The War in Ukraine. Short chronology of the conflict
26 Квiт 2018

The Beginning of the Conflict: Russian Occupation of the Crimea

The official date of the beginning of the war over the territory of the Ukraine is February 20, 2014, when the Russian high military command started operations in the Crimea peninsula[1]. While snipers were shooting at protesters on the Maidan square in Kiev’s city center, Russian began to deploy military staff to a base in the Crimea, using the Kerch Strait as transport corridor. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, responding to this move, reminded Ukrainian soldiers located on the territory of the Crimea about their right to use arms in case of military aggression[2].

The following day, the Supreme Council of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea convened an extraordinary meeting to discuss «the socio-political situation in the Ukraine»[3]. During the meeting, people from the so-called «People’s Liberation Movement» — a political organisation created in 2012 with the aim of «restoring Russian sovereignty lost in 1991» and actively supporting separatism in the Donbass, made its appearance near the Crimea parliament[4] by provoking clashes with pro-Ukrainian activists. On February 23, participants of the so-called «Meeting of the People’s Will» announced that they refuse to subordinate to central authorities in Kiev and elected a so-called «People’s Mayor» to replace the officially elected mayor of the city of Sevastopol. The same modus operandi was replicated later by pro-Russian elements in the Donbass region[5].

The turning point in the Crimea conflict was the direct Russian military intervention on February 27 2014; a group of Russian soldiers from the Main Intelligence Directorate seized the Crimea parliament building and blocked access to such important civil and military objects on the peninsula as the seaport in Feodosia and the airports in Simferopol and Belbek.

In the Crimea parliament, now controlled by Russian forces, deputies voted to appoint Sergei Aksenov, the leader of the «Russian Unity» party as new prime minister of the Crimean Autonomous Republic. It was also decided to conduct a referendum on the status and authority in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea[6].

Throughout the peninsula, groups of fighters from local Cossacks formations started to block crucial civilian buildings, railway stations, and administrative buildings. Ex-soldiers of ‘Bercut’, a special Ukrainian police unit, installed checkpoints near main traffic roads close to the towns of Djankoy and Armyansk, thereby taking control of the access to the peninsula from the mainland[7]

On March 1, 2014, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin obtained permission from the Federal Council in Moscow for deploying and using Russian military forces in Ukraine, as was officially stated, “ for normalising the socio-political situation in this country”[8].By that time, there were between 20,000 and 26,000 Russian soldiers[9] present in the Crimea, most of them at the naval base of Sevastopol. The Ukrainian government had about 20,000 military personnel stationed on the peninsula[10].

The Ukrainian minister of defense, Igor Teniukh, said that only 2,000 soldiers on the Crimean peninsula were ready to resist military aggression[11]. The actual number of pro-Ukrainian military forces in the Crimea turned out to be three times that number when a few months later 6,010 soldiers and officers left the peninsula and returned to mainland Ukraine[12].

On March, 15, the so-called referendum of the political status of the peninsula was held. Three days later, an agreement about the admission of the Crimea Republic to Russian Federation was signed in the Kremlin[13].

Between late February and late March 2014, Russian military forces had been conducting military operations to blockade and capture all Ukrainian military facilities on the peninsula, including 41 military bases[14], 11 warships, 2,363 combat vehicles, and 6 coastal anti-ship complexes[15]. Various local paramilitary groups and units, including Cossacks and foreign volunteers from Serbia participated in these operations[16].

Conflict in Donbass

During the protests on the Maidan, the situation in the East part of the country had been worsening. The cities as Lugansk[17], Donetsk[18] and Kharkov were hot spots of the unfolding conflict. On February 22, 2014, a congress of the deputies from the south-eastern regions and the Autonomous Republic of Crimea took place in Kharkov. It decided to transfer all political and economic power in the region to local authorities. Participants of the congress advised the local people «to organize themselves»[19]. On the same day, there were clashes in Lugansk between local pro-Ukrainian activists and members of the separatist organization «Lugansk Guard»[20].

On March 1, participants of a rally in Donetsk demanded a «referendum», using the same scenario as it was in Crimea. Radical supporters of the referendum established a «People’s Militia of Donbas». On March 3, the protesters seized the building of the Donetsk regional administration. However, the police regained control of the building within two days. On March 5, at a rally in Lugansk a so-called «People’s Governor of Lugansk region» elected Alexander Kharitonov, a marginal local politician as its head. Four days later, at another rally in Lugansk, participants voted to conduct a “referendum” for self-determination regarding the future political status of the Lugansk region. The situation in the Donbas region gradually deteriorated. On April 5, members of Security service of Ukraine detained 15 people in Lugansk who planned to destabilize the situation in the city, armed using for this 300 assault rifles, an anti-tank grenade launcher, 5 pistols and hand grenades[21]. The next day, April 6, 2014, the situation got out of control.

The crowd of radicals, with the support of paramilitary Cossack groups, stormed and captured the regional office of the Security Service of the Ukraine in Lugansk. They seized around 2.000 assault rifles and 2.5 million rounds of ammunition stored there[22]. Equipped in this way, those commanding the separatists announced the foundation of «The Army of the South-East of Ukraine»[23].

In Donetsk, members of the so-called «Donetsk People’s Republic» seized the building of the regional administration and the Security Service for the second time. In Kharkov, protesters, with the paramilitary separatist organization «Oplot», also seized the building of the regional administration. It turned out that these were the last crowd-based militant actions before the conflict transformed into irregular military operations.

This new stage of the conflict opened with the seizure of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk in the Donetsk region by a group of armed Russian citizen led by Igor Girkin «Strelkov» as its commander. In early April 2014, a group of 52 people, recruited and trained in the Crimea[24] penetrated the Ukrainian border with the help of local separatists.

Up to 1.200 members of so-called local «self-defense units» from five cities (Druzhkovka, Kramatorsk, Slavyansk, Konstantinovka and Krasny Liman), were waiting in Slavyansk and Kramatorsk to join Strelkov’s group[25]. According to Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the new «people’s mayor» of Slavyansk, who was leading the city’s separatist movement, these units also included fighters from the Russian cities of Murmansk, Moscow, Vladivostok, as well as volunteers from Belarus, Israel and other countries[26].The first military action took place on April 13, when the group of armed separatists attacked a convoy of the Security Service of the Ukraine (SSU) and soldiers from the 80th Brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. As a result, one SSU officer was killed, another wounded[27].

In response, the interim President of the Ukraine, Alexander Turchinov, decided to start an antiterrorist operation in the territories of Lugansk and Donetsk[28], dividing the entire region into four main sectors: sector «A» — north of Lugansk region, sector «C» — north of Donetsk region, sector «B» — the west of the Donetsk region, sector «D» — along the border with Russia.

The Character of the Conflict

The First Stage: Irregular Warfare

During the first months of the anti-terrorist operation and up until July-August 2014, the fighting was mostly of a limited character. Separatists units used ambushes, were shelling positions held by Ukrainian soldiers, and engaged in acts of sabotage and terrorist attacks (such as placing explosives in shops in Odessa[29] and Kharkov).

The Ukrainian military and police tried to regain control on Slavyansk (conducting unsuccessful offensives on April 13, and April 24). After the so-called “Lugansk People’s Republic”[30] had been proclaimed on April 27, regional separatists managed to take control of several cities in the region, including Sverdlovsk, Alchevsk as well as the strategically important Dolzhansk border crossing point with Russia. By that time, new separatists armed groups such as the battalion «Vostok» (Donetsk), «the Cossack National Guard of the Great Don Army», and the «Ghost» and «Zarya» had been formed in the Lugansk region.

After another «referendum» was conducted on May 11 on separatist controlled territory, an effort was made to unify their organizations, resulting in the proclamation of the so-called «Unified State Novorossia»[31]. In response, the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Ukraine designated the “Lugansk People’s Republic” and the “Donetsk People’s Republic” as terrorist organizations[32].

In late May and early June 2014, Russian military equipment and ammunition were sent[33] to support military actions of separatist units on Ukrainian soil. On July 11, Russian artillery shelled from the territory of Russia the positions of the 24th and the 79th brigades of the Ukrainian army, deployed near Zelenopolya from across the Russian border, killing 36 Ukrainian soldiers[34]. Nevertheless, in late July, the Ukrainian military managed to liberate a number of cities (Lisichansk and Severodonetsk) in the Lugansk region, and Debaltsevo in the Donetsk region.

The Second Stage: a Large-scale Offensive and the Invasion of the Russian Army

Trying to dismember and encircle the forces of the separatists, the Ukrainian military command decided to launch a large-scale offensive, which led to a battle in Ilovaysk in the Donetsk region.

During this operation, Ukrainian soldiers encountered on the battlefield regular Russian forces. According to a report of the General Staff of the Ukraine, dated August 24, 2014, there were about 4.000 Russian soldiers in the area of Ilovaysk, including units fromthe 247th air assault regiment of the 7th Air Assault Division, the 331st airborne regiment of the 98th airborne division and the 19th independent motor rifle brigade, and the 56th independent air assault brigade. The Russian assault in Ilovaysk was conducted by 20 tanks, 90 combat vehicles, 30 artillery units and 20 MLRS units. Alongside regular Russian troops, there were also units of the Russian Special Operations Forces participating[35].

The battle in Ilovaisk marked the start of the second stage in the war in Ukraine, involving a large-scale confrontation of regular armies with the support of irregular units. This stage was characterized by the active use of artillery and tanks, involving also conventional military actions by large military units. During this stage, operations such as the raid in eastern Ukraine of the 95th Brigade (July 19 — August 10, 2014) an effort to liberate the encircled units of the 81th brigade of the Ukrainian Armed Forces at the Donetsk airport (winter of 2014–2015), and an operation in the Debaltsevo (in January-February 2015) took place[36].

At this stage, the main conflict parties greed, following negotiation on a «set of measures for the implementation of the Minsk Agreements», better known as «Minsk-2»; this was signed on February 12, 2015[37]. However, despite the signing, active military operations ended only on February 18, with the occupation of Debaltsevo and the consolidation of the frontline on the so-called «Svetlodar Arc».

The Third Stage: Positional Warfare

Since February 2015 — until today — the conflict has morphed into a positional struggle, with periodic attempts to advance into the territory controlled by the other side of the conflict. The separatists had unsuccessfully tried to break through the frontline in Marinka (Donetsk region) in the summer of 2015, and on the Svetlodar Arc in summer and winter of 2016, and tried to advance in the Avdeevka industrial zone (Donetsk region) in January 2017.

Each side of the conflict used the relatively calm situation to strengthen its positions and reorganize the armed forces. Separatists created the 1st Army Corps «DNR» and the 2nd Army Corps «LNR». The Ukrainian government adopted a new military doctrine in September 2015[38]) and issued a Strategic Defense Bulletin in May 2016[39]). The Ukraine increased its regular armed forces to 250 000 men, and in addition formed the Special Operations Forces (2016).

Artillery shelling, small unit attacks, and shootings are regularly recorded on the whole frontline by independent observers.

Foreign Fighters in the Ranks of the «DNR/LNR»

Using data from open sources, it can be argued that foreigners took part in the conflict on the side of the separatists at all stages of the conflict. At the initial stage, foreigners participated as volunteers in the ranks of armed groups and separatist battalions. For example, French journalists released a story of volunteers from Russia, who fought in the ranks of the DNR[40] since the beginning of the conflict.

According to a BBC report[41], since September 2014 there were, on the separatist, side, even foreigners with combat experience gained ad former NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. UN experts claimed that at least 176 foreign citizens from 26 countries of the world, including Belarus, France, Georgia, Germany, Italy, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Poland, Serbia and Spain, fought on the side of separatists in Ukraine[42]. Some foreigners formed units on a national basis, such as the «Wild’s group» in the «LNR», which included volunteers from the Caucasus[43] or the international brigade «Pyatnashka»[44] in «DNR» ranks. Participation of foreign citizens on the side of separatists was confirmed by Alexander Zakharchenko, head of the «DNR»[45].

The main motivation of foreign fighters on the separatist’s side, according to a UN report, was material compensation (suggested by some 70% of volunteers). The remaining 30% (including left-wing volunteers from Spain or right-wing volunteers from Serbia and Russia) came to Donbas for ideological reasons. Before they were recruited by local combat units, the majority of foreigners had received military training in special camps located on the territory of the «DNR» and «LNR» (about 100 camps), or in the Crimea (29 camps), and Russia (50 camps)[46].

In addition to volunteer formations, foreigners participated in the conflict as part of the regular Russian troops. Activists of the international network «Informnapalm» identified military staff from 45 Russian military units which took part in the war in the Donbas. Most of the battalion-tactical groups were formed from motorized rifle units of the Southern Military District of the Russian Federation: the 136th, 18th, 17th, 8th, 19th, 205th, 33rd and 34th brigades, and the 291st artillery brigade and the 7th military base. In addition, on the separatist’s side, Russian soldiers of 12 airborne units, 7 special divisions of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of Russia, 4 military units of the Russian Navy, 5 units of the Russian National Guard and soldiers of anti-aircraft defense and radio-technical troops from the Russian Space Forces were identified[47]. All these took part in military operations.

The third component of the foreign contingent in the war in Ukraine on the separatist’s side were fighters from private military companies. Together with “DNR/LNR” units, as well as independent of them, military operations in Donbass saw fighters from at least seven Russian private military companies involved (“RSB Group”[48], “PMC MAP”[49], “Center Redout”[50], “ATK-GROUP”, “Slavonic Corps Limited”, “Byzantium”, “E.N.O.T. Corp”[51],[52]).

In July 2017, the General Staff of the Ukraine announced that in the country’s occupied territories, including the Crimea peninsula, about 30,000 Russian soldiers were deployed[53].

Short History of Volunteers’ Movement in the Ukraine (2014–2017)

The Russian occupation of the Crimea sparked the rise of a movement of volunteers in the Ukraine. In March 2014, after the so-called «referendum» in Crimea, patriotic people in the Ukraine started a movement of volunteers, at first as groups coordinating the mobilization process in military enlistment offices[54] and subsequently providing the official armed forces with material needed for the national resistance[55].

When the conflict started in the Donbas region, activist people — especially members of the so-called Maidan’s self-defense units — formed armed groups to protect the territory of Ukraine regain control over the seized territories in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions and the Crimea[56].

By September 2014, the Ukrainian government had formed 44 battalions[57]for territorial defense within the official Ukrainian armed forces structure. These territorial defense battalions (TDB) gathered volunteers on a territorial basis and were subordinated to the Ministry of Defense and local administrations[58]. The very first TD battalions were formed on the basis of the Maidan’s self-defense structures, such as the 11th battalion, the 24th battalion «Aydar», and the TD battalion in Donetsk region “Donbass”.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs formed so-called patrol militia battalions and squads, which also consist of volunteers. By September 2014, it had formed 32 battalions, including the «Azov», «Peacemaker», «Kiev-1» battalions. In addition, in March 2014, the Ukrainian parliament restored the National Guard. Within this structure, three volunteer’s battalions were formed, one of them named after general Kulchitsky, who heroically died in the war in Donbas.

In parallel to these developments, political parties were also forming their own military units. Yulia Tymoshenko, the ex-prime minister of the Ukraine (2005, 2007–2010) announced the creation “The National Resistance Movement”[59] which also contained a military wing. The so-called “Right Sector”, a coalition of nationalist organizations created during the events on the Maidan, formed its own units[60]. The same was done by «The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists» which created its own military battalion[61]. Some of these units werein the beginning independent of official military structures. However, later they were partly or completely incorporated in the armed forces of the Ukraine or other defense structures.

Foreigners who Fight on the Side of the Ukraine

From the very beginning of the conflict, foreign citizens joined the ranks of the Ukrainian armed forces, especially volunteer formations. The General Staff of the Ukraine stated in December 2014 that up to 1.000 foreigners were fighting in the ranks of volunteer battalions[62]. The exact number of foreign volunteers in Ukraine is still unknown, but it is known that they include individuals from Russia, Georgia, Canada, United States, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Israel, Poland, Croatia, Sweden, Slovakia and others[63].

They served/still serve in the military either as individuals or in special foreign units, such as the tactical group «Belarus»[64] in the Ukrainian volunteers army (formed by ex-leader of the Right Sector Dmitro Yarosh), «Russian Corps» in «Azov»[65] and «Georgian Legion» (consisting exclusively of up to 100 foreign volunteers[66]) in the 54th Ukrainian Armed Forces brigade.

Chechen volunteers formed two units — the Sheikh Mansur’s Battalion and the Johar Dudayev’s Battalion, with the latter numbering up to 100 fighters)[67]. In order to integrate foreign volunteers into the Ukrainian Armed Forces and solve problems about their official status in the Ukraine, the president of the country signed a special decree allowing foreign citizens as well as individuals without any citizenship to serve in the ranks of the UAF[68].


The war in Ukraine (2014 — current time) is the example of the modern military conflict with involvement the different local and international actors in each stage.

Foreign fighters are highly present on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine. They took part in all main battles and operations all three phases of the conflict. Initially, foreign fighters actively participated in protests and irregular fighting complementing local irregulars (as for «DNR»/«LNR») or volunteer’s units (on the Ukrainian side). Maybe the most important role they played was participating on the second stage of the conflict in such large-scale operations in Ilovaysk battle, fighting for the Donetsk airport (winter of 2014–2015), and an operation in the Debaltsevo (in January-February 2015) took place. Being incorporated in regular forces or consisting separate units the foreign fighters provided crucial military support for regulars. One of the most important question in the study this conflict is the foreign fighters’ motivation. In order to find out the answer, we started a survey. The first results will be published latterly.


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66 Радіо Армія FM «Немало українців загинуло за незалежність Грузії, тож ми зараз стоїмо там, де повинні стояти грузини, — командир грузинського легіону в складі ЗСУ» 27.02.2018)

67 Радіо Армія FM «Ми все ще чекаємо того моменту, щоб взяти зброю в руки та визволити свою окуповану територію», — Адам Осмаєв 27.02.2018)

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