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NightWatch 20150218

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For the night of 18 February 2015

Ukraine: Early on 18 February, Ukrainian President Poroshenko said that he ordered the Ukrainian troops in Debal'tseve to withdraw with their arms.  Apparently they tried to leave under conditions of surprise. One report said up to 8,000 soldiers left in trucks escorted by tanks and fighting vehicles. They were almost immediately attacked by eastern Ukrainian rebel forces and had to fight their way out.

Later in the day, a Ukrainian spokesman said the withdrawal was almost complete. He did not say how many men managed to reach Ukrainian lines. President Poroshenko said 6 men died and 100 were wounded during the withdrawal. Press interviews with soldiers said only a third of the men made it out.

The daily map posted by the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council shows a significant decrease in clashes and fighting on 18 February. At the time of posting Debal'tseve was still contested. Tomorrow's map should show the elimination of the Debal'tseve pocket and a fairly complete ceasefire in effect.

Comment: The details of what happened in the Debal'tseve pocket are not yet known. The figure of 8,000 soldiers seems high, but press services have reported consistently that the pocket contained at least 7,000 Ukrainian soldiers. The number of vehicles reported by observers was not enough to evacuate a force of that size.

President Poroshenko gave no explanation for his decision to withdraw the soldiers from the Debal'tseve pocket on Wednesday morning. Military experts stress that retrograde operations are among the most difficult to execute successfully. The few press interviews with Ukrainian soldiers that made it out indicated this operation had high casualties, but the facts are not known.

A successful withdrawal would deny the Donetsk rebel regime hostages which they could have used as leverage in negotiations. A less than successful withdrawal with high casualties is a military debacle that could undermine the Ukrainian army's morale worse than a negotiated withdrawal, which was an option.

Apparently the position was untenable militarily. That condition raises a question why the withdrawal was not undertaken earlier. The Kyiv government seems to have trusted that the ceasefire agreement would leave help protect those forces. The result of the withdrawal is a major military and political victory for the Donetsk rebels.

Ukraine- Russia: While visiting Hungary on the 17th, Russian President Putin called on eastern Ukrainian rebels to allow besieged Ukrainian troops safe passage from Debal'tseve. Putin also urged the Kyiv government to allow its troops to surrender.

Comment: President Putin's compromise favored the rebels with territory, but also would have allowed Kyiv to get back badly needed soldiers. Both sides rejected his proposal.

Nigeria: On 18 February, a Nigerian defense department spokesman said that since the start of the week Nigerian forces killed more than 300 Boko Haram fighters during an operation to recapture 11 towns and villages in Borno State. Two Nigerian soldiers died in the operation and 10 were wounded.

In Niger, a combat aircraft dropped three bombs on a funeral gathering in the town of Abadam, killing 37 people. A local official claimed the aircraft was a Nigerian air force aircraft. Nigerian authorities denied that claim.

Comment: One news outlet said that Boko Haram finally is on the defensive. While that might be an overstatement, at least the security situation reports have more balance. Now they include reports of gains by the counter-terrorism forces as well as attacks by Boko Haram.

The bombing in Niger highlights the crticality of  superior targeting and spotting skills in using air support and the negativec consequences of simpllistic targeting techniques.

End of NightWatch for 18 February.

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