In Donbass, Ukraine

Members of the Ukrainian armed forces ride on a military vehicle near Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine, Feb. 16, 2015. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

To bring peace to Ukraine, you need to develop a proper understanding of how the war in Donbass began and the exact dynamics between the various players, including the government in Kiev, the Russian Federation, and the rebel movement…

By Paul Robinson

Published on the author’s website Irrussianality, July 18, 2019

I’ve long said that if you want to bring peace to Ukraine, you need to develop a proper understanding of how the war in Donbass began and of the exact dynamics between the various players, including the government in Kiev, the Russian Federation, and the rebel movement. Attempts to view the conflict purely in terms of ‘Russian aggression’, ignoring its internal dimensions, are bound to point towards policies which see the solution as lying solely in pressuring Moscow. Such policies will fail because they ignore the local nature of the rebel movement and the genuine fears and grievances of the people of Donbass. At a minimum a peace settlement will require autonomy for Donbass, an amnesty, and a change in various Ukrainian policies such as those connected with language.

To make this argument, I have provided evidence in this blog and in various academic and other publications that the initial uprising in Donbass was local in nature; that the overwhelming majority of rebels have always been Ukrainian citizens; that the Russian government only slowly and reluctantly became involved (in large part to gain control of a process over which it originally had little control); that Moscow’s preference has always been for Donbass to be reintegrated within Ukraine with some sort of autonomy, a preference which has put it at odds with the rebel leadership; and finally that patron-client relations are complicated and do not give patrons complete ability to manipulate their clients (indeed the patron may even become something of a captive of the client). All this means that the wishes of the people of Donbass and of the leadership of the rebel republics cannot be ignored. Instead of blindly supporting Kiev as it does its best to alienate eastern Ukraine, Western states should be pressuring it to live up to its commitments in the Minsk accords.

This argument is, of course, entirely at odds with the prevalent narrative coming out of Kiev and Western capitals. It is satisfying, therefore, to read a report which pretty much confirms everything I’ve been saying these past five years. Entitled Rebels without a Cause: Russia’s Proxies in Eastern Ukraine, the report was published yesterday by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG). The ICG gets a lot of its funding from governments, notably Qatar, Australia, Canada, France, Finland, Norway and Sweden, as well as from foundations such as Soros’s Foundation to Promote Open Society. It’s not by any stretch of the imagination a ‘Kremlin proxy’. That makes its conclusions all the more striking.

The ICG’s report is based on interview with ‘rebels, Russian fighters, former and current Russian officials, and de facto republic officials, as well as analysis of public statements and other open sources.’ It is very clear about the origins of the war in Donbass, telling readers that:

The conflict in eastern Ukraine started as a grassroots movement. … demonstrations were led by local citizens claiming to represent the region’s Russian-speaking majority. They were concerned both about the political and economic ramifications of the new Kyiv government and about moves, later aborted, by that government to curtail the official use of Russian language throughout the country.

This is, of course, in direct opposition to the line peddled by Kiev and its Western allies, like Samantha Power who told the press in April 2014 that, ‘It’s professional, coordinated. Nothing grassroots about it’. Power was talking nonsense. So too were those who argued that Moscow had a clearly conceived plan of aggression from the get-go. On the contrary, says the ICG (echoing what I wrote in my 2016 article ‘Russia’s Role in the War in Donbass’),  ‘the Kremlin’s policy toward eastern Ukraine proved neither coherent nor consistent.’ The Kremlin didn’t support separatism in Donbass, but it also felt sympathy for those expressing pro-Russian views there. It couldn’t decide what to do. Thus, concludes the report:

Russian leaders officially said nothing. Absent clear guidance, government advisers and businessmen appear to have acted on their own initiative, without much effort to work together.

In short, the likes of Strelkov and his backers were acting on their own, not at the Kremlin’s behest. In fact, after initially boosting the idea of ‘Novorossiya’, Russian leaders rapidly peddled backwards. But the rebels in Donbass weren’t inclined to do what Moscow wanted. The ICG comments:

A Ukrainian rebel in Strelkov’s regiment described a shift in the message from Moscow as early as late April [2014]. It was then that he began hearing calls for restraint in rebel efforts to take control of eastern Ukrainian towns and cities. … But the separatist movement in Donbas was determined to move ahead, choosing to ignore or creatively interpret Putin’s comments.

In other words, Moscow wasn’t in control in Donbass in spring 2014. In time, though, it decided that it needed to start exercising some control. It therefore set about changing the rebel leadership. According to the ICG,

a former Kremlin official suggested that Moscow had grown frustrated with Strelkov’s activities and his increasingly strident calls for more intervention from Moscow. “He went over there and started this mess … and now we are cleaning it up”.  A fellow Russian combatant told Crisis Group that the Kremlin pressured Strelkov to leave Donbas in exchange for a promise that Moscow would reinforce and resupply the DPR forces.  The D/LPR leadership also changed hands as Moscow sought to establish more order.

This is exactly what I wrote in an August 2014 article in The American Conservative. Back then, I was speculating. It’s interesting to see my speculations confirmed.

Having changed the rebel leadership, Moscow then strong-armed it into accepting the two Minsk agreements, in September 2014 and February 2015. According to the ICG,

For Moscow, the Minsk stipulation of special status for Donbas was a victory. …

But even as it abandoned the Novorossiya cause, it would find it difficult to abandon that cause’s local and Russian standard bearers, who had shed blood fighting for it in Donbas, without risking backlash at home. By allowing freelancers and enthusiasts to shape its policy in Donbas to the extent that it did, the Kremlin wound up beholden to the de facto governments, as well as their Russian supporters, just as D/LPR figures were beholden to the Kremlin, and entrenched in a conflict with no exit strategy.

To put it another way, the patron can’t abandon the client any more than the client can abandon the patron. Moscow can’t just impose any terms it wants on the rebel leadership. Any peace settlement will have to take the wishes of the later into account.

So where are we now? The ICG report says that Moscow’s ‘betrayal’ of the Novorossiya cause and its efforts to impose its own chosen leaders on the rebel republics has created a divide between those leaders and the rebellions’ grassroots supporters. The ICG notes that,

absent an amnesty or relocation to Russia (which some may reject), they see no option but to keep fighting. “What do you do with 40,000 people who believe that, once they put down their arms, they will all be shot or arrested?”, said a former Luhansk activist and politician close to the LPR. “Of course, they are going to fight to the death”. …

These sentiments in effect limit what Moscow can and cannot force the separatists to do. For example, Moscow can demand a ceasefire, but it may well find that its proxies lack sufficient control over the militias to stop the shooting.

Again, Moscow is not in full control, even now. It can’t force the rebels to commit suicide. Any peace settlement will have to give them something they can support. This, of course, has long been blindingly obvious, but it’s good to see somebody lay it out so clearly.

The ICG notes, however, that there’s a third group in Donbass as well as the rebel leaders and the ‘betrayed’ grassroots: the mass of the population. The ICG claims that for the most part ordinary people in Donbass want nothing more than an end to the war and a return to normal life. They cite the response of a typical interviewee:

“I’d be happy to be part of Russia, and I wasn’t unhappy in Ukraine”, a pensioner from Donetsk remarked. “But you know where I really want to live? The Soviet Union”.

If Ukraine is to have any chance of reintegrating Donbass, the ICG argues, it has to win over this ‘silent majority’. However, Ukrainian policy – economic blockade, language laws, and the like – have had the opposite effect. To succeed, Kiev will have to make a dramatic shift in policy, the ICG argues. As the report says,

In the end, there is no question that Kyiv will have to find a way forward with Moscow, either through both sides implementing their commitments in the Minsk agreements (in whatever order they can agree to) or some new deal that covers much of the same ground. Any plausible settlement will involve the withdrawal of Russian troops, some level of autonomy for eastern Ukraine and the reunification of Ukraine with its east (Crimea would need to be subject to other deals and discussions).

Although Moscow remains the main address for peace talks, there nonetheless are good reasons for Kyiv to do more to rebuild relations with its eastern population. First, it needs to do so if it ever hopes to reintegrate those areas into the Ukrainian body politic. Secondly, the growing divides among Moscow, the original separatists and Donbas’s population mean that Moscow’s ability to negotiate on behalf of any of these other groups is limited. Russia’s proxies now in power in the D/LPR would likely have to agree to whatever Russia promised on their behalf, but they might face substantial discontent from an already suspicious population, including among separatists who might hesitate to lay down their arms, undermining any deal.

In other words, if a deal with the Kremlin is essential for peace in Donbas, in itself it may not be enough. Improved relations between Kyiv and the Donbas population might not bring along the most hardened separatists, but they will make armed resistance to reintegration less likely. And the more supportive the local population is of reintegration, the more likely they are to influence separatist neighbours.

To this end, the ICG recommends that Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, lifts the economic blockade of Donbass, makes it easier for Donbass residents to receive their Ukrainian pensions, and softens Ukraine’s language laws. ‘Such steps would signal to the local population that Kyiv is ready to engage and that it values them as citizens, a prerequisite for any constructive political dialogue.’ Overall,

The situation in Donbas ought not to be narrowly defined as a matter of Russian occupation. In this sense, Kyiv’s tendency to conflate Moscow and the de facto leadership has complicated efforts to reintegrate separatist-held areas. If the Ukrainian government wants to peacefully reunify with the rebel-held territories, it cannot avoid engaging the alienated east.

This isn’t rocket science. I’ve been saying it for years. Let’s hope that someone will listen. I fear, though, that it may already be far too late.


Paul Robinson is a professor at the University of Ottawa. He writes about Russian and Soviet history, military history, and military ethics.

His blog Irrussianality focuses on two subjects: the relationship between Russia and the West; and the apparently irrational decision making processes that dominate much of international relations (IR). The two are, of course, connected: relations between Russia and the West are marred by prejudice, misunderstanding, and misperceptions. His hope is that this blog will contribute in some small way to rational foreign policy.


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