Hot Issue – Ukrainian Protests and the Armed Forces: Will the Military Stay in Its Barracks?

(Source: AFP)

Executive Summary

To date, the besieged Ukrainian government has largely avoided deploying the Armed Forces against the Maidan protesters, even when the situation has devolved into serious street violence with the police. The Ukrainian military itself, on the other hand, has made it a point to stay neutral in the ongoing political crisis, rejecting the opposition’s calls for the Armed Forces to join the Maidan demonstrations, but also shying away from being used to crack down on the protests. Legal limits to the use of the Armed Forces domestically helps to partially explain why the military has yet to become broadly involved in the conflict on either the side of the government or the protesters. Other reasons include loyalty to the Yanukovych administration, which has so far relied mainly on the police, interest in maintaining close ties to Western militaries, as well as a relatively low level of security and defense issue interest or expertise among the opposition. That said, the military has openly declared that it may intervene to prevent a civil war. Indeed, a restrained and properly implemented deployment of the military could theoretically serve as a stabilizing force on the ongoing street violence. However, the presence of soldiers on the streets of Ukraine’s cities would almost certainly bring further escalation in the short term before political negotiations can bring about a resolution to the crisis.

On February 19, as the violent street protests in Kyiv temporarily subsided, President Viktor Yanukovych replaced the Ukrainian chief of the General Staff, Volodymyr Zamana, with commander of the Navy, Yuriy Ilyin, raising questions among observers whether this move indicated that the military would soon be deployed against the protesters (UNIAN, February 19). To date, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have largely remained neutral toward the Maidan protests, even though they have been continuously challenged to take the protesters’ side. Meanwhile, the authorities have made every effort to try to demonstrate the Armed Forces’ support of President Yanukovych’s “decisive actions.” Still, not all sides in the ongoing political crisis have been equally willing to try to coopt the military to their side of the conflict. Indeed, some pro-Russian voices in the ruling Party of Regions have conspiratorially warned of the implications of the military’s involvement, alleging that the Armed Forces are collaborating with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to foster a Western “military intervention” in Ukraine. For now it appears that the military is mostly staying in the barracks, and the government has yet to deploy significant troop forces to quell the protests, as doing so haphazardly could easily escalate the situation to untenable levels.

Illustrative of the dynamic fluidity of the situation in the country, the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) passed a resolution on the night of February 20 that could be a significant step to de-escalate Ukraine’s crisis. The resolution, supported by 236 out of 238 registered MPs and effective immediately, condemns the violence in Ukraine and cancels the security services’ planned “counter-terrorism” operation. The resolution further requests that law enforcement agencies and the Ministry of Defense return their officers and troops to their permanent locations. The resolution states specifically that the Ministry of Defense must ban the use of the Armed Forces in the counter-terrorist operation (Interfax-Ukraine, February 20).

The Armed Forces’ neutral role and their non-involvement in domestic police functions has Constitutional grounds in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Constitution of 1996 assigns to the Armed Forces the primary functions of ensuring the country’s sovereignty, territorial defense and responding to outside aggressors. It also specifically states that the military cannot be used to restrict the rights and freedoms of citizens, nor to overthrow the constitutional order, remove or obstruct the government (

These constitutional provisions notwithstanding, the Ukrainian military elite was, in fact, involved in the Orange Revolution of 2004, in contrast to the current Maidan protests. Oleksandr Skybynetskiy, a former high-ranking official of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), reminded Novaya Gazeta on December 5, 2013, that during the Orange Revolution demonstrations, Army Commander Mykola Petruk stood up against the planned use of interior ministry troops and “firmly said he would stop any attempt to use weapons against protesters. This calmed down the rakish commanders of the interior troops” (

President Yanukovych appears to be positioning himself to be able to legally—referencing the Law on Combatting Terrorism—make use of the military should the escalating crisis spiral completely out of control. Moreover, after the SBU announced that it was beginning preparations for a countrywide counter-terrorist operation (UNIAN, February 19), the Ministry of Defense posted a comment on its website citing the legal rights of the military to use weapons and ammunition, detain suspects, as well as restrict people’s and vehicles’ movement and access to buildings to accomplish counter-terrorism objectives ( The Rada’s February 20 resolution should now nullify this position, however. In fact, a properly planned and restrained use of the military to maintain public order—which is still an option, but not yet a fact—could somewhat stabilize the situation in Ukraine amidst the people’s gereral distrust of police activities. But on the other hand, heavy-handed use of the military to disperse the protesters’ camps might lead to a further escalation of the conflict.

The anti-government protests have also been tempted to seek the support of the Armed Forces. Probably the first analytical piece speculating about the military switching sides was published by pro-opposition Ukrainska Pravda on November 28 ( Additionally, speakers at Maidan reportedly called on the military to join the protests on December 3 ( According to media reports, Yulia Tymoshenko asked the same in a letter read by her daughter at Maidan on December 8 ( And Yuriy Lutsenko, also of Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party, openly called on the military’s support for EuroMaidan on December 11 ( Vitaliy Klichko, leader of the UDAR (“Punch”) party, never asked the Armed Forces representatives to defect and join the EuroMaidan demonstration, though he did warn the government on December 13 not to deploy the military against peaceful protesters (

Though, to date, never ordered by the authorities to clear the Maidan protest site, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have remained loyal to President Yanukovych and the government throughout the ongoing political crisis. This military loyalty to the head of state owes to President Yanukovych’s policies, the inherent interests of the military, as well as to the particular nature of the Maidan protest movement.

The Maidan protests initially began because of widespread discontent, particularly in western Ukraine, over Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union in November 2013. But throughout the escalating demonstrations, Yanukovych maintained a policy of “sitting on the fence,” never quite deciding on an ultimate crackdown of the protest movement—and thus the Armed Forces were not regularly employed against demonstrators or in significant numbers.

Moreover, the president never sent any signals that he would be willing to turn Ukraine into Russia’s military ally. Ukraine’s Armed Forces currently benefit from their cooperation with NATO, which would be threatened should President Yanukovych push Ukraine toward a close alliance with Russia instead. This cooperation with the North Atlantic Alliance has irritated pro-Russian Rada deputy Oleg Tsariov (Party of Regions), who reportedly told members of the Russian Civic Chamber that US soldiers were being deployed to Lviv, allegedly to participate in an international exercise involving around 1,000 personnel but, in reality, to put pressure on the Ukrainian government (;

Deputy Tsariov was probably basing his allegation on a Ukrainian defense ministry report describing preparations for the US-Ukrainian tactical exercise Rapid Trident 2014. The exercise, set to involve around 1,000 personnel with the possible participation of eight other countries, is scheduled for July 14–25, at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center in Yavoriv, Lviv oblast. The key objective of the exercise will be for NATO experts to evaluate the interoperability with the Alliance of several units of Ukraine’s “North” Command. If graded positively, these units will be able to participate in NATO Allied Response Force peacekeeping missions (,

Ukraine’s military cooperation with the West this year has already been significant, in fact. On January 8, among other numerous joint activities with NATO, elite Feodosiya, Crimea marines began a six-month training rotation with HELBROC (the Balkan EU Battlegroup) and the NATO Response Force ( Whereas, on January 16, NATO Headquarters hosted a session of the Ukraine-NATO Joint Working Group on Defense Reform as preparation to the regular NATO-Ukraine Defense Ministerial to be held in February ( Considering these and other important links to advanced Western militaries, therefore, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have a stake in supporting President Yanukovych for as long as he maintains the possibility for these military-to-military contacts with the West to continue.

Unlike during the 2004 Orange Revolution, EuroMaidan’s protest leaders have so far failed to coopt Ukraine’s military elite. One reason is that issues of defense policy have largely been neglected by the opposition parties and Maidan protest activists. Ukraine’s opposition parties often lack politicians who specialize in these issues or who are respected by the military. In contrast, Viktor Yanukovych’s administration improved the management of the Armed Forces, which was in a state of dismal crisis in 2008–2010. Even though Yanukovych’s governance of the Armed Forces emerged as a combination of encouraged loyalism and controlled subordination, it turned out to be sufficient for the military elite to retain a “neutrality” balance as the political crisis escalated over the past few months. The financial aspect of the military’s relationship with the Yanukovych administration should also not be underestimated. The authorities promised to deliver a scheduled remuneration increase for the military despite the country’s current fiscal crisis. And on January 27, Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedev said: “The monthly bonus has been increased by 20 percent since January 1, 2014, and it will be paid in full” (

Yet another reason that the military prefers to exercise neutrality is perhaps related to the overall growing illegitimacy of the use of force in politics. This is especially relevant to Ukraine’s protests, which experienced the use of force at an early stage (the Maidan crackdown by riot police on November 30) and subsequent bloody incidents, such as two protesters being shot on Hrushevskoho Street (see EDM, January 22). Relatedly, on January 22, the news outlet quoted a source in the Armed Forces who said: “The Chief Commanders have decided to preserve full neutrality… In case the authorities issue unlawful orders to use force against peaceful citizens, the military would refuse to execute those” (

Some Ukrainian analysts and opposition politicians have asserted that the military was, in a way, already used against the protests, citing the deployment of Emergency Service trucks and other special vehicles, as well as some support personnel ( It was also reported that the authorities had planned to transfer several elite paratroopers units from the Ministry of Defense to the Ministry of Interior, but Defense Minister Pavlo Lebedev called this rumor “overtly senseless” ( Moreover, today (February 20), the news outlet reported that an unnamed source in the General Staff admitted that 1,500 paratroopers and 400 marines had been on their way to Kyiv by train to carry out an “anti-terrorist operation,” but their train was stopped by protesters who sat down on the tracks (;

Nevertheless, the Armed Forces can still be used in a State of Emergency. Remarkably, the General Staff reportedly orchestrated a military-wide campaign on January 27 requesting to discuss a draft letter addressed to Viktor Yanukovych as Commander-in-Chief. The circulated draft letter demanded “decisive measures” from the country’s leadership to regulate the situation and to reinstate order in the country ( However, Defense Minister Lebedev interpreted this campaign as more of an opinion survey, which suggested that 87 percent of military personnel supported President Yanukovych’s policies ( On the other hand, the top Party of Regions defense policy advisor Oleksandr Kuzmuk said the letter was “related to recent information provocations around the Army” denying its support for initiating a State of Emergency ( Either way, this campaign raised international concern, including a negative reaction from NATO Secretary General Anders Fog Rasmussen ( and, according to Fatherland party leader Arseniy Yatseniuk, from the EU’s Catherine Ashton as well as Germany’s president and foreign minister (

If President Yanukovych deploys the military to the streets without a crisis resolution plan or governing team in place that would be acceptable to the protesters, the results could become unpredictable and further escalate the situation. Illustrative of such uncertainty was President Yanukovych’s move on February 19, to replace chief of the General Staff Zamana with Navy Commander Ilyin. Such a move was likely not driven by concerns over loyalty in the top echelons of power, as Zamana has now been appointed deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council. Rather the bureaucratic reshuffle may have been an effort by the president to “streamline” his siloviki team, creating more efficient or more direct control over all the security services branches and agencies. At the same time, the Ministry of Defense reminded on February 20 that it might still use force and firearms “to halt extremist and illegal actions by radical groups” in order to maintain stability and prevent a civil war in Ukraine (

Should such a crisis management operation by the Armed Forces unfold, the “smart” use of the military could, eventually, turn out to be a stabilizing factor for Ukraine, where protesters and the public largely distrust the police and other law enforcement agencies—especially after some unidentified special units reportedly opened fire on Maidan protesters on February 20 ( Indeed, the death toll during the clashes between protesters and the police on February 19–20 has already reached 67, as of the publication of this article ( But no matter how well it is planned, the use of the military to quell the violence will most likely lead to some level of escalation of the crisis before a political process and dialogue can bear any fruit.