War in Ukraine

Kindly translated by Anne-Marie de Grazia.

The fighting, which has been taking place in Eastern Ukraine for over three months have remained largely ignored by the French press – with the obvious exception of the still not elucidated destruction of flight MH 17. When the TV channel Fr2 sent a journalist in Donetsk, it was only to report some shelling, not attributed to anyone (but once), when it is widely known that Kiev’s forces have heavily shelled urban areas. These combats have been described by the Ukrainian government as an “anti-terrorist” operation, which is an absurdity. The combatants in Eastern Ukraine are members of an independence movement, who may be qualified as separatists, but they are certainly not “terrorists”, and the use of such vocabulary is telling a lot about the state of mind reigning in Kiev. Sources of information are rare. The official Ukrainian sources (from the Ministry of Defence), do not contain much as far as verifiable (or not verifiable…) information is concerned, besides roaring propaganda communiqués.  The sources of the insurgents of Eastern Ukraine are also chock-full with propaganda. But they also contain information, which is, sometimes, verifiable. We will cite then two internet sites:



On the other hand, it was possible to gather information from other sources, mostly coming from journalists, either Italian or Russian, who are presently working in Eastern Ukraine. I maintain regular contacts with some of them. From these different sources I gathered some information.

The status of forces in presence.

The forces remaining loyal to the Kiev government and deployed in Eastern Ukraine considerably outnumber insurgent forces. They are made up of three groups:

  • (a) We have units of the regular army, the quality and determination of which are extremely variable. Some of these units disbanded quickly, some fought with an obvious reluctance, others have fought tenaciously.
  • (b) There are the units of the National Guard, created in March 2014, constituted of battalions formed on a political basis, by extremist movements (Pravyy Sektor, Svoboda). These units seem to be motivated, but they are only of a low military value. People from Canadian-Ukrainian or American-Ukrainian origin man some units, including the notorious punitive battalion “Donbass-1”[1].
  • (c)  Ukrainian oligarchs maintain units constituted on the basis of American security companies. These units were deployed in May and June, but since then, they do not seem to have had a great military value.

The insurgent forces are composed of:

  • (a) The militia and the self-defence units of Lugansk and Donetsk (DNR and LNR). They are made of volunteers, some of them having a good military training (from their times in the Ukrainian Army).
  • (b) Voluntary battalions essentially composed of Russians, some of which have excellent combat experience. We are seeing now the development of “international” battalion, obviously on the pattern of “International Brigades” of Spanish Civil war fame. But the military employment of this battalion seems to have been severely restricted. Voluntary battalions made of Russians have played a significant role during fights in June and July.
  • (c)  Much has been said during these past days about units from the regular Russian army. The “proofs” of their presence are frequently claimed but so far inexistent[2]. This does not mean that there are no such troops, or no “advisers”. The presence of the latter is probable. But it is strange that the Ukrainian loyalist forces have remained incapable of providing any proof. Up until now, only British journalists have corroborated these assertions, and only in the case of one column. Yet Western journalists are working regularly, and relatively freely, in the combat zone and have not reported the presence of Russian forces.

These forces are equipped with materiel seized from army bases at Donetsk or Lugansk, but also with captured materiel (“Grad” rocket launchers, heavy mortars, tanks…) abandoned in large quantity by the Ukrainian Army during defeats in July and August 2014. The insurgent forces have reported, with the support of photographs, close to 170 tanks, which were supposedly recuperated during the fighting.

The military situation

The present situation seems to be characterized, since August 18th, by the wearing out of the offensive of the forces loyal to the Kiev government, and by a string of tactical victories on the side of the insurgents. The Kiev forces seem to have failed to cut in two the territory held by the insurgents and to retake control of the Russo-Ukrainian border. The losses they suffered seem to be quite heavy, including the complete destruction of several combat units[3]. The insurgent militias seem to detain at least a hundred of prisoners of war. But an even greater number have surrendered to Russian forces on the Russian side of the border.

Map 1



We can see on this map the fighting of the last few days. The losses suffered, and the demoralization of the other units, tend to equalize the ratio of power, to the profit of the insurgents. It is striking that the manoeuvres of the loyalist forces seem to have been dictated by

  • (a) Political will to retake Lugansk and Donetsk as quickly as possible. This determination has led to some “pushes” in situations where the flanks of the engaged units were not protected, which has made it possible for the insurgents to cut them off from their rear bases and to encircle them, and then to destroy them. Moreover, insurgent groups are operating in the region of Kharkov, attacking the logistics of the loyalist forces. This could be the harbinger of much more serious troubles in the Kharkov region.
  • (b) A will to “punish” the populations by proceeding to indiscriminate shelling of urban areas. These bombings, which have occurred regularly since June, explain the amplitude of the flight of civilian populations towards neighbouring Russia.

It is therefore probable that the Kiev forces will confine themselves to artillery shelling. One source reports of a project of retreating their forces along a line Slavyansk-Mariupol.

The political situation

If the military situation stabilizes as it seems to be, or if it turns to the advantage of the insurgents, the Kiev government will face a dilemma, which it cannot resolve. Either it will recognize the situation, but then one will be moving towards a de facto partition of Ukraine for, henceforth, the populations will no longer accept a « Ukrainian » solution, or it will keep the conflict burning, but then Ukraine will be practically deprived of electricity because a large amount of the coal used to this end comes from Donetsk and from the area surrounding it. Pursuing the war during the winter of 2014-2015 will make it ever more unpopular with the Ukrainian population. The first solution is, as of now, unacceptable to the Ukrainian government and to the Western Ukraine population. But the second one will bring about, in time, a disintegration of Ukraine. IMF support will not be sufficient to allow Ukraine to fight a protracted wad and in the same time to keep its decaying economy surviving.

The Ukrainian government will probably seek to “internationalize” the civil war, by attempting, through diverse provocations, to draw in the United States and the European Union. Yet it is not very likely that it will succeed in this. Germany is already feeling the pinch of sanctions and its exports to Russia have been down by 15%. USA have a more direct challenge to face in Syria and Iraq. It is then urgent therefore that combats cease as fast as possible and that an accord be found between the Kiev government and the insurgents, confirming the de facto autonomy of the regions of Lugansk and Donetsk, while keeping them formally inside Ukraine. Only peace will allow reconciliation, but the latter will now take some times as hate is strong between the two communities.

Jacques Sapir

Ses travaux de chercheur se sont orientés dans trois dimensions, l’étude de l’économie russe et de la transition, l’analyse des crises financières et des recherches théoriques sur les institutions économiques et les interactions entre les comportements individuels. Il a poursuivi ses recherches à partir de 2000 sur les interactions entre les régimes de change, la structuration des systèmes financiers et les instabilités macroéconomiques. Depuis 2007 il s'est impliqué dans l’analyse de la crise financière actuelle, et en particulier dans la crise de la zone Euro.

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