Foreign Policy Blogs

Donbass Dilemmas

Readers may wonder why the ubiquitous flag of the Donetsk People's Republic seems to have forgotten the word "People's." (I did.) It turns out that this is actually the flag of "Donetsk Republic," a small secessionist organization formed in 2005. (Photo:

Readers may wonder why the ubiquitous flag of the Donetsk People’s Republic seems to have forgotten the word “People’s.” (I did.) It turns out that this is actually the flag of “Donetsk Republic,” a small secessionist organization formed in 2005. (Photo:

People have been praising the strategy of Russian president Vladimir Putin toward eastern Ukraine and the successes that it has brought him there. Yet the more I think about it, the more I wonder how much strategy there is behind his actions and whether Putin is beginning to have second thoughts about those successes. Both Moscow and Kiev face dilemmas in their confrontation over this region, which is often defined as the Donets River Basin (Donetskii Bassein, or Donbass).

Many observers tie Putin’s actions to his past statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. The statement does reflect his attitude, but an attitude is not an action plan. Putin’s actual strategy was to tie Ukraine and other former elements of the USSR to a Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, which has been gradually taking shape. Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was somewhat ambivalent toward the concept, trying to keep his options open and to avoid a definitive choice between Europe and Eurasia. Yet he was distinctly more open to it than the Ukrainian opposition (the current government in Kiev) was, and in 2013 his country faced dire economic straits. Surely he was aware of the plight of countries undergoing economic calamities in the European Union, and of the stringent policy requirements that Brussels imposed upon them. Besides, Brussels is a lot less forgiving of endemic corruption than Moscow is. In any event, he decided to forego a new economic treaty with the EU and to accept a large loan from Russia instead. As we all remember, that led to months of street demonstrations by Ukrainians who feared that Yanukovych had finally opted for Eurasia over Europe and ultimately to Yanukovych’s abandonment of his office and flight to Russia.

The fall of Yanukovych marked the failure of Putin’s policy up to that point; Putin’s pressure on Ukraine had provoked its own resistance. That, however, is not how he sees it. As far as Putin is concerned, this was indirect Western aggression. The legitimate Kiev government had been deposed in a ”fascist” coup engineered by the West. This is not a new notion for Putin. It goes back to the demonstrations that preceded the fall of the president of Serbia in 2000 and the president of Georgia in 2003 and that prevented the inauguration of the Ukrainian president-elect (Yanukovych, as it happens) in 2004. Putin is not particularly concerned about the validity of the elections that made these presidents legitimate in his eyes, but he is very aware that the demonstrators were supported by Western money and advice. Their backers included institutions such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, and the International Republican Institute, all based in Washington, D.C., and funded in full or in part by the U.S. Congress. To American eyes, these were sincere attempts to help people organize to represent their own interests in emerging competitive democratic political systems. Assistance was not limited to a single party, or limited to oppositionists for that matter. To Putin, however, this was Washington undermining pro-Russian governments and replacing them with pro-American governments. (A number of Arab governments have adopted a similar view since the Arab Spring.) In this case, the Russians backed up their argument with an audiotape on YouTube (put there, no doubt, by Russian intelligence) of a phone call between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt in which they discuss which of the Ukrainian opposition leaders merited becoming prime minister.*

The prospects for the Eurasian Economic Union must have appeared pretty dismal after Yanukovych’s exit. This is when Putin began playing it by ear in a way that he surely saw as preventing the further expansion of the West as well as getting back at them for stealing Ukraine from him. How much planning went into what followed is anyone’s guess. He annexed Crimea pretty quickly. He apparently infiltrated several Donbass provinces with commandoes — or as they say, “troops of a special purpose” (voiska spetsial’nogo naznacheniia, often abbreviated as spetsnaz) — who seized government buildings and then turned them over to local pro-Russian elements.** Russia does not appear to have direct control over these players (Moscow had to send an emissary to get them to give up a group of European army observers that they had captured), but rather has put in place people it believes to be sympathetic to its cause.

Moscow has, in essence, established a kind of warlord system in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. Warlords are typically self-interested strongmen who control small slices of territory through a combination of force, patronage and criminal activities. It is worth noting that surveys done as recently as April show that support for secession (outside of Crimea) does not rise above 27 percent even among Russian-speakers in the eastern provinces. (That is not to say that the current Kiev government is popular in the east, but that is a separate issue.) On the other hand, it is not clear how much authority these warlords actually have in their respective provinces. They control symbolically important buildings and give themselves impressive titles, but they do not appear to run anything, with the possible exception of the medium-sized city of Slovyansk.*** The established local authorities claim that they continue to operate from other locations. Yet the local authorities do not seem to interfere with the warlords either, whether out of prudence or out of sympathy. Meanwhile, crime and disorder have become rife.

Does Putin intend to annex the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics? Would there be Kharkov and Odessa People’s Republics if the pro-Russian movement there had been more successful? Or is he content to have the eastern provinces reincorporated into Ukraine in such a way that Moscow could deal directly with Ukrainian provinces while a weakened federal government in Kiev would be deprived of the power to ally itself to Russia’s enemies. It may well be that Putin has a range of more or less acceptable outcomes and is actively testing to discover just how many of them he can achieve. Yet while the eastern warlords continue to talk of secession and annexation by Russia, the Russians are stressing the need to include the secessionists in ongoing round-table discussions on revising the Ukrainian constitution.

The Kiev government faces dilemmas. The normal rules of sovereignty suggest that it should try to regain control of Ukrainian cities occupied by hostile forces, but that is easier said than done. First of all, Russia has mobilized 40,000 troops near the border and threatens to invade if the Ukrainian authorities harm any ethnic Russians. To drive the point home, the warlords invited crowds of civilians—with an emphasis on elderly women—to assemble in front of their occupied buildings, where they are sure to be harmed if any military action ensues.

Second, the Ukrainian army is, in two words, pretty pathetic. In 1991 the Soviet republics inherited the Soviet military forces deployed on their territory. Since Ukraine was situated on the western border, its bequest amounted to some 750.000 troops, more than it felt it needed and far more than it could afford to maintain. Over the subsequent years, Ukraine reduced that force to about 120,000, with plans to continue to 100,000, but Kiev did not reinvest the savings to make the smaller force more modern and flexible. The Ukrainian military remains underfunded, underequipped, and undertrained, and its infrastructure is still oriented toward the west. It also remains of questionable loyalty. Analysts say that the Russians have actively infiltrated the Ukrainian military and security services for years, but whether or not that is true, the military will reflect the country and the country is divided. There must be many officers and enlisted men who are ethnic Russians or Russian-speaking Ukrainians from the east and many others who fail to see ethnic Russians as natural enemies. Possibly for this reason, the new Kiev government immediately formed a new national guard, placed under the minister of the interior and recruited from among Interior Ministry troops and anti-Yanukovych protesters, who presumably make up in loyalty for what they lack in professionalism. The first unit dispatched to the east was a national guard brigade composed of Maidan protesters.

Putin has his own dilemmas. It is becoming clear that he would rather not have a war with Ukraine. War, of course, rarely remains popular for long and can rapidly undermine a weak economy, and his is already sinking into recession. Moreover, war is uncontrollable. He cannot risk actions that might provoke open NATO intervention on Ukraine’s side or even severe economic sanctions, small as those risks might be. This, after all, is why he is using such indirect methods. Putin would really rather achieve his ends through intimidation, as he did in Crimea. Meanwhile, instead of being intimidated into inaction, Ukrainian forces have been employing their own indirect tactics, advancing slowing and positioning themselves around pro-Russian strongholds such as Slovyansk while avoiding direct clashes that might provoke intervention. At the same time, the EU — which can usually be relied on for immobilism, especially when significant economic ties are at risk — has been going along with U.S. sanctions. These have not been large-scale sanctions, but they constitute an experiment in targeting well-to-do people close to Putin, and in combination with Putin’s own actions, they seem to be scaring off the foreign investors that Russia desperately needs. Finally, Putin has surely noticed by now that Ukraine is about to hold elections and that the pro-Russian voters of Crimea and most likely those of Donetsk and Luhansk will not be participating, making an unfavorable outcome very likely. This may explain the Russian concern with inserting the secessionists into the constitutional round table.

While all this has been going on, the Kiev government has actively reached out to the oligarchs that dominate the economy of the east, and indeed of the whole country. Although they were backers of Yanukovych, their main economic interests are in steel and mining, and some of their chief competitors are Russian companies. The last thing that they want is to be cut off from the European market and tied to a customs union with Russia, much less hit with Western sanctions. This situation no doubt explains some of Yanukovych’s earlier ambivalence. Some of the oligarchs turned against him as soon as he opted for the Russian loan over the EU treaty last November. This past week, Rinat Akhmetov, the king of the steel magnates, had some of his 280,000 employees organized into brigades and drove the separatists out of the government buildings of Mariupol, the second-largest city in Donetsk province. Teams of steel workers and police officers then took to patrolling the streets to restore order. Whether or not this was done in coordination with Kiev, it represents an extension of the indirect approach, a fine mimicry of the Russian tactic of applying limited force and intimidation by civilians to achieve political ends without provoking military intervention, which in turn had been modeled on the Russian conception of the Maidan demonstrations that had driven Yanukovych from power. We shall have to see how Russia and the secessionists respond to this latest challenge, but this could be the turning point in the current Ukrainian crisis.

*To be sure, they discussed the figures in terms of their experience and ability to work together, not their willingness to submit to U.S. dictates. The discussion was in reference to an offer by Yanukovych to form a grand coalition with an oppositionist as prime minister. The opposition ultimately rejected that offer, but the leader preferred by the U.S. officials (Arseniy Yatsenyuk) did get the job after Yanukovych fled. Note, too, that Yatsenyuk led what was by far the largest opposition bloc in the parliament (United Opposition “Batkivshchyna”) and was thus a natural choice. Western media coverage of the leak largely ignored these considerations and focused on the fact that Nuland at one point said, “Fuck the EU.”

**It did not always go smoothly. Although the Russian commandoes in Kharkov claimed to be locals, they attempted to seize the opera house, having mistaken it for the mayor’s office. In Odessa, in southern Ukraine, the pro-Russian movement has been stymied not by government forces but by a pro-Ukrainian countermovement.

***Not to be sneered at, Slovyansk reportedly hosts a depot with up to 5 million Soviet-era small arms.



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.