Ukraine's conflict in the east has been renamed and reorganised
By Kateryna Kruk in Kyiv May 14, 2018

The Anti Terrorist Operation is over. This was one of the most popular headlines in Ukrainian media since the beginning of May. However, it was mostly a wishful thinking. Indeed, the ATO, as it is known, in Eastern Ukraine is officially over, but the conflict itself is far from at an end. Does the change of the name change its nature?

ATO was officially announced on April 14, 2014. Back in 2014 authorities were talking about an operation aimed at restoring public order in the Eastern Ukraine that would last for a maximum two or three weeks. Nothing of what we thought then turned out to be true. ATO has lasted for four full years and appeared to be an operation defending Ukraine from Russian aggression.

Many complained that the name “anti-terrorist operation” doesn’t reflect the real nature of the conflict and the role of Russia has in it. It was a popular line of critique towards Ukrainian officials who have been accusing Russia of supporting local mercenaries and sending its own regular military troops to Eastern Ukraine, but for a long time didn’t changed the name of the operation or proclaim Russian an aggressor. The point is this was not a terrorist operation, but a de facto war.

Finally, in January 2018 the Verkhovna Rada officially passed a law on state policy on ensuring Ukrainian sovereignty on the temporarily occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk regions. The law recognizes Russia as an aggressor and names it responsible for the support of the terrorist groups and the occupation of Eastern Ukraine. It also puts an end to the variations in the names for the opposition such as “rebels,” “separatists” or “terrorists” and recognizes that Ukraine is fighting against Russia-led occupation forces.

By putting the name straight, Ukrainian lawmakers have finally taken the step of reorganizing the way operations in Eastern Ukraine are managed and carried out. The most obvious change is the change of the name of the complex of operations held in Eastern Ukraine. From now on, both Ukrainians and the international community should get used to the fact that using ATO abbreviation is no longer proper. The new regime in Eastern Ukraine is called the “Operatsiya Obyednanych Syl” (OOS), or Joint Forces Operation (JFO).

The change of the nature of the operation seems very logical since Ukraine has officially recognized that it is fighting not against rebels/terrorists/illegal military units but against Russian occupation forces. Moreover, all the combatants that are captured will be officially treated as prisoners of war and have that status. It is important to underline that the change of format of the operation doesn’t mean Ukraine is going to give up on the Minsk II agreement. The document is mentioned in the law establishing the OOS as one of the basics of Ukraine’s policy on reintegrating the Donbas.

However, the name is not the biggest change. As the commander of the OOS/UFO Segiy Nayev said during his press-conference: “The main difference [between ATO and OOS/UFO] is that united forces operation is a military operation.” And as a military operation it requires a proper organization on the ground.

OOS structure and organization has much more clarity than ATO ever had. It was indeed unfortunate that, de facto, a big, multilayer military operation was coordinated not by the armed forces but by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). Now with the new law and the new categorization of the conflict, this will change. The anti-terrorist staff of the SBU will be replaced by the United Operation Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. This body will coordinate different armed forces, national police, national guard, state emergency services, and other institutions that will perform their duties in the conflict zone. The Head of the United Operations Staff general lieutenant Sergiy Nayev will answer directly to the Head of the General Staff of Ukraine.

The control of the United Operations Staff will extend to the entire oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, not only to the conflict zone and the contact line zone as it was before. It is also worth noting that the Staff, in coordination with SBU, will control the movement of goods on the occupied territory as well as a movement of people through the contact line.

The Donetsk and Luhansk regions will be divided into three security zones. The green, the yellow and the red ones. The green regime will be established on the territories with no restrictions on the freedom of the movement of people. Those in the yellow regime should always have documents with them and be ready to display them on request, as well as present their personal belongings and vehicles for inspection. The red regime is a restricted territory entrance to which requires a special permit.

Obviously, it would be naive to think that change of the name of the operation will bring some significant changes to Eastern Ukraine. I believe it wasn’t even an intention of the authors of the law. The territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are still controlled by the Russian occupation forces that continue shelling Ukrainian positions and hardly any changes from Ukrainian side can stop them. However, there is a very positive change in the organization and control of the operations in Eastern Ukraine. Clarity and coordination of the efforts between different actors involved will have a positive influence on any operations held in the Donbas. It is also expected that United Operations Staff will be able to have a better control over the region. This is a good sign showing that Ukraine is ready to learn from own mistakes and make the necessary changes to ensure better coordination of the security efforts.

An activist, journalist and co-founder of Global Ukrainians, an international network of Ukrainians worldwide, Kateryna Kruk was awarded the Atlantic Council Freedom Award for her work communicating the Euromaidan revolution to the world. She predicted a frozen conflict in July 2014, which has largely come to pass, and now comments on the progress of crucial reforms in Ukraine.