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Ukraine Protests - Military Intervention

Protests January 2014Ukraine’s military personnel understand they receive orders from authorities whose legitimacy is doubted. The army is not inclined to act against the citizens of the country. In such a situation soldiers and officers feel puzzled about the correct course of action.

Ukrainian authorities announced a military crackdown on pro-federalization activists in eastern regions of the country in April 2014. The operation, involving army troops, targeted the cities of Kramatorsk and Slaviansk in the Donetsk region, but it started slow and petered out fast. Ukrainian troops seem demoralized and unwilling to use force against peaceful civilians blocking their path, although they have authorization to do so. Some servicemen are in a more combative mood and a ready to carry out orders. But the rest simply give in to the increasingly radicalized insurgents.

Soldiers who laid down arms during military operation against protesters in east Ukraine will face a tribunal, coup-imposed acting President Aleksandr Turchinov said 17 April 2014. “The 25th paratroopers brigade, the personnel of which demonstrated cowardice and laid down their arms, will be dissolved. And the soldiers responsible will be held accountable in court,” Turchinov said at a parliamentary session. The previous day crews of six Ukrainian armored personnel carriers sent to the town of Kramatorsk switched sides and joined the local self-defense squads. The defected troops, all of whom come from neighboring Dnepropentrovsk, explained their move by their unwillingness to go into battle against the local population.

Ukrainian troops will never obey the regime’s orders to shoot their fellow countrymen, a retired senior official at Russia’s Defense Ministry told RIA Novosti 17 April 2014. “A lawless regime, a coup d’état and widespread thuggery, all of this makes soldiers and officers angry. When this illegal regime orders them to fight against their own people, the troops – who are Ukrainians too – make the right decision,” said Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, the former head of the Russian Defense Ministry’s military cooperation department.

“The Ukrainian army will not follow Kiev’s orders, it will switch over to the side of the people. This factor will influence all further developments in Ukraine’s southeast that is in the grip of anti-Kiev protests,” says Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of National Defense magazine and a member of the defense ministry’s public assembly. Korotchenko believes that Ukraine is now standing at a historic crossroad, meaning that it will be forced to shoot at civilians, something the military will likely be reluctant to do. “The first news of the Ukrainian Army joining the anti-Kiev opposition shows that the military is about to make its political choice, and it will be against Turchinov and Yatsenyuk,” the pundit said.

Ukrainian opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk warned that the army could be used to crush protests against the country's president. Ukraine’s Army leadership publicly stated that the military was politically neutral. Burning barricades were extinguished in Kyiv on 23 January 2014 after anti-government protesters agreed to a brief truce in clashes with police until President Viktor Yanukovych finished a second round of meetings with opposition leaders. Rueters reported 30 January 2014 that "As the crisis escalated, Yanukovych started working on shoring up army loyalty, pledging to double soldiers’ pay. Soldiers were ordered to show their allegiance at special gatherings, according to Anatoliy Hrytsenko, defense minister in 2005-2007."

Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University said "The military has very pointedly said 'we do not have a role in these kinds of operations. And if then the government started to say, 'we want you to go out and support the Berkut,' I wouldn't be surprised if -- especially in the west of the country -- we began to see not necessarily units siding with the protesters, but units refusing to obey their orders. And as soon as that happens, that is really the beginning of the end for a regime."

The Interior Ministry no longer viewed Kyiv police as politically reliable, so riot police were trucked in from Russian speaking areas of Ukraine. Galeotti said the Berkut, Ukraine's elite riot police, are almost a separate caste of people, selected and trained to emphasize obedience. "These are very different people. On the whole they are recruited from ex-military, especially paratroopers and such like," said Galeot. "They have a very macho and actually quite insular culture. Although they haven't always been used effectively, in the main these are tough, professional, well-trained - if not particularly humane or subtle - elements.... If I was an officer in charge of a [Berkut] regiment in Lviv [in western Ukraine] and I could see that there were real signs that the tide was turning against the government, there arises that question of do you really want to be on trial in a few months' time after the regime has fallen for your actions."

The weekly newspaper Zerkalo Nedeli reported 27 January 2014 that there was a government plan to increase the 4,000 personnel of Berkut and a similar unit called Grifon to 30,000. The report said Grifon currently had 1,000 members. Deputy Interior Minister Viktor Ratushnyak said that the cabinet had allocated additional funding to "staff up" law enforcement agencies. Analysts and opposition leaders said this meant the government might add up to 45,000 additional police. But adding to the ranks of Berkut would involve fairly rigorous selection and at least six months of training.

The Defense Ministry called on Yanukovych on 31 January 2014 “to take urgent steps, within the limits of law, to stabilize the country and reaching consent in society.” Ministry staff members at a general meeting expressed “support” for Yanukovych and spoke of the “threat” to the territorial integrity of Ukraine if the crisis worsens, it said in a statement on its website.

Ukraine’s anti-government protesters gathered 05 February 2014 at the country’s Ministry of Defence in Kiev, calling on the army not to intervene as the opposition and the ruling party seek a solution through talks with the president, mediated by EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton. The demonstrators, organised by a nationalist opposition party Svoboda, sang Ukraine’s anthem at the Ministry on Wednesday and urged the military through loudspeakers “to hear the people and not to go against them.”

A leading member of parliament from Yanukovich's Party of the Regions was quoted in local media saying the president had told his allies he would not declare a state of emergency or use troops or other force to clear central Kiev's Maidan protest camp or public buildings occupied by protesters. 'We have every possibility of liberating administrative premises and even liberating Maidan by force,' Yanukovich was quoted as saying by lawmaker Yuri Miroshnichenko. 'I will never do that, because these are also our citizens.'

NATO's top military commander appealed to Ukraine's leaders on 19 February 2014 to avoid using military force against their people and called for dialogue with the country's new military leadership. US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, asked that "responsible leaders avoid the use of military force against the people of Ukraine.... I am calling upon the new military leadership in Ukraine to open a dialogue with us to bring this situation to a peaceful resolution".

Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said the Ukrainian army’s participation in quelling riots “would have consequences in our defense relationship.... “The Department of Defense is encouraged that the Ukrainian armed forces have not been brought into this crisis. We urge them to remain on the sidelines,” he said, adding that US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned his Ukrainian counterpart, Pavlo Lebedyev, of unspecified “consequences” in December 2013.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Ukraine’s relationship with NATO will be seriously damaged if the military intervenes against the protesters. "I strongly urge the Ukrainian government to refrain from further violence. If the military intervenes against the opposition, Ukraine's ties with NATO will be seriously damaged," Rasmussen said in a statement on 19 February 2014.

The soldiers reflect the same range of opinion over the crisis in Kyiv as can be found in the rest of Ukrainian society. "We have the same 'problem' we see today in the [Interior Ministry] forces, the police," said Colonel-General Anatoliy Lopata, a former chief of staff of the armed forces, in an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on 20 February 2014. "I don't doubt that in the armed forces there could be disobedience if it comes to performing criminal orders or orders that soldiers beat their own people, mothers, sisters, and parents." One reason the army closely reflects the divisions among ordinary Ukrainians is that it is still largely a conscript force -- about 60 percent according to official figures. Ukrainian soldiers today tend to serve near their home areas.

The question of military action against the civilian population was not a new one. In March 2012 President Yanukovych appointed Dmytro Salamatin to be Ukraine’s Defense Minister. Salamatin had been serving as General Director of the recently-created UkrOboronProm state-owned defense industry conglomerate. Salamatin was replaced at UkrOboronProm by Dmytro Peregudov, a long-time UkrSpecExport official. Known for not shrinking from physical confrontations, Salamatin’s appointment was taken by some as a sign that the authorities were preparing for the possible use of force should economic or political factors spark public demonstrations.

The appointment of Salamatin, who was until recently a parliamentarian from the pro-government Party of Regions, takes place against the background of wider efforts to place presidential loyalists in control of key security institutions: the Interior Ministry, the Security Service, the Tax Inspectorate, and now the Defense Ministry. Some pointed to Salamatin’s role in setting up UkrOboronProm to highlight the need for a strong manager to bring order to a defense establishment that had been increasingly adrift since the departure of Anatoly Grytsenko at the end of 2007.

The Salamatin appointment was controversial in the press and, reportedly, within the security community and defense establishment. Chief concerns were reportedly Salamatin’s lack of defense expertise, questions regarding his citizenship and loyalty (based on reports that has been permanently resident in Ukraine only since 1999, previously working six years in Russia and, before that, living in Kazakhstan) and dissatisfaction with the possibility that the Armed Forces could be ordered to confront the people as a tool of regime security.

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Page last modified: 20-04-2014 15:16:25 ZULU