Mariupol is not in danger, it never truly was and it probably won’t be for a long time. Time and time again Ukrainian leadership has exhibited an extraordinary focus on the strategic coastal city intimes where it has not been warranted. Granted, Mariupol holds great importance both strategically but also to the peoples of Ukraine and Donbass, and make no mistake, a loss of the city would be catastrophic. During the battle for Debaltsevo, another strategically significant city, connecting many of the regions railway lines, the Ukrainian leadership seemed more worried about the defense of Mariupol even though Debaltsevo was increasingly proving to be a losing battle which required urgent attention much earlier on. Still, most attention is being lent to the southern front, with the media spotlight being the suburb of Shyrokyno, which has been subject to a change of hands a couple of times throughout the course of this year. Recently Shyrokyno has fallen into Ukrainian hands, but is still subject to relatively frequent small arms attacks from the other side, with predominantly the Republican Guard 3rd battalion present in that region, but evidence of the 1st Slavyansk Battalion AKA 7th Independent Motor Rifle Battalion of the 1st Army Corps of the DNR MoD has surfaced recently. The 1st Slavyansk is otherwise regularly stationed in the area around Debaltsevo so its presence in the area is somewhat unusual. Just north of Shyrokyno a couple of peculiar things are happening, first and foremost, the 5th Battalion of the Republican Guard “Varyag” is transitioning into a “Special Forces” battalion as part of the Army Corps. This move has come shortly after the DNR announced a pullback of heavy weaponry and that sources from the 1st Independent Motor Rifle Battalion “Viking” reported concern over the scale of the pullback of arms, lamenting that even their BMP support had been pulled back from the front lines. Whether any of this information has any factuality to it remains to be seen, but given the nature of the information and the channels through which the information has been released I see no real reason to question it. All this could point to further restructuring of armed forces within the DNR, perhaps reflecting a slow transition of Republican Guard forces to internal security with tasks such as continuing previous tasks such as guarding railroads, leaving front line activities under a unified Army Corps command, although such a move might make too much sense for this conflict. However, incessant changing of structure since late last year makes up for what would seem like common sense in what would seem to be an array of haphazard reorganizations.
Pictured above is a rough presentation of the pro-Russian composition of forces on the southern front. Whether or not the level of pull-back matches that of “viking” Battalion all along the southern front remains to be seen and is highly improbable, but what we can deduce from all this information is that the DNR is putting a greater focus on defense on the front between Mariupol and Dokuchaevsk. It is not unreasonable to speculate that this extraordinary pullback in the south could be with a couple of reasons in mind. First and foremost Mariupol is home to one of the most prolific volunteer groups in the conflict “Azov” and the defense of the city has long been left up to such National Guard volunteer groups. Such groups have long been known to take their own initiative, in spite of Kiev government directions. As such, a pullback could have been carried out in hopes of luring out opportunist volunteer groups and possibly take advantage of such an offensive to justify their own further north, something which Azov Division themselves had done during the Debaltsevo pocket in which they significantly pushed back DNR forces back to Shyrokyno. This would allow them to extend their border with Russia which would greatly benefit the Luhansk People’s Republic as they would gain a significant rail city of Stanytsia Luganska as well as more border region with Russia if such an offensive would be successful. However, these groups have recently been replaced by Ukrainian Marines so such a scenario is relatively unlikely. Another large factor contributing to the significant pullback of large-bore equipment in the south is that the lines have solidified around natural borders much like they have in the north, wide and windy rivers combined with large open plains make advancing on the enemy highly problematic and sure to result in heavy losses. Simply put, for the DNR it’s just not worth it. None the less, the north is in far greater risk of a serious offensive than the south at this point. Areas around Stanytsia Luganska have been subject to frequent reconnaissance patrols and the LNR National Militia appears to have solidified into something resembling the DNR Army Corps far better than the DNR. Furthermore, the vast majority of “trophy” T-64BVs captured by pro-Russian forces in Donbass have been transferred to tank battalions in the LNR National Militia while the DNR keeps their Russian donated T-72 workhorses.