Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 24.08.2020
Ukraine became a formally independent country 29 years ago today. But real independence didn’t come without struggle, and it was only achieved by Ukrainians through the Revolution of Dignity of 2013-14. But then Russia invaded Ukraine. After five years of fighting Putin’s army to a stalemate, a sizable number of Ukrainians seemed to give up. They voted for a TV comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to be their war leader. Zelenskyy said he was the peace candidate, but he never said how he would end the war nor has he ever acknowledged that the war is with Russia. What he did was capitulate, thus extending the war and the suffering of Ukrainians in Crimea and Donbas.
The weakness shown by Zelenskyy’s capitulations is being exploited by Putin to turn Russia’s war against Ukraine into the “forever war.” The hope of liberation is being slowly taken away from captive Ukrainians in Crimea and Donbas.
The most notable capitulations by President Zelenskyy to aggressor Russia have been unilateral withdrawal of the Ukrainian army from the Stanytsia Luhanska, Zolote, and Petrivske “disengagement areas”, a complete ceasefire enforced on the Ukrainian army but not the Russian army, and a disarmament of front-line Ukrainian units of all weaponry heavier than a submachine gun.
We are six and a half years into Russia’s war against Ukraine and well over one year into Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s mandate as President of Ukraine. From the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2014 up until 2018, Ukraine’s organized defence from foreign armed aggression was known as the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO). In April 2018, a new structure took over called the Joint Forces Operation (JFO). With the JFO the Armed Forces of Ukraine took the lead and brought under their wing the National Guard of Ukraine, the National Police of Ukraine, the Security Service of Ukraine, the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine, and the State Emergency Service of Ukraine. The jurisdiction of the JFO is all of Luhansk oblast and all of Donetsk oblast.
As the Joint Forces, the Ukrainian military got things right. They figured out how to stop the Russian hybrid forces of regular and irregular soldiers, and reverse the gains they had made. In the three years between the start of the JFO and the election of Zelenskyy, Ukrainian defenders liberated or took under full control numerous settlements along the battlefront in Donbas. Engagements to free the Vil’nyi farmstead, Rodina (Zolote-4), Katerynivka, Novooleksandrivka, Troitske, territory south of Luhanske, Travneve, Hladosove, Shumy, Pivdenne (particularly Chyhari), Verkhniotoretske, Maryinka, Viktorivka were all minor victories by Ukraine over the Russian Federation.
By the time of the presidential election of 2019, Ukraine had cracked Putin’s hybrid war. The way the Ukrainian army rolled up Russian-occupied “grey zone” settlements was proving to be the correct formula for liberating all of Donbas. By the time Zelenskyy took over as war leader, Ukraine was well-placed to free more Ukrainian land and people. Without the need for a major offensive, Ukraine can retake Pikuzy (to protect Hnutove, Talakivka, Lomakine, and Vodyane), Petrivske (to protect Bohdanivka and Starohnativka), Dolomitne (to protect Novoluhanske), all of the Svitlodarsk Bulge (up to and including Debaltseve, which the Russians took after Minsk II was signed), the rest of Zolote (Marivka and Mykhailivka (Zolote-5), to protect the Zolote car crossing if it is ever to be established), Zholobok (to secure Highway P-66, the “Bakhmut Road”), Checkpoint 31 (to secure P-66 and protect Krymske). Most importantly, winning back Ukrainian territory from the Russian invaders gives Ukrainians hope.
Zelenskyy’s vaguely enunciated war policy seems to be peace without victory. The only clear goal Zelenskyy set after he was elected was to have a meeting with Putin. That’s it. Zelenskyy made talks an end in itself and not a means to getting the Russians out of Crimea and Donbas. Just like during his election campaign, there was no substance behind what Zelenskyy said he wanted to happen. He said he wanted an “end to the war” but he only meant the fighting in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. Zelenskyy dropped all language that the Russian Federation is the aggressor state and that Crimea and part of Donbas are temporarily occupied by the Russian Federation. For example, Zelenskyy referred to the Russian Federation’s invasion and partial occupation of Donbas as the “situation in Donbas” in a social media post on 13 October 2019. There is no evidence he pays any attention to the daily battle reports from the Joint Forces Operation of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Zelenskyy refuses to acknowledge he is a war leader, and still acts as a TV producer. It is know that he reads scripts from his Kvartal 95 studio every day and retains final approval.
Reflecting his Malorossiyan sensibility, Zelenskyy is over-eager to be able to talk to powerful Russians. He does this for its own sake, without a clear purpose to serve the vital national interests of Ukraine. Zelenskyy met secretly with sanctioned war criminal Vladislav Surkov in Oman in a visit that started on 5 January 2020. There is mounting evidence that on 24 July 2020 Zelenskyy or someone in his inner circle betrayed a Ukrainian intelligence operation to capture Russian terrorists, in the fear that it would “displease Putin.”
Having backed Zelenskyy heavily in the presidential election, the Russians knew they had an opportunity to exploit. They came up with the Lavrov Formula, and packaged it as the Steinmeier Formula. It was a stripped-down version of the second Minsk Agreement, taking away the obligations the Russian Federation formerly had. No longer mentioned were withdrawal of Russian armed forces from Donbas, ending Russia’s support to illegal armed formations in Donbas, and Russia returning control of the international border to Ukraine.
On 1 October 2019 a self-inflicted disaster struck Ukraine. President Zelenskyy agreed to the Lavrov Formula. The TV comedian who was now the war leader of the Ukrainian nation capitulated to invader Russia.
Yanukovych Clan operative Andriy Bohdan – who was illegally serving as head of the president’s office – told Zelenskyy to sign the Lavrov Formula. That was done without consulting cabinet or parliament. Zelenskyy’s capitulation to aggressor Russia turned out to be worse than Yanukovych’s back-off from the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement on 21 November 2013.
A requirement for withdrawal of forces from so-called “disengagement areas” had been for there to be a 14-day complete ceasefire in the area. The previous administration respected this, and refrained from pulling back Ukrainian forces because the Russians kept shooting. The Zelenskyy administration ignored the fact that the Russians kept shooting and pulled back Ukrainian forces unilaterally. That is capitulation.
Withdrawal from Stanytsia Luhanska at first made sense. A disengagement zone around the mostly-destroyed bridge that crosses the Siverskyi Donets River was planned long before Zelenskyy took office. For years, this pedestrian-only crossing has been the only way for Ukrainians to cross from Russian-occupied Luhansk oblast into free Ukraine and it needed to be safer and more practical.
But Zelenskyy carried out the withdrawal one-sidedly. Ukrainian forces withdrew well back and north of the bridge. Now, instead of shelling Valuiske and Stanytsiya Luhanska itself, Russian invasion-occupation forces occasionally shell defences around the Kindrashivska-Nova railway station. Russian forces didn’t withdraw back from the bridge at all. in September 2019, Russian armed forces installed a new firing position on the south end of the partly-destroyed bridge. It is painted blue, and has the letters “СЦКК | JCCC” on it. The Joint Centre for Control and Coordination is the military mission to monitor the supposed ceasefire along the Russian Federation’s invasion battlefront in Luhansk and Donetsk region. In December 2017, officers of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation stopped participating in the JCCC. Zelenskyy does nothing to stop the Russians from carrying out their “JCCC” fraud on the Stanytsia Luhanska bridge.
Westward, in the Bakhmut Road sector of the battlefront the Ukrainian army had – before Zelenskyy – liberated or taken under full control Troitske, Novooleksandrivka, Katerynivka, Zolote-4 (Rodina), and the Vil’nyi (“Free”) farmstead. After he signed the Lavrov Formula, President Zelenskyy ordered Ukrainian defenders to withdraw from Zolote at any cost. He ordered unilateral withdrawal from a zone around the T-13-16 road south of Zolote, even though the Russians never observed the prerequisite 14-day ceasefire that was supposed to happen beforehand.
The Russian army moved up. The Russians reinforced their forward positions with troops of the 104th Guards Air Assault Regiment of the 76th Guards Air Assault Division. Tragically, a new wave of Ukrainian refugees came out of the settlements directly under threat. The Russian army began to shell settlements that had not been hit before – Orikhove and Prychepylivka – and pounded away at forward targets (Novotoshkivske and Krymske) as never before. Several months after the unilateral withdrawal of the Ukrainian army from the Zolote “disengagement area” the Russians exploited the military advantage Zelenskyy gave them with an offensive in the Battle of the Bakhmut Road. On 18 February 2020, the Ukrainians lost observation posts near Orikhove. Zelenskyy and the senior officers of the JFO he appointed refused to allow Ukrainian defenders to recapture the observation posts they had been driven from.
The narrow gap between the Siverskyi Donets River and the Bakhmut Road leads to the temporary administrative capital of Luhansk oblast, Sievierodonetsk. Ukrainian defences in this sector have not been this threatened since the first year of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Giving up positions at Orikhove was the first time since the Battle of Debaltseve that Ukraine has lost territory to the Russian invaders and not reclaimed it. This is not because the Ukrainian army couldn’t do it. It’s because it was ordered not to by commander-in-chief Zelenskyy and the commanders of the JFO he appointed.
From the beginning, Zelenskyy ordering withdrawal from Zolote made no sense for Ukraine. It only made sense for aggressor Russia.
The same is true about withdrawal from Petrivske. This battlefront sector had been very quiet, but Putin had his eye on it as a way to weaken communication between Mariupol on the Sea of Azov coast and Ukrainian defences farther north in Donetsk oblast. Since Zelenskyy ordered the Ukrainian army to withdraw from the Petrivske “disengagement area” the Russians have moved up and have been shelling new targets near the settlements of Bohdanivka, Vasylivka, and Starohnativka.
Unilateral withdrawal of the Ukrainian army from Ukrainian territory has not brought peace. It has encouraged Russia for more war.
Zelenskyy ordered a “total silence” ceasefire on 27 July 2020. This has turned out to be prohibition on the Ukrainian army from firing back when they are attacked and a humiliating disarmament of Ukrainian front-line units. The Russian Federation, for its part, refuses to guarantee that the forces it controls will adhere to the ceasefire. Putin can increase or decrease his attacks on Ukrainian defenders on a whim. Building on Ukrainian defensive weakness from the withdrawals, Russian invasion-occupation forces have been busy extending trenches and building fortifications in the Sea of Azov littoral and in the Zolote/Battle of the Bakhmut Road area especially.
It didn’t have to be this way. Five years of successfully holding off invader Russia gave Ukrainians hope that their state would not only survive but thrive. Ukrainians have the reasonable expectations of their head of state that any nation would. They expect their commander-in-chief to uphold the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. After so many years suffering foreign armed aggression, they expect at least a plan to throw the Russian invaders out of Ukraine and to liberate Crimea and Donbas. They did not expect Zelenskyy to do what he did, which was to ignore the war policy of the Joint Forces Operation which was having good results. Ukrainians did not vote for a war leader who would order the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from Ukrainian territory and capitulate to the obscene demands of invader Russia.
On 26 October 2019 near Zolote, a frightened Volodymyr Zelenskyy confronted a veteran of the war against Russia who is now a volunteer. Zelenskyy remonstrated with him: “Listen. I am president. I am 42 years old. I am not a sucker!” A Ukrainian hero, Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought laureate Oleg Sentsov, wrote about this incident that he felt “shame for the president and pride in the volunteer.”
Zelenskyy was projecting. He knows he is too immature to be the war leader Ukraine needs as it fights a battle for its existence against imperialist Russia. Zelenskyy is naive about the nature of the Russian Federation’s current aggression against Ukraine, to the point that he has betrayed his oath to uphold the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation. Emotionally, Zelenskyy displays great anger at Ukrainian patriots, Revolution of Dignity activists, civil society reformers, and former President Poroshenko. He displays no anger at all towards aggressor Russia or the Yanukovych Clan. He doesn’t say to Putin: “Get out of Ukraine. Get out of Crimea. Get out of Donbas.” Volodymyr Zelenskyy capitulated to invader Russia, betrayed Ukraine, and is a failure as war leader.