By Paul Biddle MBE
In this article, Paul Biddle MBE reminds us that Putin’s war on Ukraine began in 2014. Biddle joined the Army in 1971 and transferred to the Reserve in 1977, initially serving with 562 Independent Parachute Squadron RCT. When the Squadron disbanded, Biddle went to the 10th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, where he served in the Intelligence Section and on Training Wing. He attended the International Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol School and the School of Military Intelligence at Ashford. His parachuting career ended on a UKSF exercise in Denmark when his chute didn’t deploy correctly. From 2003, he worked as a Deployable Civilian Expert with the UK Stabilisation Unit (SU), a cross-government unit forming part of the UK National Security Council. SU’s role is to provide expertise to civil, military, law enforcement efforts overseas.
Patrolling Luhansk Oblast, The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine in 2014
By Paul Biddle MBE
We are nine years into the war in Ukraine although what we are seeing now has overshadowed what happened in the initial stages back in 2014.
I was working on a Security Sector project in Oslo when the Russians took the Crimea, I was made aware that a OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine (SMM) was being stood up on 21 March 2014. As a member of the Rapid Expert Assistance and Co-operation Team (REACT), I was one of the first to go. I had undertaken the FCO REACT training at Sennybridge back in 2003.
We had a very short briefing and flew to Kyiv early April 2014. After some internal organisation, we split into Luhansk and Donetsk teams. I was tasked as Security Officer. A good friend and former 3 PARA captain with whom I had previously served in Haiti had become Deputy Head of Mission.
We set off by car to Luhansk. Initially, very little was explained to us regarding the political and security situation other than it was quickly deteriorating. The 800 km journey was only hindered by the fact that the OSCE escorting convoy was held at the separation line between the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and the territory under the control of the de facto government forces for several hours.
Having negotiated our passage through the separation line, it was clear that very little stood between both forces; the poorly constructed LPR check points made from tyres, and the militia with poorly maintained weapons could very easily have been overpowered.
However, the Ukrainian military were clearly reluctant to undertake any military actions against their own people. Additionally, the ongoing political transition involving a yet-to-be determined democratically elected government was also a factor that limited the possibilities of official, state-sanctioned operations.
This gave the LPR an opportunity to garner greater support from the people and from Russia and to obtain much needed support, equipment as well as volunteer manpower. It also provided other separatist groups, such as the Cossacks, an opportunity to carve out small but important ‘empires’ within the Luhansk Oblast. It should be noted that, at this time, we saw no sign of regular Russian Federation troops or equipment.
This inertia from the Ukrainian government in tackling the separatists’ groups in Eastern Ukraine gave those on the political right – ‘Pravyi Sektor’ – added motivation and incentives to form paramilitary ‘battalions’ to organize and fight against these separatist groups.
It is now clear that had a democratically elected government been in place in April and acted decisively — politically and within the rule of law — much could have been achieved in re-asserting government control.
Of ski masks, a deteriorating security situation and a hostage situation…
In May 2014, our team realized that the security situation in Luhansk was deteriorating. Our hotel had been taken over by armed men in ski masks, heavily armed with the latest Russian-made assault rifles. Our interpreters confirmed their accents as “Moscow Russian”. We saw, for the first time, LPR military patrols in the city, and the LPR makeshift check points were being reinforced with concrete structures.
This deterioration culminated in late May when two OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (OSCE SMM) patrols – one from Donetsk and one from our team in Luhansk – were taken hostage by one of the Cossack commanders. Given this hostage situation as well as the start of direct military action by Ukrainian government forces, it was decided to exfiltrate the team from Luhansk to Kharkiv by train and by car.
On arriving in Kharkiv, several members of the mission decided to leave the Luhansk team. A new member who had just arrived was told by one of the interpreters that “all the sane people just left”. With hindsight, I agree. I nevertheless decided with a few others to stay and work with the Ukrainian military on the Luhansk contact line.
It is interesting to note that, apart from a single visit from one of the OSCE SMM Deputy Chief Monitors, no senior international politician tried to visit Luhansk to assess the situation and discuss a peaceful resolution during the year I was there.
Monitoring the conflict and its impact on civilians…
The team initially based in Kharkiv moved to Kup’yans’k, then to Starobil’s’k and lastly to Severodonetsk with the aim of monitoring the impact of the conflict on the local population. They were also there to monitor the use of extrajudicial detention and human rights issues as well as providing a visible presence on the front line.
In June 2014, while based in Starobil’s’k, I took the opportunity to take a small team into Luhansk through the ‘Road of Life’ — Доро́га жи́зни, doroga zhizni — a semi-secret cross-country route named after the ice road used by the Russians to feed Leningrad during the siege of 1941-1944. This route was used by IDPs to escape and enter the LPR without going through the check points.
During this visit we witnessed the shelling of the city and the clear deprivations suffered by the civilian population. We also had the opportunity to meet with the senior leadership of the Luhansk People’s Republic. The LPR leadership at that time expressed a willingness to discuss peace with their counterparts in the Ukrainian government but even though this was reported, nothing came of it.
From July to September 2014, we witnessed the battles in and around Shchastya and Route 21 and the defeat of the Ukrainian army at Metalist and at Luhansk Airport as well as the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 and numerous other incidents and clashes.
The defeat at Metalist brought about the consolidation of the contact line along the Severodonetsk River and the T1303 route to the west of Luhansk and the move of the OSCE team to Severodonetsk city.
Minsk I and II Protocols and the consolidation of the Luhansk People’s Republic…
In July 2014, I had the opportunity to visit Luhansk to set up communications with the LPR and the international interlocutors as part of the development of the Minsk I Protocol which was agreed in September 2014.
Our work in monitoring and reporting the Minsk I Protocol was particularly harrowing; the shelling of the Ukrainian frontline checkpoints and units under continual fire ceased when we arrived, providing some short relief for the Ukrainians but as soon as we left, we could hear the shelling starting up again.
The Ukrainian Check Point 22 on the route T1303 west of Luhansk was surrounded for over a week without food or water while we tried unsuccessfully at Check Point 21 to negotiate a ceasefire; Check Point 22 was eventually lost to the separatists.
The collapse of Minsk I and the signing of Minsk II in February 2015 saw my team move to Luhansk to develop a permanent base within the LPR. This allowed us the opportunity to observe at first-hand the effects of the conflict on the civilian population within the LPR-occupied area as well as those areas allied with but not under LPR control. It was also clear that the Russian Federation (RF) had all but taken control of the LPR political and military machine; RF soldiers and equipment were seen all around the city.
My team monitored LPR hospitals, schools, banks, prisons, and mental health facilities, freely reporting the conditions and in some cases negotiating access to international aid. One place I recall was the regional hospital at Slovyanoserbsk, which was on the LPR/Ukrainian contact line. It had been abandoned by the staff, apart from six untrained women, due to the constant shelling. We were the first people to visit, and the conditions were horrendous with dead and living lying side by side. Within twenty-four hours of our visit, we had arranged for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to deliver lifesaving aid.
It was interesting to note that at that time there were no international humanitarian organisations within the LPR. It is also worth noting that our presence in Luhansk provided the security for international relief organizations to open offices – these organizations were however asked to leave the LPR in September 2015.
Our move to Luhansk gave us the opportunity to reach out to other areas not under the direct control of LPR. This proved difficult as permissions had to be obtained days in advance and escorts provided to ensure we only went to areas ‘approved’ by those controlling these areas. However, this still gave us a good opportunity to witness the devastation effects of the Ukrainian artillery on towns and villages in the separatist areas and to witness the harsh living conditions of those who stayed.
Finally, in March 2015, I decided to leave the Mission at the end of its mandate and handed over the patrol hub to a very able colleague. I spent the last few weeks developing operational protocols for the Dnipropetrovsk team, which was going to monitor the movement of heavy weapons from the Donetsk People’s republic (DPR) contact line.
Following the Ukraine. I was was sent to Iraq as Strategic Police Adviser to the CJTF (OIR) and to the Governor of Anbar supporting US/UK Operation ‘Inherent Resolve’. Moving to the US in 2016, I continued working on security projects. I am now retired.
Paul Biddle MBE