Sunday, January 16

The fear in the trenches

Ukraine is mobilizing due to the danger of a Russian invasion.

In the frozen steppe landscape, soldiers have entrenched themselves in trenches.

Russia has sent 100,000 troops to the border. This is how a possible major war becomes.

It looks like a scene from the First World War.

The images from the trenches, which separate Ukrainian government forces from Russian-backed separatists, show dark passages that zigzag underground.

On the surface, barbed wire is rolled over the muddy, frozen ground.

In the Donbass region, in southeastern Ukraine, the breakaways have been in control of large parts of Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014.

The separatists have the Russian bear behind them. Ukraine fears that Vladimir Putin’s forces are planning an invasion. Russia, for its part, accuses Ukraine of creating a crisis, of having a pretext to take back the Donbass region by force.

In NATO, the fear of war increases with each passing day.

At the front, Ukrainian soldiers are preparing.

On the horizon is the border. There the Russians are waiting.

– We are determined to stand, and we will never give up our country. We have been fighting for independence for a long time, says the Ukrainian soldier “Martin”, to Reuters.

“Martin” says that at home in the capital Kiev, his parents and wife are worried about what will happen.

– I do not want to stay here forever. I want to repel an attack, and then return home, so that one day my daughter can: “Wow Dad, you repulsed a superpower with your own hands.”

On both sides of the front line, soldiers have dug themselves into the world’s oldest fortifications.

– Mother Earth is still a good fortress. When we see these trenches, it evokes memories of both the First and Second World Wars. Ukraine is a historic battlefield, he says Lieutenant Colonel Palle Ydstebø, head of the section for land power at the War School.

It may look old-fashioned, but even in a modern war, digging oneself down gives an important advantage to the defending party, Ydstebø explains:

The attackers will have to expose themselves much more than soldiers defending themselves from a trench.

Artillery and tanks can also be protected with trenches.

Behind the trenches is an area that both parties have mined. If an attacking party is to cross the front line in the Donbass, it will require large resources and cost lives.

– Russia is so superior in terms of air force from aircraft and drones, as well as tremendous artillery capacity, that they will be able to destroy much of the Ukrainian line of defense. But breaking through will still require large resources and expose our own strengths, says Ydstebø.

– Such an attack becomes “dirty”, so to speak. It’s going to be bloody.

Donbass is a coal and industrial area in southeastern Ukraine. It consists of Donetsk and Luhansk, two provinces with a large Russian-speaking population.

In 2014, the same year that Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, Russian-backed separatists waged a war against the Ukrainian government army. The fighting along the front line has flared up again several times since.

On the pro-Russian side, in rebel-held Luhansk, separatist forces have also dug themselves down.

– The separatists are strong in their areas because they have support from Russia.

In the event of an attack Russia could use Donbass as a bridgehead to launch an attack.

But Ydstebø thinks it is unlikely. For Russia already has indirect control in the rebel provinces, where no invasion is needed.

– Russia has had military advisers, intelligence and to some extent special forces inside the Donbass to strengthen its position. But it is not likely that they will move more forces in there, because it is not needed, the expert explains.

– Russian military doctrine dictates that they rather avoid the front line at Donbass and attack elsewhere. Although they are capable of breaking through the trenches, they can choose the path of least resistance by going further northwest, he elaborates.

Russia, on the other hand, can carry out attacks from the rebel-held areas to tie up the Ukrainian forces.

Having control over the breakaway provinces gives Russia a tactical advantage, the expert explains:

Ukraine will not let go of the Donbass region, and thus soldiers will have to enter the trenches.

The front line seizes large resources from the Ukrainian defense.

While Ukrainian forces are tied up at the front line southeast of the country, Russia will be able to attack from the border in the north; from the border to the west by entering from Allied Belarus; via the already annexed Crimean peninsula in the south; and with the Black Sea Fleet along the entire coast.

The large troop gathering along the border with Ukraine, which Russia claims is a military exercise, consists of up to 100,000 men.

According to Ukrainian estimates, reproduced in Military Times, the Russian force has 1,200 tanks, 2,900 armored vehicles, 240 helicopters and 330 fighter jets ready.

If the Russian troop gathering is only a saber-rattling, then at least it looks like an invading force.


With frost on the ground, Russia will be able to move forces quickly over large areas of land. Ydstebø believes that a possible invasion will take place by launching heavy fire from artillery cannons that receive targets from drones and radar.

– Heavy fire and air attacks will cause a possible ground invasion. Then they will probably roll as far as you can, before stopping where the resistance is great.

Experts have estimated that Russia will quickly be able to take the area up to the Dnieper River, which flows through the capital Kiev.

Ukraine has admittedly strengthened significantly militarily since the war in 2014.

– Ukraine has been preparing for an invasion since 2014, says Ydstebø.

Reserve forces have been training outside Kiev in recent months, and will supplement those already at the front.

The balance of power is in any case heavy in Russia’s favor, points out Ydstebø, who believes that the Ukrainian defense can not measure up in quality and quantity.

– Ukraine’s advantage if there is a conflict is that they fight on their own soil. In general, one is less exposed in a defensive war. They can withdraw and defend themselves where it is tactically advantageous, Ydstebø explains.

– The Ukrainian steppes are difficult to defend, but also difficult to attack, due to the enormous distances.

The Ukrainian security expert Hanna Shelest, who is director of the security forum “Ukrainian Prism” and editor of the foreign magazine Ukraine Analytica, explains to VG by phone from Ukraine that a big difference from the war in 2014, is that the motivation to defend himself is far greater now.

– The people are ready to support our forces. Before, a more pacifist attitude prevailed. Now people understand what is happening and why it is important to protect us, says Shelest.

The most obvious change is found in the military forces.

“The Ukrainian troops are better equipped, more motivated and far better prepared now than they were in 2014,” says Shelest.

But despite the mobilization, Ukraine is inferior in the number of soldiers, the expert points out.

The Ukrainian expert agrees with Ydstebø that there are many alternative routes into Ukraine for Russia.

– If the Russian soldiers do not go through the Donbass, they will strike in several places simultaneously. Definitely in Mariupol, because they need the link to the Crimea. Secondly, they need something in the north, probably then Kharkiv. And then it is logical that they take Kiev because it is quite close to the border, and not least the symbolic value of a capital, Shelest outlines.

– The fourth destination may be Odessa or something in the southwest, they need it for the symbolic and historical value in this area. With simultaneous attacks on these four sites, it will become clear that Ukraine does not have sufficient military strength to resist.

Although Russia is militarily superior, Shelest has the most faith that it will not end in war.

– Honestly, I think that what Russia is doing now is positioning itself to stand strong before the three important meetings that will be held this January. It would be a recognizable Russian strategy. Russia rarely does anything that surprises very much. A war would be very exhausting for the country and not very rational, she points out.

Lieutenant Colonel Ydstebø points out that Russia’s troop build-up can be both a form of political pressure and a real invasion plan.

For a military bluff to work, it must look realistic, he points out.

– At present, we know little about the supply lines. If the troops at the border are supported with logistics and supply, it will be an indicator of how real this is, Ydstebø concludes.

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