The violence in Ukraine is unimaginable. But before the violence, there was violence.
The military conflict in Ukraine has received an unprecedented amount of media coverage. The major US networks have given more coverage to Russia’s war in Ukraine than they did to America’s war in Iraq. But there were very important military dimensions prior to the war in Ukraine, many of them focussed around the coup of 2014, that have gone almost unreported. The lack of reporting is important because those events played a role in the lead up to the war.
The Economic Package
Long before the current strife in the Donbas, Ukraine has been a nation divided. Ethnic tensions have historically pulled the nation in opposite directions. The northwest and central Ukraine have always pulled west toward Europe; the southeast has always pulled east toward Russia. Prior to the Maidan protests and the coup of 2014, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was confronted with the choice of economic alliance with the European Union or with Russia. Following the historic pattern, polls at the time clearly showed that Ukrainians were nearly evenly split on which economic alliance to choose: pull west toward Europe or pull east toward Russia? Yanukovych was stuck in the middle of a tug of war. Choice of either package would have divided the country. It did more than divide it. It tore it apart.
But the coup and the civil war that followed were not the offspring of a choice between peaceful packages. There were military dimensions that did not get reported in the West. The economic alliance offered by the EU was also a military alliance. Princeton Professor Emeritus of Russian Studies Stephen Cohen wrote at the time that the EU economic proposal also “included ‘security policy’ provisions . . . that would apparently subordinate Ukraine to NATO.” The provisions compelled Ukraine to “adhere to Europe’s ‘military and security’ policies.” It was not a benign economic proposal: it had clear military dimensions. It was a Trojan horse, a military alliance in economic clothing.
Article 4 of the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine says the Agreement will "promote gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine’s ever-deeper involvement in the European security area." Article 7 speaks of the convergence of security and defense, and Article 10 says that "the parties shall explore the potential of military and technological cooperation." The choice of the UE economic alliance would also be the choice of NATO expansion right up to Russia’s border. But the military dimensions of the choice of economic alliance went unreported in the Western media.
Western Ukraine and the Ukrainian nationalists saw Yanukovych’s delaying the signing of the EU Association Agreement as a betrayal of Ukraine’s nationalist choice to pull toward Europe and away from Russia. That would lead to the violence of the Euromaidan protests, the coup and then the autonomy of the Donbas and the militarization of the conflict.
The violence that followed in the Maidan protests was frequently covered, though the media failed to adequately report that it was the "the Far Right," in the words of Nicolai Petro in The Tragedy of Ukraine, who "tipped the dynamic of the Maidan away from peaceful protest. . . ." Volodymyr Ishchenko, a leading scholar on radical movements in Ukraine, says that "Right Sector . . . strategically scaled up the initial skirmishes into a full-scale riot." Dmytro Yarosh, the leader of Right Sector, a coalition of several far right paramilitary organizations, told Time in 2014 that Right Sector had "amassed a lethal arsenal of weapons." Ishchenko says they had "[a]t least 1,500 handguns, rifles, machine guns, hand grenades, and other weapons."
But it is what Right Sector was willing to do with those weapons that went so underreported. The goal of the Maidan protests was to remove Yanukovych from power in a coup. And the nationalists were prepared to use those lethal weapons to do it. The far right militias seized regional and city administration buildings all over central and western Ukraine. "These seizures were typically accompanied," Petro reports, "by declarations that, if Yanukovych refused to relinquish power immediately, these regions would secede." Yarosh told Time that they had enough guns "to defend all of Ukraine from the internal occupiers," meaning Yanukovych’s government, if negotiations didn’t go their way. "Had Yanukovych remained in power," Petro says, "Far Right leaders were prepared to conduct a ‘prolonged guerrilla warfare’ from western Ukraine, where several regional administrations were already on record as supporting armed insurrection and, if necessary, secession."
Euromaidan Self-Defense groups said, according to Ishchenko, that they had "effectively taken power in Lviv . . . in anticipation of potential counter-insurgency operation if Maiden in Kiev was defeated." Andrii Parubii, the commander of Maidan Self-Defense, "publicly recognized that the opposition leaders planned for starting resistance in Western Ukraine in case of their defeat in Kiev. The Right Sector leaders were preparing to start a guerrilla war against the government."
The militarization of the far right nationalist opposition and the willingness and preparedness to go to war with the government and to secede is an underreported military dimension of the violence before the current violence.
The Minsk Deception
In the end, the coup did succeed, and it was the eastern, and not the western, regions of Ukraine who rebelled against the coup government and declared some form of autonomy.
The best available solution to the violence in the Donbas was the Minsk agreements. The Minsk agreements were brokered by France and Germany, agreed to by Ukraine and Russia, and accepted by the US and UN in 2014 and 2015. They gave Ukraine the opportunity to keep the Donbas and the Donbas the opportunity for peace and the governance they desire by peacefully returning the Donbas to Ukraine while granting it full autonomy.
The agreements were negotiated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Pyotr Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande. But each of Putin’s interlocutors has recently claimed that the Minsk negotiations were a deliberate deception to lull Russia into a ceasefire with the promise of a peaceful settlement while buying Ukraine the time to build up an armed forces capable of achieving a military solution. If their claims are to be believed, the apparently peaceful negotiations were a cover for what was intended all along to be a military solution. Then and now, that violence has gone underreported.
The first to make the claim was Poroshenko. Poroshenko, who has said that he knew when he signed the Minks agreements that they would never be implemented, told the Financial Times that Ukraine “didn’t have an armed forces at all” and that the “great diplomatic achievement” of the Minsk agreement was that “we kept Russia away from our borders – not from our borders, but away from a full-sized war.” The agreement bought Ukraine time to build its army in preparation for a military solution. Poroshenko told the Ukrainian media and other news outlets that “We had achieved everything we wanted. Our goal was to, first, stop the threat, or at least to delay the war – to secure eight years to restore economic growth and create powerful armed forces.”
His European partners agree. In a December 1, 2022 interview, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Der Spiegel that she believes that "during the Minsk talks, she was able to buy the time Ukraine needed to better fend off the Russian attack. She says it is now a strong, well-fortified country. Back then, she is certain, it would have been overrun by Putin’s troops." On December 7, Merkel repeated that admission in an interview with Die Zeit. "[T]he 2014 Minsk agreement was an attempt to give Ukraine time," she said. Ukraine "used this time to get stronger, as you can see today. The Ukraine of 2014/15 is not the Ukraine of today."
That same month, the other European negotiator made the same claim. In a December 28 interview with The Kyiv Independent that went entirely unnoticed by the media outside of Ukraine and Russia, Hollande was asked if he “believe[s] that the negotiations in Minsk were intended to delay Russian advances in Ukraine.” He responded, "Yes, Angela Merkel is right on this point." He then said, "Since 2014, Ukraine has strengthened its military posture. Indeed, the Ukrainian army was completely different from that of 2014. It was better trained and equipped. It is the merit of the Minsk agreements to have given the Ukrainian army this opportunity."
Perhaps most unreported by the media is that Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky has now made a related claim. He reportedly told Der Spiegel that he saw the agreements as a "concession" and that he "surprised" Merkel and Macron by telling them that "as for Minsk as a whole . . . We cannot implement it like this."
That completes the circle: every person involved in the negotiation or implementation of the Minsk agreement has said that they were never meant to peacefully resolve the conflict in the Donbas. Instead, they were another underreported preparation for a military solution. Their claims may or may not be true. If true, they planned for and contributed to the violence; if false, they are perpetuating the current violence by undercutting Putin’s trust in negotiating with Ukraine and the West.
Escalating War in the Donbas
On the eve of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the build up of Russian troops on the eastern border of the Donbas was heavily reported. Unreported was the build up on Donbas’s western border that preceded it. Ukraine had massed 60,000 elite troops, accompanied by drones, along its eastern border with Donbas. According to Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at Kent, there was "genuine alarm" that Ukraine was about to escalate the seven year old civil war and invade the largely ethnic Russian Donbas region.
And the Ukrainian troops were not just gathering on the border. According to UN data, 81.4% of ceasefire violations and civilian casualties in the past seven years had occurred in the “self-proclaimed ‘republics’.” Critically, though, In February 2022, the Border Observer Mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) observed a dramatic increase in Ukrainian artillery shelling into the Donbas. According to OSCE monitors, between February 18 and February 20, two thirds to three quarters of the shelling was launched from the Ukrainian side of the line into the Russian side.
This violence that preceded the war by just days is another important military dimensions prior to the war that went almost unreported.
From the military dimensions of the economic package the West offered Ukraine, to the underreported nationalist militarization of the Euromaidan, to the buildup of Ukrainian troops at the Donbas border and the artillery shelling across it and the possible deception of the Minsk agreements and intended military solution, there were a number military dimensions prior to the war that went underreported. Reintroducing them to the history of the events leading up to the war may be important for understanding and resolving the causes of the war.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.