Dealing with an Urban Armed Insurrection

Back to basics

As the dramatic events in the Ukraine are unfolding the topic of what President Yanukovich can, or can not do, regularly comes up and I think that this is a good time to go back to basics and look at what a government — any government, regardless of its political orientation — can and even must do when confronted with an urban armed insurrection.

First, a head of state, any head of state, has an obligation to uphold the Constitution, the law and order, to protect its citizens from abuse and violence against their persons and their property. Sounds trite? Yes, but the important concept here is that this is an obligation, not an option or a right.

Second, a head of state, any head of state, is the commander in chief of the country’s armed forces in the most general sense of the word: i.e., all those forces, units and individuals who are given the instruments of violence to protect the country: military, police, Interior Ministry forces, riot police, national guard, etc. Thus, and just as any commander in chief, the head of state also bears the ultimate responsibility for the lives and well-being not only of the citizens these forces are supposed to protect, but also for the forces carrying out his orders. Again, this is hardly an original insight, and yet it is overlooked in the current situation (more about that later).

Now let’s look at what kind of “opposition” we are dealing with in the center of the city of Kiev. According to most accounts, it is a very diverse lot of people:

1) “Simple” Ukrainians (“simple” in the sense of “not politically aligned”) fed up with the corruption, poverty, incompetence, arrogance and violence of the ruling elites. These are the kind of folks one could see in the streets of Moscow or Saint Petersburg in the early-mid 1990s desperately trying to make a living while trying to avoid being victimized by the numerous Mafia gangs and corrupt officials preying on them. These are demonstrators, but crucially non-violent ones. For our purposes I would refer to this group as “civilians.”
2) Various types of demonstrators willing to use violence against the police, other demonstrators and buildings. I will refer to this group as “rioters.”
3) The next step up are those rioters who are organized in teams or groups armed with various types of improvised but lethal weapons including not only iron bars and ice-picks, but also Molotov cocktails, knives, hatchets, handguns, rifles and even vehicles (trucks and tractors used as a weapon to run over police forces). These are urban “insurgents.”
4) Finally, there are a few well-trained individuals who act in small teams to accomplish special tasks such as sniper fire, demolition, kidnappings, hostage taking and assassinations. These are “terrorists.”

At this point in time, and since all sides are lying, it is hard to make accurate estimates about the proportion of each of these elements in the clashes in Kiev, but we can safely say that all of these elements are present at the scene.

Now let’s look at what the government has deployed as forces against these elements: regular police forces, riot police (the Berkut) and, according to recent news, about 500 paratroopers flown in to protect some weapon depots around Kiev (these do not participate in the events in downtown Kiev). As far as I can tell, the regular police forces have been mostly kept back and the most of the actual fighting has involved the Berkut riot cops. Again, it is hard to ascertain for sure whether this is true or not, but Ukrainian officials claim that Berkut cops have not been issued real ammo, only plastic bullets. They also have flash-bang grenades, truncheons and water cannons. All the footage I have seen so far seems to confirm that this is true, at least in Kiev.

I have just seen footage (here) of what appears to be an attempt by rioters to storm a building of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) which has resulted in a single burst of automatic fire from inside the building hitting and possibly killing, one or several rioters. From the level of the bullet holes in the window it appears to me that the shots were fired downward from a higher position inside the building and that the rioters might have been hit by ricochets. This seems to have taken place in the city of Khmelnytskyi, in western Ukraine.

While being aware of the fact that dynamics might be very different elsewhere, I want to focus on what is happening in downtown Kiev, on the Independence Square (aka “the Maidan”) and the surrounding streets.

What should a government do when faced with the type of mob rule and chaos we see taking place in Kiev?

I would suggest that the first task at hand has to be to contain the violence and to try to separate as best as possible civilians, from rioters, insurgents and terrorists. While it is, of course, absolutely impossible to send in the cops and remove the civilians one by one, even less so by force, the government can by means of loudspeakers or helicopter dropped leaflets try to convince the (non-violent) civilians to voluntarily leave an area were violence is omnipresent. These kinds of measures are usually of minimal effectiveness, but they serve in important legal function: they are an indication of the efforts of the authorities to discriminate between the various groups at the scene and an attempt to contribute to the safety of innocent bystanders. At the very least, such a warning places the responsibility for the consequences of rejecting an order to disperse on the civilians who, by refusing to disperse, are voluntarily making the decision to stay with violent rioters, insurgents and terrorists. In any case, I believe that the government can make the case that after sufficient time has passed and after clear warnings have been repeatedly issued that there are no more civilians left in the combat areas. This might sound cruel for those naive or plain stupid civilians who will inevitably ignore the warning, but one has to keep in mind that the responsibility of a government is to protect not only the lives of rioting civilians, but also of the rest of the population and law and order in general.

Once and area is considered “freed from innocent civilians”, the next issue which a government must deal with is one of proportionality. You cannot just send in the air force and carpet bomb downtown Kiev with napalm or cluster bombs or order an artillery strike. So what can be done to try to engage the rioters?

First and foremost, non-violent means can be used to severely complicate the situation of the rioters. How?

First, the city center must be completely cut off from the rest of the city. Troops must establish a cordon of police forces, roadblocks, concertina wire barriers, armored vehicles, fortified checkpoints, etc. which will completely isolate the combat area from the rest of the planet. Electronic warfare units have to be used to cut off all communications including cellphones, Internet and satellite. Mass media signals need to be locally jammed. Every effort must be made to establish an impenetrable barrier between the combat zone and the rest of the world. Last, but not least, nothing, absolutely nothing, can be allowed in. No food, no medicine, no water, no supplies. Nothing. Whatever the actual number of people currently assembled in the Maidan, it will take less than 24 hours for the water and sanitation situation to become completely unmanageable. In preparation for the inevitable movement out of the area, four heavily protected filtration points must be placed around the combat area: one on the north, east, south and west. These will be the only exit point through which surrendering rioters will be allowed to leave. Notice that at this point I am not talking about “dispersing civilians” but “surrendering rioters”. Every person leaving must be immediately arrested, disarmed, searched, registered and sent to temporary holding facilities until the police can investigate them and the courts prosecute them.

On a political level, the President should fully stop any kind of discussions, consultations or other “telephone conversations” with foreign diplomats who support the insurgents. “Sorry, I am busy restoring law and order, will call you later” should be all that a head of state should pass on to any “negotiators” from abroad.

Internally, any so-called “opposition leader” willing to surrender should be given the same option as any other rioter. No more, no less. To officially negotiate with insurgents is absolutely irresponsible and only invites escalation.

Notice that none of the above measures implies any use of violence against anybody. But some violent means will inevitable have to be used.

Riot police are not the correct force to use against insurgents and terrorists. These must be dealt with only by specially trained forces. Insurgents have to be dealt with by special counter-insurgency forces while terrorists must be engaged by anti-terrorist forces. Sound obvious? Well, maybe to you and me, but this is not at all what is taking place in the Ukraine. So far, Yanukovich has only sent the riot police to deal with the full spectrum of threats.

Now, I am not by nature somebody particularly sympathetic to riot cops. I see them as “human guard-dogs” who bite whomever they are told to bite. I find that a frankly disgusting career choice. But I have to admit two things: every country has to have this type of force and what the guys of the Berkut have been subjected to is absolutely outrageous: they were told to stand still under a deluge of boulders and Molotov cocktails, they have been rammed by trucks and tractors, they have been told to attack heavily armed and well organized mobsters without even a side-arm to defend their lives. They have been beat up over and over and over again and each time their own commander in chief, President Yanukovich, has blamed them for the violence. This is absolutely despicable and I am amazed that these guys have still not turned against Yanukovich himself.

I don’t know that for a fact, but I strongly suspect that the Ukrainian special and security forces are in the same kind of shape as their Russian counterparts were in the early to mid 1990s: in absolute disarray. And maybe, maybe, that is why Yanukovich cannot use them – because they are basically unusable. This is possible, but for a country the size of the Ukraine it is hard for me to believe that even a small force sufficient to deal with the crisis in downtown Kiev could not be found. Does the SBU really not have any forces at all? If that is really the case, then the regime is guilty of criminal negligence.

In Russia, a situation like the one in Kiev would be quite impossible for many reasons, but if we imagine that this would happen, the government could use the OMON to deal with “regular” rioters, the ODON to deal with the insurgents and the Spetsnaz FSB to deal with terrorist. Under no circumstances should the military be directly involved in such operations (support missions such as communications and signal jamming are a different matter).

Again, either Yanukovich has such forces and he is criminally negligent for not using them, or he does not have them, in which case he is criminally negligent for not having trained and organized them. Either way, this is a direct responsibility of the government.

Assuming that Yanukovich does have similar forces at his disposal, what could they do? Special counter-sniper teams (drawn from the anti-terrorist units) could be deployed to suppress sniper fire currently directed at the security forces. ODON-type counter-insurgency battalions could be used to directly engage the nationalist “combat teams” (for lack of a better term). These forces should be given the means and right to use lethal force, but they could do many things to intimidate their opponents (a long burst of 30mm or 50mm tracer fire on the wall of a building will do miracles to convince the neo-Nazi insurgents that it is time to return to the western Ukraine). APCs could be and AIVs could be used to rapidly dismantle any barricades or crush any “improvised assault vehicles” (trucks, tractors, buses, forklifts) used to crush the riot cops. Basically, a square like the Maidan could be cleared within less than a few hours and with relatively few casualties or fatalities. Yes, there would be victims, but it would not be a bloodbath.

Having shown that such instruments of state power do exist, I want to repeat something I said above: to contain the violence and restore law and order is not an option, it is an obligation for any responsible head of state. And if Yanukovich does not have the courage to do that which he is legally obligated to do he should resign.

What did he do instead? He negotiated ad nauseam with western diplomats and the so-called “opposition leaders”, he made absolutely irresponsible concessions, he tried to sent the poor riot cops to restore order even though they cannot do that by definition, and he blamed them for the resulting violence. With his every move he has consistently signaled the same thing: weakness, weakness, weakness and weakness. And the result?

Not only has the violence dramatically increased, the combat zone has now grown way beyond just Maidan square and Gruchevski street. Take a look at this screenshot of a Russian TV map of the combat area:

Now that the violence has spread to a much bigger section of downtown Kiev, it will take a much bigger force to deal with it?

I can only hope that the insurgents do not have the manpower to dig in and hold to a larger area than before, as this would make the human cost of dealing with the violence much higher.

In conclusion I want to say this: I cannot accept the argument that Yanukovich could not deal with the violence on political grounds. Political expediency is no excuse to betray your sworn oath to protect the people of your country, defend the Constitution and maintain law and order. I categorically reject the notion that sending in riot policemen armed only with non-lethal weapons is the correct way to deal with the kind of situation at hand. I think that these never-ending consultations and negotiations with sworn enemies of the Ukrainian people like the EU diplomats or the so-called “opposition leaders” are not only useless, they are highly counter-productive and they only invite further escalation.

So not only did Yanukovich do everything wrong in the past, he still does everything wrong now. I see him as the number one culprit for the current situation and I am afraid at what else he might completely FUBAR before he is finally kicked out of power.

This is all very sad and tragic, and the only good thing I see coming from all this chaos, misery and violence is the possibility that the eastern and southern Ukrainian will finally realize that they have not future in a common country with the crazed Zapatentsy, neo-Nazi militias and other nationalists and that they need to take their sovereignty back, either join Russia or, at least, to sever their current ties with the western Ukraine.

As for Yanukovich, his place in the future history books next to the likes of Kerensky and Eltsin is assured and, in the meanwhile, nothing positive will happen in the Ukraine as long as that pathetic oligarchic puppet remains in power.


PS: the only good news this morning is this: Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Vladimir Putin, confirm that Russia will not get involved in any way in the current conflict in the Ukraine. Thank God for that!

The Saker is a former military analyst who lived most of his life in Europe and who now lives in the USA. This article originally appeared at The Vineyard of the Saker. Read other articles by The Saker.