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By Wes O’Donnell, Managing Editor InMilitary.com and InCyberDefense.com. Veteran U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force. In addition to his MBA, Wes O’Donnell has a B.A. in International Relations, has studied Russian military history extensively and speaks conversational Russian.
At this very moment, a war rages on in Europe. It is a war with no monuments. No parades. No victories. Only casualties.
Many Americans have forgotten or “moved on” from the idea of Russian aggression in Europe, while our friends and allies in Ukraine are embroiled in a struggle for territorial integrity. But a very real and tactile conflict exists today that is contributing to a humanitarian crisis not seen in Europe since the Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990s.
But how did Ukraine get into this position? And where is it going?
The Path to War
In the 2000s, several successive Ukrainian governments sought closer ties with the European Union (EU). One of the keys to achieving this goal was an association agreement with the EU that would have provided Ukraine with monetary assistance in return for reforms.
In November of 2013, protests erupted in Kiev after then-President Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Russia government refused to sign the EU agreement, choosing instead to pursue a Russian loan bailout and closer ties with Russia.
The protestors were young, pro-EU Ukrainians who would eventually occupy Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in the capital of Kiev. This occupation would become known as the “Euromaidan” and would see the ousting of Yanukovych, who fled to Russia amid the violent protests in late February of 2014.
Writing for Newsweek that month, journalist Lecia Bushak observed that “Euromaidan had grown into something far bigger than just an angry response to the fallen-through EU deal. It’s now about ousting Yanukovych and his corrupt government; guiding Ukraine away from its 200-year-long, deeply intertwined and painful relationship with Russia; and standing up for basic human rights to protest, speak and think freely and to act peacefully without the threat of punishment.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Euromaidan movement, the Ukrainian government adopted a much more pro-Western stance. As a result, pro-Russian protests broke out in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (counties), together commonly called the “Donbass.” In early 2014, Russia violated international law and several Russian-signed agreements safeguarding Ukraine’s territorial integrity and annexed the Crimean Peninsula, which has been Ukrainian territory since 1954.
Simultaneously, pro-Russian protests across eastern Ukraine resulted in the establishment, through unmonitored elections, of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR respectively).
The DPR and LPR are supported by Russian weapons and vehicles. And despite Russia’s continued insistence that its troops are not fighting in eastern Ukraine, clever reporting by Vice News reporter Simon Ostrovsky proves otherwise.
In addition, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission to Ukraine have witnessed troops operating in Ukraine who have identified themselves as Russian servicemen.
The War in Donbass
Pro-Russian separatists in the DPR and LPR, with the support of Russian troops, have been waging an all-out shooting war with Ukrainian soldiers since 2014. The combatants are made up of numerous nationalities and organizations.
The pro-Russian separatist combatants include the Donbass People’s Militia, Army of the South-East, the Russian Orthodox Army, the Vostok Battalion, the Neo-Cossacks, and Chechen, Ossetian and Abkhaz paramilitaries.
The Armed Forces of Ukraine are mainly the primary military force of the pro-western Ukrainian government. The Ukrainian forces also include the National Guard of Ukraine, the Security Service of Ukraine, which includes an operation called the ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation), and at least 50 pro-Ukrainian volunteer units such as the Donbas Battalion, Azov Battalion, Kharkiv Battalion, and Oleh Lyashko’s militia.
In the four years since the conflict began, territory in eastern Ukraine has been won, lost and won again, always at great cost. Current estimates number casualties at more than 10,000 with one-third of them being civilians, including 166 Ukrainian children.
For Majority of Ukrainians, the ‘Last War’ Was World War II
Ukraine has known relative peace for decades. For the clear majority of Ukrainians, the “last war” was World War II. In 2014 and 2015, the Minsk Protocol and Minsk II respectively, were agreed upon that attempted to alleviate the ongoing war in the Donbass. Both attempts at a cease-fire failed.
Today, the Ukraine War exists as a “frozen conflict” or stalemate. Trenches have been dug and fighting continues along the contact line. Nearly 100,000 civilians are caught in the “gray zone” between the Ukrainian line of control and the insurgent’s line of control, including 21,000 children who live in Ukrainian-controlled villages and towns on the frontline.
While the world focuses on the possibility of a trade war with China, President Trump’s relationships with porn stars and Russian involvement in Syria, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding in the middle of Europe.
A report from the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission details illegal detentions, abductions and intimidation of election officials in the self-proclaimed pro-Russian republics. A report released in March of 2016 by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said in separatist-controlled areas there was a “complete absence of rule of law, reports of arbitrary detention, torture and incommunicado detention, and no access to real redress mechanisms.”
Often, pro-Russia forces will fire mortars or Grad rockets from inside residential areas and then quickly move on. These attacks trigger a retaliation bombardment by government forces long after the separatists have left. The only casualties are civilians.
What about NATO?
Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko recently said that Ukraine would seek to meet the NATO alliance’s membership criteria by 2020. However, many experts believe it is in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s best interest to keep the conflict in eastern Ukraine active for as long as possible.
Why? Because until the conflict in the Donbass and Crimea is resolved, it is highly unlikely that NATO would accept Ukraine’s membership. Putin knows that allowing Ukraine to join the Western alliance in the middle of an ongoing conflict would trigger a NATO Article 5 defense contingency against Russia on day one of Ukraine’s membership.
According to the Brookings Institution, “NATO foreshadowed its unreadiness to take in states with territorial or border disputes in 1995 in its study on the how and why of enlargement. That study called on potential aspirants for membership to resolve those disputes before joining—precisely because the alliance did not want to import Article 5 cases into NATO ranks.”
Soldiers’ First-Hand Account of the Fighting
As a former light infantryman from the 101st Airborne Division, I was eager to chat with several Ukrainian soldiers who have been fighting against pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine. The transcript of our conversation follows:
Wes O’Donnell: Hi, everyone. Would you mind telling me your names, if you feel comfortable sharing?
Serhiy D. (call sign Myhalych)
Callsign The White Boss (This man was a businessman in the Donetsk area before the war. When Russians came, he escaped to Ukraine and volunteered in the army.)
Callsign The Professor
Did you participate in the Euromaidan in 2013-2014?
Yevhen: No, I did not participate in Maidan. I was working.
Vadym: Nope. I did not participate in Maidan. At that time, I was a soldier.
Myhalych: I was very sympathetic to Maidan from the very first days. I was there twice. First in the early days of December, when there were just people standing there and demanding that we sign an association with the European Union. Then, I was there February 19 to 21, during the bloody events when dozens of people were killed. I would have liked to go there more often, but at that moment I was studying in Kharkiv, and was very limited in money and time.
The White Boss: No.
The Professor: I participated in Maidan in 2013 to 2014.
Are you a current Ukrainian soldier or a veteran?
Yevhen: Operational reserve of the first call.
Vadym: At the moment, I am a veteran of ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation].
Myhalych: Yes, now I serve in the army. But soon I will be demobilized.
What was your job before the war?
Yevhen: Facades insulation.
Vadym: I was a contract soldier before the war.
Myhalych: Before the war, I studied at the university. In the summer of 2014, I received a bachelor’s degree in history. I worked nowhere; army service was my first “job.”
The White Boss: Before the war, I was an entrepreneur. A mid-size business in Donbas, now occupied area.
The Professor: Prior to the war, I worked as a junior researcher at the Rylsky Institute of Art Studies, Folklore Studies, and Ethnology of the Ukraine National Academy of Sciences.
Where did you fight in Ukraine? With what battalion?
Yevhen: The 28th Separate Guards Mechanized Brigade near Donetsk.
Vadym: I fought at Lisichansk, Lutugino, Krasny Liman, Georgievka, Krymske, Schastya, Siversk, Chabanivka with 24 brigade and the Rocket Artillery Battalion.
Myhalych: In February 2015, I was at Mariupol as a part of a special subdivision of the Ministry of Internal Affairs “Eastern Corps.” Since 2016, I have been in the Armed Forces, serving in one of the motorized infantry brigades. I was in the artillery at Avdeyivka. In 2017, I moved to the infantry unit and was on the Bakhmutsky highway, in Luhansk region.
The White Boss: In all key points and settlements without exception, starting from May 2014 from Mariupol and DAP to Avdijivka and Svetlodarska bulge.
The Professor: I served in the third separate special-purpose regiment.
How do you feel the war is going today? Do you think the Donbass will ever be back in Ukraine control?
Yevhen: Trench war. Donetsk, Luhansk, Crimea will return, but over time.
Vadym: I think that this war is a hybrid war. it is needed by people at the top for money laundering and destruction of the younger generation. I do not think that Donbass will ever return to Ukraine. The people in Donbass are separatists. These people will not accept Ukrainian authority as they want a so-called Russian world.
Myhalych: It is very unpleasant to admit it, but the war has passed into the “cold stage.” There is daily shelling, sometimes raids of sabotage and reconnaissance groups. Donbass will definitely return to Ukraine, it’s a matter of time.
Russia itself has spoken about it more than once. Another question is when and how. I would like it to be on our terms, with the enemy capitulating. Another option that is being discussed — federalization and legalization of bandit formations are unacceptable for me and my friends in arms. It is better to let [the area] be uncontrolled by us than to have it as a Trojan horse and an instrument of Russian influence on Ukraine.
The White Boss: It’s sluggish trench war. I think that Donbas will return to Ukraine.
The Professor: Regarding Donbass — a possible frozen conflict until Putin and the Russian Federation will abandon their ambitions and plans. Without the support of the Russian Federation, the conflict can be settled in a few months.
Do you think the people in Eastern Ukraine will ever accept Ukrainian government rule?
Yevhen: People in Eastern Ukraine want peace the most. Under whose authority, they care not.
Myhalych: Eastern Ukraine is already under the control of the legitimate government in Kiev. Just a small part of the Donbass is occupied by the Russian-terrorist troops. After the victory of Ukraine, there will be no difficulty of accepting Ukrainian authority. In my opinion, the fact that there were no conflicts for over the 20 years of Ukraine’s independence in the Donbass, and the war began only when Russian mercenaries and agents began to sow unrest, says that the conflict is artificial and inspired externally; it is not internal. More than a million people fled from uncontrolled territories to the government-controlled area, this figure speaks for itself. If people were against Ukraine, then they would not go here.
The White Boss: Yes, they will. Not immediately, and with great hesitation, but they will accept us.
The Professor: As for the people, I think there are few supporters of Ukraine left in the occupied territories, those who have no chance to leave [and go] anywhere. Most of those who live there now were not and will never be supporters of Ukraine and all things Ukrainian.
Do you think Ukraine should join NATO?
Vadym: Ukraine should join NATO and as soon as possible
Myhalych: Ukraine needs the help of Western countries, not abstract membership in NATO. We need automatic rifles, rockets, night vision devices, cars, drones, and the status is a relative thing.
The White Boss: Yes, Ukraine should join NATO.
The Professor: I have always been a supporter of the idea of Ukraine’s accession to NATO. Today, it is a necessity!
What do you think the United States can do to help Ukrainian citizens win the war against the separatists?
Yevhen: What they do now.
Vadym: America is a very powerful country, it will help us a lot to win the war with the Russian aggressor.
Myhalych: The USA does so much, and we are very grateful for the diverse support. But, as they say, there is never enough military property, technology, instructors, there will never be too much.
The White Boss: It is impossible to win the war by force. The key support points of separatists are cities with civilians. Storming them is impossible, in view of the mass casualties of civilians. Thus, only the non-military solution of the problem remains. The key is an illustrative example of the correctness of the path chosen by Ukraine, a visual demonstration. With the absolutely corrupt government and the President, this is impossible. Thus, U.S. assistance that can dramatically change the state of affairs is not just in the military sphere, it will be effective, but in the legal sphere first.
The Professor: Multilateral support from the United States would be very necessary. In addition to various economic sanctions against the enemy, political and military support is also needed.
Some people in America are worried that if we send lethal weapons, they may fall into the hands of Russia-backed separatists. Do you think the United States should send lethal weapons?
Yevhen: The availability of modern weapons in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, as well as the willingness of the U.S. to provide these weapons to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, is a decisive step. (All the parties to the conflict have sufficient amount of lethal weapons.)
Vadym: I think if the lethal weapons get into good hands then it will be in safe hands and never will get to the separatists.
Myhalych: Of course, send. To be honest, I was very sad to see how in 2014, ISIS in Iraq captured the bases of the Iraqi armed forces with thousands of pieces of equipment, which was then used by terrorists, and we did not get lethal weapons. Let’s be honest. Nothing will change the fact that separatists in the East could seize a random American gun. I think that the security of the United States will not weaken, especially since we need everything – even what the American army does not need and what it refuses.
The White Boss: In my opinion, the receipt of weapons from the U.S., in general, will not affect the balance of power. There is no problem in stopping the separatists, they do not have the strength to advance. The full weight of the regular Russian army, we won’t be able to stop it regardless of the availability of weapons from the U.S., in view of the apparent sheer numerical superiority of Russians.
The Professor: Giving the lethal weapons to Ukraine would be an additional argument for the deterrence of separatists and aggressors. But this is not possible while corruption and traitors are in the majority in the Ukrainian government.
NOTE: In December of 2017, President Trump authorized the sale of Javelin anti-tank munitions to the Ukraine Armed Forces. According to the U.S. State Department, “U.S. assistance is entirely defensive in nature…Ukraine is a sovereign country and has a right to defend itself.”
How do you feel about United Nations peacekeepers patrolling the contact line?
Yevhen: Peacekeeping organizations perform only a FORMAL role in this war. Not more. The United States sent not troops, but instructors. For this, great thanks to them, but nobody besides us will fight this war.
Myhalych: Personally, I do not believe that peacekeepers can change anything. First, what country will agree to send its soldiers to another part of the world, to fight for not clear what, and not clear for whom? Second, I do not think that the Russian Federation will simply give up control of the Ukrainian border; it is not fighting with Ukraine for the fourth year in a row so that it would just surrender that easily. And third, peacekeepers can come from countries close to the Russian Federation, and they will play into the hands of the terrorists, and this is the most frightening scenario.
The White Boss: The problem is not in patrolling the line of contact between Ukraine and the separatists; the problem is control over the border of Ukraine with Russia. Border control is the only method to almost immediately stop the supply of separatists, and end the conflict as such.
The Professor: With regard to peacekeeping forces, I consider it inappropriate. The whole territory must be returned under the control of Ukraine. And no DNR-LNR!
The United States has sent troops to help advise and train Ukraine soldiers and exchange information. Do you think American troops should be fighting?
Yevhen: This is not an American war. I do not think that the American military should give up their lives for Ukraine. But the U.S. government must guarantee Ukraine the implementation of the Budapest Memorandum.
NOTE: The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances refers to three identical political agreements signed at the OSCE conference in Budapest, Hungary, on December 5, 1994. In the agreement, Ukraine would give up its nuclear weapons. In return, the memorandum included security assurances against threats or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine. Russia is currently in violation of the Budapest Memorandum. The United States is a signatory and has done nothing substantial to hold Russia accountable under both the Obama or Trump administrations.
Myhalych: The American Army is the most powerful in the world. I would have liked getting help in dealing with the enemy. But I also understand that nobody will defend our country for us.
The White Boss: Neither the presence nor even just the help in the form of instructors of the U.S. Army – does not make sense at all.
The Professor: Sharing experience is a valuable thing. As for U.S. soldiers, they should not be involved in a military conflict directly. But actively be involved as instructors of different military branches.
Will Crimea ever be back in Ukrainian control?
Yevhen: Crimea will return to Ukraine also through a referendum. An honest referendum. Ukraine must try to economically persuade people to choose our country.
Vadym: Crimea is ours now anyway. I think soon it will be back to Ukraine legally.
The White Boss: In my personal opinion, the return of the Crimea annexed by Russia is almost impossible.
The Professor: Crimea will definitely return to Ukraine. Though this requires time and patience, political will and aspiration.
Intelligence shows that America has been the recent target of Russian “information warfare.” How do you think Russia is using information war against Ukraine?
Yevhen: A lie that is repeated a lot becomes the truth for Russians.
Myhalych: Information warfare is one of the key moments of the aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine. I will say more: When the information and psychological operations of the Russian Federation against our state ceased to be effective, they dared to try aggression because they could not reach their goal solely by propaganda. Now, Russia is constantly conducting an aggressive information campaign against Ukraine, thanks to the army of bots to post fake news, disperse false news, use its agents of influence on TV. Also, it is actively setting up the Western [European] allies against Ukraine, and within my country it is trying to provoke a coup all the time, undermining the authority of the central government and legitimate authorities.
The White Boss: Yes. I am absolutely sure that in the information field Russia is conducting subversive activities against Ukraine.
The Professor: The Information war against Ukraine has lasted for more than a century and covers various spheres of activity: religion, language, mass media, politics, economy. Everything that can be applied against the whole country or a single citizen. From openly absurd statements and rewriting history in favor of Russia to hidden manipulations through other countries.
NOTE: Russia and Russia-backed separatists have a history of portraying pro-western allies in the media as “fascists” and “Nazis” in a nationalistic attempt to invoke patriotic sentiment from World War II, known in Eastern Europe as the Great Patriotic War.
One of the things that make Americans take notice is when civilians are in danger. Especially children. What is life like for children in Eastern Ukraine?
Yevhen: The civilians in the fighting zone are essentially hostages. Children suffer more than adults. They either do not develop or do not develop adequately. [They face] Constant fear of bombardment, sometimes even starvation.
Myhalych: Again, I emphasize that Eastern Ukraine is a territory under the control of the government. This is Kharkiv, for example, where children have the opportunity to study, relax, enjoy all the benefits of civilization, from the Internet to McDonald’s, the same as their American counterparts. And in Ukraine’s uncontrolled territory, there is a very sad situation: poverty, unemployment, poor medical care. There are no prospects, let alone the fact that their lives are under constant threat. Why parents did not bring them here [Kharkiv], to the territory controlled by the government – it’s an enigma to me.
The White Boss: Strangely enough, the life of children both in the territories under the control of the separatists, there and in the rest of Ukraine is not much different. At the moment there has been no artillery shelling of both sides for a long time. The immediate threat to the lives of children has long been removed from the agenda.
The Professor: The life of children is exactly what their parents chose for them. Unfortunately, there are no winners in the war. And the suffering of children is always a painful topic. However, this is not our choice. We only protect our country.
Ending the War
As of this writing, there appear to be only two ways in which the conflict ends. The first is for Russia to admit defeat and leave the DPR and LPR separatists to fight the Ukrainian Armed Forces on their own. This scenario is most unlikely. The second way to end the conflict would be a full-blown invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military. Given the Russian Federation’s history of “maskirovka,” military deception and information warfare, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Putin could fabricate an excuse for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Perhaps Russian military families will begin to speak up in protest as their sons and daughters continue to die in Ukraine. According to The Guardian, there is already a great deal of unrest. Despite Russia’s continued denial of “boots on the ground” in Ukraine, grieving Russian military families betray the lie. It is unclear how many Russian servicemen have been killed in eastern Ukraine, but soldiers’ rights advocates in Russia say the number is likely to be in the hundreds, perhaps thousands.
Maybe an exception can be made within NATO that will allow Ukraine to join without triggering Article 5. Instead, Russia could be given a three to six-month timeline to withdrawal all Russian troops before the full force of NATO comes to Ukraine’s aid.
It seems clear from this sampling of Ukrainian soldiers that UN peacekeepers are not wanted, due to the possibility that some members of the peacekeeping mission enjoy ties to Russia. Because of this, it is unlikely that the UN can help alleviate this humanitarian crisis.
The steady pressure of increased Western sanctions has done little to dissuade Russia thus far. It seems unlikely that additional sanctions would have any effect on Putin’s geopolitical strategy.
Perhaps the end of the conflict will come from a combination of the above: Increased sanctions, the threat of NATO, American assistance in the form of weapons and trainers, unfavorable Russian public opinion of the war and a global intolerance of the innocent civilians caught in the line of fire.
Ultimately, the people of Ukraine have spoken loud and clear. They want closer ties with the West and it is all Western nations’ responsibilities to help an ideological ally in a time of need, regardless of the status of its membership affiliation with NATO.
In addition, failure to stand up to authoritarian regimes like the Russian Federation has historically resulted in catastrophic loss of life, most notably in the world wars of the 20th century. It is our duty to support our brothers and sisters in Ukraine and I believe that I speak for all U.S. military servicemembers when I say “Slava Ukraini! Heroyam slava!”
About the Author
Wes O’Donnell is a U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force veteran. In addition to his MBA, Wes O’Donnell has a B.A. in International Relations. He has studied Russian military history extensively and speaks conversational Russian.
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