The Ukrainian Army takes control over the military operation in Donbas

On 30 April, four years after the official launch of the anti-terrorist operation in the east of Ukraine (ATO), it will be redefined into the Joint Forces Operation. It means a change of leadership of further combat operations in Donbas – the Armed Forces of Ukraine (ZSU) will replace the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). Meanwhile, the number of shells increased again in the east of Ukraine in April.

Initially, the change in the organization of combat operations in the east of the country was scheduled for May. However, on April 13, the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said in the interview for Ukrainian TV stations that he had decided to speed up the process.

– I am fully convinced that this decision fundamentally changes the organization of managing the military structures. The anti-terrorist operation has been under the leadership of the Security Service of Ukraine so far. The joint actions of the SBU, the ZSU, the police and the National Guard of Ukraine are currently completely different than those described in the Donbas reintegration law. Thus, the leadership is taken over by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. The ZSU have additional powers of attorney at their disposal regarding the ways of responding to acts of aggression. The ZSU have under their command the National Guard of Ukraine, the Security Service of Ukraine, the police and the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine – announced Poroshenko.

According to the President, such a change will allow to effectively counteract the armed aggression and attacks by subversive groups. Earlier it was reported that the SBU officially handed over to the ZSU the command over the operation in the east of the country. However – as the representatives of the SBU underlined – it does not change the essence of operations aimed at restoration of Ukraine state borders.

– Actually, everything carries on. Only the leadership has changed. We officially handed over the management of the anti-terrorist operation to the army – Victor Kononenko, the deputy Head of the SBU, told the Interfax-Ukraine on March 26.

Kononenko underlined that the SBU will continue to participate in the operations in the east of the country. Earlier, on March 16, President Poroshenko appointed Lieutenant-General Serhiy Najev on the position of the commander of the Joint Forces. On March 7, Najev was appointed the deputy chief of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. In 2016 he was the commander of the Operational Forces “East”. This is just one of some broader changes introduced by the so-called Donbas Act and voted through in the Ukrainian Parliament on January 18.

Donbas – the next episode

The changes concerning combat operations in the east of Ukraine are a part of a law on Certain Aspects of State Policy on Securing State Sovereignty over the Temporarily Occupied Territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. It is briefly referred as the Donbas reintegration law. Contrary to common names, the law adopted by the Parliament and signed by the President does not define the strategy of regaining territories occupied by the pro-Russian fighters. It redefines the status of the east part of the country, which is not controlled by Kiev and the rules of conducting military operations there.

Russia was explicitly named the aggressor, responsible for conducting combat operations in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which are also partially occupied by the Russian Federation. The law also refers to the responsibility of people who cooperate with the administration controlled by Russia and take part in combat operations against the Ukrainian state.

The newly adopted law not only defines the situation in Ukraine, which is not fully controlled by Kiev since 2014, but also changes the rules for further military operations in Donbas area.

The army, led by the General Staff of Joint Forces, takes control of the military operation. Other services subordinated to the General Staff of Joint Forces and operating in the frontline zones will receive special powers of attorney. Practically, it means the civilians will have to comply with the requirements of the law enforcement representatives. Soldiers and officers of other state services will have the right to use arms against those who will disturb the “security operations”. They will also have the possibility to search personal belongings, cars, private houses and different organizations buildings, as well as to block roads and confiscate means of transport and means of communication.

The commander of the Joint Operational Headquarters will have the right to limit the possibility of civilians to cross the so-called demarcation line. Human rights organizations have criticized the newly introduced law.

Four years of ATO meant four years of war

On April 13, 2014, the former acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov announced the beginning of an anti-terrorist operation in the east of Ukraine. The decision was taken after April 12, 2014, when a group of Russian fighters, commanded by Igor Strelkov (Girkin), took over the city of Sloviansk, and later the nearby Kramatorsk.

The announcement of the anti-terrorist operation was conditioned by the political situation. Despite numerous statements by Kiev on Russian aggression (since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014), the Ukrainian authorities have not decided to impose the martial law. When the former President Viktor Yanukovych was removed from his office by the Ukrainian Parliament and escaped to Russia, there was a need of organizing new presidential elections. Imposing martial law would eliminate the possibility of elections.

The zone of the anti-terrorist operation covered the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts as well as the Izmium Raion of the Kharkiv Oblast. On April 13, 2014, the first clash took place between the SBU and the pro-Russian fighters. That day there was the first attempt of an assault on Sloviansk by the Ukrainian forces, but it failed. The Ukrainian side set out posts on the administrative border with the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

On 24 April, the SBU “Omega” squad tried to assault Sloviansk for the second time, but after taking control of several barricades on the outskirts of the city, the Ukrainians withdrew.

On May 2, the Ukrainian forces made another attempt to take back Sloviansk, this time on a much larger scale. There was a fierce fight, the Ukrainians lost two helicopters.

In June, the Ukrainian forces took back from the hands of militants, located in the southern of Donetsk Oblast, the city of Mariupol. The siege lasted until July 5, when the fighters withdrew from Sloviansk and Kramatorsk to Donetsk.

Combat was taking place in a large part of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and its intensity increased. The pro-Russian fighters used heavy arms: tanks, carriers and artillery. However, the Ukrainian side took the initiative and carried out an attack in July and August. The fights were taking place on the outskirts of Donetsk and Luhansk. The Ukrainian forces controlled the airports in both cities.

On July 17, 2014, the Buk missile system, which was delivered from Russia to the territory controlled by fighters, was used to shoot down a Malaysian Boeing 777. 298 people were killed.

In mid-August there were intense fights to take control over an important hub in Ilovaisk. The fighters were supported by the regular Russian forces. The Ukrainian troops were surrounded and sustained significant losses.

At the same time the fighters, with the support of Russians, occupied the border town of Nowoazovsk in the south of the country and headed for Mariupol. Intensive fighting lasted there until September 2014, but it was only in February 2015 that the Ukrainian forces managed to drive the opponent off the city at over 20 kilometres.

In autumn 2014, fierce fights took place in various places of the frontline – in fact, it was a regular war with the use of tanks and heavy artillery, including missiles. By January 2015 the Ukrainians had defended themselves at the airport in Donetsk. At the end of January, the fighters, supported by Russians, attacked and surrounded the Ukrainian troops in another strategic hub – Debaltseve. On February 17, 2015, the Ukrainian soldiers managed to get through and left the trap.

Earlier, on February 12, 2015 in Minsk, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany signed an agreement on peaceful settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The document consists of 13 points. The first point informs about the immediate ceasefire (from February 15, 2015). None of the agreement points, including the first one, have been fulfilled so far.

Since 2015, a war of attrition of various intensity has been taking place along the 450-kilometres long demarcation line, which is in fact a frontline.

Photo: a Ukrainian soldier shows the elements of a projectile launched from a grenade launchers by pro-Russian fighters, Luhansk, 2016.

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