A briefing on Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine

By: Lane Johansen

Over the past month or so, headlines have been dominated by news about the buildup of almost 100,000 Russian troops at the Ukrainian border for the second time this year and warnings of an imminent Russian invasion. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that Russian troops have occupied eastern Ukraine since 2014.

When Russia invaded and illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, Moscow also sent in troops to Donbas in eastern Ukraine—a region comprising Donetsk and Luhansk—to ostensibly “support the separatist movement.” War broke out on April 6, when Ukraine launched the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO). In May, after an unofficial referendum that has internationally been rejected as falsified, the two regions declared independence from Ukraine as the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR).  

A low-grade war has been simmering in eastern Ukraine ever since. In 2018, Ukrainian forces renamed the ATO the Joint Forces Operation, and the most recent ceasefire agreement came in July 2020.  

While fighting in Donbas may be considered a low-grade war, it is a war nevertheless; to date, about 14,000 people (including Ukrainian soldiers are civilian casualties) have been killed in Donbas. This past year, over 65 Ukrainian solders were killed in the JFO.

Russia has been accused of conducting “hybrid warfare”—meaning a blend of conventional and unconventional instruments of power, such as psychological warfare and disinformation campaigns—in eastern Ukraine. One of the most decried tactics of Moscow is “Russian passportization”: in April 2019, Putin signed a decree simplifying the process of issuing Russian passports living in the Donbas region, and in July 2021 announced that passport holders in Donbas would be able (and were essentially forced) to vote in the Russian parliamentary elections in September of this year. About 3 million Ukrainians now have Russian passports.

Warnings of a Russian invasion of Ukraine must therefore be taken in the context of an incursion that has already lasted over seven years. The Kremlin insists it does not have Russian Federation forces in Ukraine, but there is ample evidence challenging this assertion—most recently when a Russian court inadvertently recognized the presence of Russian regular troops in the occupied DNR/LNR. Occupation forces have consistently violated ceasefire agreements and international humanitarian law, and numerous civilians have suffered illegal imprisonment and torture.

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