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An anniversary assessment of the armed forces of the Donetsk Peoples Republic

January 29, 2016

Guest post by Michael J. Sheldon, edited by Tim Foxley

Michael Jakob Sheldon is an undergraduate student at Malmö University’s Peace and Conflict Studies program. In his free time he maintains a blog (www.dangerzoneblog.com) on topics related to ongoing conflicts.  Michael specializes in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine on every aspect from armed violence to state governance.

Summary: Military reform is underway in the quasi state of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR). All armed military units appear to be consolidating under a single command structure of the 1st Army Corps of the Ministry of Defence of the DPR. But it is likely there is a gap between the theory and the practice.

The armed forces of “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) have changed significantly from where they were a year ago. Stemming out of disorganised militia forces local to the three main cities of Slovyansk, Donetsk and Lugansk, the current iteration now, on paper at least, is starting to resemble a modern military.

The armed forces of the DPR have been centralised under the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and are commanded by Major-General Vladimir Kononov. The MOD is centred around a single 1st Army Corps which celebrated its first anniversary last November with a parade which showcased a professional and streamlined looking military.

The MOD holds two main combat elements under the 1st Army Corps: the Republican Guard (RG) and more independent, “separate”, units. In its current state, the separate units of the 1st Army Corps hold the task of offensive action whereas the Republican Guard is tasked with defence of its assigned territories including a rapid reaction component, some reconnaissance units and special forces.

DPR MOD, new versh

There is quite a bit of uncertainty around the specifics of this structure. Notable is the specific situation regarding the Military Intelligence Directorate (GRU is a more commonly known abbreviation). Pre-reform GRU was under the Republican Guards command structure, however the current situation of the GRU is largely up for speculation. One possibility is that the GRU exists as is pictured in the diagram above, another is that it has been dissolved and integrated with the current “Republican Guard” as reconnaissance battalions, as some evidence would support. A third possibility is that there is no real GRU and that the units which had comprised it float around in the Army Corps under no consolidated directorate.

There may be a certain amount of exaggeration and “inflation” regarding the DPR’s structure. Within the Republican Guard, only the 3rd, 5th and 6th Battalions are regularly spotted in social and televised media. Sightings of other battalions are uncommon and troops are often few in numbers. However, there are no official figures to go by, and, with a very out of date official website, it is impossible to get a real sense of size, number and structure.

With these caveats in mind, the “average” mechanised brigade of the DPR’s forces appears to be structured in a fairly conventional format:

DPR bde structure

Often militants and their vehicles in the “DPR” have insignia denoting which unit they belong to, which can be found via pro-Russian open and media sources. Compiling this data gives a greater perspective of the overall structure of the “DPR” MoD, but gives little insight into its actual size. The main factor which helps to assess the actual size of individual units is vehicle numbers. For example, tank battalion “Diesel” is known to be approximately of the size of a regular Russian tank battalion, having around 40 tanks in its inventory .

Reconnaissance companies within battalions and brigades seem to be most active at present, probably because significant combat operations have largely ceased and the main concern is monitoring the ceasefire. Terminology (“special forces”, “reconnaissance”, “rapid reaction”) looks a little bit disingenuous. It is likely that many of these titles are self-adopted for prestige and resource allocation rather than accurate formal statements of capability and training. The so-called Special Forces unit “Somali” appears to be operating more as a rapid reaction force that can quickly go where needed on the front lines.

There is still uncertainty over the current and intended end state for the DPR armed forces – this is still early days, with reliable information limited and fluid. Interestingly, but perhaps predictably, the Ukrainian government have presented the structure of the DPR armed forces as part of a wider and Russia-controlled military force. From the Ukrainian perspective, therefore, the DPR’s forces are 1st Army Corps and the “Luhansk Peoples Republic” (LPR) armed forces are grouped as 2nd Army Corps.

This suggests a form of unified command between two “occupant armies”. It is an interesting notion which might have some truth to it, at least in some capacity. One DPR source previously listed the LPR National Militia as the 2nd Army Corps. There is evidence that the DPR and LPR armed forces have been doing a lot of resource sharing as if they were under unified (i.e. Russia-directed) command. It seems that after DPR received a shipment of T-72s, it no longer had use for its Ukrainian captured T-64s and transferred them to the LPR National Militia. DPR armour holdings consists of around 75% T-72s, whereas in the LPR the vast majority of LPR tanks are T-64BVs.

The Ukrainian assessment suggests that the entire 7th Mechanised Brigade has been transferred to LPR command. During the recent pullbacks of heavy armour, the 7th Brigade pulled back and stored its tanks in an LPR base along with other LPR tanks. During this move, DPR’s 1st Army Corps social media cited it as still belonging to the DPR, but was in the zone of control of the LPR’s 2nd Army Corps. We should be cautious, however. These social media accounts are often operated by private volunteers, so there is a possibility that this post is simply a reflection of personal opinion or flawed information rather than fact. It is equally plausible that the DPR & LPR act as a loose coalition with individual areas of responsibility. This is not to say that the survival of the DPR and LPR do not depend on Russian support, but that I believe that their command structures are probably not formally connected to those of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

DPR armed forces have undergone significant restructuring to reach their current structure, which is not yet in its planned final state. Some artifacts of the old system still remains, most notable are the “Somali” and “Sparta” battalions, best known for their roles at Donetsk airport, which still function as separate units reporting directly to MOD. Other less notable units still remain as separate units both throughout the Army Corps and the Republican Guard (RG). This phenomenon is far more prevalent in the Army Corps as all units were made to submit to its control upon its creation. The RG was only created later and units were taken from the Army Corps and re-organized under RG command.

The RG began as a separate entity under the authority of the head of the republic, Alexander Zakharchenko. It’s likely longevity is unclear: it may be intended for absorption into 1st Army Corps because of poor military performance at Shyrokino. Some reports suggest this may have already partly happened. The flag ceremony of the RG’s “100th Brigade” revealed it to be the same type and format as units in 1st Army Corps. The flag does however still have “Republican Guard” written on it, even in a post-reform environment.
Ukraine, DPR, 100 bde flag ceremony.png

100th brigade flag ceremony September 2015

Conclusions: It is evident that the DPR leadership is attempting to boost their military capabilities and to give the appearance of a formal military structure as befitting a “state”. But assessment is difficult:

  • it is hard to glean reliable information
  • it is likely that the effort of the DPR is a fluid “work in progress”
  • access to funding and resources is probably creating a gap between capability on the ground and the theory on paper
  • the impact of Russia (its assistance, or lack of, and wider Russian strategic plans and actions) may yet distort or thwart the evolution of the military capabilities of the Donetsk Peoples Republic
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