Oleh Mikats is the youngest general of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. He was one of the Ukrainian peacekeepers during the military operation of the allied forces in Iraq in 2005, and later served as commander of Desna Training Center, commander of the 93 Separate Mechanized Brigade, and commander of the Operational Tactical Group “Luhansk”. This November, Oleh Mikats attended the Senior Workshop on International Rules governing Military Operations (SWIRMO), which is focused on application of the basic principles of the international humanitarian law during armed conflicts. We decided to talk with Major General Mikats about the importance of the IHL rules application in modern military conflicts.

– Are such seminars necessary to the military?

I believe they are very necessary. First, they clearly and unambiguously declare that the old principle of “fog of war” does not work anymore. It became obvious after the people who had violated the rules of the international humanitarian law in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq were brought to justice. During the seminar, we studied examples of intended and unintended violations by the military, and considered specific situations.

Secondly, it is necessary to note professional excellence of the trainers, particularly in our group consisting of three representatives of the Russian and two representatives of the Belarusian armies, a representative of Mongolia, my colleague from the Ukrainian Armed Forces and me; we had a Georgian instructor, Gia Toradze. By clearly explaining complicated things, keeping listeners’ attention and brainstorming while considering specific cases, he gave us not just a set of theoretical knowledge, but also made us understand how this all can be applied in a given situation.

– Given your experience, it was not your first encounter with the IHL rules, was it?

No, it was not – I served in the Ukrainian contingent in Iraq in 2005, and, dealing with the representatives of the NATO armies, we paid great attention to the IHL rules. Besides, I studied at the National Defense University of Ukraine, where the IHL was taught. Participation in the conflict in the east of Ukraine also contributed a lot. The seminar has rather helped me systematize the gained knowledge.

It was a one-week seminar with about 60 military participants from various countries. I brought the educational materials on the IHL explaining how the formalized documents on the use of force should be developed. I believe our army needs such documents as well; all orders must be drafted with due account for the IHL, this is very important. It would be nice to hold such a seminar at the level of the brigade command or anti-terrorist operation headquarters.

Oleh Mikats (to the right) during the SWIRMO seminar.

– What is your personal perception of the IHL necessity – where was it more crucial: in Iraq or in the Donbas?

To tell the truth, in Iraq we rather considered IHL as a theoretical necessity. Moreover, in Iraq the rules of engagement were clearly specified. Actually, there was guerrilla warfare. The intensity of hostilities was low, and a fortnightly mortar shelling was a serious incident, followed by a special investigation. In the Donbas, everything is completely different.  Until July 2014, the UAF had no positions in towns or villages, but in wooded areas and gardens. At the same time, there was a direct fight with the enemy – with 200-300 meters between us, we literally jumped into each other’s trenches.

– Have you reviewed your actions after this seminar? Probably there have been cases when you could have acted differently?

I have quite a bit analyzed the situations we had back then. Yes, I understood that in some situations I was on thin ice and should have acted a little differently. However, the knowledge and understanding of the IHL I used to have allowed me to fulfill my tasks without violating the IHL rules. You see, impunity breeds lawlessness. And the good thing in that seminar was that we were clearly told: there will be no impunity.

– Comparing the participants of the seminar, did the representatives of different armies have different understanding of the IHL rules?

Of course, they did. To my mind, those who take part in the international operations or have already received this kind of training have better understanding of the IHL importance.

– How are the IHL rules applied in the east of Ukraine?

I will give you an example. Let’s say, my positions are being fired by the enemy, and I know where enemy’s guns are. Often they are in the populated area. I understand that my backfire can suppress these guns with the probability of 30%. But there is also the probability of 100% that this would cause damages to the local population. Proportionality is the key here. Even if the enemy’s guns are on the outskirts of the village but shrapnel of my backfire might hit a residential building, I will not fire. We often use drones and carry out reconnaissance. We note where the land near the house is plowed and what places are inhabited, and in such cases we will not use lethal force.

– Is it possible to further alleviate suffering of the civilians through a more respectful use of the IHL?

It is important not to respond to provocations. Where there are shootings, the military do not enter the populated areas and they establish their positions not closer than half a kilometer from the nearest houses. We actively use thermal imagers and cameras to determine the exact location of the enemy and to assess what methods of warfare should be applied, so as not to affect civilians. Definitely, we will not shell or destroy a water tower or a filter station, because we will have to rebuild everything.

Interviewed by Oleksandr Vlasenko.