The Hybrid War in Eastern Ukraine
Within a week of President Yanukovych’s departure in the early morning of February 22, 2014, pro-Russia protests sprouted in major cities in eastern and southern Ukraine. Russian television broadcasted into Ukraine told stories of Ukraine having been overthrown by a Western-sponsored “Kyiv fascist junta,” Kyiv being in turmoil and Russian speakers being under threat of having their rights stripped and even being killed. All this occurred while the “little green men” of Russia were in the process of annexing Crimea and the country was preparing for presidential elections. These rallies were much smaller than those seen during the Pro-Ukraine Euromaidan protests. In many cases, the organizers and participants were citizens of Russia, not Ukraine. Russian social media groups, including some on Vkontakte, offered to pay people to go to Ukraine to participate in such protests. Busloads of Russian citizens were transported from Russia into the cities of Luhansk and Kharkiv, which are close to the Russian border. In the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, armed militants managed to overtake and occupy government buildings and take control of television and radio transmission towers. Chaos ensued in eastern Ukraine. From April through June 2014, militants expanded their captured territory.
In response, volunteers began forming battalions that fought back the militants, after which the Ukrainian government created an Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) that attempted to take control and suppress the terrorists. The militants, calling themselves Pro-Russia separatists, continued to seize buildings, overtake smaller cities in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk and wage battles with government forces. Many of the militants were Ukrainian citizens with combat experience, having served in the Russian Armed Forces. In all, about two thirds of the militants were Ukrainian citizens. Igor Girkin, known by his nom de guerre as Strelkov, coordinated the efforts of the militants. Girkin was later identified as a colonel in Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU). Anti-Ukraine propaganda escalated on Russian-language television, the only media that the militants made available in eastern Ukraine.
The militants staged two referendums – one in the province of Luhansk in late April, and another in the province of Donetsk in early May – that were similar to the one conducted in Crimea. Subsequently, they declared two independent states: the Donetsk National Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk National Republic (LNR). Both stated that unification with Russia was their goal. The prime minister of the DNR was Alexander Borodai, a Russian national later identified as an employee of the FSB. The prime minister of the LNR was Valery Bolatov, also a Russian citizen. In August 2014, when it became well known that these individuals were Russian citizens, both resigned and were replaced with Ukrainian citizens.
The Ukrainian government continued their ATO as the militant-terrorists continued to escalate their attacks and take more territory under control in eastern Ukraine. The presidential elections took place without incident on May 25, 2014, but about one third of the regions in the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk could not take part in the election as they were under pro-Russia terrorist control. Soon after taking office, President Poroshenko proposed a 15-point peace plan that called for an immediate ceasefire in exchange for decentralization of political power, reconstruction of the area, and more. Soon after agreeing to the ceasefire the militants, shot down a military helicopter in Sloviansk.
Numerous battles were fought across eastern Ukraine during the months of June and July 2014. Evidence began surfacing that terrorists were using military hardware that could only have originated in Russia. In July, the terrorists have been accused of shooting down a Malaysian Airlines plane carrying 298 civilians from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, thinking it was a Ukrainian military airplane. The incident directed the attention of the world to what was happening in Ukraine. Investigations later confirmed that the airliner was shot down using a Russian made BUK missile system, a sophisticated anti-aircraft weapon. The missile system required specialized training to operate as well as the support of ground-based radar – the nearest of these being available on Russian soil. In addition, the US State Department and independent investigative journalists have provided evidence that Russian ground forces have repeatedly fired into Ukraine from the Russian side of the border.
As August approached, it became clear that Ukrainian forces were pushing back the terrorists and it seemed that the conflict would soon be over. Meanwhile, Russia announced that it was sending a convoy of 280 tractor-trailers of humanitarian aid into the warzone. The Ukrainian government required that the trucks be inspected by the Red Cross prior to entering the country. Russia refused and entered without authorization. Shortly after the delivery, the fighting escalated as if the terrorists were now reinforced. On August 29, a battalion of Ukrainian soldiers were besieged in the town of Ilovaisk. President Putin called for a humanitarian corridor to be established so that the soldiers could withdraw from the area peacefully. Instead of allowing the soldiers to leave as agreed, the terrorists opened fire leaving over 300 dead and capturing another 500.
In early September, extensive diplomatic negotiations involving the OSCE, Ukraine, Russia, DNR and LNR led to an agreement known as the Minsk Protocol. The 12-point agreement called for an immediate ceasefire, establishment of a buffer zone, exchange of prisoners, release of hostages, and decentralization of power, and resolution of other points of contention. It was a ruse, designed to allow the terrorists to continue their aggression and continue expanding their territory, while Russia continued the delivery of munitions under the guise of humanitarian aid. For the most part, Ukrainian forces maintained a defensive position and refrained from engaging the terrorists in offensive battles. By January, the terrorists had increased the territory they control by 30%, and thousands of civilians and soldiers were killed. Ukrainian-controlled cities outside of the conflict zone are being shelled by Russian forces, killing civilians. Terrorist attacks are taking place in cities all around Ukraine.
Russia has repeatedly denied the presence of its military forces in Ukraine. It claims that any Russian citizens fighting in Ukraine are there of their own accord, including some who have been granted temporary leave from Russia’s armed forces. Human rights groups in Russia claim that many young soldiers, upon concluding their 1-year mandatory military service, are subsequently duped or coerced into continuing their service and end up fighting in eastern Ukraine. Satellite images released by the US military, as well as the passports and military IDs of captured soldiers, confirm that Russia’s military is indeed active in Ukraine.
As evidence of Russian intervention continued mounting, the European Union, Canada, the US and other nations imposed sanctions on Russian political and business leaders in the hope that this would persuade Russia to cease its operations in Ukraine. Since September 2014, American and European leaders have been engaged in the debate over whether or not to arm Ukraine with lethal weapons. To date, the support given by the United States has been limited to intelligence information, night-vision goggles and blankets. In his address to the US congress, the Ukrainian president stated that this war cannot be won with blankets. Many argue that providing Ukraine with lethal arms would give the Ukrainian armed forces a fighting chance at repelling forces supplied by the Kremlin. In contrast, US President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel have repeatedly stated that there is no military solution to this conflict, but that pressing on with more sanctions would eventually pressure Russia to end its encouragement of the dismembering of Ukraine.
In February 2015, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany signed an agreement known as Minsk II Protocol. The measures were nearly identical to those first proposed by Poroshenko in June 2014, and later repeated in the first Minsk Protocol of September 2014. The Minsk II Protocol was signed on February 12t and stipulated that the ceasefire would commence at 00:00h on February 15.
While the negotiations took place, in which Putin participated, Russia continued sending heavy armaments into Ukraine. Russia denies this, but satellite imagery proves otherwise. The shelling on the day before the ceasefire came into effect reached an all-time high. During the time of negotiations, the Ukrainian forces were defending the strategic town of Debaltseve. They were severely attacked by the Russia-supported terrorists. The terrorists claimed that they did not consider Debaltseve to be in control of the Ukrainian forces and thus exempted from the treaty. A few days after the agreed-but-constantly-violated ceasefire, while enduring heavy battles and being caught in an offensive cauldron, Ukrainian forces retreated from Debaltseve.
Curretly, Russia is attempting, with the help of Western countries, to pressure Ukraine into fulfilling clauses of the Minsk agreement that would allow to destabilize it from within.
A brief timeline of Russia’s hybrid war in Donbas is below (source):