What was the trigger for the Russian “special operation”?

Ukrainian plan of attack or Russian imperialism?

by Hans Rudolf Fuhrer*

Currently there is still a great deal of confusion shown in the discussion of the conflict in Ukraine. Ukrainian propaganda lies are no longer all believed unquestioningly and Russian counter-statements are no longer condemned as being merely a criminal aggressor’s mendacious justifications. A more objective assessment of the causes and reasons for the Russian “special operation” is slowly beginning to find expression. The basic principle of Roman law: “Audiatur et altera pars” (hear the other side too) is increasingly respected. It is conceivable that a friend-enemy relationship as the “specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced” (Carl Schmitt, 1932) may once again give way to the “concept of communicative reason” (Jürgen Habermas, 2022), although Konrad Paul Liessmann, “knowing who is your friend and where your enemy stands” (“Neue Zürcher Zeitung” of 20 August 2022), doubts it. I would like to expand on his thoughts with my own reflections.

Will even a preventive war theory have to be discussed some day?

In the GMS Annual 2022 “Feindbild Moskau” (enemy image Moscow), I analysed, from a neutral point of view, the discussion about the German justification of its invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 as a preventive war. It was shown that the term “preventive war” is not well defined. The US government provided a key document on the basis of which the problem can be discussed objectively 20 years ago. The terrorist act of 11 September 2001 on the Twin Towers in New York gave the discussion on the international law legality of a preventive war a decisive push towards clarification, and we must take this into account when assessing the Russian attack on Ukraine. On 17 September 2002, US President George W. Bush presented a new term in Congress, namely: “pre-emption”. We speak of a pre-emptive attack if this takes place before an immediately expected enemy act of aggression.
  An offensive act of war is considered pre-emptive if it is based solely on the assumption that a potential danger emanates from a defined opponent, and that this poses an existential threat to one’s own security interests.


This US definition must guide the assessment also of Russian behaviour. Pre-emption can by all means be legitimate, under the aspect of self-defence; the UN Charter (Art. 51.7) also provides for its legality. Thus, there had to be evidence of imminent or even already triggered acts of war by Ukraine against Russia or against a Russian ally applying for help.
  In my opinion, pre-emption in accordance with Bush, which pre-emptively enforces, by military means, a state’s own interests against an opponent judged to be potentially hostile, cannot be legally justified – it is brutal power politics. The Russian justification that a NATO membership of Ukraine in the narrower sense and a NATO Eastern enlargement in the broader sense endanger Russia’s vital security interests must be classified by the second definition. The Cuban and Iraqi crises stand out as comparable US examples. The USA undoubtedly had security policy reasons for not accepting the stationing of missiles in Cuba and, in the second case, for seeking a change of power in Baghdad. It was possible to solve the first situation diplomatically, the second could only be overcome by force. What is scandalous is that even before the action itself, informed circles did not believe in the decisive reasoning for the military intervention, and that in retrospect, it was proved to be completely groundless. The problem, then, is the accuracy of the information base on which the decision to take up arms is founded. It is a fact that the Western Europeans did not impose economic sanctions on the USA and few doubted their honesty.
  We must assume that the rights claimed by one great power, like the USA, must in principle also be granted to another great power. The latter can thus also act preventively, based on its security interests. This raises many questions for the specific case of “Ukraine”, which have so far been largely ignored in Western assessments. Despite the widespread opinion that this is a criminal act by Moscow and not open for discussion, three questions should be asked by way of example:

1. Was it “necessary” for the Russian leadership to strike out pre-emptively?
So according to the definition, an Ukrainian offensive against Russia must have been imminent or already launched.

Two documents

On 9 March, the Russian Ministry of Defence released captured secret Ukrainian National Guard documents proving a planned attack on separatists in the Donbass for 8 March 2022. These documents were classified as SECRET – unfortunately they are incomplete as a set of commands, but still meaningful enough to draw certain conclusions. They were examined, translated and evaluated by a proven expert at my request. They were issued by the 1st Deputy and Chief of Staff of the Ukrainian National Guard. In an initial order of 22 January 2022, the latter ordered various command units (including the 4th Brigade with its NATO instructors) to set up battalion combat groups to carry out “special combat tasks” as part of the “United Forces Operation”. (This is the term for the operation by Ukrainian government troops against the armed formations of the two breakaway oblasts). The receipt of the order was acknowledged.
  This first document is written free from errors in a simple Ukrainian language, which is appropriate because its author had to be aware that it could be read by officers whose mother tongue was Russian. Registration notes are handwritten in accordance with Soviet tradition. It is astonishing that the document was written using information tools, which was forbidden in the Red Army at the time and in the Soviet Army from 1946 onwards.
  The second document is an order issued by the commander of the National Guard on the same day. It is based on an order of the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces dated 19 December 2021. This order is also classified as SECRET. It also orders the formation of battalion combat groups to strengthen combat power.
  The measures to be taken are ordered according to a sequence plan, for example liaising with the Airborne Forces Command for the purpose of subordinating the battalion battle groups by 24 January, inspecting logistics by 3 February, training in cooperation with the 80th Airborne Brigade (Lla Br) at the Army Peacekeeping Operations and Security Training Centre in Staychi near Lvov/Lviv up to 28 February.
  It is not clear from the order what was to happen to the battalion combat groups after 28 February. What is certain is that the 80th Airborne Brigade (Lla Brigade) was not deployed in the Donbass at that time. The additional formations visible on the orders are army pilots with helicopters and drones as well as transmission formations. This indicates a large operational deployment.


It can be ruled out that this ordered reinforcement of the Ukrainian government forces’ combat power in January 2022 was a consequence of special activities performed by the insurgents. Things had been quiet in the Donbass for weeks.
  Conceivably, measures taken by the Ukrainian high command could be in response to the Russian troop build-up from the end of November 2021. In this sense, they would be legitimised as defensive preparations.
  However, the plan is offensive and its authenticity has since been confirmed from the Russian point of view by further pieces of the puzzle, which were captured in the village of Bugaevka in the Kharkiv region. All indications are that this is not a propagandistic fabrication of the Russian Ministry of Defence, yet there is a lack of certain essential evidential elements.
  Since the Ukrainian attack plan was directed against the breakaway parts of the country and not against Russia in a territorial sense, two follow-up questions arise.

2. Does a right of secession exist?
The right of secession depends on the right of peoples to self-determination. It is an internationally guaranteed positive right, secured contractually by Article 1.1 of the two International Covenants on Human Rights of 1966 (ICCPR) and also by the Charter of the United Nations (Article 1.2), under certain conditions (among others, a substantial majority must vote in favour of secession), and it applies universally. On the other hand, there are examples like the German constitutional law doctrine, which declare the secession of a part of a state from this state to be illegal.


The various secession disputes (including Basque Country/Catalonia, Kurdistan, Taiwan), which all have to be judged independently, as well as the disputed definition of a “people” entitled to the right of secession and the fundamental denial of the right of secession by constitutional lawyers show that the matter is much more complicated, and that national interests often prevent the application of this right.
  What seems very important to me is the fact that, for example, the recognition of Kosovo, which seceded from Serbia, has not been legitimised by any referendum in Kosovo (but only by a parliamentary decision). There is only a ruling by the ICJ in The Hague which has confirmed the right of the Kosovars to secede. This landmark ruling should have been implicitly applied to Crimea and to both the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts (in all of which referendums took place, for good measure).
  These matters are further compounded by the fact that Crimea was integrated into Russia following a request for accession and that the two oblasts were recognised by a decision of the Duma on 22 February 2022, following a request on their part. President Putin had long refused to take this step. The West has never accepted these two processes and has condemned both as contrary to international law. The legality was thus judged differently than in the Kosovo issue. A neutral justification of this diverging attitude of the West has not been provided so far.

3. Is there a right to intervention in an internal conflict?
The Ukrainian government continued not to accept the comprehensive autonomy of the two oblasts, as part of Ukraine, despite signing the Minsk Agreement of 2014/15, of which the demand for this autonomy was an integral part. Ukraine invoked national interests and contractual assurances of the territorial inviolability of its nation. For eight years it has therefore waged incessant war against its breakaway parts. Russia supported the separatists’ struggle in various ways without openly intervening. In contrast to the covert and overt support of the Ukrainian army by NATO under US leadership, Russian behaviour was always sharply criticised. On 24 March 2021, President Zelensky issued a decree confirming that strategic goal of recapturing the breakaway provinces and Crimea that he had expressed since he took office. As a result, the Ukrainian army began to constantly reinforce itself along the confrontation line. The US satellite images can undoubtedly – if they are ever released –prove the Ukrainian as well as the Russian troop build-up. Since 15 February 2022, OSCE monitors recorded intense radio interference and increased artillery fire into the Donbass unprovoked by separatist shelling of Ukrainian positions (15 February: 41; 16 February: 76; 17 February: 316; 18 February: 654; 19 February: 1413; 20-21 February: 2026; 22 February: 1484). Many new civilian casualties were added to the more than 15,000 killed as well as the destruction wreaked in the previous eight years. Protests still did not rise in the West, although it had signed the Minsk agreements.
  The fact is that on 24 February, it was not necessary to bring Ukrainian units to the eastern front from all that far afield. The Ukrainian assault units of the first echelon were ready at the line of confrontation with the Donbass (14-15 mechanised brigades).
  The Ukrainian army dispositive has hardly changed since 2019. Some of the troops had been replaced, so the unit numbers for February 2022 should be viewed with certain reservations, but this does not detract from the significance of the deployment.
  This concentration of troops did not go unnoticed by the Russian intelligence services, and the looming danger was, for example, brought to the attention of the readership in four possible scenarios in the “Komsomolskaya Pravda” of 9 – 15 February. Extensive evacuations of the civilian population were carried out.
  On 24 February 2022, two more elements emerged: the call for help from the two republics recognised by Russia and, as seen from this point of view, a call for intervention on humanitarian grounds.
  By coming to the aid of the two republics in the face of their imminent military subjection, President Putin provided emergency aid. From his point of view, conventionary assistance overrode the prohibition of intervention under international law. Before his decision on the so-called “special operation”, he had several times pointed out that it was important to prevent a “Srebrenica” in the Donbass. In doing so, he relied on the events of the past eight years (including those in Mariupol), on the declared Ukrainian intentions to attack as well as its preparations for attack that had been established beyond doubt by intelligence services, and above all on the documented realisation of the threat of annihilation of ethnic Russians that had been voiced several times in the past eight years by the “Right Sector” (including “Russians are animals, they must be eliminated.” (Dmitri Janosh).


Since the breakaway republics appealed to Russia for military assistance in self-defence in accordance with international law (Art. 51 UN Charter), the crucial question is whether an outside power is in all cases entitled to intervene in an internal conflict of a state on the basis of a call for assistance. This problem is at least as complex as the earlier questions. Historical experience shows that “calls for help” can also be constructed by an aggressor. A comparison with the Kosovo war may well serve again. It is disputed today whether the US justification that it wanted to prevent a genocide and was called for help by the Kosovars, who were doomed to die, stands up to objective scrutiny (see GMS annual 2023, to be published in September 2022). The same care of evaluation must also be applied in the Donbass case, unless we are of the opinion that if two do the same thing, it will yet never be the same. It should also be taken into account that the NATO-led air strikes against Serbia were primarily aimed at civilian facilities in order to break the population’s will to resist. This led to almost no international protests and to no economic sanctions against NATO states. The 3rd Serbian Corps in Kosovo remained unmolested. The Russian warfare in Ukraine should be analysed in the same unreserved way. The same demand would apply to the Ukrainian side. In the meantime, Amnesty International has taken first steps in this direction and uncovered shocking results.

Two open questions

1: I wonder, why those aspects of a pre-emptive war mentioned above, as well as comparable previous and current USA actions, have so far been so little used by the Russians for propaganda purposes. Even if the publications in Russian media are not taken note of in the West or are deliberately suppressed, there might be opportunities. The Moscow government would then have to openly declare its true strategic goals. The slogans of “demilitarisation and denazification” of Ukraine would have to be decoded. In particular, reasons would have to be stringently revealed for the justification of an integral attack on a sovereign state, the attempt to overthrow its government and fillet the country, instead of only executing a limited intervention in favour of harassed secessionists. Had the open Russian intervention been limited to the two Donbass oblasts after the launching of the Ukrainian offensive, the reaction of the West would probably have been different. This delta of proportionality is irritating in any case. Thus remains the all-poisoning fear of the West, and especially of the intermediate zone in its East, that Moscow wants to bring all the lost territories of the former Soviet Union back “home to the empire”. The “special operation” has given new nourishment to the traditional “image of Moscow as the enemy”, and this has since prevented the resumption of the discussion initiated in the 1990s about a security zone in Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals and among equal partners who are satisfied with their borders. In return, the strategic goal of the US hawks to marginalise Russia in terms of power politics would have to give way to an alternative based on partnership. Then also the logical conclusion that Ukraine is fighting a “proxy war” for covert NATO interests would be unfounded. The consequence would be a rethinking of the transatlantic relationship and the current vassalage of the EU, but also a rethinking of the Ukrainian leadership’s policy in dealing with its population. This outline of the problem alone shows that the matter is very complex and that playing with hidden cards and the lies on both sides cannot possibly lead to a sustainable peaceful understanding, but may in an extreme case result in nuclear self-destruction.

2: I also ask myself why the NZZ, a liberal newspaper that sees itself as objective, announced the article of 20 August 2022 which I mentioned in my lead so luridly: “The Ukraine war has torn Europeans out of their flowering dreams of a new eternal age of reason, dialogue and balance. Now they are facing the painful lesson of regaining the political dimension.” The text is subsequently formulated in a more differentiated way, although giving a lot of space to the largely unweighted bellicose reflections of “many contemporaries”. Thus, the spotlight is on eye-catching sentences such as: “The war has brought a tremendous clarity of thought.” “We now know where the enemy stands.” “One does not enter into an intimate relationship with the enemy.” ... The “crown lawyer” of the Third Reich, Carl Schmitt, unfortunately suppresses relativising statements with his assertion that “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.” Criticism is set very discreetly: “The adversary, who may still be granted negotiable interests, becomes a criminal, the rejected, the barbarian, the absolute enemy, who must not be merely defeated but destroyed, or at least punished for the wrong he has done. This presupposes not only a superior moral standpoint, but above all the achievement of a monopoly of power and violence that can no longer be countered. Whether this would be an altogether desirable state remains undecided.” Thus, fascist statements remain largely unevaluated: only the demonisation of climate deniers would lead to an effective climate policy, or the social ostracism of xenophobes and racists would enable a responsible migration policy.
  Consistently, the silencing of so-called “Putin sympathisers” is the effective defence of one’s own community of values and the legitimisation of a “correct” foreign policy. But this is national socialist thinking, and where this friend-foe image leads is shown by performance bans on Russian composers, bans on Russian books in Ukraine and planned entry bans on Russian citizens considered guilty by association. In my opinion, the writer Ilija Trojanow was right when he said in his speech at the opening of the Salzburg Festival: “Nationalism leads to war and confuses thinking.”


I have tried to show the way of objective historical analysis, setting out from the pre-emptive war thesis and evaluating the problem areas that arise from it. Of course, it is too early to do this comprehensively, as we do not have access to the relevant sources. Moreover, I do not see any chance of doing so at present. The positions of both parties are too entrenched, and far too many victims have already been caused by this conflict. If we do not want the war to continue until the defeat of one side or the exhaustion of both sides, I believe that both warring parties should first be approached by a suitable person to find out whether there is political scope for preliminary negotiations and whether there is a chance for later negotiations. For this, however, signs of goodwill are needed from both sides. It seems to me that American politicians, in particular, hold the most important keys to a solution. Even if it is too early to make a historical analysis, it is never too early to depart from the pattern of “here the good guys - there the bad guys” and to realise that although one-eyed people can see, they do lack depth of focus.  •

(Translation Current Concerns)

* Private lecturer Dr phil. Hans Rudolf Fuhrer (*1941). Teacher at all school levels, most recently teaching and research work at the Secondary Teacher Training/University of Zurich (SFA) until 1990, at the Military Academy/ETH Zurich and private lecturer at the University of Zurich until 2006 and since then at the Senior Universities/Volkshochschulen Lucerne, Winterthur and Zurich. Honorary member of the Society for Military History Study Tours (GMS). Various publications, mainly on Swiss military history. Colonel (ret.), as a militia officer most recently commander of a motorised infantry regiment. (Contact address: Juststrasse 32 CH-8706 Meilen, hansrfuhrerbluewin.ch)

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