Note: This article is outdated, especially with regards to the Republican Guard, new article with some corrections to follow shortly.
Summary: Military reform is underway in the de-facto state of Donetsk People’s Republic (“DPR”). All armed military units are being consolidated under a single command structure of the 1st Army Corps of the Ministry of Defense of the “DPR”. This should mean improved combat effectiveness due to a greater unity of command.
The Donetsk People’s Republic (“DPR”) armed forces today are much different from what they were even a year ago. Stemming out of rebellion, the current iteration of “DPR” armed forces greatly resemble a modern military. What today is a fairly well organized army used to be a wide array of militia groups local to the three main cities of Slovyansk, Donetsk, and some even from Lugansk.
The armed forces of “DPR” are centralized under the Ministry of Defense (MoD). Commanded by Major-General Vladimir Kononov. The “DPR” MoD is centered around a single 1st Army Corps, which in turn consists of a variety of elements which you would come to expect from a modern ground force – from signals to armored battalions. This 1st Army Corps celebrated its one-year anniversary  on the 12th of November with a parade which showcased a professional and streamlined looking military. It is important to remember that troops on the front lines rarely look so uniform as they do on parades. Often militiamen rely on donated uniforms or will buy their own. Such parades are mainly for show, tanks get a fresh layer of paint and the soldiers present wear clean uniforms. They shouldn’t be taken as indicators of the current state of the “DPR” MoD, but rather as visions for what it might look like down the road.
The Ministry of Defence holds two main combat elements under the 1st Army Corps – these two elements consist of a cluster of several “Separate” units and the Republican Guard (RG). 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 but also has elements of rapid reaction forces and special forces/reconnaissance. The Republican Guard is slightly smaller than the Army Corps, but is still sizable especially when compared to the armies of other de-facto states.
In times of relative peace, like now, reconnaissance companies within battalions and brigades are some of the more active units in the zone of conflict. Separate SF units such as “Somali” on the other hand have fallen into relative obscurity as it has become evident that their actual activities have very little to do with recon or SF. Instead, they seem to be regular mechanized forces which serve as types of rapid reaction forces which can quickly go where needed on the front lines.
There is some uncertainty around the specifics of the structure below , no official structure has been released, so all information is through non-official releases which merely hint towards a certain 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.
Very few units in “DPR” are not under the MoD structure, however such individual units do exist. One example of this is the battalion “Legion” which was long thought to be under the Republican Guard. In actuality this battalion is part of the Ministry of Emergency Situations and supposedly acts as a reconnaissance battalion. It is worth noting that the entire “Legion” battalion is sworn in with the majority political party in “DPR” – “Donetskaya Respublika”. This raises further questions about the tasks of “Legion” which shall not be answered in this article. It is however very likely that the battalion is a tool for defending political power in the young republic.
There is evidence that the “DPR” & “LPR” armed forces have been doing a lot of resource sharing as though they were under a unified command. It is evident that after “DPR” received its shipment of T-72s, it no longer found a use for its Ukrainian captured T-64’s and transferred them to the “LPR” National Militia. This is evidenced by the fact that “DPR” armor consists of around 75% T-72s, whereas in the “LPR” it is the other way around – the vast majority of “LPR” tanks are T-64BVs.
The Ukrainian intelligence graphic would suggest that the entire 7th Mechanized Brigade has been transferred under “LPR” command, some information which would support this theory. During the recent pullbacks of heavy armor, the 7th brigade pulled back and stored its tanks in an “LPR” base along with other “LPR” tanks. During the pullback of 7th brigade armor, “DPR” 1st Army Corps social media cited it as still belonging to the “DPR”, but being in zone of control of the “LPR” “2nd Army Corps”. 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 rather than fact. In light of this gray zone, the 7th Brigade isn’t included in the “DPR” table of organization.
The graphic above is offered as an alternative to Ukrainian intelligence releases of visualizations of the “DPR” MoD and the Lugansk People’s Republic (“LPR”) “National Militia” (NM). The main problem with them is that they fall within a political discourse that is not doing the Ukrainians any favors. In the Ukrainian graphics the “DPR” and “LPR” militia are viewed as a single Russian occupant army. Although both these military/militia organizations depend greatly on Russian support, there is no point in branding them as Russian occupiers, it distracts the observer from the wider issue of local unpopularity they face. However, an interesting aspect of the Ukrainian graphic is that they choose to view the “DPR” Armed Forces as the 1st Army Corps and the “LPR” as the 2nd. This is to suggest a sort of unified command between the two “occupant armies” which would further legitimize the discourse of Russian involvement. It is an interesting notion which might have some truth to it, at least in some capacity. One “DPR” source had in the past listed the “LPR” National Militia as the 2nd Army Corps, unfortunately no web cache exists of this, only a single post mentioning the “LPR” NM as the 2nd Army Corps. Otherwise it is not possible to find any indication that the “LPR” is embracing this. In all press releases and other forms of open source material released on the “LPR” armed forces by forces loyal to Lugansk, the term “National/People’s Militia” has been used.
If we were to entertain the notion of a dual-corps structure in which they both operate under a single command, a paradigm-shift might be in order. If we accept the paradigm that two armies, ostensibly subject to separate ministries of defence and state leaders act as though they are part of one greater command structure which transcends their individual states, then this must mean that there is something which is higher up the command chain than the “LPR” or “DPR” holds. The only plausible entity that could fill this position would be the Russian Federation.
I am, however, perfectly ready to discard this theory in spite of its popularity. This is not because I believe that this scenario is implausible, but more because I consider there to be a lack of supporting evidence. As the saying goes, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I find the notion 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” don’t depend on Russian support, but that I believe that their command structures are not connected to those of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. The possibility of something more vague is far more likely, a scenario in which Russia wields great influence over these armed forces and to some extent also commits some of its own forces.
“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 “Somali” and “Sparta”, best known for their roles at Donetsk airport, which still function as separate battalions under the “DPR” Ministry of Defence. Other less notable units still remain as “Separate” units both throughout the Army Corps and the Republican Guard. This phenomenon is far more prevalent in the Army Corps as all units were made to submit to its control upon its creation. The Republican Guard was only created later and units were taken from the Army Corps and re-organized under RG command.
The term “Separate” should not be misinterpreted as separate from Army Corps command. Separate units still operate within an organized command structure and exist in most modern militaries.
The Republican Guard, upon its creation, began as a separate entity under the authority of the “ head of the republic”, Alexander Zakharchenko. Eventually the Republican Guard will be completely absorbed into the 1st Army Corps, however it is not entirely clear how far along in the process they are with this re-organization. Material evidence shows that the Republican Guard has been absorbed into the Army Corps, but still gets to keep its name, function and legacy can be found in the flag ceremony of the Republican Guard’s “100th Brigade”. In the ceremony, the flag was presented, revealing it to be the same type and format as units in the MoDs 1st Army Corps. The flag does however still have “Republican Guard” written on it, even in a post-reform environment.
100th brigade flag ceremony September 2015
The aim in re-organizing the Republican Guard is to bring the all of the “DPR” armed forces under a unified command in an effort to reach the highest possible level of combat readiness should fighting resume. Supposedly, the decision was made in light of the Republican Guards failures at Shyrokino, which the leadership linked to a failure to draw proper support from the Army Corps. Shyrokino fell to Ukrainian forces – namely the “Azov” battalion during the last days of the pro-Russian push for Debaltseve, since then the town remained contested until July 2015, at which point “DPR” forces pulled out of the town.
The average Brigade of the “DPR” Ministry of Defense should look as follows:
This structure in specific is very standard, similar structures will be noticed in the militaries of other separatist de-facto states like South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This information graphic is produced from open source information and deduction. Often militants and their vehicles in the “DPR” have insignia denoting which unit they belong to, which is easily found via pro-Russian 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 us gauge the actual size of individual units is vehicle numbers. For example, the “separate” Tank Battalion “Diesel” is known to be approximately of the size of a regular Russian tank battalion, having around 40 tanks in its inventory. One caveat of relying on open source information is that it is difficult to conclude that a unit doesn’t have a certain amount of manpower just because you can’t see them. Without well documented official figures there is really no way of knowing whether or not “rank inflation” is taking place in the “DPR” MoD.
As far as Russian backed de-facto states are concerned (Think Abkhazia, Transnistria etc.), the strength of the “DPR” armed forces is rather unprecedented, both in terms of manpower and equipment. For reference, Separate Tank Battalion “Diesel” alone is equivalent to the Russian tank battalion involved in the 5-day war against Georgia in ‘08. Diesel holds an estimate of 40 Tanks, the bulk of which are of the type T-72B, but also has Strela-10 and mechanized elements within its ranks. One interesting detail about the armed forces of the “DPR” is that unlike so many other pro-Russian de-facto states, they don’t officially operate any aerial or maritime vehicles. One reason for this might be that rebels haven’t “inherited” any operational aerial or maritime vehicles from Ukrainian forces. Furthermore, the fact that the conflict is still very much ongoing means that any military aircraft nearing the front lines would be shot out of the sky nearly instantly. The usability of such aircraft and maritime vehicles might be too low to justify high maintenance costs.
This being said, it is entirely possible that the “DPR” armed forces suffer the same problems of a pre-reform Russian army. Before its reform in 2008, the Russian ground forces had an inflated organization of its units, with some Brigades holding only a handful of men. Symptoms of this phenomenon are showing in the “DPR”, especially within the Republican Guard in which only the 3rd, 5th and 6th Battalions are regularly noticed in social and televised media. Sightings of other battalions are uncommon and in them they are often few in numbers. However, with no official figures to go by, and a very out of date official website, it is impossible to really test this hypothesis.
Giving an accurate assessment of the state of combat support in the “DPR” is difficult. Two main factors serve as obstacles to a good overview. The first is that non-combat roles are not glorified or as exciting in the same way as combat roles. You would be hard pressed to see news stories on the workings of the logistics battalion for example, in part because it’s simply not that interesting to the ordinary person. The second factor is Operations Security (OPSEC). in the past, command vehicles and artillery radars not native to Ukraine have turned up in rebel-held territory. It is my hypothesis that this equipment is generously supplied by Russia and that this is part of the reason that we don’t see much from “DPR” signals units. As such, pro-Russians exercise heavy censorship of some of the indisputably Russian materiel, while publicly displaying that which has or could have been captured from Ukraine, creating an illusion of independence. The “LPR” serves as a contrast on this point, where the logistics battalion, combat engineer units and signals battalion is publically displayed through local media.
In the early days of fighting, anti-aircraft units were highly active in rebel territory and Ukraine suffered heavy air losses as a result. Today Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) are much less used but are still active within Donetsk. Every so often, reports surface of SAMs being launched at night from inside Donetsk city, but no follow-up is given as to what the target was, or which system was used. The most prevalent SAM system within the “DPR” is the Strela-10, however the more advanced Russian system Pantsir-S1 has also been spotted within “DPR” & “LPR” territory. It is more likely that the Pantsir-S1 is used in these night interceptions due to it having a far more advanced radar target acquisition and tracking system, compared to that of the Strela-10.
The “DPR” does seem capable of repairing and maintaining their armored vehicles. This often leads to some peculiar looking T-64s, which end up getting their Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) retrofitted in T-72B configurations. Other retrofits which are commonly made are upgrades to the armor of some BMP-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs), which add increased protection against small arms fire in places otherwise vulnerable.
Large bore weaponry constitutes the backbone of “DPR” offensive actions, virtually every brigade and regiment has at least one tank company and every battle for strategic positions leave the ground peppered with artillery craters. In every larger push, tanks are employed to support advancing troops. An entire artillery brigade by the name “Kalimus” has been created for the main purpose of heavy artillery, although its official name suggests it to be a “special purposes” brigade. What is more, small bore artillery pieces and mortar units are embedded within most brigades and regiments.
The “DPR” reliance on tank and artillery support was particularly evident in the battle for Marinka in June this year. In this case, fighters from “International Brigade Pyatnashka” of the Republican guard advanced onto Ukrainian positions but were quickly forced to retreat under overwhelming small arms, artillery and attack helicopter fire. Tanks were sourced from Independent Battalion “Somali”, Tank Battalion “Diesel” and the 7th separate mechanized brigade, from at least as far as Makeevka, which isn’t technically that far but in this context it’s significant. This significance is in part due to the small size of the de facto state, but also due to the strategically important position it was guarding earlier, in the very north. Once “Pyatnashka” had fallen back, tanks from the 1st Army Corps held the line and skirted up on the Northern flank of Marinka and shelled Ukrainian behind Ukrainian lines in an attempt to contain the counter-attack.
As far as larger scale maneuvers go, the armed forces of “DPR” have a habit of going for pincer attacks and if possible, completely surround strategically important towns and positions. Strategically important positions are usually large population centers and transportation hubs, like Debaltseve, Ilovaisk, Donetsk, Gorlovka, and to a lesser extent Novoazovsk. We saw evidence of this tactic clearly in the battle for Debaltseve in which the city became surrounded entirely before the Ukrainian army decided to break through in retreat. Earlier on in the conflict, right after the tides started turning in 2014 we saw the same kind of behavior in what later came to be known as the Ilovaisk kettle.
Two other attempts to surround Ukrainian positions were made simultaneous to the Ilovaisk kettle. The first was just south of Donetsk, the aim was to secure the main transport hub between Donetsk city and Mariupol. At one point it looked like the rebels had been successful in shutting down the main road which led north from Mariupol but the very next day it proved to be open.
The same type of maneuver was planned if not attempted at Mariupol, rebel sources reported at one point that they nearly had Mariupol completely surrounded and that the city would be put under siege. This proved to be not even remotely true, but it did showcase a evidence of a broader “DPR” strategy of securing central infrastructure positions.
Pictured above is a pro-rebel illustration of armed activities from August 23rd – 28th. This map clearly illustrates the Ilovaisk and Mariupol events described earlier. Only the kettle at Ilovaisk was successful, and the surrounding of Mariupol was greatly exaggerated. It would appear as though the “DPR” rebels and their supporters had over-extended themselves in a rush to surround Mariupol and ended up losing some of the ground they had gained along the southern front. For comparison to the current front lines, click here.
Units of the “DPR” Army Corps routinely undergo training exercises. Ranging from infantry exercises to anti-air live fire training. Recently, a tank-biathlon took place at the Torez training range, deep in the “DPR” heartland and close to the MH17 crash site. Prior to the “biathlon”, every tank unit of the “DPR” & “LPR” underwent additional training in order to be competitive. Tank battalion “Diesel” has proven to conduct training on advanced armored tactical maneuvers prior to the tank biathlon. Even the Donetsk Higher Military Command School took part in the competition which would lead to the conclusion that the “DPR” is going for a long term approach to defence by educating its future tankers locally.
It is evident that the “DPR” leadership is attempting to boost their military capabilities to the highest extent possible with the resources they have. We see this both in the official line but also in the information presented in the open source. It is evident that the “DPR” wishes to invest in itself as a long-term de-facto state much like Abkhazia, South-Ossetia and Transnistria. Therefore, it is only natural that the “DPR” would want to standardize its military institutions early on in the state building process. This could be in anticipation to either an offensive action or in anticipation of one from the Ukrainian army. What we do know is that the “DPR” MoD has a single army corps which consists mainly of separate brigades and battalions. All these units are under the central command of the 1st Army Corps much in the style of armies of the Russian Federation, which doesn’t have the same habit of western militaries of collecting units into divisions under their corps structures. The “DPR” is showing a commitment to collective security between itself and the “LPR” by the tank transfers and the possible brigade transfer. This could also be considered as a sign of the two de-facto states being under a higher level of command – namely Russian. However such a conclusion would be purely speculative. Another plausible scenario is that the confederation of Novorossiya is starting to take shape as a real institution. This not a conclusion which can be drawn off this overview of the “DPR” MoD alone. In the future, a broader look which includes non-military institutions between the two separatist entities will be fruitful. Discerning the extent of cooperation between the “LPR” and “DPR” will shed more light on whether we are witnessing the emergence of a institutional “Novorossiya”, a military alliance or something entirely different.