Navigating Through The ‘Hybrid War’ Narrative of the Donbas Conflict

War in Eastern Ukraine Continues Unabated as Journalists Are Often Detained

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Mariia Varfolomeiva, a 33-year-old Ukrainian journalist, was captured by militants on Jan. 9, 2015, and accused of “spying” for the Ukrainian army, and acting in collaboration with a right wing battalion. She was released by militants 14 months later in an exchange.

Tensions remain palpably high between Russia and Ukraine forces, particularly in the Donbas region, in eastern Ukraine. It’s easy to mistake fiction from reality, as “hybrid warfare” has given ammunition for truth to be lost in a conflict so easily misunderstood. Hybrid warfare can be defined as a military strategy employing various modes of politics coupled with modes of warfare. This could include propaganda, and different types of fluid operations with subversive intent.

The situation in eastern Ukraine is as convoluted as it is heartbreaking.

Three years ago, at the two-day summit in Belarus, leaders from Russia, France, Ukraine, and Germany signed onto the Minsk II, a second diplomatic measure in hopes of alleviating the violence in the region. It was overseen by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). At around the time, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said, “Minsk — III cannot happen. We have the Minsk agreements and it is necessary [for Russia] to fulfill them. The meetings were among other things devoted to the fact that Russia [has not] respected its own commitments. The support of the EU is essential for us.”

As reported by The Washington Post, the fighting in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region is entering its fifth year. Over 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict, and 2,800 were civilians.

The Donbas war is being called one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with frequent attacks occurring from both sides across the oblasts (provinces) of Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine was divided between those who wanted to affiliate with Russia and those who leaned toward Europe and NATO. In early 2014, the Maidan Revolution -a largely pro European Union comprised of many young, educated freethinkers — overthrew the Russian-leaning Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Reactions in the Donbas, a region bordering Russia and composed of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, varied as separatist forces, assisted by Russia, began fighting the Ukrainian military. The fighting destroyed the Donbas’s basic infrastructure, which included hospitals and clinics. By late 2014, the fighting involved large numbers of troops, some of whom were the Russian army. While the heaviest violence took place in February 2015, the war has persisted (despite occasional ceasefire agreements), and the infrastructure in Donbas has seen severe damage. Advances by Russian troops and separatists resulted in a cluster of attacks near Mariupol, and northern Luhansk Oblast and western Donetsk Oblast.

“War and Russian aggression against Ukraine are not the reasons for avoiding reforms. As president, I firmly stand on the position of an effective continuation of reforms,” Poroshenko said in 2015.

“Even in Soviet times, the understanding that you were being fed lies did not prevent the lies having an impact on your worldview, and there is no reason to believe that most people realize the extent of the lies,” Halya Coynash, member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, tells me. “[In the Luhansk region], Ukrainian channels and sites are blocked, meaning that people are hearing only pro-militant, and pro-Russian propaganda, as the town is occupied.

“The Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were always very specific, including their media,” continues Coynash. “The propaganda fell on receptive ears. Particularly in the Luhansk oblast, there appears to be a high level of lawlessness — not necessarily with respect to crime as we understand it, but regarding corruption, and also measures against those that power have taken against or people regarded as politically suspect.”

One such “political suspect” caught in the crosshairs is Mariia Varfolomeiva, a 33-year-old Ukrainian journalist. As UNAIN reported, Varfolomeiva was captured by militants on Jan. 9, 2015, and accused of ‘spying’ for the Ukrainian army, and working in collaboration with Right Sector, a right-wing group. She spent fourteen months in detention — for taking a photograph.

“My friend, a Luhansk man, asked me to take a photo of a couple houses,” she shared with me last week. One picture she took was that of a building she thought owned by an oligarch. It turned out to be the militia’s barracks. “Some [militia] people came out of the building, and [they] detained me. It was extremely difficult.”

“If you do not communicate with anyone, you will go crazy,” she said in an interview after her release. “The whole day is silent and nothing happens. In the end, you realize… these are [some] normal people. [During the 14 month detention], I had books, and local media. My father from Russia brought me a book in French, [and] [different books] in other languages,” she said.

“Before this situation, when my city was occupied, I was working as a journalist [for] an Ukrainian newspaper, and then our newspaper was closed in Luhansk,” Varfolomeiva told me her ordeal in full detail. 

MV: [My newspaper] was closed because it was dangerous for us to work [since] it was a pro-Ukrainian newspaper, and supported the Ukrainian government. When the city was occupied, I made a few videos about life in occupied Luhansk; — how they live, how they survive. [We were] without water [and] electricity for five months. I was doing videos on life there, and how people [functioned] without a central heating system.

JF: So merely taking photos during this time was seen as dangerous and controversial?

MV: Nobody made reports from this occupied city… It was absolutely dangerous to go there… Nobody gave information about Luhansk because it was absolutely dangerous to go there because — [you] could be [caught] when entering the city… Russia wants to make the situation unstable. They wanted to occupy all of Ukraine or at least half, and one thing they didn’t [think was] that our army would be strong enough, to fight against them.

Separatists seized governmental buildings in Luhansk, such as the one where Varfolomeiva was detained. Yet in the course of the conflict, Ukrainian soldiers fought back and soon gained control over a police station, and Luhansk became the capital and the administrative center of the Luhansk Oblast.

JF: How long were you detained?

MV: In 14 months, I spent time in 5 different places; it was in the basement of buildings; it was [like] a jail. I was also in different places.

JF: What were the circumstances?

MV: During the first months, they didn’t tell anybody where I [was]. My parents were trying to find me. They were going everywhere in the city, to the authorities… After 3 weeks, the minister of inner affairs… said, [that I was like] a spy [and] she wanted to kill people in the city.

JF: You were seen like a spy of your own country?

MV: [They made it as though I] killed about 40 people… [And through] my ‘help,’ people died.

JF: Because they thought you conspired with the militia group by taking photos?

MV: They used this situation like I conspired to help to bombard the city.

JF: They accused you of aiding the bombardment of your town?

MV: They blamed me that [I helped] the militia. Because they wanted to make my case more hard, [and] more complicated.

JF: So they were exposed?

MV: They wanted to show people in Luhansk that ‘a girl from your city [was responsible] for killing your citizens.’

JF: By taking a photograph?

MV: They wanted to make propaganda… Yes. I took these photos, [which were] sent to Ukrainian army, and with my help, the Ukrainian army could kill those people [through] bombing. Understand this system?

JF: What does the outside world not understand about Russian aggression?

MV: People need to understand that [Vladimir] Putin is a tyrant, and that he wants to destroy all over the world… everything! [It’s] just to make his empire [stronger]. He doesn’t care about anything. At this football match (the World Cup), it was terrible because a lot of presidents were acting like things were fine, and nothing happened, and [as if] Putin’s ‘not a killer.’

JF: Do you think this ‘hybrid warfare’ is a main tactic in the region?

MV: Not the main [thing] of course but it’s very important. The [militia] want to blame Ukraine, and to show people that [those] like me, [are responsible] for all the problems in Luhansk. It’s good that I’m alive. I’m glad it was just 14 months, not 14 years. I could’ve gotten 15 years after the situation. They could’ve put me in jail for 15 years. A lot of citizens get detained. — They don’t care.

JF: How many people have been detained?

MV: It’s over one thousand. Every week, there’s a new victim’ in the basement, a new life is captured; they don’t care. They always need a new victim.

After fourteen months in detention, which brought her to five hideouts, Varfolomeiva was ultimately freed, in exchange for two people. She was exchanged for “a young woman lived in the temporarily occupied territory and worked for the militants, as well as a citizen of the Russian Federation Ivan Gorbunov.” Upon her release, she was cared for by representatives of the Red Cross, and later underwent medical examination.

Why does the Donbas war continue to confound journalists? “Well, first things first, where are we speaking about?” Ariana Gic, a reporter and an independent political analyst, rhetorically asks me.

The heart of the misunderstanding lies in the notion that outsiders believe the eruption of violence “to be some spontaneous, indigenous uprising, rather than one the Russian state orchestrated by nationals and local collaborators. It was a cleverly camouflaged form of invasion, but an invasion nonetheless,” adds Gic.

JF: What do you mean by “a cleverly camouflaged form of invasion?”

AG: I think the Russian [propaganda] fomented discord. [They] took advantage of the marginal discontent among some locals who really formed a minority. We should not be duped by the idea of “non-traditional” forms of invasion.

JF: Russia funded the separatists?

AG: Russia was funding so-called “separatist” movements for years before invasion. They helped to organize a marginal group with no power. The majority had no desire to “separate” from Ukraine. [It was] Russia [that] empowered these people further and swelled their numbers with Russian nationals. With more resources, they whipped up a frenzy by claiming, through a concerted propaganda effort, that an illegal coup d’état in Kyiv [took place]. They manufactured all kinds of lies, and suppressed dissent brutally with kidnapping, forced disappearances, torture and murder.

Disputed referendums were set up to legitimize the establishment of the republics, like in Luhansk, even as the U.S., or most EU countries, never officially recognized the results. Germany, U.S., France, Britain concluded they were unconstitutional.

JF: Do you feel Putin lost control of the chain of command in the Donbas war, or are the results as he’d hope it would turn out to be?

AG: Putin did not lose control. Anyone who did not follow orders – as commanded – were taken care of and removed from the puppet administration. I think the focus on any disobedience is totally overstated to play up the idea of separation from Putin and the fake “republics.”

JF: What did all of this do to the overall morale of Ukrainians?

AG: Well, it destroyed the morale of those who fully support Ukraine. And I’ve been told that even amongst some of the locals who sympathized with the invasion force (but did not participate) have come to regret that and just want Russia out.

“I’m very glad that the so-called ‘referendum’ idea, at least was discarded, though there is occasionally still talk about so-called elections mentioned in the Minsk Accords” Coynash tells me. “Any such elections could only be a farce for a number of reason that I suspect underestimate, and direct Russian involvement. An acquaintance of mine is from Donetsk and fled in 2014. She is [now] in contact with people by Skype, and she notices how obviously people avoid making ANY critical comments about the so-called ‘republic.’ Like in Stalin’s times, you simply don’t know who is listening, and who may report you,” warns Coynash.

As for the future of modern Ukraine, Varfolomeiva finds it fortunate that Petro Poroshenko is the country’s president. “He’s not the best of what could be, but he’s the best in our reality. I support him because there’s no other choice. Other candidates would do terrible things. I know that he’s an honest person for our reality. I know he wants to make this country part of NATO, and EU. He’ll do everything he can.”

Varfolomeiva also remains committed helping political prisoners. “We are supporting people who are trying to be free,” she tells me.

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