopillya], and when we heard grads fired, we knew we had about 45 seconds to hide. Almost none of our people were killed by taking these sensible precautions.”

While nobody was able to say with certainty when the camp at Zelenopillya was created—some said days before the attack, one veteran said as early as June 2014—all were clear that the camp existed for far longer than a few hours, a period of time that included a substantial amount of daylight. It had been scouted repeatedly by drones in the days leading up to the strike, and was known to the separatist-held towns in the surrounding area. Furthermore, at that moment in the war, some of the more senior officers in Ukraine’s military had suspect loyalties.

Loskutov had visited the camp at Zelenopillya the day before the attack. Mobilized in the beginning of March, when Russia seized Crimea, Loskutov had served in the Red Army as a paratrooper during the waning days of the USSR, seeing action with the Belgrade Division in fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan. He described the camp as “big green tents that weren’t even hidden. Just in the middle of a big open field.” He had previously visited the camp twice.

“When I heard about the attack in Zelenopillya, of course I was sad. As a soldier, I thought more could have been done. The officers in charge of the camp must have thought that they were safe. But everyone who already had fighting experience all knew that the camp was a very unsafe place,” Loskutov said via translator.

Loskutov said that when his unit visited Zelenopillya, they would camp close to a treeline, to be away from the center of the camp, and closer to some cover.

Another veteran wounded in Zelenopillya agreed that the camp was dangerous. At the time a 19-year-old sergeant assigned to a BTR (a Soviet light tank) with the 79th Airmobile Brigade, Ivan Isaev’s unit had been fighting in the area when it stopped in at Zelenopillya for the first time for a meal. He was shocked by the lack of preparedness in the camp.

“I jumped down from my BTR, a soldier greeted me in shorts. I asked ‘don’t you have a war here?’ And he said ‘There’s fighting, but it’s far away.’ The feeling in Zelenopillya was that the war did not apply to them. It looked like an ordinary training camp, like something in the rear,” Isaev said.

The day of the strike, Isaev’s unit had returned for some sleep prior to moving back out on mission. They parked their BTR by the treeline, away from the tents of the main camp, in an effort to make themselves less conspicuous as a target. They were exhausted when they arrived at the camp, and didn’t dig shelters—it would have taken too much time.

“I survived only because I slept by a tree,” said Isaev. “I remember the night like it was yesterday. I woke up rapidly when I heard the blast of other shells in the camp, and understood I had no time to hide. I couldn’t protect myself. I thought ‘what should I do?’ Two seconds later a grad landed a few meters from me and my soldiers, behind a tree. All 7 of us were wounded, in and outside the BTR.”

Isaev feels that his life and limbs were saved when a medical officer—a veteran of the Red Army who had served in Afghanistan (in Ukraine they are known as “Afghantsi”) rendered first aid. Later, Isaev’s feet were amputated.

Another soldier who contributed information to the story was in Isaev’s BTR during the attack, and was blinded.

This version was seconded by Viktor Muzhenko, the Chief of the General Staff and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine at the time. In an April 2019 interview he described Zelenopillya casualties as attributable to leader negligence and panic on the part of presumably ill-disciplined soldiers—not a sophisticated Russian super-weapons. Then, in a letter written in January of 2020, which will be published in the following essay, he confirmed that account in full.

***

Ukrainian military vehicles parked on the reverse slope of a hill, circa 2016. Western assessments of Zelenopillya and other battles depend on assumptions about how Ukrainian and Russian military units operate, but rarely center voices from the battles themselves, or have a clear picture of what those battles consist of in terms of men and equipment.

*****

The third version of Zelenopillya is the Russian version, which is that Russia was not responsible for the shooting at all, and has never directly involved itself with the war in Ukraine’s east. This account is almost certainly reduced to baseless propaganda; nevertheless, it is Russia’s official account, and therefore must be registered as such, if nothing else to provide a sad record of a period in history when the once-proud Russian people withdrew from their tradition of singleminded pursuit of truth, in favor of blind national propaganda.

*****

The third, Russian version of Zelenopillya is easy to consider and dismiss. But the first two are more difficult to reconcile. Was Zelenopillya a demonstration of the lethal power of Russia’s modern artillery, synchronized with electric detection and attack abilities, using advanced munitions—a caution to the U.S. military? Or was it an opportunistic ambush using conventional capabilities that the Russians have possessed for decades, carried out against undisciplined and unsuspecting soldiers?

The evidence for the U.S. / western narrative rests wholly on a draft white paper, “Lessons Learned from the Russo-Ukrainian War,” written and published in the summer of 2015. Written by Philip Karber, PhD, President of The Potomac Foundation, a Washington, D.C. based think-tank focused on international relations and national security, the draft white paper was never intended for dissemination—instead, it was, according to Karber, more of a rough first assessment of Russian capabilities, intended to provoke consideration. The paper got out into the world, and is the sole piece of firsthand evidence that exists for the U.S. / western narrative.

Karber’s paper doesn’t even focus on Zelenopillya—it’s about the rest of the war as it happened between 2014 and early 2015. The battle of Zelenopillya appears in Karber’s account as an interesting anecdote, not a central episode in the story of how Ukraine was defeated by Russia. Zelenopillya’s importance to Karber and to doctrine and strategy emerges later, through repetition, and through application as a hypothetical to European and American formations.

Many subsequent essays, op-eds, blogs (like this one) and studies can ultimately be traced back to Karber’s draft white paper. Perhaps the most astonishing example of the narrative’s penetration into military thought is its appearance in FM 3-0, the Army’s field manual for doctrine. There, Zelenopillya (the U.S./western version) can be found as the ultimate example of Russian lethality: advanced detection, electronic jamming, drone-integrated spotting, and long-range precision fires linked with advanced thermobaric munitions.

The evidence for the U.S. / western version of Zelenopillya rests entirely on Karber’s draft white paper, a piece of analysis compiled from a distance that rests on second- and third-hand reporting.

What are the weaknesses of this account? Apart from the lack of direct evidence, a weakness in and of itself, it gets key details of the battle wrong. The Ukrainians were not moving, they were stopped in a semipermanent location, for hours, a day, or days depending on the source. And while it’s true that the Russians might have used precision munitions to strike a large, stationary (mostly sleeping) target, they could also have used conventional munitions to achieve the same effects.

There are many other reasons to doubt the U.S. / western version of events. In the absence of Russian accounts or any direct evidence, there is no way to validate that Zelenopillya was the result of powerful new Russian weapons, though it might have been. More importantly, the achievement of striking a stationary target in the open (unfortified) with heavy artillery—pretty much a worst-case scenario for the target—has been accomplished at least as early as 1453, when the Sultan Mehmed the Conquerer used a giant cannon firing stone projectiles to smash down Constantinople’s long walls. If one is searching for an example of 21st century prowess to demonstrate lethality, there are probably better cases to be found in warfare than the modern equivalent of a turkey shoot.

The former Ministry of Culture building in Opytne, 2km from the Donetsk Airport, circa August 2016. Traces of fierce Russian and Ukrainian artillery battles that disregarded or in some cases targeted civilian structures were everywhere. Precision targeting, while a more recent capability in the history of war, is not necessary within former Soviet military doctrine, which is content to accept any collateral damage as a necessary byproduct of defeating an enemy.

*****

Evidence for Ukraine’s version is more straightforward to come by—one can establish this version’s basic elements by interviewing veterans of the battle who were present there, and this account interviewed five veterans of Zelenopillya. Reading follow-up Russian-language and Ukrainian-language media accounts of the battle one finds ample secondary evidence corroborating the account described in this piece, complete with photographic evidence of the camp’s existence in daylight prior to the battle. General Muzhenko, the overall commander of the war effort at that time, attributed the battle’s outcome primarily to indiscipline (not digging in) and surprise (this was the first time a Russian unit had directly struck a Ukrainian target with such power).

There is also Occam’s Razor—the simplest explanation is usually the most likely. In conversation with four U.S. artillery officers (one former Marine, a current Army officer, and two former Army officers), each of them said that striking a stationary target with artillery would be easy to achieve without resort to sophisticated targeting systems, and indeed was a mission that had been carried out routinely in warfare in WWII. One former artilleryman claimed that given a pencil, a protractor, a map, ten minutes, a battery of rocket artillery, and a target of two stationary battalions (or more) worth of mechanized assets in the open parked next to each other on a football-sized field, he felt confident that he could achieve destruction of the target.

In other words, there was nothing special, technologically, about Russia’s attack on Ukraine at Zelenopillya. The only thing unusual, from the Ukrainians’ perspective, was that the attack happened at all—that they’d been betrayed, as they saw it, by a neighbor that had sworn to protect them.

*****

Each version of the battle of Zelenopillya creates a problem, and generates solutions. To the Ukrainians, the “problem of Zelenopillya” was twofold: untrained and undisciplined units that offered a large, stationary target to Russian spotters, paired with a fundamental misunderstanding of the battlefield (they did not think Russia would shoot artillery at them). Their solution to the former problem was to train soldiers and units, so that during movement to and at the front, they dispersed and took cover, digging in where necessary. Ukraine’s solution to the latter problem was solved once news of Zelenopillya spread, and commanders became aware of the risk of being pummeled by Russian artillery.

Both of these solutions were important because Ukraine continued its military presence in and around Zelenopillya and near its border with Russia for the better part of a month. Zelenopillya did not result in the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces—they maintained their strategic position, while maneuvering and maintaining dispersal so as not to be caught in another, similar strike. For the next month, they were not caught; though stationary units were hit heavily, dug in, the losses never approached those at Zelenopillya. There were two other places where artillery played a direct role in defeating Ukrainian forces—the battle for Luhansk and Donetsk airports—in both of those cases, dismounted infantry had taken up positions within buildings that sustained sufficient damage to prevent their fortification.

The problem of Zelenopillya as sketched out in the version that depends on Karber’s draft white paper is that Russia can quickly and precisely mass overwhelming heavy artillery at ranges exceeding those of western artillery platforms.

This assessment more or less assumes a battlefield similar to that of Ukraine, where neither Russian nor Ukrainian air power can be brought to bear for fear of unacceptable losses. Given that the U.S. relies on air power to support field units, this loss is far more damaging than to the Russian or Ukrainian militaries, and it is true; without an air force, the U.S. and western militaries are vastly diminished.

The solution that the U.S. has hit upon, having hand-waved away air power in this nightmare scenario, is to spend billions on expanding its military with more artillery—the M109A7 Paladin—and to invest in greater range for existing guns. To put that in other terms, the answer is buy more and better weapons.

*****

In the final estimation, there are three versions of the battle of Zelenopillya. The Russian version seems certain to be a lie (though, interestingly, only the Russians know the truth). The U.S. / western version is probably not true, and even if some of its details are correct, it gets key details wrong, chiefly, the critical role played by advanced systems able to hit targets on the move. The Ukrainian version—which is that poorly disciplined troops exposed themselves to a risk of they were not aware, like a swimmer entering the ocean at dusk, unknowingly floating above some hungry toothed monster—is most correct, and, therefore, should be seen as such hereafter.

Establishing the “true” battle of Zelenopillya (or, at least, the truest currently accessible) resolves one paradox, but creates another, different problem entirely. If the Ukrainian version is “correct,” and fairly easily confirmed—a couple days of googling and fact-checking, as well as retaining a translator then tracking down living veterans of the battle is sufficient to debunk the U.S. / western version—readers are left with evidence of an astonishing, almost unthinkable situation. The U.S. military and ostensibly nonpartisan think tanks such as RUSI cannot, apparently, objectively interrogate their own analysis. As things stand now, a baseless rumor is being used as fact in U.S. Army doctrine.

Billions of dollars in procurement and R&D money has been and is being committed to address what the U.S. and western militaries have decided is the problem of Zelenopillya. Thousands of young men and women are being trained or instructed to address this same essentially imaginary problem. If an unsupported hypothetical is capable of setting a system in motion—if, on a certain level, that system must be on autopilot, as seems to be the case, isn’t the real problem of Zelenopillya an inability to self-critique? Isn’t the real threat that the U.S. and western militaries may no longer possess the capacity to perform meaningful self-diagnosis?

The next piece about Zelenopillya, which I will publish in the coming weeks, will attempt to delve further into how and why the U.S. system might operate this way, examining in greater detail why and how the U.S. / western version of Zelenopillya came to be endorsed at the highest levels of the military and congress, who has used that narrative, and to what purposes.

Published by fancypencilhand

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