Ukraine's Army Fails to Retake Anything in the Eastern Ukraine

The Ukrainian army's recent foray into the country's East to regain control over administrative buildings seized by separatist militants has proved spectacularly unsuccessful. In Slovyansk the operation stalled out, although there was actually a shoot-out in Slovyansk which left three people dead. Pro-Russian groups insist that these were unprovoked shots at peaceful protesters, but it is of course difficult to be sure what actually happened.


“A military operation that the Ukrainian government said would confront pro-Russian militants in the east of the country unraveled in disarray on Wednesday with the entire contingent of 21 armored vehicles that had separated into two columns surrendering or pulling back before nightfall. It was a glaring humiliation for the new government in Kiev.

Though gunshots were fired throughout the day, and continued sporadically through the evening in this town that is occupied by pro-Russian militants, it was unclear whether anybody had been wounded. One of the armored columns stopped when a crowd of men drinking beer and women yelling taunts and insults gathered on the road before them, and later in the day its commander agreed to hand over the soldiers’ assault rifles to the very separatists they were sent to fight.

Another column from the same ostensibly elite unit, the 25th Dnipropetrovsk paratrooper brigade, surrendered not only its weapons but also the tracked and armored vehicles it had arrived in, letting militants park them as trophies, under a Russian flag, in a central square here. A pro-Russian militant then climbed into the driver’s seat of one and spun the vehicle around on its tracks, screeching and roaring, to please the watching crowd.

The events of the day underscored the weakness of the new government in Kiev entering critical talks with the United States and Russia in Geneva on  Thursday over Ukraine’s future. Unable to exercise authority over their own military, officials increasingly seem powerless to contain a growing rebellion by pro-Russian militants that has spread to at least nine cities in eastern Ukraine.

In a tactical error, the Ukrainian soldiers on Wednesday had no accompanying force to control the crowds that formed around their advancing units. Their task, to confront armed militants intermingled with civilians, would be extremely difficult for any conventional army, but for this group, which apparently lacked the tools and the heart to carry it out, it proved to be impossible.”


(emphasis added)


Eastern Ukrainian separatists having fun with armored vehicle captured from Ukraine's army.


In Kramatorsk, Ukrainian tanks did however manage to crush a civilian car. In the meantime, the situation has calmed down there as well.  Clearly, the soldiers are not going to shoot at crowds of protesters, which is to be commended. The NYT describes one scene that seems typical for what happened:


After the first column of six vehicles surrendered, the second, which consisted of 15 vehicles and a radio communication van, halted on the outskirts of the town of Kramatorsk south of here, and waited through the day as several hundred people milled about, drinking beer and fraternizing with the soldiers.

The paratroopers first tried to clear their path by firing in the air, residents said. A tracked vehicle rammed an unoccupied Opel car parked in the road, easily shoving it aside. But the crowd did not disperse, and in fact seemed in no danger: The soldiers adopted a passive stance, turning off their vehicles, climbing on top and removing the magazines from their rifles.


“People came out of the village and stood in front of the tanks because they do not want them in their village,” said Aleksei Anikov, 33, a construction worker. He said residents supported the pro-Russian militants. Oleksandr Popov, a second lieutenant in the Ukrainian Army, said he was with a brigade of paratroopers based in Dnipropetrovsk. His orders were to shoot only if fired upon, he said, and that the column was awaiting orders on how to respond to the crowd.

In the late afternoon, the commander, Col. Oleksandr Shvets, negotiated with representatives of the pro-Russian militants, though the militants were nowhere to be seen in the crowd of civilians. Colonel Shvets stood on a tank and told the crowd he had agreed that the soldiers would surrender first the magazines from their rifles, then the guns themselves, in exchange for passage back the way they had come. Colonel Shvets collected magazines in a plastic bag and handed them to men in the crowd. The assault rifles went to a representative of the pro-Russian force.

Some soldiers in the unit were clearly upset, and unready to hand over their rifles. One prayed and tears formed in his eyes at this form of defeat, forced to surrender for an unwillingness to fire on his own people.”


(emphasis added)

It appears that the option of wresting control from the separatists by force is unrealistic. That leaves a negotiated solution, which the recent meeting between the US, the EU, the Ukrainian and Russian government was designed to provide. However, what does the agreement actually mean? It is a good bet that it is interpreted differently by the Russians than by the other participants.


The Geneva Agreement

 On the surface, the joint statement released after the negotiations reads as though the Russian government has essentially relented on all points. But is that really the case?

For one thing, Russia's president Putin continues to insist that he will do 'everything possible' to protect the protesters in the Ukraine's East. As Jason Ditz points out, this stance is somewhat different from the narrative offered in the Western media. However, Ditz also makes an argument we have previously made in these pages, namely that the Russians can hardly be interested in acquiring more territory that will be a drain on the country's resources.  The eastern regions of the Ukraine would essentially need to be bailed out. Annexing the Crimea was already costly enough:


In comments today on Russian television, President Vladimir Putin reiterated Russia’s upper house of parliament has given him the authorization to use military force in Ukraine, and that he intends to “do everything possible” to protect the protesters in the country’s east.

At the same time, Putin insisted that he hoped political and diplomatic efforts would be sufficient to deescalate the crisis, and that he wants to avoid military action in the area .

That the exact opposite of the Western narrative, which claims Putin is looking for a pretext to invade. If he was, he’s certainly gotten it in the past couple of days, as Ukraine’s military has invaded protester cities and killed protesters in what is being laughably called an “anti-terrorist” operation.

Multiple predictions of an imminent Russian invasion have not panned out, and the reality of the situation seems to be much closer to Putin’s own comments, and Russia seems to be dangling the threat of military action they don’t really want to launch in hopes of letting the protesters continue on without overt Russian involvement.

It’s not hard to understand why, either, as the annexation of dirt-poor Crimea already looks to be a very expensive proposition, and military involvement in Donetsk could well lead to another round of accessions into the Russian Federation, meaning more failing industrial cities to bail out.”


(emphasis added)


It is therefore not a big surprise that Russia agreed with the basic demands that led to the joint agreement released in Geneva. Here is the text of the joint statement:


“All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions. The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-semitism. All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.

"Amnesty will be granted to protestors and to those who have left buildings and other public places and surrendered weapons, with the exception of those found guilty of capital crimes. It was agreed that the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission should play a leading role in assisting Ukrainian authorities and local communities in the immediate implementation of these de-escalation measures wherever they are needed most, beginning in the coming days. The U.S., E.U. and Russia commit to support this mission, including by providing monitors.

"The announced constitutional process will be inclusive, transparent and accountable. It will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine's regions and political constituencies, and allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments. The participants underlined the importance of economic and financial stability in Ukraine and would be ready to discuss additional support as the above steps are implemented."


(emphasis added)

Jason Ditz once again provides a helpful analysis regarding the different manner in which the US and Russia likely interpret the statement. As he notes,  a number of the terms employed are quite ambiguous; their meaning depends on one's perspective. The question is e.g. who exactly the 'legitimate owners' of the occupied buildings are, and at what point a crowd gathering on a street in protest can be held to be occupying it 'illegally'. It all depends on whom one regards as 'legitimate' and what one regards as 'illegal'.


“Calls to vacate “illegally occupied streets” would mean ending the protests, to the US, but it isn’t clear that public protests are illegal in those cities to begin with, and Russia is likely to consider the demonstrations largely lawful.

Likewise, the call to unilaterally surrender “illegally seized buildings” and return them to “legitimate owners” undoubtedly focuses on government buildings. But the US will interpret it as demanding protesters surrender buildings they’ve occupied to the interim government, while Russia has made a point of not considering Ukraine’s interim government “legitimate” at all.

Russia has been pushing for an increasingly federated system in Ukraine, with more autonomy for local regions, and is likely to push to have the buildings at least formally handed over to the local governments, which are largely sympathetic to the protesters at any rate.


For Western nations, including pejorative wording about “illegal” protests and the “legitimate” government was probably seen as a way to needle Russia about the situation. Yet ultimately those extra words are making what is expected to happen across Ukraine more vague and open to interpretation. The end result is likely going to be more public disputes back and forth, and both sides accusing the other of reneging on the deal.”


(emphasis added)

We concur with Ditz that both sides accusing each other of reneging on the deal is something one must probably expect to happen.

In this context one must also consider that the idea that Russia's government  can 'order' the separatists to surrender and hand over their weapons is likely erroneous, although it possibly has a certain degree of influence with them. The separatists in turn are not likely to trust any assurances by the government in Kiev with respect to the disarmament of Western Ukrainian nationalists.  The nationalists will of course also resent and resist any orders to disarm. In short, it seems unlikely that this agreement can actually be implemented very easily.

Having said all that, there is no reason why the situation should not ultimately be resolved peacefully. It probably would be if it were simply left to the Ukrainians themselves.


1395436170883-ukraine2Pro-Russian activist in Donezk, wearing protective underwear over his head.

(Photo via AP / Efrem Lukatsky)




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One Response to “Eastern Ukraine: Of Stalled ‘Invasions’ and Agreements”

  • Kreditanstalt:

    Sounds like any individual who opposes any government anywhere is now likely to be painted with the pejorative label of “separatist”…

    Kind of like “terrorist”….!

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