Keiv: Ukraine`s army believed it was on the cusp of victory against Moscow-backed insurgents, but direct Russian intervention has given the rebels new life and exposed Kiev`s weak strategy, experts say.
Q: Has the Ukrainian army essentially surrendered the Donbass region in the east of the country, site of the rebel city strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk?
A: A senior Ukrainian official told AFP, on condition of anonymity, that this is untrue. "Nobody has the intention of abandoning the Donbass and it won`t happen," he said.
But from the south of Donetsk all the way to the Azov Sea, almost nothing remains of the Ukrainian army other than equipment left behind by retreating troops.The government encirclement of rebels in Donetsk 10 days ago is now just a memory. To the north in the Lugansk region, clashes continue. However, Kiev`s announcement Monday that its troops had pulled out from the strategic Lugansk airport appears to point to a more general retreat.
Q: How important have Russian troops been in the reversal of Ukraine`s battlefield fortunes?
A: Konrad Muzyka, a Europe and CIS Armed Forces Analyst at IHS Jane`s, said the "deployment of Russian regular troops to Ukraine was a game changer" as in mid-August Ukrainian forces had "brought the separatists to the verge of defeat."
Tanks, whose tracks have chewed up roads in the area, played a key role in forcing the Ukrainian retreat.
Moscow denies any direct intervention. Soldiers and armoured vehicles in eastern Ukraine seen by AFP have had no identifying markings. Russian-speaking soldiers say they are volunteers and that their equipment is all captured from Ukrainian forces.
Q: Are Ukrainian military commanders responsible for recent defeats?
A: "The Ukrainian military chief of staff deployed its army as if for an anti-terrorist operation without worrying about the heavy logistical demands that the use of tanks and artillery require," a Western military expert working in the country said. Ukrainian troops "often end up isolated without ammunition or fuel," he added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Pro-Russian rebels, meanwhile, "manoeuvre much better" with "small artillery units which fire salvos that decimate Ukrainian troops and then move" before getting hit by return fire.
Other errors include Kiev dispersing its forces and embittering civilians by firing on rebel positions in residential areas, the expert said.
Q: Why isn`t Kiev benefitting from its air superiority?
A: "Providing ground support requires aircraft to fly low and then they are vulnerable to Manpads," the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles that are part of the rebel arsenal, the Western military expert said.
In addition, "Ukrainian pilots have flown little in recent years and thus they make easy targets."
Oleksiy Melnyk, a military expert at the Kiev-based Razumkov Centre think tank, said Ukrainian aircraft face not only rebel fire, but the highly sophisticated "Russian anti-aircraft systems".
Q: Can Kiev turn the tide?
A: "Ukraine has few reserves" to throw into the fighting, Melnyk said. The Ukrainian army could manage fighting against "a covert intervention, with small groups of volunteers and arms deliveries." But facing an "open (Russian) intervention, it is unrealistic to speak of a Ukrainian counter-offensive."
Q: Where will the pro-Russian rebels stop?
A: Rebels "can`t stretch their supply lines indefinitely," the Western expert said.
The further west they move the less they enjoy support of the local population. Their priority "is without a doubt to retake Slavyansk" which they were forced to abandon in July.
"Some believe they will go as far as Moldova," Muzyka said. "I think that the offensive will stop when eastern Ukraine is under Russian control."
The Ukrainian official said he fears that Moscow wants "to create a land bridge to Crimea" to link Russia to the peninsula region it seized from Ukraine in March, as supplying it by ship will become more difficult once the summer is over.
Above all Russia`s objective in the war is political, said the official. Moscow "wants to destabilise Kiev," he said. "Putin can`t lose. If he loses the war, he`ll lose power," he added.