Little green men

Events in Ukraine may develop with lightning speed, but the fear of war is ever present – a new kind of war. на русском языке


Valery Kalnysh
21 April 2014

There is a war on in Ukraine – and, moreover, it’s a pilot project for a new kind of war. History books we’ve read or lessons learned in school have given us a fixed image of what war is: the opposing sides send their tank brigades in to fight, soldiers sit in trenches and then, yelling ‘Hurrah!’, rush at each other. That’s the kind of war we’re used to.  Modern wars like those in Afghanistan or Iraq are predicated on the use of the latest precision weapons, the human factor is reduced to a minimum and technology does most of the work. In Ukraine we do war differently.

A family poses for pictures with a masked and uniformed man in front of an APC.

A Slovyansk family poses with what Russian state media are universally calling a 'supporter of federalisation.' (c) RIA NovostiRussia has not formally declared war on Ukraine.  There was no official ultimatum (though Russian ambassador Mikhail Zurabov was recalled ‘for consultations’), nor any notification of neutral countries, as laid down by the Hague Convention. 

Little green men

In Ukraine we do war differently

Over the last month Russian president Vladimir Putin has denied that his troops took any part in recent Crimean events, though it was quite clear that soldiers, or the ‘little green men’, as they were called, were dressed in Russian army uniforms (albeit with no stripes or other distinguishing insignia). They were carrying weapons, which Ukraine does not have, but are in use in Russia; and they spoke with Russian accents. On 15 April, Ukrainian First Deputy Prime Minister Vitaliy Yarema told journalists in Poltava oblast that ‘we have identified the people in Slovyansk and Kramatorsk as members of a unit of the 45th Guards’ Airborne Regiment Kupyanka-1, currently garrisoned near Moscow. This unit is now on Ukrainian territory.’

During his recent televised phone-in with Russian citizens, Putin did actually acknowledge the presence of Russian soldiers. ‘I made no secret of the fact that our purpose was to ensure the Crimeans were able to express their opinion freely, to prevent events such as are now taking place in Eastern Ukraine, and armed gangs of nationalists on the rampage… to this end our troops did, of course, back up the self-defence groups in Crimea,’ said Putin. According to him, Russian troops were there to protect the Crimeans from over 20,000 armed Ukrainian troops deployed to Crimea. The pretext is both far-fetched and unlawful, but ‘the end justifies the means’ and now both Crimea and Sevastopol are part of the Russian Federation: the currency is the rouble, and Ukrainian laws no longer operate. Kiev offered no armed resistance to Russia, her troops did not engage in clashes with Russian soldiers. The only solution left to the Ukrainian government was to pass a law recognising Crimea as ‘temporarily occupied territory.’ 


The dictionary gives the following definition for the word ‘separatism’: ‘a drive to separation, severance; a movement for a part of a state to secede and create a new state, or for a part of a country to be granted autonomy.’ 

This is an exact description of current events in Eastern Ukraine. During the last fortnight, several cities, whose names were familiar to most Ukrainians though they had little idea where exactly they were, have witnessed mass occupation of their government buildings.  In Kramatorsk, Horlivka, Mariupol and Slovyansk buildings were seized in accordance with a previously agreed plan: first there was a demonstration, with groups of ‘outraged’ citizens demanding a local referendum, then local inhabitants supported by ‘little green men’ occupied police stations and security service buildings. The explanation was very simple – this is where arms are kept. When the separatists had armed themselves and, probably, ensured the support of local siloviki (security services, police and armed forces) along the way, they took control of the local authority offices, city or village. The flag of the unlawful and self-declared People’s Republic of Donetsk would then be raised.

The People’s Republic of Donetsk

The People’s Republic of Donetsk came into existence on 7 April, when the building of the Donetsk Regional Authorities was seized by persons unknown. They issued a document declaring that the ‘republic would build its relationships in accordance with international law, based on equality and mutual advantage’, and that ‘…(it) would determine its economic status, its financial, credit and investment policies, would draw up its own budget and decide the procedure for setting up currency and other funds.’ Its representatives also appealed to Vladimir Putin for help, in the same way as the unrecognised government of Crimea had done previously. The Donetsk separatists see Putin as their defender. The new republic’s declaration includes the point that ‘in the event of aggression on the part of the Kyiv government, the Russian Federation will be called on to send in a temporary peacekeeping force to protect the inhabitants of Donetsk oblast.’

Anti-Kyiv protesters outside Donetsk's town hall.

Anti-Kyiv protesters outside Donetsk's town hall. Administrative buildings throughout the east have been seized. CC Andrew ButkoIt goes without saying that no one in Kyiv has any intention of recognising the People’s Republic of Donetsk. Moreover, the Ukrainian government is convinced that Russia is behind the separatists and that their demands all emanate from Moscow (once more ‘backing up the civilians’), rather than from the people of the Donetsk oblast. The Ukrainian Security Service has said that it has never caught so many Russian agents, and the common factor uniting them all is that they are professional spies. On 17 April, for example, Marina Ostapenko, press secretary for the Ukrainian Security Service, announced that officers had detained Sergei Rzhavsky, a member of a subversive group acting on orders from the Chief Intelligence Department of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation in Slovyansk. According to Ostapenko, Sergei Rzhavsky was directly involved in mass disturbances in Donetsk, had carried out violent attacks, pogroms, and offered armed resistance to law enforcement officers.

 The Donetsk separatists see Putin as their defender 

This agent’s mission was to have been the organisation of mass disturbances in the town of Volnovakha (Donetsk oblast), with particular emphasis on seizing and occupying the town headquarters of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry.

So, the second distinguishing feature of the ‘new kind of war’ is the use of agents to shape and control the actions of local inhabitants, financing them as well where necessary. The Kyiv independent presidential candidate (currently the favourite), Petro Poroshenko, said, ‘Today we have evidence that each separatist involved in the storming of buildings will receive a sum of up to 500 USD. Those involved in ongoing protest action receive 500 hryvnia [approx 45 USD].’ 


The Ukrainian government will not recognise the People’s Repulic of Donetsk, but is prepared to start talks about extending the autonomy of the regions.  It will also pass a law on local referendums, which would permit the burning questions of today to be decided inside the community itself, rather than from Kyiv. But the government is not intending to embark on out and out federalism. The assumption in the capital is that if the regions are granted the right to self-determination, Russia will do all it can, whatever the cost, to make them part of the territory of the Russian Federation.

Masked and uniformed men with AK-47s and an RPG-27 outside Slovyansk's town hall.

Masked and uniformed men with Kalashnikovs and an RPG-27 outside Slovyansk's town hall. CC Yevgen Nasadyuk‘It is very important that throughout the country people know they can influence central government; they will have a say in local government, and central government will govern the whole of Ukraine, irrespective of region,’ declared Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. ‘Law enforcement will be the responsibility of central government delegations in the regions: they will be appointed from Kyiv, but will not control their finances or their economy and will have no say in cultural, linguistic or any other policies; their sole task will be to monitor the implementation of the law.’

Kyiv will have to agree to talks, because it has shown little ability for military action

Kyiv will have to agree to talks, because it has shown little ability for military action.  This was clear from the 'anti-terrorist operation', which went into operation in Ukraine during the week of 14 April. The authorities have admitted that the police and the soldiers were not morally resilient enough to conquer their fears or to resist the temptation to respond to provocation. The most obvious example of these failings was in Kramatorsk, when Ukraine’s 25th Non-Divisional Airborne Brigade went over to the separatists. But they didn’t only switch sides, they also handed over their personal weapons and six armoured personnel carriers. ‘The 25th Airborne Brigade, which displayed such cowardice and handed over their weapons, will be disbanded and those found guilty will answer for their cowardice before a court,’ commented Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov.

The authorities in Kyiv are prepared to declare an amnesty for those people who seized buildings, abandoning any intention of sending them to prison. But on one condition only – that they hand themselves in and lay down their weapons. The People’s Republic of Donetsk has so far been unwilling to take this step.

In this new kind of war, words can be fired off at will: ‘The much-publicised disturbances [in Maidan] resulted in an anti-constitutional coup; people in the east of Ukraine were worried about the future, theirs and their children’s. There was an upsurge of nationalism, and a drive to abrogate some ethnic minority rights, including those of the Russians. But Russians are indigenous in that part of the country;’ this is President Putin’s take on the situation. As for the reports that those ‘little green men, standing on Ukrainian soil, exactly as they did in Crimea, with Russian weapons and Russian accents, might, in fact, be Russian? Well, he says that’s ‘rubbish.’


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