Ukraine: Where a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

Diplomatic Channels: One aim of violence is to sow distrust; in this it is succeeding in Odessa

Kim Sengupta
Tuesday 24 February 2015 00:16 GMT

Prisoner exchanges have begun and both sides have drawn up timetables for the withdrawal of heavy weaponry. And there is vague talk of constitutional changes. The aftermath of Minsk II, the second attempt at a ceasefire in Ukraine’s bloody civil war, is going more or less as expected.

The separatists captured the strategically important town of Debaltseve, as they were always going to do, and the Kiev government knew they would. They did not try to take the port of Mariupol – that will come. Despite some excitable media reports to the contrary, the last attack on Mariupol was almost a month ago. The shelling taking place was at Shirukane, a nearby town where clashes were taking place four months ago when I was there, and where hostilities have continued since. The timetable for pulling back artillery is being delayed amid accusations of the rebels continuing to fire at Ukrainian positions, but it is unlikely that full-scale battles will start in the immediate future.

But the war is anything but over, even in the short term. On Sunday we saw an example of hybrid warfare – the use of sabotage, destabilisation and black propaganda though proxies. It came in a bombing in the city of Kharkiv, killing two people and injuring a dozen others, during a rally to commemorate the anniversary of the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, who is now in Russian exile.

The term hybrid warfare has been much in vogue recently with Western ministers, diplomats and military commanders lining up to warn of the Kremlin’s use of such tactics. But, in fact, this type of war in the shadows has been going on ever since the fall of Mr Yanukovych, rising sharply in volume over the months, but with little or no international coverage.

Kharkiv, on the edge of the Donbas battleground, does not have a natural majority of pro-Russians like Donetsk and Luhansk, but controlling Ukraine’s second city will buttress the dream of “Novorossiya” and give it more defensible borders. Kharkiv has experienced orchestrated violence, in tandem with a social media campaign. I was there in April last year, when Gennady Kernes, the mayor, was shot in the back in an attempted assassination. The 64-year-old billionaire had been a fervent supporter of Mr Yanukovych, banning protests in Kharkiv, like the one in Kiev’s Maidan square which brought down the President, under an order to “avoid the spread of infectious disease”. After the revolution he had become a super- nationalist, railing against Vladimir Putin’s supposed plan to take over his country.

Separatists and nationalists blamed the other for the shooting. The attacks, however, have continued in Kharkiv. There have been more than a dozen blasts in the past three months, including one at a bar, the Stena, used by Ukrainian nationalist activists in November in which 10 people were injured; a pro-Russian group, the Kharkiv partisans, was blamed. Moscow denied culpability.

Such strife has been evident elsewhere. Odessa, on the Black Sea, is far away from the front line but, like Kharkiv, it is divided between separatists and nationalists. Long-running tensions and low-level violence between the rivals led to 48 people being burnt to death and more than 200 injured last April. The victims were pro-Russians; the ones who had trapped them in the local trade union headquarters and then thrown in Molotov cocktails were nationalists, including extreme right-wingers from groups such as Right Sector.

What happened was a terrible shock for the beautiful city with a hitherto proud multicultural heritage. There was deep anger. Standing in the ashes and debris of the burnt building, with the smell of charred bodies still in the air, Yuri Shubovich, 23, who had lost a cousin and a close friend, talked of the reckoning to come, a group of young men around him echoed the words.

There were five bombings in December alone in Odessa, targeting transport links and nationalist groups, including a collection point for donations to the Ukrainian army. One man died when the bomb he was carrying exploded prematurely. Again, the violence has been accompanied by a social media offensive. If one key aim of hybrid warfare is to sow distrust among communities, it is succeeding in Odessa, a city where once 200 different nationalities lived side by side.

People participate in the "March of Diginity" to mark the first anniversary of the revolution that led to the ousting of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich last year (Getty)

But it is not just one side using such tactics. At a hospital in Mariupol last September, injured members of the Azov Battalion, one of the private armies in the government side, talked about plans to take the battle back to the “terrorists” in Donetsk. A spate of gun battles was blamed on infighting among the separatists, but there appeared to be some truth in claims that provocateurs were at work.

There have been attacks in the “People’s Republic” and its hinterland which remain unexplained. A railway bridge was blown up in Zaporizhia as a train was crossing on 20 January; the separatists were deemed to be responsible but the immediate beneficiary was the Kiev government, which extended its “anti-terrorist operations zone”, enabling troops to be sent in large numbers.

A few months earlier, I witnessed an armed raid on UkrBusinessBank, owned by Oleksandr Yanukovych, the son of the former President, in Donetsk. The gunmen wore police uniforms, but they were nationalists from Ukrainian-held territory. They were arrested, but remained sanguine. “Oleksadr is $500m rich – this is money stolen by him and his father: we were just securing it,” said one as he was being led into a van. When I expressed concern for his safety, the man winked: “It’s OK, we have friends.” They were released and disappeared that afternoon.

It is not always easy to discern the loyalties of those taking part in the dark world of hybrid warfare.

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