Ukraine's fightback has surprised the Kremlin

But the Kyiv government still has a mountain to climb

The World Today
3 minute READ

To those who accept Vladimir Putin’s view of Ukraine as an ‘artificial state’, the routing of pro-Russian insurgents from their stronghold in Slavyansk on July 5 might have come as a shock. It certainly appears to have surprised the Kremlin.

When Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, announced the launch of an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ against the insurgents on April 7, there was deep scepticism in Ukraine whether the government would be able to reconstitute any usable force at all.

The cause of this scepticism was not weak national identity, but profound disorientation following Crimea’s occupation and annexation. That Russia would spy, bribe, intimidate and economically coerce was long taken for granted. But the axiom that ‘Russian will never fight Ukrainian’ was deeply entrenched even among the country’s security professionals.

The interim government sworn into office by Ukraine’s parliament after the swift departure of former president Viktor Yanukovych was not a government of security professionals. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk, financial and economic officials emerged with experience and competence. In the defence and security sector, the picture was different. Some new appointees were highly motivated but inexperienced. Others were lacklustre or incompetent.

What they discovered on taking up their posts was a military and security system without a brain or many functioning ligaments. During Yanukovych’s final days, personnel and operational records of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) were eradicated, codes compromised and communications systems destroyed.

For years, and with Yanukovych’s complicity, military, security and law enforcement bodies had been deeply penetrated, and in the final weeks the SBU leadership took its orders from Moscow. Although the Ministry of Defence and armed forces retained much of their structural cohesion, command echelons had been purged and their assets raided by what had become an openly predatory state. From 2012 onwards, a prominent theme of seminars in Kyiv was the hollowing out of the state.

For these reasons, the country was unprepared for war. It faced a well-armed and capably led insurgency, given coherence by Russian advisers, by forces redeployed from Crimea and by Russian special purpose forces . By early April, these forces were fanning out across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. At the same time, Ukraine had to organize defence in depth against four Russian battle groups deployed on its borders. Yet until early June, the United States and other NATO members declined to supply most of the non-lethal military aid that Ukraine requested.


Against this background, it is not Ukraine’s slowness but its swiftness in seizing the initiative that is remarkable. By the middle of May, the new command authorities had partially replenished the forces with volunteers and completed two limited national call-ups. They had undertaken a substantial redeployment of troops, instituted a new training regime and re-established effective command and control. Forces of dubious reliability – notably the troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs – were disbanded and new military formations such as the National Guard established in their place.

On May 9, National Guard and Ministry of Defence units re-established control over the southeastern city of Mariupol, but needed the support of the private security forces of Rinat Akhmetov, one of Ukraine’s richest men, to consolidate it. On May 27, they inflicted a devastating defeat of the insurgents at Donetsk’s Sergei Prokofiev International Airport. By July 1, despite intermittent reverses, the ‘anti-terrorist’ forces had regained control of 23 out of the 36 districts seized by the insurgents.

The ‘anti-terrorist operation’ derives its controversial name from the requirements of Ukrainian legislation. By law, the only other grounds for general mobilization and military operations are a state of emergency or a state of war.

Moreover, Ukraine claims that the pro-Russian insurgents employ terrorist tactics – the siting of heavy artillery in built-up areas and the employment of ‘provocations’ designed to inflict civilian casualties and further vilify Kyiv in the eyes of locals.

Legal niceties also explain why the anti¬terrorist centre of the SBU, rather than the general staff, coordinates the operations of all armed services. Since his election on May 25, Petro Poroshenko has established the authority over the operation that the interim president lacked. Lieutenant-General Viktor Muzhenko, appointed Chief of the General Staff by Poroshenko on July 3, is emerging as the brains behind the operation as Ukrainian forces close in on the final strongholds of the insurgents, the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The character of the ‘hybrid war’ in the east has caused bewilderment, and it was meant to. For hundreds of years, irregular wars on the fringes of the empire, Tsarist and Soviet, have followed similar principles. The model of warfare is built around informal networks rather than top-down structures; it is untidy and adaptable, covert and vicious, and it is designed to erase the frontier between civil and interstate conflict. Its constituent parts are not only serving officers of Spetsnaz units and the Federal Security Service, but retired servicemen and deserters, the private security forces of oligarchs, Cossacks, Chechen fighters, adventurers and criminals.

Finance comes not only from the coffers of the Russian state, but nominally private banks and businesses, as well as Yanukovych’s pocket oligarchs. For all of these reasons, Kremlin ‘control’ is disputable; its military backing visible but deniable.

Yet the model has its limitations. First, without a strong indigenous component, the explosive will not detonate. Before the conflict reached its peak, opinion polls suggested that 70 per cent of residents in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (regions) wanted Ukraine to remain a unitary state. Even if these figures are still valid, 30 per cent is a lot of people, and in war anger is a force multiplier. However, in the remain¬ing three eastern Ukrainian oblasts, not to mention the four oblasts of the Russian-speaking south, the mixture has failed to detonate despite provocations by Russian proxies in Odessa and elsewhere.

The second limitation is that failure turns networks into cleavages. The authority exercised by Aleksandr Borodai, ‘Prime Minister’ and Igor Girkin, ‘Defence Minister’ of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, is being tested by militia commanders and by Oleg Tsarev, businessman and politician, to whom Russia has assigned a key role in the political process. Following the Malaysia Airlines tragedy, it will almost certainly be curbed by Lieutenant-General Vladimir Antufeyev, for 20 years head of the KGB in Transnistria, who is as ruthless as Girkin and a dozen times more capable.


Since the first ‘green men’ appeared in Crimea, discussion in western capitals has focused on Russia’s actions and the West’s response. Yet it is Ukraine, not the West, that has altered the dynamics of the conflict. However well or poorly the Kremlin understands the EU or NATO, it has underestimated the coherence and resilience of Ukraine. Had it been otherwise, had the insurgency rolled through Zaporizhe, Odessa and up to the Moldovan border, we might be discussing the imminence of war rather than the resolution of a crisis.

Yet ‘resolution’ remains only a hope. With insurgent forces now fragmented and largely encircled, the end game might be approaching. But that is not to say it will end. By designating General Antufeyev, the master architect of ‘frozen conflicts’, as his de facto plenipotentiary in Donetsk, Putin has provided the clearest indication yet that he has no intention of allowing the region to revert to Kyiv’s control.

This only multiplies fears that Ukraine’s European partners will not allow Russia to be defeated without its consent. More than once, Poroshenko has come under Western pressure to declare a ceasefire that only Ukraine observes. It is too early to say whether the Malaysia Airlines tragedy will diminish this pressure or intensify it.

The final fear is that Ukraine will only be able to prevail militarily by alienating civilians who increasingly damn all sides. Bringing the Donbas back into the fold will be like rebuilding East Germany without West German money. The task of reconciling citizens and government in a torn and traumatised society will be greater still.