“Substitution of Ideas” as a Dance to War

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“Substitution of Ideas” as a Dance to War

Kherson, Ukraine - War with Russia
Kherson, Ukraine – War with Russia

Having annexed Crimea, Putin thought it would be just as easy to invade Donbas, where he hoped to be supported by pro-Russian Ukrainians in the region. Special military detachments led by career officers of the secret services were deployed by him to Donbas. Georgia, Crimea, Donbas The Girl in Kherson – three times a charm.

One such officer was Lieutenant Colonel Igor Girkin (known under his alias as “Strelkov”) of Russia’s military intelligence, GRU, who had previously been involved in secret combat operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Transnistria, and many other hotspots. Girkin was appointed as chief saboteur and the commander in chief of the troops stationed in the breakaway republics in eastern Ukraine. His task was to recruit as many local residents as possible into these so-called “people’s armies.” Hiding its armed forces under the cover of this false banner, Russia began its military interference in this part of Ukraine, although the Kremlin categorically denied this chain of command when challenged.

Propped up by these covert Russian military units and at the instigation of FSB agents, officials in a number of areas in Luhansk and Donetsk regions proclaimed themselves to be the government of “people’s republics.” A similar attempt by the Russian special services to declare the formation of a “Kharkiv People’s Republic” was unsuccessful, however. Kharkiv’s population resisted the proclamation of a quasi-republic, and officials of Kharkiv defied the encroachment of Russian authority on their city. This defiance was not forgotten. Putin was to take barbaric revenge after the start of hostilities of February 24, 2022, subjecting Kharkiv’s civilian population to punishing rocket and artillery shelling.

Having captured the city of Sloviansk in north Donetsk, Russian units led by Girkin found themselves surrounded by Ukrainian troops who outnumbered them. In order to cover themselves, the Russian troops used a human shield of Sloviansk residents, as Girkin himself later admitted. This was not an isolated incidence. It was Russian policy handed down by the President. Putin himself said the following in connection with the occupation of Crimea: “Let anyone from among the [Ukrainian] military try to shoot at their own people, behind whom we will be standing. Not in front, but behind. Let them try to shoot women and children.” It was Putin himself who urged Russian troops and pro-Russian separatists to use Ukrainian civilians as human shields.

Ukrainian troops overwhelmingly outnumbered Russian troops and equipment by the beginning of July 2014. Curiously, however, their commanders allowed Girkin’s Russian military saboteurs to withdraw from Sloviansk, and to fall back and invade regional capital Donetsk in the south, which the Russian forces occupied instead. Those who were part of the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO), the name the Ukrainian government gave to resisting Russia, claimed that they never received orders to obliterate the Russian troops that withdrew from Sloviansk and moved into Donetsk, even though the Russians used vehicles they had seized from Ukrainians. Given their strategic superiority, Ukraine’s air and ground forces could have wiped out Girkin’s troops and that might have been the end of the “liberation” of Donbas by Putin. Whether this was stupidity or betrayal remains an unexplained mystery to this day. Yet there were many such instances during the Russian infiltration of Donbas – the area of Luhansk and Donetsk.

In Kyiv, the country’s leading politicians were divided among themselves and may either have been unable or unwilling to fight the annexation of Crimea and Russia in Donbas – perhaps fearing the personal consequences of such decisions. Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, was advised to appoint General Vitaliy Radetsky as Defense Minister, a post he had held from 1993-1994 under President Kravchuk. His candidacy was supported by the Head of the SBU, Ihor Smeshko. Turchynov was no stranger to the contradictory currents in Ukraine’s national government; he had been the first civilian to head the SBU under Yushchenko.

However, the Acting President stuck to the coalition agreement which stipulated that the Ministry of Defense belonged to the nationalist Freedom Party, which, for its part, nominated its party member Admiral Ihor Tenyukh. Tenyukh claimed that he pleaded several times with Turchynov to allow him to start combatting the Russians in Crimea, but was repeatedly turned down. He served from February 27 to March 25, 2014. and then resigned days after the annexation of Crimea, stating that he could not perform the duties entrusted to him. He was also afraid of being made politically responsible for the loss of Crimea on the one hand and the desultory military response on the other.

Such was the political toxicity of the post that the country’s political leadership failed to find a heavy-weight defense minister between March and October 2014. General Mykhailo Koval, previously Deputy Commander of Ukraine’s border control, held the post from March 25 to July 3. Valery Heletey was appointed from July 3 to October 14. He was a policeman as well as the former head of security of the newly elected President Petro Poroshenko. During his short tenure, he received the rank of Colonel General and solemnly swore in front of Rada deputies that the next Ukrainian victory parade would be held in Sevastopol.

Finally, as the country’s need of professional military leadership grew, a senior expert finally accepted the job. General Stepan Poltorak, who had previously headed the Interior Ministry’s National Guard, managed to last five years as minister from October 14, 2014, to August 28, 2019, when the newly-elected President Vladimir Zelensky relieved him from his post.

The revolving-door appointment of defense ministers and their modest professional caliber did not help to boost morale among the Ukrainian military. In 2014, the Ukrainian army itself could hardly be called an exemplary force in any case. It was half-armed and half-trained after twenty five years of peace following the collapse of the USSR and further weakened by Yanukovych’s military reforms. Its success in Donbas was based on the heroism of individual Ukrainian army units, which often acted in isolation, without coordination from central military command, and, of course, on the heroism of the volunteer battalions, which bore the brunt of the war in Donbas. To thank as well were the efforts of private Ukrainians themselves, who sacrificed their personal savings to pay for bringing the army back to fighting condition.

Ukraine’s political elite had always been more acutely aware than any other nation that Vladimir Putin had been traumatized by the collapse of the USSR, as he himself had repeatedly stated. That under him the strategic objective of the Russian Federation was the restoration of the Russian Empire. That his idea was ideologically draped around the concept of a Russian world where all Russian speaking people are united within a single state, instead of Soviet Communism uniting the world. That Putin never viewed Ukraine as a territory deserving its own statehood or Ukrainian people as an established nation.

Nonetheless, Kyiv had been caught off guard by familiarity. This was not entirely surprising. After EuroMaidan, the Ukrainian oligarchs – or so they thought – would, as before, re-arrange themselves around whomever was the new President to fight for a larger share of Ukraine’s economy through Ukraine’s ritual abuse of state power. Putin would restart the tug of war with the new President to kick the Association Agreement again into the long grass. Everything would be different but the same. Besides a defensive militarily build-up in eastern Ukraine aimed at Russia could equally provoke Putin – on whom Ukraine relied for gas supplies – as Ukraine’s Russian-speaking officials and media in the area which might perceive it as an attempt at intimidation. Nor did Putin have a standing border army poised to suppress Ukraine.

They overlooked that the loss of Yanukovych as Putin’s President had created an an alternative. Finally, Putin had the “Georgian” option available in Ukraine, as a result of the seething civil unrest. He could exploit it to occupy border regions where the secret services had their strongest foothold: Crimea (where Russia even had troops on hand at its Crimean navy bases), Luhansk and Donetsk. With minimum effort, these regions could be occupied as “independent” territories as Ukraine’s central government was paralyzed by chaos and oligarchs played each other off against one another in a version of financial musical chairs. It was in Russia’s interest now to fan the flames.

And that is what happened. When incumbent President Yanukovych signalled he would hand over power to the opposition, Russian special services, supported by their agents in Kyiv, instigated first the shooting of peaceful protesters, then the evacuation of Yanukovych via Crimea to Russia. This had the added advantage that in Russian exile Putin could force Yanukovych to finance Russia’s secret-service operations in Donbas from the billions the ex-burglar had accumulated during his Presidency. We established that this is what happened with Yanukovych through two separate sources of Michael Stanchev, co-author of this book.

Despite the power vacuum in Kyiv one thing happened. The danger of the Russian invasion and subversive activity of the Russian operatives and troops inside Ukraine made it impossible to do nothing for long. On March 17, full mobilization of the army was order for the first time in contemporary history. Did Russia foresee this, or, if they did, discount it as irrelevant? They must have. It meant that Ukraine’s full military capability, such as it was, became a factor in Putin’s move to grab border regions under the cover of separatism.

By this time “separatists” had seized a number of government buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, as well as the cities of Sloviansk, Lyman, Yenakijeve, Mariupol, Horlivka, and several others in order to organize “official” referendums. Unsuccessful attempts to seize government buildings and hoist the Russian flags were also made in Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Zaporizhzhia. The confrontation between supporters and opponents of the referendum on secession in Odessa on May 2, 2014 ended in a fire that killed dozens of people (in 2022 the investigation into the tragedy was still ongoing).

The Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (“DPR” and “LPR”) proclaimed their independence on April 7 and April 28, amid mass unrest from the local population but with the direct support from the Russia Federation. Tellingly, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the “autonomous republics” occupied by Russian forces invading these formerly Georgian territories in August of 2008, were instructed to recognize their Ukrainian equals. No one in the international community recognized them, except Lukashenko’s Belarus, al-Assad’s Syria, and other dictators in Nicaragua, Sudan and Central Africa Republic). In Ukraine, the DPR and LPR were called “so-called republics,” which held “so-called referendums”, when on May 11 the nominal leaders of these mini-states announced what they claimed were the counts of local plebiscites in favor of secession from Ukraine.

On May 25, 2014, Ukraine’s snap Presidential Elections were won by Petro Poroshenko, the one-time rival of Tymoshenko’s under the Presidency of Yushchenko. He won 54 percent in the first round against Tymoshenko’s 13 percent as runner up. Poroshenko’s main election promise was that he would end the stand-off with Russia within two to three weeks of taking office. He had given voice to the hopes of Ukrainians at large that the political and military confrontation would soon end, bringing to an end the civil unrest.

The very next day, on May 26, Ukraine under its new commander in chief, launched its largest “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO) against Russian forces on Ukraine’s territory, using airpower and paratroopers. Ukrainian troops forces retook Donetsk Airport, which was held by its fighters, nicknamed “cyborgs” for their resilience, for 240 days.

On June 20, carrying out his election promise in part, Poroshenko did announce a unilateral cease-fire on the part of the Ukrainian armed forces, although there was no real cease-fire, as the “separatists” continued baiting Kyiv with continued shelling, causing casualties among Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. Poroshenko’s decision lasted no more than 10 days. The unilateral ceasefire from the Ukrainian side caused mixed reactions among the Ukrainian military and politicians, so on July 1 the ATO-war resumed and two days later Poroshenko appointed his former body guard as Defense Minister. The oligarchy likely had a formidable hand in the resumption of the ATO-war against Russia. Substantial holdings of Rinat Akhmetov’s were in Donbas and, as his businesses were now in the DPR and LPR, a different kleptocracy threatened them – the Russian one rather than the Yanukovych family. By 2022, he was worth a “mere” $4 billion, having lost as much as 80 percent of his net worth.

On July 2, Ukrainian troops entered Luhansk, but were forced to leave the city as early as July 6. However, on July 5, Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, and Artemivsk (since rechristened Bakhmut) were liberated from Russia’s forces “defending” the “separatists”.

Throughout July and August 2014, there were fierce battles, with varying degrees of success. Cities changed hands. In August, the Russian Federation changed tactics and balled its forces into a fist near Luhansk deploying several battalion-tactical groups of the 76th Pskov Airborne Assault Division’s airborne regiments, as well as the 61st Marine Brigade, with the support of tanks, which gave them the upper hand.

On August 29, several Ukrainian volunteer units entered Ilovaisk, south of the city of Donetsk, but met stubborn resistance from Russian-backed forces. When the fighting became widespread, Russian troops intervened directly and, as the Ukrainian soldiers attempted to withdraw from Ilovaisk, they were surrounded by the Russian army. It turned into the Ukrainian army’s largest defeat since the start of the ATO-war. One and a half thousand troops were encircled.

Having finally gained a decisive military victory, Russia mobilised a large-scale invasion force of regular Russian army into eastern Ukraine, which allowed them to seize a number of districts in the Donetsk region without local opposition and move close to harbor city Mariupol.

 

 

The Minsk Agreements

 

 

The defeat became the main reason for the signing of the first Minsk Agreements in a ringing historical echo of Imperial Russia. Meeting on not very neutral territory in Minsk, Belarus, Ukraine was represented by former President Kuchma (who had not yielded in 1999 to KGB plant General Marchuk), Russia by its Ambassador to Ukraine, and, on the LPR and DPR side, by their titular heads Igor Plotnitsky and Alexander Zakharchenko.208 A cease-fire was agreed on September 5, 2014. According to its protocol, parties agreed to stop hostilities on the same day, as well as to monitoring and verification of the non-use of weapons by the OSCE, who acted as neutral observer to the negotiations.

Russia stipulated that Ukraine pass a law “On Temporary Order of Local Self-Government in Certain Areas of Donetsk and Luhansk Regions” (ORDLO) which devolved power to these areas. The Verkhovna Rada passed it on September 16, 2014. Ukrainian authorities planned to hold elections in Donbas on December 7. The law introduced a special procedure for local self-governance in the occupied areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions and prevented Ukrainian authorities from prosecuting anyone who had taken joined its forces in the new “autonomous” territories.

ORDLO’s wording on national language was carefully balanced. It gave every resident of Donbas the right to determine what language they consider their native language: Ukrainian or Russian (or, technically, any other). However, Ukraine set preconditions: withdrawal of illegal armed units and military equipment from Ukraine; guarantees of freedom of expression of; independent observation of elections, including representatives of international organizations; non-interference in the electoral process; observance of the principles of political pluralism and freedom of political campaigning.

And so the Minsk Agreements never truly led to a ceasefire. The withdrawal of illegal Russian military never took place and the ceasefire was repeatedly violated by both sides. Ukraine as the violated party was interested in adhering to the agreements in good faith, but Russia, the aggressor, had no real intention of giving up its campaign of provocation. As before, the foreign “separatists” stationed in Donbas constantly taunted the Ukrainian side, remaining a constant source of irritation with shelling and, when Ukraine responded, planted a seed among the Donbas civilian population that Ukraine was literally acting against them. The only clause in the agreement that was periodically implemented was the prisoners’ exchange, although this was never “all for all” principle. Neither did the Minsk Agreements succeed in adopting a program for the economic revival of Donbas and the restoration of the region’s commerce. Nor was there any dialogue about the future of Donbas.

None of this mattered to Russia. Putin’s real objective was to use his victory to suppress any discussion of Crimea under the agreements. In this he succeeded and as of 5 September, the Annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation was a fait accompli through its exclusion from the endlessly spun-out talks in Minsk.

At a February 2015 summit, Germany and France joined the negotiations and a new set of measures to implement the Minsk Agreement were agreed in order to de-escalate the conflict. These documents were approved by a special UN resolution of February 17, 2015, which, although advisory in nature, urged the parties to implement them (and implicitly sanctioned the status quo by accepting the silence on Crimea).

Known as Minsk-2, it was once again signed by the three sides. As new points, it included an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire from 00.00. (Kyiv time) on February 15, 2015; the detailed withdrawal by both sides within 14 days of all heavy weapons to an equal distance from the line of contact to create a 50 km wide security zone; for artillery systems of 100 mm caliber and above to create a 70 km wide security zone; for multiple launch rocket systems Tornado-S, Uragan, Smerch and tactical missile systems Tochka (Tochka U), a 140 km wide zone. All this was to be monitored by the OSCE mission using its trusted capabilities.

Point 4 of the agreement was the real bone of contention: to begin a dialogue on the procedure for local elections in accordance with ORDLO and future governance of the DPR and LPR. The Ukrainian side insisted on holding these elections after the withdrawal of “foreign” (Russian) and other illegal military combatants from the territory of Ukraine. Kyiv undertook obligations to restore social and economic relations with the territories occupied by separatists, including payment of pensions and other payments to the population of these areas, and resumed taxation there within the legal framework of Ukraine.

Kyiv also insisted on the restoration of full control of the state border of Ukraine throughout the conflict zone by the Ukrainian border guards. Border control was to begin on the first day after local elections in certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and end after a comprehensive political settlement of the conflict by the end of 2015. Ukraine considered the “state border” to be the existing administrative Ukrainian-Russian border, which had been delimited and demarcated earlier, before the occupation of Donbas, while the Russian side considered the line of contact in the conflict zone as the state border. The Ukrainian side agreed to hold elections under ORDLO only after full control was established over the entire territory within the old administrative boundaries, which the Russian side categorically did not agree to.

Russia wanted further concessions under its continuing aggression. The OSCE was not given access to the DPR and LPR so it could not verify what was happening on the occupied territories after the agreement. Also Minsk-2 contained a paragraph that stated: “the constitutional reform in Ukraine and the entry into force by the end of 2015 of the new Constitution”, involving as a key element the decentralization of the state structure of Ukraine, i.e., the actual recognition of the autonomy of the DPR and LPR, and the passing into law of ORDLO.

Of course, conducting constitutional reform and adopting a new constitution was an internal matter of Ukraine. However, under pressure of the defeat at Ilovaisk, President Poroshenko felt forced to agree to the inclusion of these points into the Second Minsk Agreement, not understanding that by doing this he made the entire set of agreements Minsk-2 unimplementable. Now Moscow had the right to demand fulfillment of Minsk-2, signed by Poroshenko, while accusing Ukraine of failing to comply with its obligations under the agreements.

Poroshenko did understand perfectly well that behind all this was Russia’s attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of the Ukrainian state; Russia’s desire to maintain pro-Russian armed forces under the guise of local militia; and Russia’s intention to determine the appointment of prosecutors and judges loyal to the DPR, LPR and Russian authorities, while maintaining Donbas at the expense of the Ukrainian taxpayer.

On 20 February 2015, the anniversary of the EuroMaidan heroes, Poroshenko made a bombshell claim during a meeting with relatives of the dead. The background to his official statement was that, on January 24, 2014, his predecessor Yanukovych had appointed a new Chief of Staff, Andriy Klyuyev. As described above, in 2004 Klyuyev was an energy minister under Yanukovych as Prime Minister and captured on tape discussing the logistics of a covert operation that was a carbon copy of the second assassination attempt on Orange Revolution leaders Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko following the poisoning of the former. Klyuyev enjoyed a first-hand working relationship with Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s Special Advisor on Ukraine as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two regions that had declared “breakaway independence” from Georgia after being occupied by Russian forces. Surkov had arrived in Kyiv on 20 February 2014, the day of the mass killing of The Hundred civilians and officers.

At the commemoration, President Poroshenko said, “The leadership of the Security Service of Ukraine informed me that [SBU anti-terrorist] Alpha fighters interrogated by the agency testified that Russian Presidential Aide Vladislav Surkov directed the organization of a group of foreign snipers on the Maidan.” There were also on-going phone conversations between Yanukovych and the Russian security services that the SBU had intercepted.

The Head of the SBU, Valentyn Nalyvaichenko confirmed the evidence that Putin’s Ukrainian point man Surkov was behind the slaughter and that three groups of Russian secret-service agents had arrived in Kyiv from December 2013 to February 2014, ostensibly to educate Ukrainian law enforcement on the dispersal of mass demonstrations. Nalyvaichenko identified his sources, saying his SBU officers “gave us concrete information [under interrogation] about the positions of foreign sniper groups that were targeting both protesters… and Interior Ministry police officers.”

 

A week later, on Russia’s state Channel One, Vladimir Putin personally responded to the accusation. Pleading that the order could not have come from him, Putin called it “complete, utter nonsense,” and that it was “so far from reality that I have no idea where it would come from.” He added, “I would ask [others] to be more attentive when using data acquired by my Ukrainian colleagues”.

Instead, however, of giving Ukraine support, the West and the US looked the other way as had happened with Georgia in 2008. Ukraine was being isolated in one of the most costly mistakes in foreign affairs made in the twentieth first century.

In order to appease Russia, the West and the US put pressure on Ukraine, demanding with Russia that Ukraine stick to the Minsk Agreements, even though realizing that Russia, for its part, had no intention of doing so. This misguided and short-sighted policy could not lead to an end to violence, but only made further expansion of Russia’s territory and escalation of violence a matter of time. In history, lessons are learned the hard way.

After the traumatic experience of Crimea’s annexation and the ATO against covert Russian forces, under Petro Poroshenko first real steps were finally made to align Ukraine’s military with NATO standards and bring the army under control of civil leadership. Poroshenko set this in motion alongside a massive (for Ukraine) investment to upgrade military equipment. President Zelensky developed this policy further by identifying Russia as a security threat to Ukraine and refining interoperability with EU and NATO forces. Whether it was enough, or too little too late, lies in the balance after the invasion.

Having executed the Georgian option for Ukraine, Putin dropped his facade. The Kremlin no longer called Ukraine a brother nation while twisting arms behind the scenes to stop its leaders from joining NATO or embarking on a path towards membership of the EU and extorting it otherwise. Having tried for decades to control Ukraine’s Presidency behind the scenes, Putin had succeeded in preventing Ukraine from turning – like 1990s-run-down Poland had – into a formidable economy of 40 million-people and a military gorilla on its doorstep. But he had failed in his main objective – this was Putin’s “Ukraine complex” – and the gloves remained off.

Using round-the-clock propaganda channels that monopolize the Russian media, Putin’s government continued to shape an image of Ukraine in Russia as its enemy threatening the independence and security of the Russian state. Ukrainians who were active in the Maidan were denigrated as “Banderites”. At the same time, Ukrainian leaders and military officers were depicted as Nazis to insinuate that they had gained illegal control, and the new territories he wanted were referred to as Novorossiya. None of it made historical sense, but that didn’t matter. Through “substitution of ideas”, Putin created a narrative that identified Russia as the savior of the peaceful Russian-speaking people living in Ukraine who were being suppressed by evil actors.

This now served as the informational and ideological basis on which the Kremlin’s military strategy against Ukraine was built. Putin himself joined the misinformation war aimed at Russians. In speeches and “historical articles”209 he claimed that Russians and Ukrainians were “one people” with “one faith,” discounting the existence of Ukraine as a state equal in independence and sovereignty. An important element in the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine were the economic, and trade wars between the two countries. To justify his aggression, Putin used the “recognition of the legal status of Crimea” on the one hand and Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO on the other. The latter allegedly threatened Russia’s security and the status of the Russian language in Ukraine.

Later, prior to the invasion of Donbas, those arguments were supplemented by the “threat from NATO” in case Ukraine was accepted into its ranks, arming the Ukrainian army and “strengthening Nazism” that “threatened the security” and even the “territorial integrity” of the Russian Federation. They were all things, of course, which his annexation of Crimea and “separatist” campaign in Ukraine’s Donbas had intentionally accelerated. As he had already created a territorial dispute, there was no chance that NATO, a defensive alliance, would invite Ukraine as a member.

Over eight years the Kremlin had poisoned Russian minds towards Ukrainians suggesting that Ukraine’s Russian-speaking citizens cried out for a patriotic battle to save them. On February 21, 2022, the exact day on which Yanukovych “surrendered” (according to Putin) his Presidency in 2014, and four days before attacking Ukraine, Russia fired the starting shot. Its Duma officially recognized the sovereignty of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics from Ukraine, ignoring forceful protests from Ukraine’s President Zelensky. This recognition occurred against the backdrop of an unprecedented concentration of Russian troops along the Russian-Ukrainian and Belarusian-Ukrainian borders, and it became apparent that his army was ready to attack as we had predicted. The day after the “Defender of the Fatherland Day” concert at the Kremlin Palace, on February 24, 2022, Putin addressed the Russian people and announced the start of a “special military operation” against Ukraine and that it was already on its way.

 

 

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