The continuing punitive military operations in Ukraine bring into question how far a Government can go to crush dissent. The Western-backed government, in the eyes of many, is guilty of horrible crimes from Mariupol to Odessa. And there have been accusations of war crimes, as heavy artillery, white phosphorus and cluster bombs are being used in Slavyansk, Lugansk and other areas. Charles Shoebridge, a former military intelligence counterterrorism officer, believes that Ukraine is waging a punitive operation against its own people.
This is John Robles, I'm speaking with Mr. Charles Shoebridge. He is a former British army officer and counterterrorism intelligence officer. He is also a security analyst and specialist.
Greeting between Robles and Shoebridge
Robles: Regarding the escalating situation in the southeast of Ukraine, the latest developments; we have incursions into the Russian territory, we have what’s probably the use of white phosphorus, we have cluster bombs being used. Can you comment on the military aspect of the operation there against the opposition?
Shoebridge: What the Ukrainian Government appears to be doing is employing tactics that are traditionally used by armies throughout the world, that don’t really have a coherent counter-insurgency strategy.
I mean, they are calling this a counterterrorism operation, but, in fact it is increasingly looking like from the side of the Ukrainian military’s perspective, a conventional assault on towns using heavy weapons and the array of weaponry, or shall we say, at least the means being used in terms of, for example, the alleged and the suspected use of white phosphorous recently, is an example of where the array of weaponry and means is being expanded, because, of course, the counterinsurgency operation that they are employing at the current time isn’t working or perhaps isn’t working fast enough for the authorities in Kiev.
If you remember that Poroshenko, really within hours of being elected pretty much said that the “antiterrorist operation”, as he called it, in the east would continue, but it would be over within hours. And of course, those hours have now become very extended and so, therefore, there is probably some considerable political pressure on the military to achieve whatever objectives have been set for it, even if those are going to end up to be very limited objectives in a fairly short space of time, and the way that the military would traditionally response to such pressure is of course to ramp up the amount of firepower they are using.
They are using these standard conventional tactics, to a large degree, because it saves their manpower. In terms of being able to use heavy weapons, such as strike aircraft, helicopters, artillery motors and so on of course, all of these are weapons that can be deployed against the activist or against the rebel forces with minimal risk to the actual Ukraine forces. And so, you can see that, on the one hand, they want to avoid their own casualties, which of course is understandable.
Secondly though, there may be questions from the first stages of this “counterterrorism operation”, as it’s called up to weeks or even months ago now, where the reliability of the troops being used, the police being used in that operation was called into question. Some of those troops and the police even defected to the rebels’ side. And so, again, it avoids issues like this, it avoids close combat, if the Ukrainian military are using these heavy weapons.
Of course, it is fairly obvious that the majority of casualties are likely to be civilians. And then, crucially, this has a very counterproductive effect, because, going back to what Poroshenko said in really the early hours of him being President-elect, following the elections, he in many ways put out an olive branch to not the fighters but the people – as he called it – the ordinary peaceful people of the eastern provinces, that they should be part of Ukraine, they have nothing to fear. But, of course, it is those very people that are now suffering most from this strategy of these tactics of using heavy weaponry as a means of – if you like – trying to strike at the fighters, but without closing with them.
The effect on the civilian population of being placed under bombardment by heavy weapons, will be to turn that population against that government, irrespective of what nature that government is.
Robles: Let’s take it a little bit into the UK. Say, Scotland had a referendum, they wanted to separate, right? And what if the UK Government started bombing Scotland into oblivion?
Shoebridge: For example, when the Crimean plebiscite/referendum was called, the UK was in the forefront of condemning this referendum as; what it called, illegal. And it supported the Ukrainian Government in its definition of that referendum as illegal.
Notwithstanding in September we will be having a very similar referendum in Scotland to decide whether Scotland should become completely independent from the rest of the UK. And of course, what makes that legal is of course that the UK Government has agreed to that. And so on the other hand, we’ve got the same Government supporting a Ukraine Government which doesn’t allow such self-determination in the Crimea.
So, right from the very start the position of the UK and, indeed, other countries that would have supported referendums, for example, in Kosovo notably, these countries of course were put from the very outset, in a logically inconsistent and really unsustainable position, when it came to condemning, particularly the Crimea referendum.
Let’s say for example, the Crimean Government as it was, invited in, for example, the OSCE to send monitors in to observe that. So, then, when the Western media criticizes the outcome of the Crimean Referendum and points out that there were no foreign observers, at least from the West, of course, it was the West’s choice not to send observers there but they were invited.
The parallel with Scotland in the UK is clear even if it is an inverse relationship. You’ve got the UK Government and its allies absolutely supporting within the UK the rights of part of the UK, if it should chose to do so in September, to become independent and yet of course denying that in Ukraine.
Observers are deployed throughout Ukraine, particularly in the eastern points to observe what is happening in a military perspective, in this “context” if you like, the allegations of bombardments, including for example, with white phosphorus, of civilian areas is a subject that ought to be the subject of some form of investigation. And the OSCE can step into this role in order to at least establish the facts of what happened.
So, when we go back to the situation of white phosphorus being suspected of being used next to Slavyansk in the last couple of days, I myself have seen video which purports to be and as far as we know “is”, a video of the target area in daylight showing what appears to be white phosphorus still in fact burning.
Now, the easy part of that investigation would be to establish that white phosphorus or something similar was used.
The difficult part of course would be, and again probably the OSCE and other organizations perhaps would want to take a backward step at this point; the point is then establishing what the purpose of using those munitions was, and that would then determine whether the use was illegal under the laws of war or not.
Robles: Can you give us an example of when they would be legal?
Shoebridge: Yes, for example the uses of white phosphorus are basically three-fold: white phosphorus can be used mainly for producing smoke to cover the movement of troops, for example, but remember that this was a night-time incident, which makes it unlikely that smoke was the reason.
Another reason that white phosphorus can be used is as a battlefield illumination device. And again, it may be that in circumstances of its alleged use a couple of days ago that that was the case. However, there are much better ways of illuminating the battlefield, for example by using a technology (image intensification for example) or if you are going to use flares, there are better ones available that come down for example on slow parachutes, which means that the area is illuminated for much longer.
So generally speaking, looking at the video from the other day, if indeed that is genuine video and there is nothing as far as I'm aware to suggest that it isn’t so far, that it seems unlikely phosphorus was used for smoke and secondly its use as an illuminant is dubious, because there are much better ways of doing so.
It cannot be used lawfully under a number of conventions and laws in a way that is so reckless that it is going to cause obvious danger and even less, of course, deliberately targeting the civilian areas. And if indeed that was the case the other day, then it would appear there is at least a case to be made that an illegal act occurred. But again, this would require more investigation, and this is one of the areas where the OSCE, in at least establishing the facts on the ground, could be called upon to step in.
Robles: Is it legal… these fragmentation-type bombs? Because I had a source come from Slavyansk yesterday and he brought some pieces of a bomb that was about 2 cm thick steel. Are those legal?
Shoebridge: Yes. I mean many weapons are, especially anti-personnel weapons, are a fragmentation device. And even a hand grenade, for example, is a fragmentation weapon. And then, of course, that can go to actual artillery and to bombs shot from aircraft which of course will use shrapnel to kill people.
So, these weapons themselves are not in themselves illegal. If cluster munitions are being used, which is a different thing, where they are using a bomb which will fragment into a lot of different separate bomblets which can explode at different times, that would raise issues of legality. But I don’t think that is what is being discussed here at this time.
However, what is important is in a way the type of weapon, generally speaking, what is important is how they are used. So, no matter what the weapon, if it is being used indiscriminately against primarily civilian areas, and even more so, if it is being used of course deliberately in a way that is targeting the civilian areas, not withstanding that there may be one or two fighters somewhere in that area, this could well be illegal under the Rules of War, it could be said to constitute war crimes. And of course, people can be held responsible for that at a later stage.
Robles: Is there supposed to be some level of threat that justifies a level of force? I don’t see a justifiable, legitimate reason to use fighter aircraft against opposition demonstrators who are defending their own areas?
Shoebridge: It is an interesting question, not least because of this reason: that when you have a conflict between states, of course, international laws of war will apply. Here we’ve got a domestic national dispute. So it raises questions: Is this a war? Is this a police operation? Is this a counterinsurgency operation? Is it (as it is being described) an antiterrorist operation?
If it is an antiterrorist operation then… (I know really very little about the domestic laws of Ukraine in connection with the use of force by police) but, for example, most countries will have laws that apply to the application of force by the state within the state’s boundaries.
So if this is a policing action, then generally speaking certainly in much of the Western world (and let’s not forget, it is the Western world which is largely backing this operation by the Ukraine Government), then by their own standards the deployment of force must be reasonable and it must be proportionate to the threat faced and to what objective is actually to be achieved.
But, perhaps, on a more important level, shall we say, from the perspective of the Ukraine Government, one has to ask what the objectives actually are in this case, because if the objectives are to crush the rebellion win back the support or at least the acceptance of the people in these areas (as Poroshenko, at least on the surface, claimed to be the aim that he has in mind) these methods of using heavy weapons in this way, which by their very nature tend to be poorly targeted indiscriminately, will be counterproductive.
It is absolutely clear that if a government uses these kinds of methods of bombardment, of air attacks, of shall we say, blockade and even by its speech alienating large numbers of its people (for example straight after Yanukovych was overthrown of course, there was a lot of draft legislation that really quite clearly was targeting the Russian-speaking population), if all of that happens, of course, that is going to change the dynamic, change the mindset of people in those areas, so that actually people who until relatively recently wanted themselves to be regarded as Russian-speaking and wanted their culture, language and church respected, actually in many cases (now I'm sure because it would happen anywhere in the world where this is happening) will actually begin to think of themselves as not being a part and not in the future part of the state called Ukraine, which has in their mind, in many cases targeted them.
There needs to be peace and stability. And until there is some negotiated agreement between those in power in the eastern provinces, I'm talking about de facto power and the Government in Kiev, until some sort of peace and stability can result, the military campaign that the Ukrainian Government is currently waging in these provinces is almost certain to be counterproductive and will not produce an atmosphere that is conducive to a fair and free election. And it may be that even in parliamentary elections, that they can’t be held in these restive provinces. But at the moment the tactics being used by the Ukraine authorities, would not be considered by most people to be good progressive counterinsurgency tactics that are likely to produce the result that Poroshenko himself in his election day address said was his aim.
Robles: The last point, would you characterize those operations there as genocide?
Shoebridge: I think what’s happened is that you’ve got a situation where the Ukraine Government is struggling militarily, where you’ve got people who quite clearly enjoy a considerable amount of local popular support. We are talking about the rebels that here in the western media we call separatists, but who, to a large extent, are just people who want to protect their rights from what they see as an alien government and unelected government.
But the Ukraine Government is finding it difficult militarily to dislodge those people. And so therefore it is resorting to these heavy weapons which are going to kill and injure very large numbers of civilians as well. And of course that will just actually lead people into a feeling that A) they are not part of this Ukraine Government or part of the Ukraine nation and secondly that they will actually in many cases sign up to defend militarily their areas from the people who are causing these deaths and this devastation.
And also, of course increasingly it is possible now to see what the BBC and the Times and the CNN are not showing, which of course is that there is going to be some considerable embarrassment, I think that is growing for the Kiev Government but more importantly perhaps, in the long run, for its EU and US backers.
These US and EU backers the government and the media here will increasingly want to distance themselves from the Kiev Government, at least publically, the more civilian casualties are unavoidably seen.
In the old days, before the Internet, it would have been possible to have hidden what is going on in these eastern provinces. But now, because of these alternative media sources available, Twitter and so on…for example, when Mariupol happened or when Odessa happened, no matter what slant the Western media puts on those events it couldn’t really hide the truth behind what actually happened.
Robles: Thank you very much!
You were listening to an interview with Charles Shoebridge – a security analyst and the former UK army and counterterrorism intelligence officer.