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Alexander J. Motyl, World Affairs Journal.
Should Ukraine embark on a “hybrid war” against the Donbas enclave controlled by Russia and its proxies? One of Ukraine’s best military analysts, Yuri Butusov, the Russian-speaking editor of the Censor.net website, effectively argues that the answer is yes.
Hybrid war is the term analysts apply to what many believe is Russia’s new way of war-making in southeastern Ukraine, one that employs a variety of means—propaganda, subversion, outright aggression, support for proxies, and the like—while remaining undeclared or denied.
Butusov believes that the recent G20 summit in Australia confronted Russia’s illegitimately elected president, Vladimir Putin, with a “new reality of world politics” and “an anti-Putin front.” Butusov is therefore “99 percent certain” that Russia will refrain from attacking Ukraine, because Putin now understands that “any further escalation” will result in “new packets of sanctions much more quickly. And Russia is already paralyzed by the drop in world prices for raw materials.”
Moreover, Ukraine’s current focus on an exclusively defensive strategy isn’t sustainable in the long run. “We cannot,” writes Butusov, “construct rows of trenches and fill them with soldiers along the whole line of the front.” As a result, the Russian militants are always able to take the initiative, strike unexpectedly wherever they want to, and inflict casualties on the Ukrainian army. Such attrition is both demoralizing and destabilizing.
Butusov therefore suggests that Kyiv change its tactics—from playing defense to playing offense, but with “a scalpel.” Ukraine needs a “new concept of military activities.”
It is imperative that quick-response strike forces be created on the basis of existing formations and that systematic work be conducted toward liquidating the knots of resistance and the units of the adversary. Our defense should be proactive. The enemy should not remain in peace. We need a war of diversionary groups, howitzers and mortars, large armored units, and well-defended convoys.
In a word, Butusov is recommending that Ukraine adopt hit-and-run tactics against the Russian proxies, engage in surgical strikes against strategic targets, both on the front line and in the occupied Donbas, and thereby force the terrorists to dig in, anticipate, and lose the initiative. Ukraine’s offensive actions would therefore mirror Russia’s hybrid war. Ukrainian “little green men” and diversionary units would strike at vulnerable targets in the rear, while lightly armed commandoes enjoying the support of mobile artillery units would harass the Russians and their proxies along the whole length of the front.
Here are the two key elements of Butusov’s plan:
- We can drive out the Russian Federation from the Donbas, but for that we need to conduct a genuine war—without flags, without PR, without advertising. Without any large attacks or maneuvers. Instead, locally, surgically, and fatally.
- There should be one goal of the war: to inflict maximum casualties on the armies of the occupiers.
First, Kyiv would neither discuss what it is up to nor admit to having a Ukrainian military presence behind enemy lines. Like Moscow, Kyiv would adamantly insist that the attacks are being launched by local resistance to the proxies. Second, the goal of the offensive would not be to win back territory—at least not immediately—but to impose unacceptable casualties on Putin’s forces.
Would Butusov’s plan work? It’s obviously premised on the inability or unwillingness of Putin to launch a full-scale attack on Ukraine. If he does not or cannot, Ukraine’s hands are free. If he does, hit-and-run tactics may still be useful, but Ukraine’s primary task would then be to defend its territory. As I’ve written many times, we have no idea what Putin will or will not do. In that case, either you may agree with Butusov or you may not.
But there would be two ancillary advantages to Butusov’s strategy. First, localized strikes would not offer Russia the option of claiming that it must launch a full-scale attack in response to a Ukrainian offensive. Since Ukraine would purposely eschew “large attacks or maneuvers,” Russia would be placed in the same position Ukraine has been in for much of 2014: continually facing small-scale attacks that, individually, never quite merited a massive response.
Second, thanks to Kyiv’s cut-off of government subsidies, social unrest in the Donbas enclave has noticeably increased, with locals demanding that the proxies provide them with money and goods. The unrest is sure to intensify as the temperatures drop in the months ahead. Butusov’s plan would both build on and contribute to such unrest. Seen in this light, disrupting separatist rule behind the lines could turn out to be the best way of weakening separatist forces on the front lines.
A Ukrainian soldier reloads his weapon in front of an armored personnel carrier in Donetsk Oblast on Nov. 24. © Anastasia Vlasova.
DZERZHINSK, Ukraine – Spoil tips rise as high as mountains above the horizon where, not far across the field, pro-Kremlin insurgents are amassing troops with more heavy weaponry and fighters coming from Russia.
Ukrainian soldiers of the 57th brigade at checkpoints around Dzerzhinsk, a small city near insurgent-held Horlivka in Donetsk Oblast, say a separatist offensive is imminent but they have little at their disposal to withstand it. They feel abandoned by the state, which they say has left them in the middle of nowhere in an open field without any means of survival.
Olexiy Dmytrashkovsky, a spokesman for the Ukrainian government’s anti-terrorist operation’s headquarters, dismissed these reports as false. He said by phone that the soldiers in Dzerzhinsk were sufficiently supplied with food and clothing by the army. Dmytrashkovsky said, however, that inspectors would be sent to Dzerzhinsk to check the situation.
Several soldiers said that they were unhappy with both political and military leadership, but did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
“The whole General Staff should be fired,” one of them said. “And (President Petro) Poroshenko is the biggest disappointment in the whole post-Maidan period.”
He described Poroshenko’s Sept. 5 Minsk cease-fire deal as a disaster that allowed insurgents to build huge fortifications and to prepare for an offensive. A second soldier agreed, saying that they were not allowed to shoot back when they were shelled by separatists despite the cease-fire.
“(Russians) have brought so much equipment that sooner or later it has to be used,” the first soldier said. Apart from supplying weapons, Russia is moving in more and more fighters.
Given their professionalism, those on the front-line are likely to be Russian regular troops, as opposed to mercenaries, the first soldier said. He added that he had seen signs of infighting between local insurgents and Russian troops, which had been apparently shooting at each other.
The second soldier said that his unit had killed a Russian fighter with an Omsk paratroopers shoulder patch, a Chechen fighter and a man with Berkut riot police insignia when they approached a Ukrainian checkpoint.
But Ukrainian forces have few weapons to resist an assault by Russian and insurgent troops and badly need heavy military equipment and an infrared camera, the first soldier said. “We are like blind kittens at night without a camera,” he said.
The first soldier also said that the Defense Ministry had supplied almost no food and no clothing, and most of what they had had been given to them by volunteers. He added that his unit resembled a gang of 20th century anarchist leader Nestor Makhno because they wore ragtag clothing, as opposed to regular military uniforms.
Holes in summer pants, dilapidated boots and no socks used to be a common sight at Ukrainian checkpoints surrounding Dzerzhinsk, say volunteers who supply the army. They also say that soldiers did not have enough underwear and lacked binoculars before volunteers supplied them.
The first soldier said the situation contrasted sharply with the Interior Ministry’s National Guard, which is supplied relatively well. “Compared with the National Guard, we’re like a stepchild or ugly duckling,” he said.
An elderly woman pulls а cart with firewood near the Donetsk airport, in eastern Ukraine on Nov. 3, 2014. © AFP
Kyiv Post+, Kyiv Post.
An unidentified fighter in Donetsk released a short video clip on Nov. 24, showing what the local airport looks like after months of constant shelling.
The airport, located on the outskirts of Donetsk, between the Ukrainian and separatist held territories, has been one of the central focal points of the war in the east in the past few months. The airport has been shelled daily despite a cease-fire agreement signed on Sept. 5.
The airport itself was renovated just two years ago before Euro 2012 football championship, at the cost of $750 million from taxpayers alone. But recent footage of the airport shows that it has come to look like a pile of rubbish as a result of constant fighting.
The fighter in the video starts off by explaining the view out of the window on the fourth floor, where the video is shot.
“You see in front of you a tower, it’s ours. To the right, there is a fire building. It’s controlled by the terroristsk,” he says.
“Here, you see one of the offices on the fourth floor. This is our office now. You can see that the Russian artillery has made us great ventilation,” the fighter jokes, pointing the camera to holes in the roof.
“Everything is broken, you need to look where you step. There could be mines there, or just sharp objects,” he says, before moving to show the central part of the airport.
“Further we see a hall, the central hall of the airport. A vast, trashed hall. Further out there you see Metro and other buildings. So, if you feel it’s difficult to work in the office- we’re coming to you,” he concludes.
Igor Strelkov, a former separatist commander in eastern Ukraine. Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters.
Anna Dolgov, The Moscow Times.
Russian national Igor Strelkov, a former commander of pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine, has claimed “personal responsibility” for unleashing the conflict across the border, in which 4,300 people have been killed since April.
“I was the one who pulled the firing trigger of this war,” Strelkov said in an interview published Thursday with Russia’s Zavtra newspaper, which espouses imperialist views.
“If our unit hadn’t crossed the border, in the end everything would have fizzled out, like in [the Ukrainian city of] Kharkiv, like in Odessa,” Strelkov, also known as Girkin, was quoted as saying.
“There would have been several dozen killed, burned, detained. And that would have been the end of it. But the flywheel of the war, which is continuing to this day, was spun by our unit. We mixed up all the cards on the table,” he said.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea this spring, clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Moscow activists broke out in the cities of Kharkiv and Odessa, with more than 40 people killed in a fire in Odessa in early May.
Since then, the two cities have remained largely peaceful, and most of the fighting between rebels and government forces has been limited to the eastern Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Strelkov’s interview was published the same day the UN released a report highlighting the involvement of Russian fighters in the eastern Ukraine conflict, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 4,300 people since mid-April.
“The continuing presence of a large amount of sophisticated weaponry, as well as foreign fighters that include servicemen from the Russian Federation, directly affects the human rights situation in the east of Ukraine,” the report said.
Strelkov also told Zavtra that at the beginning of the conflict, Ukrainian separatists and government forces were reluctant to start fighting one another and that the main opposition to the rebels came from Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist militants such as the Right Sector.
“At first, nobody wanted to fight,” he was quoted as saying. “The first two weeks went on under the auspices of the sides trying to convince each other to engage.”
But Strelkov claimed Kiev became emboldened after seeing that Russia was refraining from openly interfering in eastern Ukraine, as it did in Crimea, or from sending in large-scale forces.
He added that the lack of large-scale support from Russia was a major disappointment for the separatists, which lacked the manpower or weapons to combat government forces.
“Initially I assumed that the Crimea scenario would be repeated: Russia would enter,” he told Zavtra. “That was the best scenario. And the population wanted that. Nobody intended to fight for the Luhansk and Donetsk republics. Initially everybody was for Russia.”
Strelkov also gave an account of the degree of Russia’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
At the start of this summer, 90 percent of rebel forces were made up of local residents, Strelkov was quoted as saying. However, by early August, Russian servicemen supposedly on “vacation” from the army had begun to arrive, he said.
According to Strelkov, the assault on the Black Sea town of Mariupol in September, which prompted concerns in Ukraine and the West that Russia has entered the conflict on a large scale, was conducted mostly by the Russian military “vacationers.”
The rebel forces advancing on Mariupol at that time met with little resistance from government troops and “could have been taken without a fight, “but there was an order not to take it,” he was quoted as saying.
While Moscow has repeatedly denied supplying the rebels with weaponry and manpower, Strelkov said the assistance offered to rebels remains significant: “I can’t say that we fully provide for them. But we are really helping them,” he said, noting that half of the rebel army was kitted out with winter clothes sent from Russia.
After Donetsk and Luhansk held “referendums” on their independence from Ukraine in May, separatist leaders appealed to Moscow to accept the territories as Russian regions but Moscow responded with vague statements calling for “dialog” between rebels and Kiev.
Separatist had not contemplated building functional states and had pinned their hopes on being absorbed by Russia, Strelkov said, reasoning that Moscow needed a land connection to Crimea, which it had annexed in March.
“And then, when I understood that Russia was not going to take us in — I associated myself with the resistance — for us that decision was a shock,” Strelkov was quoted as saying.
Strelkov has been living in Russia since early this fall, when he said he was moving to Moscow to protect President Vladimir Putin from enemies and traitors.
While he seems to have fallen out of favor with Russia’s state-run media, having disappeared from their newscasts, he has taken to YouTube and fringe publication to issue an occasional appeal for increased Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine.
“From the very beginning we started to fight for real — destroying raiding parties of the Right Sector,” Strelkov told Zavtra. “And I take personal responsibility for what is happening there.”
According to a UN report released Thursday, at least 4,317 people had been killed in eastern Ukraine by mid-November, and 9,921 have been wounded. The casualties include nearly 1,000 who have perished since “a tenuous cease-fire” was established earlier this fall.
The Moscow Times.
Pro-Russian militant ride on a tank taken from Ukrainian forces during fighting in August, on their way to test fire in open fields, in the eastern Ukrainian town of Ilovaisk, some 40 kms east of Donetsk, on Nov. 18. © AFP
The Editorial Board, The New York Times.
The crisis in Ukraine has reached an impasse. The cease-fire signed in Minsk, Belarus, in September never really took hold, but at least it provided a cover for efforts to reduce the level of fighting and focus on stabilizing and reforming the Ukrainian economy as a prelude to a serious, long-term search for a resolution of the crisis. Now even the fig leaf of cease-fire is gone. Russian armored vehicles are rolling into eastern Ukraine — disowned, of course, by Moscow.
Gunfire is exchanged constantly in and around Donetsk, and Kiev has basically disowned residents of territories claimed by separatists by cutting most government services, benefits and pensions. And though elections to the Ukrainian Parliament on Oct. 26 brought in a new, pro-Western legislature, Kiev is still far from forming a government or producing a viable program of reforms.
The United States and the European Union have made clear, and correctly so, that they hold President Vladimir Putin of Russia largely responsible for this state of affairs. He was snubbed at the Group of 20 meeting in Brisbane, Australia. Then Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, once the European leader deemed most cautious in relations with Moscow, assailed him for reviving a Cold War atmosphere 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell.
There is no question that by annexing Crimea and arming separatists in eastern Ukraine, Mr. Putin has done great damage to East-West relations — and to his country, which finds itself isolated and in economic trouble. The decision on Monday by the European Union to add more separatist leaders to the list of Mr. Putin’s allies barred from Europe may be largely symbolic, but along with the cold reception in Brisbane, it does let the Russian leader know that the West is not about to let him off the hook.
That said, it is important to acknowledge that officials in Kiev, and more specifically President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, have responsibilities they must live up to. Ukraine has been plagued by corruption since it became independent, and the current crisis has made it even more imperative for the leaders to form a government and come up with a credible economic and political strategy.
The Ukrainian economy is in terrible shape — the currency has lost almost half its value against the dollar in 2014, the industrial centers of Donetsk and Luhansk are in separatist hands, coal mines have shut down. The International Monetary Fund has provided emergency aid, but the hard fact is that the European Union and the United States cannot be expected to make substantial commitments until Ukraine provides a clear reform plan and priorities for outside investment. Johannes Hahn, the new European Union commissioner for enlargement, is right to insist that the union will not hold a donors’ conference without this.
In addition to an economic strategy, Kiev needs to prepare a plan for loosening central control in a way that might satisfy residents of the eastern provinces. The decision by President Poroshenko to cut government benefits and pensions to residents of areas under the control of Kremlin-backed separatists, though understandable in the circumstances, has left those unable to flee feeling betrayed by Kiev, creating a vacuum for Moscow to fill.
There is no question that ordering painful reforms when a country is already on its knees is asking a lot. That is why it is imperative that Western leaders make clear that they will give Kiev substantial assistance only after it embarks on a serious program of economic and political reform. After all, that was what the Ukrainians who took to the streets in December 2013 fought for.