May 1, 2018 – Fort Russ News –
By Eduard Popov, translated by Jafe Arnold –
On April 30th, Ukraine officially declared an end to its “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO) and declared the beginning of Operation United Forces (OUF) in Donbass. This announcement was made by President Poroshenko himself, who said that the “anti-terrorist” regime, which has been conducted by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), has run its course. Leadership of the United Forces Operation will be handed over directly to Ukraine’s military command (the Ukrainian Armed Forces) and Lieutenant-General Sergei Naev in particular. Nevertheless, Poroshenko emphasized, targeted anti-terrorist actions can still be carried out at any moment when a threat arises.
High-ranking Ukrainian military officials and civilian leaders have long since claimed that the OUF would replace, but not entirely cancel the ATO. Such statements have caused more than a little confusion and even bewilderment in both Ukraine and Donbass. In this article, I will attempt to explain the political, legal, and propagandistic meaning behind this change to the format of the punitive operation in Donbass.
First and foremost, let us recap what the ATO was. The “Anti-Terrorist Operation” launched in April 2014 essentially connoted a “Chekhist-troop war” (terminology from the Great Patriotic War) whose prerogative is to neutralize a relatively close wing or “rear”, i.e., to find and eliminate “terrorists” and “separatists”, an operation in which the main role is played by counter-intelligence and police forces. Army units are deployed to assist in the establishment of a military “cauldron” surrounding a district being “checked.” The ATO was officially directed by the Security Service of Ukraine in cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and National Guard. As follows, the leadership of this operation was conferred upon the political police, the role of which in contemporary Ukraine is played by the SBU. The main enemy in Donbass (and Ukraine as a whole) was designated as “terrorists” and “separatists”, primarily pro-Russian ones (but pro-Hungarian and pro-Romanian entities have also been targeted).
The essential point of the ATO was to destroy an “internal enemy” purported to be receiving aid from an “external enemy”, i.e., Russia. However, if the “internal enemy” in Ukrainian-controlled regions was liquidated by the SBU and the Ukrainian Nazi organizations subordinate to them (such as the Odessa Massacre on May 2nd, 2014, in which pro-Russian activists were burned alive, the extermination of Rusyn movement activists, and attacks on Hungarian activists in Transcarpathia, etc.), then in Donbass itself it became clear very early on that the SBU’s forces and capacity were clearly insufficient. The anti-fascist movement in Donbass very quickly came to wield fighting capabilities. Whereas in the first days most activists were armed with “cold arms”, and in rare cases hunting firearms, veterans of the first battles in Donbass in April-May 2014 have recounted to me how it was from initial attacks on UAF sentry units carrying out “cleansings” of “separatists” that they acquired their first real firearms, and even then tried not to kill Ukrainian servicemen. Only when UAF units began shelling cities and the villages of the Lugansk region did the militias use lethal force against Ukrainian troops. The result was that in May 2014 the Ukrainian post-Maidan regime encountered not only political protests, but armed resistance in Donbass. Hence the deployment of the army.
A psychologically important detail to note here is that Ukrainian conscripts and officers categorically did not want to shoot at the civilians of “mutinous” Donbass. As my close friends from the Ukrainian part of Donbass told me, in May 2014 their close friends were witnesses of a terrible crime: the bottom of the lake near Svyatogorsk (Donetsk region, a popular touristic location), was filled with the bodies of soldiers in UAF uniforms. Later in June, these reports were confirmed by DPR militiamen. According to them, there were many such cases of mass shootings of UAF soldiers who refused to shoot at Donbass civilians. Then came real skirmishes between UAF units and Ukrainian Nazis from organizations like Right Sector. In one such instance, witnesses say Right Sector units opened fire on a car with a family fleeing Donbass to Russia, in response to which UAF troops destroyed the Nazis’ armored personnel carrier and opened fire, killing the Right Sector militants. As a result, a full-fledged skirmish between the two Ukrainian units broke out.
According to my good friend (whose name and city I must admit for safety reasons – his family is still behind Ukrainian lines), who was arrested by the SBU for aiding “terrorists” and was later released thanks to European human rights advocates, he was treated in an exemplary better manner by UAF conscripts than SBU officers. The latter organization is hated not only by the people of Donbass, but also by UAF servicemen.
The Ukrainian army was thus subsequently deployed in full force to be the main executor of the Kiev regime’s policies not long after the very beginning of the Donbass conflict (mid-April 2014), but according to the above accounts, Ukrainian troops were initially hesitant and tried to treat their opponents more humanely than their SBU and Nazi counterparts. In turn, Donbass militiamen at times not only refrained from executing Ukrainian troops, but even fed them after they were sent into battle without food or medicine and captured. Only after some time did ferocity take hold of both sides. One can still speculate whether such a “pacification” between regular Ukrainian conscripts and the Donbass republics’ forces is possible even now.
Kiev’s coercive operation in Donbass is being reformatted in accordance with the new law on “reintegrating Donbass” signed on February 20th 2018. The Ukrainian political elite has not officially altered the legal status of the conflict in Donbass for no reason: this document allows the President of Ukraine to declare martial law and deploy troops to any area in the country indefinitely.
What this change in status also affects is the “ideology” of the conflict in Donbass. Since Kiev approved the Donbass “reintegration law”, Ukraine’s main enemies are officially no longer “internal enemies” in the likes of “separatists”, but an external enemy – Russia. The heads of the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics are thus portrayed by Ukrainian propaganda as mere pawns in the hands of the Kremlin. This changes the configuration of everything that Kiev undertakes with regards to Donbass. Changing the “signboard” gives the opportunity to retool the propaganda model of the war in Donbass into one against an external enemy – with all the implications. And this is not an invention of the Ukrainian government, but a “friendly hint” from across the ocean. It is no coincidence that the US State Department’s special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, has constantly and persistently emphasized that Russia is a party to the conflict and that Russian troops are present in Donbass. Kiev and Washington are operating in sync and within the same conceptual model – or to be more precise, Kiev is obediently fulfilling its role in America’s vision.
The United Forces Operation will transfer all authority over combat operations into the hands of the military. Civil law will in effect cease to be in force on the territory of the operation, which is cause for much alarm for the civilian population, who are henceforth literally defenseless before the Ukrainian military. This also makes it a priori impossible to investigate Ukrainian war crimes, and in fact issues an “indulgence” for the most inhumane actions.
In essence, this operation is nothing less than martial law. But, of course, it cannot be officially called such, since that would make it difficult for Ukraine to receive IMF loans. Although the IMF’s charter does not expressly prohibit lending to countries at war, the IMF leadership could use such as an argument against allocating financial trances to the Ukrainian regime. Ukraine’s international prestige could also suffer, as a country seeking to join the EU and NATO while imposing martial law on its territory is far from an ideal “candidate.”
In summary, the inauguration of Operation United Forces is not simply a change in “branding”. It means real preparation of the preconditions for war with Russia, now officially declared to be the “occupier.” Being perfectly aware of the disparity between the UAF and Russia’s Armed Forces, the Kiev regime is dreaming of involving NATO – the means for which would be “UN peacekeepers”, i.e., in reality a contingent of Western countries headed by the US in the likes of the “international coalition” fighting against Syria.
The civilian population of Ukraine and Donbass can expect negative changes. Ukraine’s Constitution will officially be suspended in the Operation United Forces zone. Everyone will be left helpless in the face of the Ukrainian military’s imposition of martial law.
Eduard Popov is a Rostov State University graduate with a PhD in history and philosophy. In 2008, he founded the Center for Ukrainian Studies of the Southern Federal University of Russia, and from 2009-2013, he was the founding head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, an analytical institute of the Presidential Administration of Russia. In June 2014, Popov headed the establishment of the Representative Office of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Rostov-on-Don and actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts in Donbass. In addition to being Fort Russ’ guest analyst since June, 2016, Popov is currently the leading research fellow of the Institute of the Russian Abroad and the founding director of the Europe Center for Public and Information Cooperation.