Conflict in Ukraine
Russia officially denies its military involvement in Ukraine, trying to portray these events as a manifestation of civil war. This Russian narrative was sustained by the fact that Ukraine and the West – for an extended period due to political reasons – have avoided defining events in Donbas as a Russian-Ukrainian war, calling them the Kiev-led counter-terrorism operation against the separatists. However, a recent reinterpretation of this discourse is occurring. First of all, it has been necessary to avoid the use of the term "Counter-Terrorism Operation" by the Ukrainian political leadership, where in its place the armed conflict in Donbas is called the Russian-Ukrainian War. Secondly, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe defined the war in Donbas as "Russian aggression" against Ukraine, on October 13, 2016.
Reviewing the aggression by Russia against Ukraine, it is possible to define several stages of conflict.
During the first stage, Russia occupied the Crimean Peninsula from February to March 2016 and was using the power vacuum created by the change of leadership in Kiev. As a pretext to aggression, the Kremlin used demonstrations that took a place in Crimea in February 2014 and in the cities of the south-eastern of Ukraine against the Ukrainian authorities. During the process of the occupation and annexation of Crimea, it is possible to identify a number of key steps: (a) from February 20-27, when a decision was made in Moscow to commence military aggression, an extensive inspection of the readiness of the units of Russian Armed Forces was announced and also the Russian Black Sea Fleet base in Crimea. The Russian Armed Forces units were handed over to the Sea Fleet Command. During the night of the February 26 -27 the Russian Armed men took over the Crimean Parliament building; b) February 27– March 10. During this time, the Members of the Crimean parliament made a decision to hold a referendum related to increasing Crimean autonomy. Many unrecognised soldiers appeared and took over key strategic positions of the peninsula and started the blockade of the Ukrainian armed forces deployed in the peninsula; c) March 10-18, the start of preparations for the formal annexation of Crimea. On March 16, the referendum was organised where, according to the official data, 83,1% of Crimeans participated, from which 96,7% supported the idea to join Russia, but 2,51% voted for the expansion of Crimean autonomy under Ukraine. 0,72% of ballots were acknowledged to be invalid. According to the previous information, on March 17, 2014, the illegitimate political leadership of Crimea and Sevastopol announced the foundation of a new Republic of Crimea. The process of annexation was concluded on March 18, 2014, when the contract about the accession of the Republic of Crimea in the Russian Federation was signed.
The second stage: the period of April-September, 2014, when the main battles took place in Donbas. August 14, 2014, the Ukrainian authorities announce the start of the counter-terrorism in the East part of the country. Due to the previous facts, Russian separatists defied Ukrainian government buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkov on April 6, 2014. Also, the Kremlin backed forces arrive in cities in Donetsk Oblast- Druzhkivka, Khartsyzk, Kramatorsk, Krasnyi Lyman, Makiyivka Mariupol and Slovyansk from April 12-13, 2014.
Ukrainian forces started the first trial of retaking Slovyansk, against an armed force supporting separatist leader Igor Girkin, on April 24. Although the trial invasion of the city was cancelled due to the large concentration of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border. Repeated attempts to invade Sloviansk took place on May 2 but they were not successful. Ukrainian leadership cancelled further military operations and declined a direct trial of invading the city – deciding to take a different approach. Ukrainian forces started to concentrate in Donbas which allowed it to gain a significant numerical superiority over the separatists and to start a new important attack in June.
On June 17, Girkin distributed a video where he admitted that should Russia not get involved in the conflict, his forces would soon be defeated. However, the newly elected president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, on June 20 initiated a Donbas resolution peace plan during the pre-election period, announcing a unilateral ceasefire on June 30 and requesting separatists relinquish control over the Ukraine Russian borderline points Izvaryne, Dolzhaky and Chervonopartyzansk. Also, Poroshenko called on them to release all of the captured hostages. Taking into account that these requirements were not fulfilled by the due date, the Ukrainian forces restored the attack during the night from June 30 to July 1.
On July 4, Ukrainian forces managed to surround Sloviansk almost completely, as a result of which Girkin's forces were forced to withdraw to Donetsk, leaving almost all armored vehicles behind, and on July 5 Ukrainian forces took Sloviansk. Losing their main support base, Pro-Russian combatants were forced to leave several other regional cities - Kramatorsk, Konstiantynivka and Druzhkivka.
Since July 2014, in order to prevent Pro-Russian combatants’ military defeat, Russian military units that are concentrated on the Ukrainian border region have more openly started to participate in the conflict, causing considerable loss to the Ukrainian forces. The first serious defeat of the Ukrainian forces is referred to as the "Southern Burner", which in July 2014 formed in the south of the Luhansk Oblast, during which 24, 28, 51, 72 and 79 brigades of the Ukrainian Army, who attempted to restore control over the state border between Ukraine and Russia, entered. Moving along the state border, the Ukrainian forces created a long "zone" that was unprotected both from the north, where there were pro-Russian combatants’ units were located, and from the south in the Rostov region, where units of the Russian Armed Forces were located.
In this situation, the Ukrainian forces were shot with reactive anti- aircraft missile systems in July 11 near in Zelenpol (Luhansk Oblast). According to the information of Ministry of Defense 19 Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 93 were injured. On July 16, an unknown citizen from Rostock region posted a video online showing how the Russian Army units deployed in the Gukov area shot the Ukrainian forces using the reactive anti-aircraft systems Grad.
After July 17 when the Malaysian airline had a Boeing airplane shot down over Donbas, which resulted in the loss of 283 passengers lives on board and 15 crew members, the Russian artillery began to shoot Ukrainian positions openly. The Ukrainian forces were forbidden to return fire in order not to provoke an open military conflict with Russia. Despite this, the national military leadership decided to leave the brigades in a "Burner", to maintain control over the state border. Forces did not receive a specific order for three weeks and experienced serious supply problems. Under these circumstances the leaders of the brigade decided to break from the "Burner" on 6 August.
At the same time, other forces that were involved with counter-terrorism operations successfully continued an attack while liberating Lysychansk, Sievierodonetsk and other populated areas and also practically surrounding Donetsk and Luhansk. As a result, the armed formations of people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk were practically isolated from each other. In order to achieve a complete isolation of the Donetsk combatants, the Ukrainian military leadership decided to take the strategically important Ilovaisk, which the Ukrainian forces partially managed to do on August 18. Although at that moment the Russian army actively got involved in the war by crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border in three places - in Luhansk, Savur-Mohyla and in the south of the Donetsk region - in order to prevent the complete defeat of pro-Russian combatants.
On August 25, 2014, the Russian army began an attack, in which, according to Ukrainian Minister of Defense Waleri Geletaj, six Russian battalion tactical groups were involved, with a total number of 6,500 people. As a result of the attack, the Russian army cut off Ukrainian forces from most of the positions held during the campaign in July. Also, it took Novoazovsk, and engaged in a battle with three Ukrainian Army units to capture Ilovaisk. The previous developments caused the formation of a new term –the Ilovaisk burner. In this situation, the Ukrainian military leadership decided to agree with Russia on the creation of a corridor, allowing the Ukrainian forces to resign voluntarily. Despite reaching such an agreement, on August 29, 2014, the Russian army opened an artillery fire to the Ukrainian forces. According to W.Geletaj, 108 people were killed. Whereas the Ukrainian Parliament committee of inquiry concluded that more than 300 soldiers had died in the Ilovaisk burner.
As a result of the Russian army's attack, Ukraine resigned from its plans to liberate Donbas in a military way and launched talks on a peaceful settlement of the conflict by signing a treaty in September 2014. The Minsk memorandum on the cease-fire regime, which marked the end of a large-scale hostilities.
The third phase: September 2014-February 2015. At this stage, local conflicts between the separatist forces supported by Ukraine and Russia were observed. The culmination was the Battle of Debaltseve which was observed in February. The attacks generated concerns at international level, raising the issue of providing military technical contributions to Ukraine, and highlighting the divide between the United States that considered the possibility of such contributions, and the leading European powers – Germany and France – who believed that actively supporting Ukraine's armed forces would lead to further escalation of the conflict. In this situation, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made an initiative to conclude a new agreement on Donbas conflict settlement, which would serve as an addition to the Minsk Memorandum signed in September 2014, and the leaders from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France would guarantee its enforcement.
The fourth Phase: February 2015-now. A relative stability is being observed in this phase. On one hand, no large-scale battles have taken place at that time, and stability of the front line has been observed, but, on the other hand, the level of military tension remains high. This is established not only by regular bombing of the parties, but also by tension in relations between Ukraine and Russia, which does not exclude the possibility of a major resumption of military conflict.
Russia's aggression in Ukraine was largely provoked by the desire of Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych to sign an association agreement with the EU, whereupon it would exclude Ukraine from the possibility of joining the Kremlin monitored, post-Soviet integration projects (Customs Union, Eurasian Economic Union), in which Ukraine would provide a significant role. Therefore, Moscow since July 2013 had increased the political and economic pressure to force Yanukovych to reconsider his decision to approach the EU. Perhaps in response to this, Yanukovych unexpectedly announced his intentions to postpone the signing of the Association Agreement with EU and a desire to improve relations with Russia. This political change of heart caused massive protests in Ukraine, leading to the fall of V. Yanukovych and the coming of the opposition parties to power. This, on the one hand, polarized the Ukrainian society, but, on the other hand, supported Moscow's conviction that protest campaigns had been organized by the Western countries with an aim to do harm to Russia's interests.
The coming of the opposition parties to power in Kiev appeared to be a renewal of Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic efforts, from the point of view of Russia's interests. In an effort to maintain control over the Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol, the Kremlin decided to initiate the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. At the same time, Russia, with the contradictions and socioeconomic problems of Ukrainian society, embarked on the destabilization of the south-eastern regions of Ukraine. In this way Russia was hoping to force the Ukrainian authorities to make concessions to Moscow's preconditions for conflict resolution. The fulfillment of these preconditions would not only exclude Ukraine's accession to Euro-Atlantic structures, but also provide real Moscow control over Southeast regions of Ukraine.
At the same time, a significant (possibly even decisive) factor in the destabilization of Ukraine was the political and economic impact of Yanukovich and his associates in the south-eastern regions of the country, where the traditional support base of the ex- president and his political power, the Party of Regions, was based. Control over the south-eastern areas after the change in power in Kiev in February 2014 fell to the old political and economic elite. Using its influence over the regional administrative and power structures as well as the church, led in the spring of 2014 to destabilization and promotion of separatism in various regions of the country. First of all, it happened in Kharkiv, Odessa, Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Russia used the revanchism of the overthrown political elite of Ukraine to achieve its foreign policy objectives by starting direct financial and logistical support for the separatists. In order to disguise aggression in Donbass, Moscow relied on the Bolsheviks approved tactics, when using ideological differences between the inhabitants of the country, a parallel, non-legitimate power was created in certain areas by declaring the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics.
According to the information published in August 2016 by the Ukrainian National War veterans and the members of the counter-terrorist operation, more than 248,000 people have participated since April 2014 in the counter-terrorism operation in Donbass.
According to approximate estimates, during the initial phase of the conflict in the spring of 2014, 10,000 to 15,000 troops (military personnel, members of the Ukrainian Security Service and members of the Border Guard Service, specialist units "Gepard" and "Jaguar" of the office of internal affairs and also the so-called combatants of volunteer battalions) were involved in the counter-terrorism operation. In August 2014, the Ukrainian Prime Minister announced that the Ukrainian military deployment in Donbass has reached 50000 people. According to the
statements of President of Ukraine, P. Poroshenko, 60000 people are involved in the Counterterrorism operation in Donbass since June 2015.
At the beginning of the counter-terrorism operation, considering into account the low level of support of separatism among the population, the combatants of so called Donetsk and Luhansk republics were made of local representatives of the criminal environment, as well as Russian mercenaries coordinated by the Russian special services (Igor Girkin (Strelkov), Alexander Borodai). According to Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, the head of Security Service of Ukraine, on May 19, 2014, only 500-600 separatist militants were in Donbass, who had taken the cities of strategically important regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Horlovka and Slavyansk. As A.Borodai announced in August 2015 that about 50,000 volunteers from Russia have fought in Ukraine. Borodai at that time became the chairman of Donbass Volunteer Union, which brings together Russian citizens who have fought in Donbass.
Considering into account that Russia officially distances itself from the conflict in Donbass, there is no official data on the number of soldiers in the Russian armed forces involved in the conflict available. The study, published in August 2016 by the international group of open source researchers “Bellingcat”, provides a certain insight into the extent of engagement of Russian soldiers, which summarizes the figures of medals and awards published in the social networks of soldiers of the Russian Armed Forces in 2014-2015. Many pictures show a unique medal series that has made it possible for researchers to conclude that the number of award-winning Russian BS troops has significantly increased since the start of the Donbass conflict compared to previous years. During this time, they received at least 10,000 medals for special merit in the battle "Za bojevije otlichija", for the prowess "Za otvagu", as well as Suvorov and Zhukov medals. The authors of the study believe that even if every Russian BS soldier involved in the Donbas conflict has been rewarded, at least 10,000 Russian military personnel have been fired in Donbass, but several tens of thousands of Russian soldiers are likely to be involved in the conflict.
Since November 2014, Russia has begun to form two army corps in the occupied Donbass districts, the construction of which ended in October 2015. On the other hand, in May 2016 a reorganization of both corps was carried out, in which, maintaining their structure, they were transformed into operational orders "Donetsk" and "Luhansk", which consisted of 20 000 and 15 000 people respectively, after the sample of the Russian Armed Forces. Their armament has a total of about 480 tanks, 980 armoured personnel carriers, 760 artillery systems and 210 anti-aircraft missile systems. Thus, there is a reason to talk about the presence of the regular Russian Armed Forces in Donbass, in which Ukrainian citizens are serving. The Ukrainian Citizens Service in the Russian Armed Forces is based on Putin's Order " “Provision on the Procedure of Military Service”, signed in January 2015, which allows any foreign citizen who speaks Russian and has not previously been prosecuted to serve in the Russian Armed Forces.
The aggression of Russia has left tangible consequences. As a result of conflict 9300 people were killed (from which 2600 were the representatives from Ukrainian forces), 21500 injured, and 1.8 million have been forced to leave their homes. There is no reliable data on the fatalities of separatists and Russian troops. In March 2015, the number of Ukrainian separatists has been estimated to 14600, while in March 2016, the Ukrainian Security Service announced that at least 1600 soldiers of the Russian Armed Forces had fallen during the Donbass conflict. At the same time, in March 2016, the Russian public activists group "Gruz-200" published a study, according to which at least 2000 Russian citizens died during the conflict in Donbass.
As a result of aggression, Russia has annexed the Crimean Peninsula and occupied part of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, whose total area is 44 000 square kilometres or 7.3% of territory of Ukraine.
Russian aggression has left a significant impact on Ukraine's domestic policy, contributing the popularity of populists, and has affected the Ukrainian economy. Considering into account the destruction of the Donbass infrastructure during the war and the factory export to Russia, Ukraine has lost 20% of its gross domestic product.
The current military situation in Donbass is likely to be characterized as a low level of conflict with the potential risk of escalation.
The dynamics of the development of the conflict are defined not so much by the self-proclaimed republics of Ukraine and Donbass, but by the contradictions between Ukraine, Russia and the West (primarily the United States, Germany and France) and a different position on the basic principles for settling the conflict in Donbass. Russia's position on this issue was already stated during the meeting of US Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in London on March 14, when Russia, as a prerequisite for resolving the conflict, called for a change of Ukrainian constitution, turning the country into a federation and giving Russian the status of a state second language. Although, the peace plan drawn up by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko foresees the withdrawal of foreign mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine, the disarmament of separatist militants and partial amnesty, restricted Ukraine's decentralization and guarantees of Russian language rights. Considering into account that Petro Poroshenko had moved forward this plan as the central element of his pre-election campaign, he, having become president on May 25, 2014, believed that he was given a broad national mandate in the implementation of this plan.
Although in different phases of the conflict, the parties have shown flexibility for tactical reasons, temporarily relaxing their positions on certain issues, however, in general, the contradictions between the parties have remained unsurpassable, delaying the settlement of the conflict.
At the moment, the negotiations between Russia and Ukraine on the settlement of the Donbass conflict take place within the so-called framework of Minsk agreements. Namely, on September 1, 2014, a meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group took place in Minsk, in which Ukraine was represented by ex-president Leonid Kuchma, Russia - its ambassador in Kiev Mikhail Zurabov, and OSCE by Heidi Tagliavini. Also, the representatives of the so-called republics of Donetsk and Luhansk took part in the meeting - Andrei Purgin, Alexey Karjakin and Alexander Zhukovsky. During the meeting, the representatives of self-proclaimed republics called Kiev to "accredit their special status", to stop the counter-terrorism operation, to organise new elections and to accredit the status of the Russian language. During the talks, the representatives of Donetsk and Luhansk said they wanted to integrate in Russia and in the Customs Union, so they need a "special external economic activity status". In its turn, on September 3, 2014, President of Ukraine P. Poroshenko announced that he had agreed with Russian colleague V. Putin about a ceasefire. Following this statement by P. Poroshenko, Putin came up with a Donbass conflict resolution plan, which consisted of seven points. First of all, the cease-fire of all parties involved in the conflict. Secondly, the withdrawal of all Ukrainian power structures from the anti-terrorist operation zone in order to prevent the populated areas from artillery bomb attack. Thirdly, international ceasefire control. Fourth, the abandonment of the use of military aviation. Fifth, the exchange of all prisoners of war and hostages "without the need for additional provisions to be put forward". Sixthly, the establishment of a "humanitarian corridor" to ensure the free movement of refugees and humanitarian goods. Seventh, the sending of repair team to Donbass to restore the region's social infrastructure.
Following this Putin's announcement, separatist leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnicki said they agreed to cease fire. Between Ukraine and the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people republics the Minsk Memorandum on the ceasefire was signed in Minks on September 5, 2014. In exchange for this, Kiev agreed to give the occupied regions of Donbas a special statutory status.
The Ukrainian parliament supported this law on September 16, 2014. The law states that the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk districts are given a special status of self-government for three years, in order to implement local elections in the region. It also guarantees "the free use of Russian and any other language in public and private life, the acquisition and support of Russian and any other language, their free development and equality". Ukraine, in accordance with the bill, undertakes to provide Donbas with the necessary financial and economic assistance. At the same time, the law states that the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, on the basis of cross-border cooperation, have the right to establish "strengthened and deepened neighbourhood with Russian administrative territorial units". According to the law, the occupied districts of Donetsk and Luhansk districts have the right to form "national militia" units from the local population. On the basis of this law, a memorandum on the ceasefire regime was signed in Minsk on September 19. The memorandum, which consists of nine points, also determines that the parties to the trilateral contact group on the September 5, 2014 agreement on the ceasefire in Minsk need to withdraw troops 15 kilometres from the fire contact line, thus creating a 30-km wide security zone, in which it will not be allowed to have any engineering obstacles and minefields. Similarly, according to the memorandum, the parties are prohibited from using aviation and unmanned aerial vehicles, as well as all foreign military formations and mercenaries. The memorandum intended to deploy OSCE observers in the border area of Ukraine and Russia, which will monitor the implementation of the ceasefire.
Notwithstanding this memorandum, the parties continued their mutual fire, which resulted a new offensive by Russia in the beginning of January 2015, following which German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Oland presented a new peace initiative. On February 11, 2015, in Minsk, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France, as well as representatives of the parallel Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia, OSCE, as well as representatives of the republics of Donetsk and Luhansk) held talks on the resolution of the crisis of Ukrain. Within the framework of these negotiations, a new agreement was reached on the "Package of Measures for the Implementation of the Minsk Agreements" (so-called Minsk-II), that envisaged the restoration of the cease-fire regime and the withdrawal of armaments from the sides of the fire line, creating a security zone. The agreement stipulates that Ukraine will withdraw its armament from the parties' actual borderlines, while separatists will withdraw from the border lines set out in the Minsk Memorandum of September 19, 2014.
Under the agreements, Ukraine and the representatives of the self-proclaimed republics had to start a dialogue on holding local elections in line with Ukrainian legislation. The Ukrainian parliament should give a special status to the territories controlled by the separatists within 30 days, an amnesty for the militia should be proclaimed, and an exchange of all prisoners of war had to be made within 19 days. Also, Ukraine's constitutional reform must be completed by the end of 2015, taking into account the special status of separatist controlled territories. The agreement provided the withdrawal of all foreign military formations, mercenaries and military equipment from Ukraine under the supervision of the OSCE. The restoration of Ukraine and Russia's border control had to be implemented by the end of 2015 (after the constitutional changes and the organization of elections in Donbas).
At the moment, the fulfilment of the Minsk agreements has come to a deadlock: although on October 2, 2015, at the Normandy-format leaders meeting in Paris, it was agreed to extend the agreement until 2016, despite none of the contract clauses being fulfilled. The aforementioned meeting revealed the difference between the Ukrainian and Russian interpretation of the clause implementation order contained in the Minsk agreements. Russia insisted that Ukraine should initially adopt a law on the special status of Donbass, make changes to the constitution, while decentralizing the country. And Ukraine had to organize municipal elections in Donbas self-proclaimed republics, and only then Ukraine would regain control of the state border. In turn, Kiev insisted on the opposite interpretation of the documents, stating that initially it would be necessary to resolve security issues (provision of a stable ceasefire, foreign troops and mercenaries had to be withdrawn, the control over Ukraine's uncontrolled state border section in Donbass had to be returned, etc.), and only then it would be possible to implement the political section of Minsk agreements (conduct of municipal elections in Donbass, the change of the Ukrainian constitution and to give special status to certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk etc.).
Тымчук, Дмитрий, Карин, Юрий и др. Вторжение в Украину: хроника российской агрессии. Киев: Брайт Букс, 2016.
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Из-за агрессии РФ Украина потеряла 20% ВВП, - МИД;
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Сколько боевиков и военных РФ погибли в Донбассе за время АТО;
Статус участника боевых действий получили почти 250 тыс. участников АТО;