By Gordon M. Hahn
The anti-Maidan takeovers of OGAs and other government buildings across Donetsk and spreading to Luhansk from April 12-14 came after Kiev had been discussing publicly for more than a week its intent to carry out an ‘anti-terrorist’ operation against what then were mere protesters in restless Donbass. Moreover, the anti-Maidan takeovers in March and early April there were in response to, and identical with the pro-Maidan takeovers of Kiev government buildings and regional OGAs in winter. The Donbass’s events were escalating in response to Kiev’s actions. By sundown on 14 April 2014, acting Ukrainian president Oleksandr Turchynov’s deadline of 6pm for those occupying government buildings in the east to leave had expired. Donetsk’s anti-Maidan protesters and armed rebels had taken control of some government buildings in many cities across the oblast, including Artemevsk, Druzhkivka (Druzhkovka), Horlivka (Gorlovka), Kramatorsk, Makiivka (Makievka), Mariupol’, Slovyansk (Slavyansk), Yenakiieve (Yenakieve), and Zhdanivka (Zhdanovka). By the evening of the 14th of April the first casualties of the ATO—one SBU officer killed and five wounded in Slavyansk—had been registered when SBU special forces attempted to re-take security buildings. Thousands of Ukrainian army troops and largely neofascist-manned ‘volunteer battalions’ armed with tanks and heavy artillery and supported by air power were on the march east. By the time Donbassians awoke on the morning of the 15th, Kiev’s ‘anti-terroroist’ operation (ATO) was already in action. That day a force of 500 Ukrainian soldiers, 20 APCs, and 2 helicopters descended on Slavyansk. Ukraine’s civil war had begun. Certainly, Maidan Kiev’s civil war or ‘ATO’ could not have been a reaction to a Russian invasion or intervention. Even the SBU stated that the infamous and over-credited Girkin-Strelkov had only arrived in Donbass on the 12th. Even as a response to the Donbass rebels’ first violence in Slavyansk on the 14th, Kiev was overreacting to events. The overreaction was driven not only by the Maidan’s neofascist element’s fervor for war. It was also driven by fear of what Russian President Vladimir Putin might be planning in Donbass given his actions in Crimea. Uncertainty is not a recipe for stability.
Yet there was one last chance to avert war in Donbass. It would be scuttled by the new regime’s shock troops – the neo-fascist Right Sector (RS) led by Dmitro Yarosh.
With the situation spinning out of control on the ground, actors on the international level intervened again. Moscow had warned that any attack on Donbassians would put talks with Washington and Brussels scheduled for Geneva later the next week at risk. On April 16-17 the top foreign affairs officials of the U.S., EU, Ukraine, and Russia met in Geneva in a last ditch, belated effort to avoid civil war in Ukraine. Unlike the talks in Kiev that produced the February 21st agreement and included the pro-Maidan opposition party leaders, neither the Donbass rebels nor any representatives from Donbass took part in Geneva. On April 17th the sides signed a vague ceasefire agreement, a “joint statement,” consisting of aspirational declarations for a ceasefire, withdrawal from buildings, and the initiation of a “national dialogue” on a new constitution rather than concrete steps for implementation and support. If not for the letterhead, the entire document would have fit easily on one page. It read in full:
“The Geneva meeting on the situation in Ukraine agreed on initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security for all citizens. All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions. The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-Semitism. All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated. Amnesty will be granted to protesters and to those who have left buildings and other public places and surrendered weapons, with the exception of those found guilty of capital crimes. It was agreed that the O.S.C.E. Special Monitoring Mission should play a leading role in assisting Ukrainian authorities and local communities in the immediate implementation of these de-escalation measures wherever they are needed most, beginning in the coming days. The U.S., E.U. and Russia commit to support this mission, including by providing monitors. The announced constitutional process will be inclusive, transparent and accountable. It will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies, and allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments. The participants underlined the importance of economic and financial stability in Ukraine and would be ready to discuss additional support as the above steps are implemented.”
At a press conference after the signing US Secretary of State Kerry put the onus for compliance with the agreement by the DNR fully on the Russian side, much as he and President Obama had with the February 21st agreement: “Responsibility (for successful implementation) will lie with those who have organised their presence, provided them with the weapons, put the uniforms on them, supported them, and have been engaged in the process of guiding them over the course of this operation.” But as noted above, the rebel forces were acting spontaneously, still unorganized, and poorly armed and equipped. This could not be said for Maidan Kiev.
Orthodox Easter Ceasefire and the RS Attack at Slavyansk
The one positive that came out of the agreement was an Easter ceasefire, but it was immediately undermined by a familiar culprit. From the outset, the neofascists of Yarosh’s RS and Oleh Tyahnybok’s Svoboda Party (SP) were determined to wage war against the Donbass. Towards this end, on the very day the ceasefire agreement was signed, a RS militant of the volunteer battalions just moving into Donbass from the west detonated a grenade in a hazy incident killing himself and two Donbass rebels who allegedly attacked him at a rebel checkpoint near Slavyansk. Days later, on April 20th, Easter Sunday, RS militants appear to have carried out a coordinated attack on another Slavyansk checkpoint, scuttling the ceasefire. The attack left three Slavyansk rebels dead and four wounded and one RS fighter killed and two wounded.
Ukraine’s SBU intelliegence service, however, accused Moscow and allied “saboteurs” of carrying out a “cynical provocation,” while simultaneously denying that there were any Ukrainian organizations of any kind in the area: “It has been established that on that night in Slavyansk there was not one organization besides saboteurs and representatives of the criminals who the GRU of the general Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation support and arm. This was established by operational investigative activity at the site by Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies.” The National Security and Defense Council’s deputy secretary Viktoriya Sumar brushed off on her Facebook page any RS involvement as “Russian propaganda”: “Reports by Russian journalists about a shootout between supposedly the ‘Right Sector’ and ‘self-defenders’ being in Slavyansk based on some ‘business cards of Yarosh’ and ‘unknown weapons’ and the number of killed which grows by the hour and some other ‘details’, evidence of which no one has seen, is a typical form of Russian propaganda which not only many Russian but also many other foreign mass media circulate today.” Sumar added that the event was desgined by Moscow to give the appearance of a civil war and justify a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Maidan regime’s siloviki appeared to be coordinating the disinformation with the neofacists, since RS spokesman Artem Skoropadsky also issued a denial, saying Slavyansk was a “blasphemous provocation from Russia: blasphemous because it took place on a holy night for Christians, on Easter night. This was clearly carried out by Russian special forces.” In an official statement on its VKontake page, RS again denied having “any relationship” to the “operation” in Slavyansk, adding: “Any attempt to tie these actions with Right Sector have only one goal – to provoke fear of RS activists among the inhabitants of Eastern Ukraine.” The party, the statement claimed, had “run into an unprecedented information attack supported by falsifications, intrigues, and manipulations of the facts by Russian mass media controlled by the Kremlin.” At the same time, RS acknowledged that its ‘activists’ were “now subordinated to the state’s organs of coercion” (silovie organy) and thus their actions were within the legal limits. In this view, the ATO declared by Ukraine’s government and to be carried out by its siloviki provided a ‘legal’ framework for RS to carry out the ‘operation’ it supposedly had not carried out.
The Russian Foreign Ministry expressed outrage over the killing of “innocent, peaceful citizens,” regarded it as a breach of the Easter ceasefire, and blamed Right Sector, adding that the incident “testifies to a lack of desire on the part of the authorities in Kiev to rein in and disarm nationalists and extremists.” Ukraine’s foreign ministry in turn reproached Russia for rushing to judgment and failing to fulfiil its obligations under the Geneva deal: “The Russian side must be reminded about their obligations under the Geneva agreement to bring all necessary influence to bear on separatists to clear illegally held buildings, unblock roads, lay down arms and prevent any bloodshed.”
Yet despite all the official denials from Maidan Kiev and the RS, a year later in a BBC interview, Yarosh acknowledged he took part in combat on that day in Slavyansk. He also claimed that at this time RS already had an unlikely 10,000 fighters in the volunteer battalions of its Volunteer Ukrainian Corps (Dobrovolchiy Ukrainskiy Korpus) or DUK. Later, an RS-affiliated website included on its list of heroic members killed during the ATO, Mikhailo Stanislavenko, noting he was killed in Slavyansk on 20 April 2014. On that day there was only one violent incident in Slavyansk.
Forensics evidence later emerged further confirming RS militants’ involvement in the incident. For example, two 2016 Ukrainian court decisions show that prosecutors’ investigations had determined that two RS fighters were wounded in the Easter attack and that they had used the very same firearms used on Maidan on 18 February 2014 to kill two MVD troops and wound three more. Moreover, an eyewitness reported that one of the Slavyansk separatists killed at the checkpoint was shot by a sniper and, forensics has shown the sniper used the same kind of expanding 7.62mm caliber bullets, which were recovered at the site of the attack at the checkpoint, that were used on Maidan and with the same kind of AKM and hunting carbines based on the Kalashnikov assault rifles used on Maidan. Also, Yarosh’s business card, a list with names of several other RS leaders, and an RS battalion’s Security Service medallion number 20 were seized by separatists during the fight. Yet the involvement of RS in the attack was immediately denied not just by the RS but by the SBU, the MVD, the National Security and Defense Council, and pro-Maidan media, claiming again without any evidence that the Yarosh business card and other evidence were fabrications.
Thus, several facts suggest that the RS and ultra-nationalist elements in the SBU and the National Security and Defense Council, such as its chief Parubiy, stood behind the Easter attack. First, the council, the SBU and other state organs issued what was then still at least unverifiable and it appears known to be false information in designating the attack a Russian provocation and denying RS’s involvement; involvement later acknowledged by the RS itself and documented in court documents. This is consistent with the Maidan Ukraine’s practice of excessive and non-credible strategic communications and disinformation, usually blaming Moscow, such as was the case in the snipers’ massacre and events to come in Odessa in May. Second, the involvement of Yarosh and the RS elements suggests a Maidan-style provocation, given the history of the Maidan snipers’ massacre and events to come in Odessa. Third, casualties were greater on the rebel side, suggesting they were attacked first by Yarosh and his RS fighters. Indeed, Yarosh in the interview a year later mentioned above does not refer to the clash as a rebel or Russian attack or provocation. With Kiev’s attack at Slavyansk, the ceasefire ended. Ukraine’s civil war was about to begin in earnest.
Luhansk: From Oblast to Insurgency
The RS’s April 20th Easter attack had an immediate effect in Luhansk, igniting the insurgent flame that had spread in Donetsk to its Donbass neighbor. Those who in early April stormed Luhansk’s government buildings and others remained on the square near the OGA for weeks, and Kiev undertook no attempt to negotiate with them. Geneva offered hope, but no dialogue began and instead the Easter attack escalated the level of violence, with the first combat casualties in Donbass. On April 21st, the protesters organized a series of veches across the region to elect delegates to a region-wide veche held in Luhansk city the same day and attended by several thousand, chanting: “Russia! Referendum!” Some protesters appeared to support Ukraine’s federalization as a path to regional autonomy within Ukraine, while others supported Ukraine’s reunification with the Russian Federation. The Luhansk veche declared the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) and two referenda. One referendum was scheduled for May 11th to determine whether the region should seek autonomous status within Ukraine. The second, scheduled for May 18th would to determine whether the LNR should declare independence from Ukraine or join the Russian Federation should autonomy within Ukraine be rejected on the 11th. The Prosecutor General’s Office (GPO) deemed the rallies ‘separatist’ in nature: “The demonstrators’ speeches, insignia and federalization slogans, as well as calls to hold a local referendum, are explicitly separatist. The regional prosecutor’s office sees the unrest in the Luhansk region as illegal and it entered information on them into the database of pre-trial inquiries to be controlled by the Luhansk regional prosecutor’s office.” A week later the LNR was officially declared, and its leaders demanded that Kiev recognize the authority of the Bolotov as the new governor, provide amnesty to all protesters, codify Russia as a state language, and hold a referendum on Luhansk’s status and the Maidan government leadership did not meet these demands by 14:00 on April 29th, they would join with the DNR in an insurgency against the ATO. Kiev never reacted other tha to divert some ATO forces to Luhansk. There was no turning back. RS had ensured there would be a Donbass civil war.
 “Mesyats okkupatsii. Slavyansk” and “Ukraine Army Launches ‘Anti-Terror’ Operation,” Sky News, 14 April 2014, http://news.sky.com/story/1241376/ukraine-army-launches-anti-terror-operation.
 “Mesyats okkupatsii. Slavyansk.”
 “Ukraine Army Launches ‘Anti-Terror’ Operation.”
 “Geneva Statement on Ukraine,” EU External Action Service, 17 April 2014, http://www.eeas.europa.eu/statements/docs/2014/140417_01_en.pdf.
 Julian Borger and Alec Luhn, “Ukraine crisis: Geneva talks agreement on defusing conflict,” The Guardian, 17 April 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/17/ukraine-crisis-agreement-us-russia-eu.
 Yekaterina Stulen’, “Boets ‘Pravogo sektora’ vzorval sebya i dvukh ‘zelenikh chelovechkov,” Vesti Ukraina, 17 April 2014, http://vesti-ukr.com/donbass/48168-boec-pravogo-sektora-vzorval-sebja-i-dvuh-zelenyh-chelovechkov.
 See the SBU statement at “Shchodo zbroinoi provokatsii u Paskhal’nu nich bilya m. Slov’yansk,” Sluzhba bezopeki Ukrainy, 20 April 2014, http://www.sbu.gov.ua/sbu/control/uk/publish/article?art_id=124389&cat_id=39574. See also “SBU: Separatisty s rossiiskimy diversantami instsenirovali napadenie na blokpost Slavyanska,” Gordonua.com, 20 April 2014, http://gordonua.com/news/separatism/sbu-separatisty-s-rossiyskimi-diversantami-inscenirovali-vneshnee-napadenie-na-blokpost-slavyanska-19184.html.
 “V SNBO raskritikovali lzhivyie soobshcheniya Rossiiskoi pressy o perestrelke v Slavyanske,” TSN.ru, 20 April 2014, http://ru.tsn.ua/politika/v-snbo-raskritikovali-lzhivye-soobscheniya-rossiyskoy-pressy-o-perestrelke-v-slavyanske-361755.html.
 Aleksandr Vasovic and Alissa De Carbonnell, “Deadly gun attack in eastern Ukraine shakes fragile Geneva accord,” Reuters, 20 April 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-crisis-idUSBREA3A1B520140420.
 “Pravyi sector otritsaet svoyu prichastnost’ k perestrelke v Slavyanske,” Korrespondent, 20 April 2014, http://korrespondent.net/ukraine/politics/3352145-pravyi-sektor-otrytsaet-svoui-prychastnost-k-perestrelke-v-slavianske.
 “Pravyi sector otritsaet svoyu prichastnost’ k perestrelke v Slavyanske.”
 Vasovic and De Carbonnell, “Deadly gun attack in eastern Ukraine shakes fragile Geneva accord.”
 “Dmitro Yarosh: nam she Krim povertati,” BBC (Ukrainian), 11 February 2015, http://www.bbc.com/ukrainian/politics/2015/02/150211_yarosh_interview_vs.
 “DUK 5-I Okremii Batal’ion,” VKontakte, 12 October 2014, http://archive.is/4a5bM cited in Ivan Katchanovski, “January 26 at 2:43,” Facebook, 26 January 2016, http://www.facebook.com/ivan.katchanovski/posts/1165670110129540.
 “Ukhvala imenem Ukraini – Sprava No. 757/42824/15-k;” “Ukhvala imenem Ukraini – Sprava No. 757/47700/15-k;” and “V Slavyanske Pravyi sektor atakoval blokpost, pogibli troe zhitelei,” YouTube, 8 April 2015, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9J3bp6Ml4ag; all cited in Katchanovski, “January 26 at 2:43.”
 “Luhansk prosecutors launch probes into federalization support rallies,” Interfax-Ukraine, 21 April 2014, http://en.interfax.com.ua/news/general/201534.html and “V Luganske separatisty reshili provesti dva referenduma,” Ukrainskaya pravda, 21 April 2014, http://www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2014/04/21/7023176/.
 “Luhansk prosecutors launch probes into federalization support rallies.”
 “Latest from the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine – based on information received up until 28 April 2014, 19:00 (Kyiv time),” Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 28 April 2014, http://www.osce.org/ukraine-smm/118153 and “Federalization supporters in Luhansk proclaim people’s republic,” Tass, 28 April 2014, http://tass.ru/en/world/729768.