Ilovaisk Cauldron: Who Is to Blame for the Crushing Defeat of Ukraine in Donbass

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard


On August 19th, 2014, Donbass was the scene of hard fighting for the small town of Ilovaisk, in the East of Donetsk. Hundreds of people died in battles. Kiev expected to take the settlement for the country’s Independence Day — August 24th. They failed to take it, and in the next two days the group of voluntary battalions was encircled. The attempts of troops to break out of the cauldron led to the most numerous losses in the period of the ATO. What are the reasons for the military defeat of Ukraine and why has the investigation into these events stalled — RT found out.

Before the battle for Ilovaisk a favourable situation developed for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. On July 5th the militia left Slavyansk and concentrated on the defense of the vicinities of Donetsk. The Armed Forces of Ukraine and voluntary battalions managed to beat away fighters of the DPR from dozens of settlements.

By the middle of July the threat of encirclement loomed over Donetsk. Most likely, the Ukrainian command counted on the quick completion of the military campaign. At the beginning of August the task to take Ilovaisk located 40 km to the East of Donetsk was set for the ATO forces.

About 18,000 inhabitants lived in this small city prior to the war. Ilovaisk had huge importance for supply of the Donetsk garrison. The road passes through the city that connects Khartsyzsk, and from it — to Makeevka and Donetsk.

The capture of Ilovaisk would have allowed Kiev to develop an offensive on Donetsk from the East and to restore control over part of the border with Russia.

For Independence Day

The first battle for Ilovaisk started already on July 12th. The militia managed to defend the city and cause serious losses to the enemy. UAF units receded and were soon transferred to deblockade the Izvarinsky cauldron (in the media it is often named the “southern cauldron”).

Five brigades of the Ukrainian Army found themselves surrounded to the South of Lugansk. 438 troops of the Ukrainian Armed Forces crossed the border with the Russian Federation, the others continued the breakthrough. On August 6th-7th the exit of the deblockaded Ukrainian troops was complete. The elimination of the Izvarinsky cauldron allowed Kiev to concentrate forces on the new storm of Ilovaisk.

On August 10th assault groups of special battalions of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and voluntary battalions of National Guard (“Donbass”, “Azov”, “Shakhtersk”) were transferred for the purpose of strengthening the offensive group near Ilovaisk. Also the 2nd and 40th battalions of territorial defense took part in the operation.

According to the Ukrainian military expert Diana Mikhailova, before the active phase of fighting near Ilovaisk the total number of ATO forces was about 3000 people. About 70 units of armored machinery and no less than 100 armaments and mortars were there.

The Ukrainian TV channel “Gromadske” in the movie “Story of Tragedy” claims that on the Ukraine side 1700 people took part in the fighting for Ilovaisk.

As Mikhailova believes, Ilovaisk, under the leadership of Arsen Pavlov (Motorola) and Mikhail Tolstykh (Givi), was defended by 500 fighters. The Ukrainian media gave contradictory estimates of the number of militiamen. Participants of events near Ilovaisk assure that they faced resistance from a small group of “separatists”.

On August 19th, as a result of urban fighting, the Ukrainian battalions was able to occupy part of the city. Considerable human resources were pulled together for the storm, and that’s why, without taking into account the losses, ATO forces were pulled together, and anti-terrorist operation forces managed to achieve some success.

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Allegedly on August 20th the Ilovaisk garrison received reinforcements, but the situation of the groups of Givi and Motorola all the same remained very difficult.

The fatal error of Kiev

The situation radically changed on August 23rd-24th. The commanders of the militia learned from the interrogation of prisoners and intelligence reports that the Ukrainian command strongly weakened the rear, having transferred almost all resources for the capture of Ilovaisk.

On the Independence Day of Ukraine the mechanized units of the militia struck two blows to the Ukrainian army: from the East (from Uspenka, 50 km from Ilovaisk) and from the North (from Donetsk and Mospino). The 5th battalion of territorial defense “Prikarpatye” and several brigades of the UAF covering the Ilovaisk group began a hasty unorganized retreat.

The militia definitively closed the encirclement on August 27th. Besides this, practically without encountering resistance, the first-line units of the militia overcame about 100km and arrived at the Sea of Azov, having occupied Novoazovsk (40 km from Mariupol).

All the offensive group of the Ukrainian troops found itself in the Ilovaisk cauldron. Nevertheless the UAF had resources for the deblockading operation. In order to break the encirclement the 92nd mechanized brigade featuring 2000 soldiers was transferred.

However, the attempts at a breakthrough by the troops that found themselves in the cauldron weren’t crowned with success.

After the grandiose parade in the center of Kiev on August 24th, the military-political leadership of Ukraine found itself in a stalemate. Nearly 3000 people were under the threat of destruction. The indignant Ukrainian society demanded concrete actions from the President Petro Poroshenko, who distinguished himself by gallant statements on Independence Day.

On August 29th the Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the militia with an appeal to open a humanitarian corridor for the blockaded ATO forces. The DPR declared its determination to satisfy the request of the Russian leader, with the condition that to exit from the cauldron the fighters must disarm.

On August 30th the commander of the battalion “Donbass” Semen Semenchenko reported that Kiev allegedly came to an agreement to withdraw troops “with weapons and banners”. On August 31st the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine made all information about the events in Ilovaisk classified.

Chaotic exit

The militia repeatedly specified that the Ukrainian troops violated the conditions of exit from the Ilovaisk cauldron. The Russian Foreign Ministry accused Kiev of refusing to use the provided corridor and of being unwilling to save the lives of the surrounded fighters.

The video footage of the exit of soldiers from the Ilovaisk cauldron also testifies to the fact that the Ukrainian battalions that fell under shelling were leaving the cauldron in armored machinery and with weapons in hands.

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The reliable picture of events at the end of August up to the beginning of September, 2014, is unknown. Experts, including Ukrainian ones, agree with the opinion that the exit from Ilovaisk was chaotic and unprepared.

The turmoil reigning in the ranks of soldiers is confirmed by the fact that at the end of August some of the surrounded troops didn’t leave Ilovaisk. With a high probability the ATO fighters who remained in the city (by different estimates, about 500-700 people) were destroyed or taken prisoner before the signing of the first Minsk Agreement (on September 5th, 2014).

Killed, wounded, and missing persons

Data on the killed Ukrainian soldiers in the battle of Ilovaisk is extremely inconsistent. On September 15th, 2014, the Minister of Defence of Ukraine Valery Geletey stated that Ukraine lost 108 people who were killed.

Such an assessment of losses was subjected to the criticism of direct participants of the fighting, probably, from those who realised the scale of the real defeat. In particular, Semenchenko and the commander of the “Azov” regiment Andrey Biletsky claimed that near Ilovaisk more than 1000 people were killed.

On December 11, 2014, the General Prosecutor of Ukraine Vitaly Yarema reported about the death of “241 Ukrainian patriots” in the fight for Ilovaisk. In August, 2016, “Gromadske-TV” in the movie “Story of Tragedy” the following figures are given: 366 dead, 158 missing persons, 429 wounded, 128 prisoners.

In April, 2015, the Chief Military Prosecutor of Ukraine Anatoly Matios said that 639 people didn’t return from Ilovaisk: 459 — were killed, 180 — were missing.

The maximum number of losses was earlier voiced by the head of the commission of inquiry of the Verkhovna Rada into the circumstances of the Ilovaisk tragedy Andrey Senchenko. According to him, about 3500 people fell victim to it.

It follows from the words of the head of the Ukrainian Center for the release of prisoners of war Vladimir Ruban that 550-600 soldiers were taken captive by the militia.

An offensive without preparation

The shattering defeat of the UAF near Ilovaisk shocked Ukrainian society, on which the post-Maidan authorities imposed some idea about the fast capitulation of “separatists”. Kiev was compelled to make diplomatic concessions at negotiations in the capital of Belarus.

The first Minsk Agreement of September 5th, 2014, was perceived in Ukraine as national humiliation and a refusal to fight for Donbass. Ukrainian “patriots” and veterans of the ATO demanded to find out the reasons, to find and punish the culprits concerning the emergence of the Ilovaisk cauldron.

As the military expert Diana Mikhailova claims, the main reason for the defeat of the Ukrainian troops was the extremely weak preparation of the offensive operation. Units that previously carried out police functions and had no serious fighting experience were thrown forward for the storm of Ilovaisk.

The expert notes that the three-thousand Ilovaisk group didn’t possess the necessary quantity of armored machinery and artillery. Without fire support the Ukrainian infantry wasn’t able to beat away the militia before Independence Day, and suffered essential losses.

The military expert Evgeny Norin pointed out that the command of the ATO operation made a huge mistake, having left the flanks and the rear without cover. In his opinion, near Ilovaisk the Ukrainian army showed an absolute inability to carry out the competent control of troops. Most of all losses among soldiers were incurred during the chaotic exit from encirclement.

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Besides this, the Ilovaisk group was unsuccessful because of an absence of discipline.

In December, 2014, the chief of staff of the anti-terrorist operation Viktor Nazarov admitted that during the battle for the city thousands of fighters deserted.

Many volunteers and military personnel left their positions through the fear of being eliminated.

Fundamental problems

A security classification prevents the establishing of a reliable picture of the events in the area of Ilovaisk and to carry out an open investigation. It follows from the results of an investigation by the Verkhovna Rada in 2014 that the Ilovaisk tragedy turned out to be a consequence of fundamental problems in the organization of the defense of Ukraine.

Incorrect personnel decisions, and also wrong actions by the chief of the General Staff Viktor Muzhenko and the head of the Minister of Defence Valery Geletey led to the encirclement of Ukrainian troops. On August 23rd-24th, when the militia switched to a counterattack, military leaders didn’t attach due significance to this.

Thus, the report of the General Staff of Ukraine lays the blame for the defeat on voluntary battalions: “Voluntary divisions entered and disengaged from the fighting at the discretion of their commanders. Generally they entered into a settlement and, having come across the opponent’s resistance, left”.

“Despite the high motivation of fighters, the level of their proficiency — generally and concerning the control of the units supporting them — was low. The level of their organization also didn’t promote the effective implementation of tasks,” it is said in the document.

Participants of the fighting near Ilovaisk see the reason for their defeat as the incompetence of the command and the intervention of Russian troops, who allegedly staged at that moment artillery drills.

The German TV channel WDR Fernsehen in the movie “Deadly Trap” claims that “Russian mercenaries” and the “regular army of Putin” allegedly surrounded Ilovaisk with three rings of encirclement.

Moscow denies any participation in the conflict in Donbass. The leadership of the Russian Federation considers that it is the refusal of Kiev to follow the route of the provided humanitarian corridor on the offered conditions that led to the death of hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers.

The editor-in-chief of the Ukrainian site “” Yury Butusov, who cannot exactly be accused of having sympathy for Russia, is sure that the blame for the defeat near Ilovaisk entirely hangs on the military command of Ukraine and first of all on Muzhenko, who “left the surrounded soldiers to the mercy of fate”.

“A military examination of Ilovaisk was ready long ago, the case can be investigated even now, but the case hasn’t been transferred to court, the authorities cover-up the incompetence of the command and the devil-may-care attitude towards the lives of people, and Generals who betrayed their soldiers still sit in high offices and using budget money try to whitewash their dirty stripes and piteous little souls,” wrote Butusov earlier on Facebook.

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