A drone flies over bomb-stunted trees, capturing footage of wide swaths of land where buildings used to stand and hulks of remaining structures, many still smoldering, at least one actively burning.
The stark scenes are contained in a drone video posted on Telegram and broadcast by Sky News of the city of Maryinka, in Donetsk Oblast. Ukrainian defenders are still hanging on there, at least according to both Ukraine’s military and the pro-Russian Rybar Telegram channel.
About 50 miles southwest of Bakhmut, Maryinka was one of a half dozen towns in the Donetsk Oblast that “came under enemy fire” overnight, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry posted Tuesday on its Telegram channel.
“Fighting continues in Marinka,” Rybar reported Tuesday on its Telegram channel. “Russian servicemen broke through the Ukrainian defenses and forced the Armed Forces of Ukraine to the western outskirts."
But the city hasn't completely fallen into Russian hands yet, Rybar said.
"Statements about the imminent liberation of the settlement are still premature. The Armed Forces of Ukraine are still holding positions in the western part, and in the central quarters of the city, the RF Armed Forces are conducting a sweep.”
The drone video, and a similar one posted a day earlier by the Armed Forces of Ukraine StratCom Telegram channel, show the obliterated ruins of a once-thriving suburb 15 miles southwest of the city of Donetsk, the regional capital. It used to be the home of about 10,000 residents.
"The central part of the city of Maryinka in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) has been cleared of Ukrainian troops, Acting DPR Head Denis Pushilin said," the official Russian news agency TASS reported on Dec. 19, referring to the pro-Russian separatist organization in the occupied part of the region.
"Downtown Maryinka has been cleared of enemy troops," TASS reported. "Almost all high-rise buildings that served as serious fortified positions for the enemy are under our control. Only a small part of Maryinka is left where the enemy can hold its ground."
Yet the battle rages on. But there is one thing lost in the current horror.
While the scale of devastation has intensified dramatically since Russia launched its all-out invasion in February, Maryinka has been a battleground for nearly a decade now as a key target for both Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatist forces dating back to when Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014.
“Artillery fire killed at least four people in an overnight attack on a residential area in eastern Ukraine, spurring more people to flee the besieged city of Donetsk and its suburbs on Saturday to take their chances elsewhere,” The Associated Press reported on July 13, 2014. “Pro-Russia insurgents this month have retreated from the strategic city of Slovyansk and holed up in Donetsk, a city of 1 million. The artillery strike in Maryinka, a western suburb of Donetsk, hit four apartment blocks near a rebel base. It was unclear which side fired at the buildings."
"Even the fascists didn't do what they did. So many peaceful citizens," said a resident who gave her name as Valentina Mikhailovna. "Look what's happening. Dead, dead, dead people."
One damaged apartment was still burning at midday despite the efforts of firefighters, AP reported at the time. Another building was smoldering.
“Outgoing mortar fire was heard from the area at noon Saturday, suggesting that the rebels sometimes fire at the troops from the residential area, prompting Ukrainian forces to return fire,” AP reported. “Fighting between the rebels and government troops has left more than 400 dead. Tens of thousands have fled their homes, in many cases crossing the border into Russia
Even back then, the rhetoric on both sides was described as “increasingly intransigent.”
The attack came hours after then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko "vowed vengeance for the deaths of 19 troops in an insurgent rocket attack near the Russian border,” according to AP.
A year later, it was the Russian-back separatists who attacked Maryinka.
"The town of Maryinka, located a couple dozen kilometers west of Donetsk, is an under-reported flashpoint in the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine," the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Research Lab reported on Sept. 18, 2016. "The city is mostly controlled by the Ukrainian government, but eastern parts of the city and surrounding areas are under separatist control. The largest single battle since the signing of Minsk II and the separatist takeover of Debaltseve took place in Maryinka in early June 2015, when separatist forces launched an assault on the city."
Minsk II was a treaty signed in February, 2015 by Russia, Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the leaders of the pro-Russian separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. It called for a cessation of hostilities and political and military steps but was never implemented.
There have been similar reports about the bloodshed in Maryinka over the ensuing years, including many this year as the war is now full-blown with no end in sight.
How long Ukraine can hold out in Maryinka is unknown.
But one thing is certain.
Nearly nine years of warfare has turned the town into a smoking hell on earth.
Before The War Zone readers dive into the rest of the most recent updates on the ongoing conflict below, they can also first get up to speed on recent developments through our previous rolling coverage here.
Maryinka is not the only hotspot on the battlefield. Bakhmut too remains a cauldron, as you can see from this chilling report by a crew from Al Jazeera showing the ongoing devastation there. As they recorded, incoming rounds were heard and felt. The dispatch talks about concerns that with Russian forces "making great gains around Soledar," they could soon encircle Bakhmut about seven miles to the southwest.
Despite any Russian gains in and around Soledar, Ukrainian forces continue to strike against the Wagner mercenary group forces who are taking a leading role in Russian efforts there.
Meanwhile, much of the Donbas continues to be heavily contested. Russia, at the same time, appears to be reinforcing the portion of Kherson Oblast it still holds, which will be important against any future Ukrainian effort to liberate Russian-occupied Crimea. Here are some key takeaways from the latest Institute for the Study of War assessment:
- The appointment of Russian Chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov as theater commander of Russian forces in Ukraine notably did not spark a significant wave of criticism within the Russian nationalist milblogger discourse.
- Russian forces continued to launch localized assaults to regain lost positions around Svatove and in the Kupyansk direction as Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations around Kreminna.
- Russian forces made additional territorial gains north of Bakhmut and may be intensifying attacks south of Bakhmut near Klishchiivka.
- Russian forces continued ground attacks near Avdiivka and Donetsk City.
- Russian forces continued efforts to accumulate manpower in east (left) bank Kherson Oblast and to develop new logistic routes between Russia and southern Ukraine.
- Low discipline among Russian forces continues to directly endanger Russian soldiers and limit force effectiveness.
Russia claims that General of the Army Sergei Shoigu, the nation's defense minister, visited a headquarters in occupied territory in the east of Ukraine.
"At the command post of the Vostok group, Sergei Shoigu heard a report from the commander of the group, Lieutenant General Rustam Muradov, on the current situation and the actions of the group of troops commanding in other directions," the Russian TVZveda news agency reported.
The visit also served as the official confirmation that two key Russian military leaders were still in place.
However, last month, the Russian Defense Ministry (MoD) published video it claimed was Shoigu flying in a helicopter over trenches on the front. But open source intelligence monitoring groups later claimed they determined through geolocation that Shoigu instead was flying over Crimea, some 50 miles away from the nearest Ukrainian positions.
Russia has plans to increase the size of its Armed Forces to 1.5 million troops, something Shoigu expounded upon during his reported visit to the front. He hosted a session with the deputy defense ministers, branch commanders-in-chief, and commanders on the implementation of Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to build up the Armed Forces to that 1.5 million troop level, the Russian MoD reported Tuesday on its Telegram channel.
Shoigu noted that “all the measures were to be combined into the Comprehensive Build-Up Plan of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation,” according to the MoD. “In addition, they are to be harmonized with building the infrastructure for deploying troops, the terms of supplying armament, military and special hardware, and materiel within the state defense order.”
The main emphasis “is to be placed on manning troops with contracted personnel,” according to the MoD. “It is also necessary to organize timely provision of units and formations with armament, military and special hardware, as well as other material.”
The plan apparently is taking four Ukrainian regions illegally annexed by Russia into consideration.
It also calls for increasing “the number of training grounds in the military districts and new regions of the Russian Federation, prepare them for maneuvers, define the training scope of cadets and students in the higher educational institutions of the Ministry of Defense, and upscale the training scope of specialists in the training centers of the Armed Forces in accordance with the heightened need of troops by increasing capacity of training centers and establishing the new ones.”
All of this, according to the MoD, “is to be provided with relevant budget allocation.”
The Pentagon "is tapping into a vast but little-known stockpile of American ammunition in Israel to help meet Ukraine’s dire need for artillery shells in the war with Russia," The New York Times reported on Tuesday, citing American and Israeli officials.
The stockpile "provides arms and ammunition for the Pentagon to use in Middle East conflicts. The United States has also allowed Israel to access the supplies in emergencies."
Speaking of arms shipped to Ukraine, we missed this a few weeks back, but U.S. Transportation Command on Jan. 3 tweeted out a pretty cool graphic of the 156,500 tons of equipment it transported to Ukraine as of Jan. 3
The Netherlands has “the intention” to follow the U.S. and Germany in sending the missile defense system, Rutte said in joint remarks with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington, according to Bloomberg.
“I think that it’s important we join that and I discussed it also this morning with Olaf Scholz of Germany,” he said.
While Rutte talked about sending a Patriot to Ukraine, the training of about 100 Ukrainian troops on how to operate Patriot air defense systems is underway at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the Pentagon’s top spokesman said Tuesday.
That training will include maintaining that system, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters.
“In terms of the maintenance, I'd refer you to the Army for a more granular level of detail,” he said. ”I would tell you that maintenance will be an aspect of the training. And in terms of maintenance writ large, when it comes to the capabilities that we are providing on the battlefield, one of the techniques that we've used, as you know, is essentially tele-maintenance - so remote maintenance capabilities. That will be something that we will continue to provide to the Ukrainians, not only on the Patriot system, but on a variety of systems as they are played in the battlefield.”
The cost of maintaining the Patriot system is a consideration at the Pentagon, a senior U.S. defense official told The War Zone last week.
”The price tag for [maintenance and sustainment] on the Patriot system alone is on average of about $500 million for three years,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the system.
As for training Ukrainian troops on the Patriot battery Germany promised Ukraine, Ryder said that was up to Berlin to work out the details.
With the United Kingdom earlier this week announcing it is sending Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, and other allies considering sending modern tanks, Ryder was asked whether the U.S. will change its stance on not providing U.S. tanks to Kyiv.
“I don't have anything to announce,” he said. “I think we've been very clear when we do have something to announce. We'll be providing the Bradley fighting vehicle as you know, which again is an armor capability. And so when and if we have something new to announce, we will.”
Speaking of tanks, Germany - which has so far declined to provide its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine or allow other nations who have purchased its tanks to send them to Ukraine - may be one step closer to changing its position.
Germany said this would be the first item on its new defense minister's agenda, Reuters reported Tuesday.
With the U.S.-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group of 50 nations set to meet Friday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany to pledge military support for Ukraine - U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley will be among those attending - Berlin is under intense pressure to lift its objections this week.
The decision sits on the desk of Germany's new Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, named on Tuesday to replace Christine Lambrecht, who quit after comments critics called insensitive, Reuters reported.
"When the person, when the minister of defence, is declared, this is the first question to be decided concretely," German Economy Minister Robert Habeck told the Deutschlandfunk radio broadcaster on Tuesday, before the appointment was announced. Last week, Habeck came out in favor of allowing Poland and other countries to send Ukraine Leopard 2 tanks.
Ukrainian officials called off further searches of a decimated apartment complex in Dnipro, where they claim a Russian Kh-22 cruise missile struck the building killing 44 people.
In the aftermath of that attack, in which Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuri Ignat claimed his country has no defenses against such missiles, Presidential Advisor Oleksiy Arestovych resigned Tuesday after claiming that Ukraine actually shot down the missile that hit the apartment building.
"Arestovych apologized and said he had made a 'fundamental error,'" the BBC reported. "The original remark caused widespread anger in the country, and was used by Russian officials to blame Ukraine."
To help secure a Ukrainian victory, the Dzyga's Paw organization claims it has provided Ukrainian troops with a number of drones that have helped spot Russian troops and adjust fire on them.
The group also claims it repaired four Russian MSTA-B howitzers captured in the Kharkiv region.
But there appears to be no way to repair these Russian armored vehicles, a T-72B tank and two BMP Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV) destroyed by Ukrainian forces in the east, according to the Ukraine Weapons Tracker OSINT group.
Finally, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin minced no words about how this war should end.
Ukraine has to win, she said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
"If Russia would win, then it would send a message," she said. "That you can invade another country. You can attack another country. And you can gain from that."
That's it for now. We will update this story if there is anything major to add.
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