Ilovaisk: A Battle that Changed the Course and Perception of a War

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Ilovaisk: A Battle that Changed the Course and Perception of a War

The Battle of Ilovaisk lasted from August 7th to September 2nd, 2014, and six years later it remains the deadliest battle in Russia’s war against Ukraine in the Donbas.  Ukrainian forces consisted of various volunteer regiments from different regions of Ukraine.  Their mission was to capture and restore government control over the separatist-occupied city of Ilovaisk.  Enemy forces were made up of various battalions from the Donbas People’s Militia supported by Russian ground forces and airborne troops, a fact which the Russian government continues to deny. The approximate number of Ukrainian troops deployed during the Battle of Ilovaisk was less than two thousand with hundreds of soldiers killed during a disorganized retreat on August 29th, 2014. 

According to official records at the Headquarters of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Ukrainian forces suffered 220 killed in action, 44 wounded, 40 missing in action, with 13 taken captive. However, according to estimates by the Verkhovna Rada and the People’s Front party, the actual number of Ukrainian casualties exceeded one thousand.  Pro-Russian separatists and Russian forces suffered fewer casualties, numbering in the hundreds, and there were several civilian casualties as well. Of all the battles fought in Donbas, Ilovaisk saw the biggest loss of life, and changed the world’s perception of the conflict in Ukraine. 

The stage for the battle was set on August 6th when the possibility of a Russian military invasion was announced by the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, and the Ukrainian army was ordered to prevent it. The following day, Alexander Zakharchenko replaced Alexander Borodai as the leader of pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk, and that same day Ukrainian forces mobilized to launch the attack on Ilovaisk. The city of Ilovaisk was of strategic significance because it was a railway node and served as a base for separatist forces.  It also served as a possible entry point for Russian mercenary fighters. Furthermore, by restoring control over Ilovaisk, Ukrainian forces would have had a better chance to capture Donetsk and split in half the territory of the Russian-backed republics. 

Almost from the early stages of the operation, Ukrainian soldiers expressed concerns over the lack of communication and orders from their high command. On August 18th, Ukrainian forces led by the Donbas Battalion prepared to enter Ilovaisk and regain control of the city.  However, their initial attempt was unsuccessful.  Government forces eventually managed to seize control of Ilovaisk without suffering any casualties and raised the Ukrainian flag over the city’s main administrative building. By August 20th, it was reported that Ukrainian forces had taken complete control of the city, but this report was denied by separatist leaders. Determined to maintain control over the city, forces of the Donbas People’s Militia led fierce counterattacks against the government forces throughout the day. After constant fighting on the streets of Ilovaisk, some of the volunteer military battalions began to withdraw.  No reinforcements were deployed to support the remaining government forces.

By August 24th, Ukraine’s Independence Day, it became clear to the Ukrainian forces that they were starting to become outnumbered, with enemy forces surrounding them on all fronts. At this time Ukrainian soldiers began reporting that they were seeing regular Russian army troops among the separatist fighters. It was evident that despite the Kremlin’s denial of any involvement the remaining government forces were being encircled as a direct result of this Russian reinforcement of the separatist fighters. 

Roman Zinenko, a former combatant with the Dnipro-1 volunteer police battalion, recalls his experience on the front lines of Ilovaisk. “At the time we could not imagine the scale of this entrapment. Our troops had surrounded Ilovaisk, but all our troops were surrounded by the enemy," he stated.

There were also disturbing reports of some Russian units being disguised as Ukrainian soldiers in order to sow confusion and panic among the remaining government forces. In a 2018 interview with Hromadske International, Serhiy Shvachko, Communications Chief of the 51st Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces recalled his experiences in Ilovaisk. “The Russian soldiers who were present there broke all possible international conventions. They did not use any insignia; they used our identifying tags.”

After days of intense fighting, the remaining commanders of government forces attempted to negotiate an agreement with separatist leaders and the Russian commanders to allow them to withdraw from the city. On the early morning of August 29th at 6:00 am, government forces had already prepared to move out of Ilovaisk in a column of sixty vehicles. In his interview, Shvachko stated, “By the 29th, a convoy had formed, the military leaders took the decision to leave Ilovaisk. We already did not have enough weapons; we had lost officers.”

That same morning, Russian president Vladimir Putin appealed to separatist leaders stating that a “humanitarian corridor for besieged Ukrainian soldiers” should be established and Yuriy Bereza, a commander of the Dnipro-1 Regiment, managed to reach an agreement with Russian commanders stationed in Ilovaisk to create such a corridor. The Donetsk leader Alexander Zakharchenko agreed to allow safe passage for the withdrawing Ukrainian troops provided that Ukrainian forces left behind their armored vehicles, weapons and ammunition as part of the agreement.

Realizing the severity of the situation, Ukrainian commanders decided to proceed with the withdrawal but ordered their troops to remain armed and on high alert. “Well, of course we could not leave our equipment, or weapons to our enemies,” said Shvachko. “The decision was taken to retreat armed; I can confirm that.” Unfortunately, not all soldiers received this command due to poor communication because by this point some units were lacking proper radio and communication equipment. 

The lack of communication further compromised the withdrawal in that there was a great deal of uncertainty among the scattered units as to where they were supposed to go and what their rallying locations were. “Nobody knew the routes,” said Zinenko. 

The withdrawal started in the village of Mnohopillya, which was located south of Ilovaisk proper. The remaining government forces consisted of two columns.  The northern column, which was led by General Ruslan Khomchak consisted of troops from the 17th Tank Brigade, the 51st Mechanized Brigade, and various police units. Meanwhile, the southern column, under the command of Colonel Oleksii Grachov, consisted of troops from the 93rd Mechanized Brigade and the Donbas Battalion. As the two columns of Ukrainian troops attempted to move out, they came under heavy fire from Russian forces. The remaining forces of the northern column managed to advance to the village of Novokaterynivka, and after a brief clash in the village, all of the Ukrainian armored vehicles were destroyed.  Only a handful of troops managed to escape on foot. 

Meanwhile, the troops of the southern column managed to hold out against enemy forces in the village of Chervonosilske. By August 30th, commander Yuriy Lysenko of the Dnipro-2 Battalion managed to reach an agreement with Russian commanders that allowed the safe evacuation of the remaining Ukrainian troops still in Chervonosilske in exchange for surrendering their weapons and releasing Russian POWs. The next day, August 31st, all remaining Ukrainian forces were withdrawn from the region, and by September 1st, separatist forces had regained control of Ilovaisk. 

One of the main consequences of the Battle of Ilovaisk was that it changed the world’s view on the war in Ukraine. In the months leading up to the battle, many international media outlets questioned Russia’s role in the events that had taken place in Donbas, often using terms such as “rebels” and “pro-Russian” separatists in their publications. However, the narrative of international news outlets began to change in August as the Battle of Ilovaisk unfolded, and Russia’s role as an aggressor became more apparent. The Kremlin continues to deny any Russian role in the war in Donbas.  However overwhelming evidence clearly shows the presence of Russian military vehicles, equipment, and regular troops directly supporting separatist forces on the battlefields of Donbas.

Shvachko reiterates this fact in his interview. “They were regular Russian army, this was clear from their uniform,” he stated. “From their practices, appearance, even the accents they had, it was clear that they weren’t Russian-speaking Ukrainians.”

The international community has also provided evidence of Russian troops who fought in Ilovaisk. According to a 2019 article from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a London-based digital forensics agency claimed to have gathered a large body of evidence that Russia’s military was deployed around Ilovaisk in the months of August and September 2014. The agency, known as Forensic Architecture, said it found “evidence of almost 300 Russian military vehicles around the Ukrainian towns of Ilovaisk and Luhansk.”

Since 2014, August 29th has been a somber day of remembrance for many Ukrainians as they honor the soldiers who fought in Ilovaisk and the sacrifice they made to protect their homeland. Six years after the battle, Ukrainian society continues to pay tribute to the soldiers who perished in Ilovaisk through various community events, public demonstrations by the soldiers’ families, and through sharing veterans’ recollections via mainstream and social media. 

Many analysts and commentators claim that in addition to Russian military involvement, the other contributing factor to the failure of the mission in Ilovaisk was the lack of competence among the highest Ukrainian civilian and military leadership when it came to planning the withdrawal, especially when it came to communicating decisions to the field.  Commanders and soldiers of the Ukrainian volunteer paramilitary battalions blamed the tragedy in Ilovaisk on the Ukrainian army leadership and felt "betrayed” in its aftermath.

Since his victory in the 2019 presidential election, Ukrainian president Volodymr Zelensky has made it a priority to uncover the truth behind what happened at Ilovaisk. “We still have a case on Ilovaisk. We have already discussed this with the prosecutor’s office, and we will be investigating it. I think we will have results too,” he said at a press marathon on the fifth anniversary of Ilovaisk in 2019.

Whether or not the survivors of Ilovaisk and the families of the victims find peace and justice in the coming years is still to be determined, but the legacy of the soldiers who perished during the Battle of Ilovaisk will forever be engrained in the fabric of Ukrainian society.