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Members of self-defence battalions take part in a rally to commemorate demonstrators who were killed during the 2014 Maidan protests in Kiev, Ukraine, 20 February 2016. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Briefing 85 / Europe & Central Asia

Ukraine: Military Deadlock, Political Crisis

After three years of conflict and 10,000 deaths, Russia has shown it can destabilise and dominate Ukraine. The Kyiv government may still prevail, but only if it uproots corruption and if the U.S. and EU maintain sanctions until Russia’s complete withdrawal from the country’s east.

I. Overview

After almost three years and 10,000 deaths, Russia’s military intervention continues to define all aspects of Ukrainian political life. The conflict and the Minsk peace process are stalemated, but few days pass without deaths along the line of separation. The deadlock hurts Ukraine most. Indeed, Moscow is close to its main aim: destabilising Ukraine and influencing its policy choices. Russia’s victory, however, would be more than local. The trial of strength in the Donbas is also with the U.S. and European Union (EU). Success would reinforce a signal that Russia will defend its perceived national interests by any means necessary. Ukraine still has a good chance of prevailing in the long term, but only if it roots out the corruption that is eating away support for the Poroshenko government. The U.S. and EU must help on both fronts: pressing Kyiv harder for reforms while using strong diplomacy with Russia, including maintaining sanctions, so as to leave President Putin in no doubt he will face firm resistance until he withdraws completely from eastern Ukraine.

Kyiv’s main tactic in the confrontation with Russia has been procrastination: faced with a disadvantageous 2015 Minsk agreement imposed by Russian arms, President Petro Poroshenko has hunkered down, arguing plausibly that key terms are politically unpalatable to his country. This has worked well enough with regard to the Russian half of the crisis, but he has used the same delaying tactics toward another crucial problem, the struggle against corruption. That failure to act has alienated the public and alarmed Ukraine’s foreign backers. Moscow’s tone has hardened since the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. Kyiv’s allies are increasingly worried that the inaction on corruption is dangerous, and a senior Poroshenko administration figure warned Crisis Group recently that “time is on Putin’s side”.

More and more, Kyiv feels alone. Hopes for its EU perspective have not materialised. Top Ukrainian officials are dismissive of the EU and critical of what they say is grudging U.S. military assistance. Meanwhile, as more potentially damaging allegations of corruption in the military sector emerge, their inability or unwillingness to follow through on reforms and anti-corruption legislation is eating away at American and European patience and their own domestic support. Relations have evaporated with the Maidan activists, who essentially brought Poroshenko to power. The growing assumption in public discourse and in government offices is that the top leadership of the country is incorrigibly corrupt.

The deepening political disillusionment and malaise in Kyiv could soon produce major consequences. Russia has been pursuing a two-track policy in Ukraine, with the ultimate goal of rolling back Western influence in a country it considers a prime example of its “privileged interests”. If it succeeds in solidifying the two Donbas political entities, it will be able to tell its own people plausibly that NATO’s seemingly inexorable advance to Russia’s borders since the Soviet Union’s disintegration has finally been stopped. Moscow has also encouraged and assisted pro-Russian parties to drastically increase their influence throughout the country’s local and national legislatures. This scenario has not yet been successful, but with rising prices, continuing scandals and a steady collapse of the president and his allies in polls, it now has at least modest odds of being realised.

Politicians of all persuasions are convinced that Poroshenko’s majority in the Rada (parliament) will collapse, probably in the first part of 2017, and new elections will follow. The parties gaining ground are sympathetic to the Russian world view and in many cases keen to restore the pre-Maidan state of affairs. One emphasises, in private at least, its closeness to Moscow. The presence of a substantial group of pro-Russian politicians in the parliament would further weaken the reform faction and possibly result in politics overflowing onto the streets, as in 2004 and 2014.

To shore up the situation, the U.S., EU and other backers of Ukraine need to keep pressure on Moscow and intensify it on Kyiv. Russia should be reminded that sanctions will be maintained and its aspirations to regain acceptance as a responsible great power thwarted until it pulls out of eastern Ukraine. Washington and Brussels should keep the sovereignty question at the top of the agenda in all talks with Moscow on Ukraine and related European matters. Russia should also be reminded that an unequivocal, binding undertaking to dismantle the Donbas separatist entities and respect the sovereignty of all independent states in the region could open up a new period of mutually beneficial cooperation with the West as well as with Ukraine. This will be a hard sell: Moscow has shown no interest in compromise over the Donbas and appears to believe the situations in Europe and the U.S. are moving in its favour.

Ukraine’s allies will also have to take a much tougher line with the Kyiv leadership. A good start might be to present the president with any credible allegations of corruption implicating any close associates and business partners, insist he move swiftly in particular cases to remove individuals from office or deny them access to major government revenue streams, investigate and, where the evidence justifies, bring them to speedy trials. To retain credibility at home or abroad, the leadership must act dramatically on corruption.

II. Russia’s Strategies

A. In the East

Russia reacted to the 2014 overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych as a direct threat to its own security, another U.S.-instigated “coloured revolution” designed to encircle it and further proof that the West was determined to ignore its claim to an area of “privileged interests” within its neighbourhood.[fn]The term comes from an interview given by then President Dmitry Medvedev, Russian TV channels, 31 August 2008. The full text can be found at www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=205510.Hide Footnote The risk of Ukraine joining NATO, however remote, was considered unacceptable. “It was necessary to stop the extension of the West’s zone of military and political influence and control”, said Sergei Karaganov, a strong supporter of the Kremlin line. “This was done”.[fn]“Сергей Караганов: ‘Часть российских элит – в прострации, а часть хочет, чтобы все рухнуло’” [“One part of the Russian elite is in prostration, another part wants everything to fall apart”], Business Gazeta, February 2016. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO has grown from twelve to 28 members, all except one of the intake either a former Soviet republic or a Warsaw Pact member.Hide Footnote

Moscow quickly annexed Crimea and set up the two Donbas breakaway entities, the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Luhansk (LNR) and Donetsk (DNR), but soon abandoned more extensive plans. As a loyal Moscow think tank put it:

Calculations for the destabilisation of the situation proved to be inaccurate and the LNR and DNR failed to receive support in other regions of south-east Ukraine outside of Donbas. As a result, the initiative to create a large-scale protest movement throughout southern and eastern Ukraine that was about to take place in spring 2014 had to be dropped.[fn]“The Ukrainian Challenge for Russia”, Russian International Affairs Council, July 2015, at russiancouncil.ru/en/paper24.Hide Footnote

Russia is paying a high price for its intervention. Western sanctions have shaved off 1 per cent of annual growth, according to Russian estimates. Moscow pays salaries, pensions, social benefits in the two enclaves and trains, funds and supplies their militaries. It maintains an estimated 5,000-6,000 regular troops on the ground to guarantee security, with many more just over the border in Russia. The enclaves are poorly administered and corrupt, but this does not matter, a well-placed Russian observer remarked recently. Moscow has “found the way to keep a bleeding wound” in Ukraine’s body.[fn]Crisis Group interview, November 2016. The term “bleeding wound” (кровоточащая рана) was famously used by Mikhail Gorbachev to describe the impact of its Afghanistan war on the Soviet Union.Hide Footnote

1. Minsk

The instrument to achieve this is the Minsk process. The two agreements it has produced thus far, in October 2014 and February 2015, came at a grim cost for Ukraine. The first followed the loss of about 1,000 troops during Russia’s initial major offensive in summer 2014, when regular units crossed the border and repelled what had been a successful Ukrainian operation. The second, an extension of the first, was negotiated during another Russian military intervention, which again resulted in heavy Ukrainian military and civilian casualties.

The February 2015 document’s thirteen points gave Russia almost everything it wanted: an autonomous territory abutting the border with its own armed militia and administrative and justice system, guaranteed by permanent – a word Russian officials regularly stress – legislation and changes to Ukraine’s constitution.[fn]An English version of the text is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minsk_II. The document says that the appointment of judges etc. will be carried out with the participation of the local government. In fact, the DNR and LNR have both created supreme courts as well as appointed many judges.Hide Footnote Kyiv would not control the enclaves but would pay for their upkeep. Russia, their sole source of military, political and economic support, insists it recognises Ukraine’s sovereignty over them and regularly denies it has troops on the ground. It hopes that the elections in the enclaves Minsk stipulates will produce political groupings and local leaders who can eventually negotiate with Kyiv on an equal footing and sooner or later enter the Ukrainian parliament.

Though the agreement has stopped large-scale fighting and served as a basis for talks that have managed the conflict with fluctuating success, Western ambassadors were privately aghast at its terms. A “terrible document”, said one, “the euthanasia of a sovereign state”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, April 2015.Hide Footnote Asked why President Poroshenko had agreed to be bound by it, another answered simply, “his army was on its back”. Russia, whose troops were mopping up Ukrainian positions in Debaltseve during the negotiation, was allowed to publicly declare itself a guarantor of the agreement, not a conflict participant.[fn]“We simply physically cannot do this, because Russia is not a participant in this conflict”, Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, stated. “Песков: Россия – гарант урегулирования на Украине, но не исполнитель” [“Peskov: Russia acts as a guarantor of the regulation of the situation in Ukraine, but not as an executor”], RIA Novosti, 13 February 2015.Hide Footnote

Moscow consistently demands the “total and literal implementation of the Minsk agreement”. While many Western politicians and observers assume that the agreement is intended to return the situation to the status quo ante, Russian commentators explicitly deny this. The aim, a Russian think tank explained, is to create a situation in which “neither participant feels it has lost” and each “receives reliable guarantees regarding the maintenance of the status quo in the future”.[fn]“Ошибка Порошенко: Как Украина потеряла время” [“Poroshenko’s mistake: how Ukraine lost its time”], Centre for Current Policy, 11 November 2016.Hide Footnote Russian analysts working on Minsk have also stated that the separatist areas would not be dismantled, and Moscow rarely misses an opportunity to slap down anyone who suggests anything different. When in late 2016 Croatia announced the creation of a working group with Ukraine to share experiences of peaceful post-conflict reintegration, the Russian foreign ministry expressed “serious concern”, saying that would only distract Ukraine from its responsibilities to implement Minsk.[fn]“МИД России обеспокоен планами Хорватии передать Украине опыт реинтеграции территорий” [“Russian MFA is concerned about Croatia’s plans of transferring its experience of territorial reintegration to Ukraine”], Russia Today, 22 November 2016.Hide Footnote

While Russia has most of what it wanted for the separatist entities, the important missing ingredient is Ukrainian funding for the enclaves, foreseen in the agreement but as yet not forthcoming. The resulting financial burden for Moscow is heavy and worrying, but not enough to force concessions.

2. Minsk in broader Russian strategy

The Donbas and its other major external projection of power, Syria, are part of Russia’s struggle to push back against perceived Western domination and reassert itself as a world power, not just a regional one, as President Obama once described it, to Moscow’s irritation. Government and presidential administration analysts are already reassessing their strategic scenarios after the election of Donald Trump. They caution against euphoria but make clear they believe the gains of “détente”, as they term it, with the Trump administration could be enormous.

A long article published by an authoritative analytical centre connected to the presidential administration laid out an optimistic best-case scenario in discussing the “American factor” in Russia’s 2018 presidential elections. Détente, it said, would include Russia and the U.S. jointly destroying the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Washington publicly dropping the idea of regime change in Damascus. The two countries would work together to combat terrorism elsewhere, and Western sanctions would be cancelled by the end of 2017 – “without any serious concessions on the Donbas”. This would ensure Vladimir Putin’s re-election and be depicted to the public as “revenge for the loss of the Cold War” and proof that Russia’s line had been correct from the start. Russia meanwhile would return to the world stage as “a global power”. The worst-case scenario, on the other hand, it noted, could possibly trigger resumption of hostilities in Ukraine or unspecified “non-standard moves in Central Asia or the Near East”.[fn]“Американский фактор в президентской гонке в России” [“American factor in presidential race in Russia”], Actual Comments, 6 December 2016.Hide Footnote

3. Minsk implementation

None of the thirteen points in the Minsk agreement have been implemented in full. The Minsk process was to have been completed by the end of 2015, but officials are now loath to predict a date. “We continue to meet solely to keep the channels open in case one day we will have something to discuss”, said a senior European participant in the process. In the latest effort to show a modicum of forward movement, the presidents of the four countries that make up the Normandy Group that oversees and tries to nudge the process along (France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine) announced in October that a “roadmap” was to be prepared. It is to be quite modest, not changing the agreement, but only indicating dates for each key step. And it would not be new: the original February 2015 document already had clear timeframes for implementing the main steps. The road map was to have been ready by the beginning of December. It is now expected no earlier than the first quarter of 2017.

4. Minsk and Kyiv

It was clear from the start in Kyiv that the core of the agreement – an undertaking to pass a new constitution by the end of 2015 and to draw up permanent legislation on the special status of the two enclaves – would never get through parliament, though Ukraine’s Western partners have sought compromise options. What would almost inevitably be seen as an effort by a Ukrainian leader to change the constitution on Russia’s instructions would likely trigger a legislative revolt and massive street unrest. A new Maidan or uprisings by the poorly organised but militant and volatile volunteer units could not be ruled out. Poroshenko accordingly has opted to play for time.

III. In Domestic Politics – the Second Front?

When the government of Arseniy Yatsenyuk collapsed in March 2016, Vladimir Groysman, a long-time associate of the president, became prime minister.[fn]Sources for this section include numerous meetings with an Opposition Bloc (OB) strategist and others close to party leaders over the past year. Though Ukraine and Russia are essentially at war, there are no prohibitions against travel to Moscow, and visas are not required. Putin’s main Ukraine point person,Vladislav Surkov, is plausibly reported to have visited Kyiv several times during the Donbas crisis. Aides to former Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin have had informal talks with Ukrainian parliamentarians; senior Russian officials have joined “track two” talks; and a close friend of the Russian president, Ukrainian businessman Viktor Medvedchuk, acts as a trouble shooter for Minsk-related humanitarian and other issues. Medvedchuk, who is based in Kyiv, is also said to provide an important backchannel for communications between Putin and Poroshenko.Hide Footnote The new government was given a year to push through reforms. It has had mixed results, and most politicians and observers expect he will lose a confidence vote in the spring – “unless there is violence in the streets first”, a senior Rada deputy said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, 11 November 2016.Hide Footnote

The steady decline in the opinion poll ratings of both President Poroshenko and his supporters in the Rada has galvanised the opposition, in particular two parties: former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna and what is essentially the new incarnation of Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, Opposition Bloc (OB).

OB says it has a “discreet” electoral alliance with Batkivshchyna, close relations with Kremlin officials and that at least one of its leaders has discussed the Ukrainian situation recently with President Putin. It asserts that Tymoshenko’s party is also talking at a high level to Moscow but complains it is not kept informed. Batkivshchyna is reticent about its relationship with OB, and a leader protested that its representatives did not travel to Moscow “that often”. Government officials and other parliamentarians believe the two parties are working together. Batkivshchyna as a party and Tymoshenko as a possible president usually come out at the top of opinion polls, with Poroshenko’s Block “Solidarity” and OB battling for the second position.

With the addition of one of the parties that usually support either OB or Batkivshchyna, the putative alliance would likely substantially outnumber the president’s supporters in any new parliament and probably be able to increase that margin by winning over additional groups with promises of government positions or other blandishments. An OB strategist said his party could add considerably to its own core vote if its overly comfortable leaders stirred themselves to work harder.

Tymoshenko is one of Ukraine’s most formidable campaigners, with a serious nationwide structure and a history of working well with Russia. Like most senior politicians, she is also widely viewed as corrupt.[fn]A poll commissioned in July 2016 for by Novoe Vremya, an influential news magazine, ranked Tymoshenko as the fourth most corrupt person in Ukraine, some way behind the the president and two others.Hide Footnote And, like the president, she firmly dismisses such allegations.[fn]President Poroshenko, for example, dismissed as “lies” the latest such allegations against him, by Alexander Onishchenko, one of the country’s richest businessmen, who is currently under investigation for financial machinations and treason. Onishchenko claimed to have taped business conversations with the president and supposed representatives. For more details see “СМИ опубликовали первую запись так называемых ‘пленок Онищенко’” [“Media has published the so-called ‘Onishenko’s tapes’”], Zerkalo Nedeli, 6 December 2016. The presidential administration described the allegations as “absolute lies” and politically motivated, while the president’s office surmised that Onishchenko was “an agent of the Kremlin” in “Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine”. “В АП прокомментировали заявления А.Онищенко о политкорупции” [“Presidential Administration of Russia commented on A. Onishchenko's statements about political corruption”], UNN News Service, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote Her party cooperated with OB in November 2016 in demonstrations against rising food prices; Ukrainian security officials, without offering evidence, suggested the Kremlin might have had a hand in the protests. OB’s leaders include Ukraine’s richest oligarchs, but it targets pensioners and low income voters with promises of a better life, more law and order and an end to social turmoil. Another aim, less often voiced in public, is return to the Yanukovych-era big business friendly climate: “a normal Ukraine, but without Yanukovych”, as one of its strategists put it.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Leadership is also shared between several major oligarchs, who do not always see eye to eye.

A number of key OB figures have extensive holdings in the separatist-controlled areas, and regional government officials say the party is the dominant political machine in large parts of the south east, including the government-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. Members are also believed to be still functioning in the occupied east. But OB has problems: its top leadership will not, according to a senior party operative, throw themselves or their money wholeheartedly into the campaign. Leadership is also shared between several major oligarchs, who do not always see eye to eye. Russia is deeply suspicious of the motives of one whom it views as pro-European.

Most OB leaders made massive fortunes at spectacular speed, largely during the Yanukovych era, and some fear the government could open legal cases against them or their property should they be too politically active. Both parties speak generally of a new start with Russia, a less hostile atmosphere in discussions on Donbas’s future and a greater willingness to listen to Kremlin ideas. Moscow’s track record shows little inclination to make concessions, but, a Russian official commented, the Kremlin has had plenty of experience in dealing with them, and friendly faces in the Rada would be welcome.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Russian government official, 4 December 2016.Hide Footnote

IV. Playing for Time

Poroshenko is, an admirer says, “the master of procrastination”, and has used that quality brilliantly to minimise the damage Russia can inflict on Ukraine under the Minsk agreement. He has put his head down, said little and explained when challenged that he can do nothing. On at least one occasion, he has telephoned Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, to explain that he did not have the parliamentary votes to pass the key laws on the status of the enclaves and ask Nazarbayev to pass the word to Putin. Nazarbayev did so, receiving no public response from Moscow.[fn]Komsomolskaya Pravda, 24 August 2016.Hide Footnote

Many of Poroshenko’s supporters in Ukraine and abroad wish he would do more. To their repeated dismay, he has done nothing, diplomats working on the subject say, “to put Russia on the back foot” by forcing Moscow to explain its position rather than allowing it a free hand to criticise Kyiv for not implementing Minsk. Aides have long suggested he declare the eastern enclaves occupied zones, and parliamentarians have prepared legislation on this. He has neither done this, nor explained his reasoning. Neither has he reached out to the population of the enclaves to express solidarity or concern for their difficult situation.[fn]The subject has been a frequent element in Crisis Group interviews since early 2015 with presidential administration staff, senior members of the legislature and senior Kyiv-based diplomats.Hide Footnote

Kyiv has its own complaints. U.S. military aid is far below needs, officials say, while Washington demands much and provides little. At one point in mid-2016, a senior U.S. official came to Kyiv to urge agreement to speedy elections in the enclaves. Kyiv rejects this for a number of reasons, the most practical of which is that the elections would essentially be organised by the two Russian-installed separatist leaders, and senior officials were incensed. “Like hell we’ll agree to that”, said the security adviser to a senior member of the administration. They also complain that, to the chagrin of many U.S. officials and members of Congress, President Obama has consistently refused to provide lethal weapons. A top official succinctly laid out Kyiv’s grievances:

The U.S. smiles sympathetically at us, but that’s about it. Rusty Humvees are not aid. We need advanced weapons or the credits to produce them. We need a clear signal from Washington that they are committed to our survival.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, 26 November 2016. The White House has argued that such weapons would not deter Russia and could well provoke it to escalate in Donbas. Supporters of more weapons in the administration and Congress argue that advanced weapons would inflict more casualties on Russian regular troops, thus increasing domestic pressure on Putin.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, he and others say, Russia is testing new military equipment and weaponry in the east – “experimenting on Ukrainian troops” – from armour to weapons location systems, and improved versions of its already effective technology for disrupting battlefield communications.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior official, Kyiv, 26 November; Professor Vladimir Gorbulin, presidential adviser, director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies, Kyiv, 25 October, 2016.Hide Footnote A number of military commanders say they need battlefield intelligence rather than sophisticated weaponry. Better weapons would be politically useful, as a clear signal to Moscow of the West’s determination. On the battlefield, however, Russia would probably respond with a further escalation of its own weapons, a combat commander consistently says.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kyiv and eastern Ukraine, August, October 2015.Hide Footnote Residual Western concern about Russian penetration of the Ukrainian military and security structures still limits the amount of intelligence support provided to troops. The harshest criticism is often reserved for the EU. “Europe is shaky”, the senior official said. “It is afraid to fight, so will never be a major international force”. Another said the EU’s focus on long-term resilience was good, but woefully insufficient in the short term.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, October 2016.Hide Footnote

The president has adopted the same procrastination tactics with regard to corruption, Western officials and domestic critics say. The impression is growing among foreign observers and many Ukrainians, including officials active in the war effort, that he presides over a system he cannot reform.[fn]Some steps have been taken, such as disclosure in October of assets by officials and parliamentarians who displayed vast wealth; this also indicated some of the difficulties in tackling a legacy of two decades of high-level corruption.Hide Footnote An increasing number of critics say he may not want to. He has resisted removal, let alone investigation of close associates and aides suspected of corruption. He resisted for months, for example, before removing a particularly controversial figure, Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin.[fn]For criticism of Shokin and his denials of wrong doing, see, inter alia, “Ukraine’s unyielding corruption”, The New York Times, 31 March 2016. “Шокин опровергает информацию о гражданской жене с имуществом и обещает судиться с журналистами” [“Shokin denied information about his civil marriage and promised to take legal action against journalists''], 112.ua, 29 July 2016.Hide Footnote Poroshenko “played deaf for weeks, months”, said an ambassador. “It was quite amazing”. When the head of state of one of Ukraine’s strongest supporters raised Shokin with him, another diplomat recalled, “President Poroshenko said it was hard to find qualified candidates for such positions”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior diplomat covering Ukraine, April 2016.Hide Footnote

Corruption and incompetence within the highest echelons of the armed forces have since the beginning been viewed as one as the most important threats to the Ukrainian effort.

International backers are increasingly impatient. An influential European ambassador regularly called for dramatic measures, saying bodies of corrupt officials needed, figuratively, to be seen hanging from lamp posts. Even the usually cautious International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently signalled deep unhappiness. In November 2016, a mission visited without approving another tranche of a four-year loan. This was an embarrassment and disappointment for the government, which had publicly predicted the tranche. After polite words about the economy, the IMF’s final press statement was blunt: “Decisive steps particularly need to be taken to fight corruption, which remains the most frequently mentioned obstacle to doing business in Ukraine”. New institutions, including the National Anti-corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), have been created, but, the statement continued, “tangible results in prosecuting and convicting corrupt high-level officials and recovering proceeds from corruption have yet to be achieved”.[fn]“Statement at the conclusion of the IMF Mission to Ukraine”, IMF, 18 November 2016. Senior Ukrainian officials say that the top leadership is becoming increasingly critical of NABU. One described it as a Western-backed effort to undermine the country’s leadership. Crisis Group interview, senior official, Kyiv, 14 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Other international supporters of the Poroshenko administration have been somewhat more encouraging. A recent EU press release stated that “Ukraine is carrying out unprecedented reforms” and quoted EU High Representative Federica Mogherini as praising the work done by the authorities. “It is now crucial to move from passing legislation and setting up institutions to full implementation of these reforms so that Ukrainian citizens can reap the benefits”, she added. “Ukraine can count on the European Union’s support moving forward”.[fn]“EU report: Ukraine carrying out unprecedented reforms”, press release, European Commission, 13 December 2016.Hide Footnote

The main reform-oriented NGO coalition, “Reanimation Package of Reforms”, continues to push a thoroughgoing agenda, with determination but limited success. Its roadmap for 2017 calls, inter alia, for full implementation of constitutional amendments on the judiciary and establishment of a new Supreme Court and anti-corruption courts “to make the punishment for high-profile corruption inevitable”.[fn]Reanimation Package of Reforms, http://rpr.org.ua/en.Hide Footnote

In Kyiv, however, discussion has shifted to corruption in a particularly sensitive area, the war effort. Corruption and incompetence within the highest echelons of the armed forces have since the beginning been viewed as one as the most important threats to the Ukrainian effort. Once again, little has been done to address this. Eighteen months ago, a government security adviser described the high command as “75 per cent of the problem”. The situation is unchanged. A top security official, challenged in December about regular complaints, particularly from front-line officers, of high level incompetence and corruption, acknowledged the grievance. But, he noted, any changes in the high command are “a prerogative of the president”. Asked why the president did nothing, he referred tersely to Poroshenko’s well-known reluctance to replace officials he has worked with for years.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, 28 October 2016.Hide Footnote

More recently, indications surfaced that corruption had extended to the defence industries. In February 2016, the economic development and trade minister, Aivaras Abromavicius, a Lithuanian investment banker, resigned and accused senior members of the ruling Bloc Petro Poroshenko party of trying to impose on him unqualified deputies, in circumvention of official channels. One was to be a new deputy minister overseeing the defence industries. In a highly unusual gesture, ten ambassadors issued a joint letter expressing their disappointment at the resignation.[fn]Novoe Vremya, 3 February 2016. The ambassadors’ statement read in part: “It is important that Ukraine’s leaders set aside their parochial differences, put the vested interests that have hindered the country’s progress for decades squarely in the past, and press forward on vital reforms”.Hide Footnote

The issue continues to attract attention and could inflict further serious damage on the president’s domestic and international reputation. The investigative newspaper Ukrainian Pravda claimed in December 2016 that the abuses were continuing, and politician-business people close to the president were still appointing their own people to key positions.[fn]“Война и бизнес. Как друзья Порошенко контролируют миллиардные заказы Укроборонпрома. Часть 1” [“War and Business, how friends of Poroshenko control billions worth of Ukrainian defense industry orders, Part 1”], Ukrayinska Pravda, 1 December 2016.Hide Footnote More striking is that the problem is now raised by senior officials in government offices and conversations with outsiders. “The issue has been around for months”, one said. “They claim that the president has sold the country to the Russians and is even benefiting from the military budget. I don’t believe it, but as for those around him …”[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, 4 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Poroshenko supporters, in both the Rada and the presidential administration, explained in interviews the president’s refusal to move against close associates by his conviction that in difficult times he needs to stick with the few tried and trusted associates on whom he has relied for years. He is very much a loner and a micro-manager, they say – foreign policy is made in the president’s office, for example, not the foreign ministry. Such loyalty, however, is seriously damaging his reputation and undermining trust in his leadership.

Close observers tend to feel that Poroshenko’s gambit of playing for time may no longer serve him well. ‘The president has never understood that time is a commodity in desperately short supply in Ukraine’, a Western ambassador said.

At the moment, the general mood seems to be resignation and depression rather than violent anger. “I was planning to go into politics last year”, said the head of a military veterans organisation. “Then I realised the illness has metastasised throughout the [political] system and I gave up”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, 30 November 2016.Hide Footnote It has, however, become more common to encounter discussion among analysts and activists of the theoretical need for a “military interval” in Ukraine’s political development, a way to break the system of corruption that has taken root.

Meanwhile, Russia is ratcheting up pressure. Three days after the Trump election, a biting Russian analysis of the Ukrainian situation zeroed in on Poroshenko’s main tactic. Instead of buying time, it warned, he had lost it. The article poured scorn on the “illusion” of a return to the pre-February 2014 situation, rejecting the Ukrainian position that “an end to the Donbas conflict is possible only through the total liquidation of one side in the conflict – the DNR-LNR”. “In the future”, it concluded, “he or his successor will have either to accept the loss of sovereignty over a part of the Donbas, or accept a peace agreement on disadvantageous conditions”.[fn]Centre for Current Policy, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Close observers tend to feel that Poroshenko’s gambit of playing for time may no longer serve him well. “The president has never understood that time is a commodity in desperately short supply in Ukraine”, a Western ambassador said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kyiv, April 2016.Hide Footnote

V. Conclusion

Ukraine is reaping the bitter fruit of the last twenty years of its development, which has led to the formation of an oligarchic societal system that has parasitised on its Soviet inheritance, imitated market and democratic processes and institutions, polarised Ukrainian society, put the brakes on the development of the middle class, deformed political culture, created a dependent foreign policy totally lacking in initiative and undermined the potential of the armed forces.[fn]Vladimir Gorbulin, “Есть ли жизнь после Минска?” [“Is there life after Minsk?”], Zerkalo Nedeli, 12 February 2016.Hide Footnote

This withering diagnosis, by a defence and military adviser to the president, succinctly summarises the crisis. None of the problems he outlines have been addressed. The key scourge of the past generation, corruption that spreads into every interstice of government, diverting massive sums from the budget, is largely untouched. Concern is growing. The number of Poroshenko supporters who argue that any criticism of the president advances the Russian cause is declining. Even government advisers feel the leadership either cannot or will not change the system.

Kyiv’s supporters in Europe and the U.S. continue to push diligently on the corruption issue but do not seem to have gained any purchase. The risk is that they will be tempted to use presidential inaction as an excuse to quietly walk away from Ukraine in the next year or two. There would be serious consequences if that happened: for Ukraine surely, but potentially also for other countries in the region, including EU and NATO members, who are deeply concerned by Moscow’s increasingly assertive policy.

An approach to consider would be a joint démarche to the president from Ukraine’s main supporters, including the handover of a list of the most egregious suspects of high-level corruption that involves billions, not millions of dollars. Poroshenko would be advised that outside support – political and diplomatic, economic and military – risks being seriously curtailed unless he immediately takes energetic, public and unambiguous action to address the widespread allegations of corruption within his entourage. He would be pressed to institute a transparent investigation, followed, in all cases where results justify, by speedy trials, and to ensure that the legal process proceeds without interference.

The rationale for this is clear: corruption is now as great a threat to the Ukrainian state as Russian intervention in the east. Its leader should, therefore, move and be seen to move aggressively. Even if he responds as he has to other calls for action on corruption – with silence or inaction – the U.S. and EU should simultaneously stress to Moscow on all possible occasions that they will accept neither the violation that is occurring of Ukrainian sovereignty nor any further effort by Russia to infringe on neighbours’ sovereignty. The potential impact of the message to Moscow, however, will depend to a large degree on the political courage and commitment shown by the Ukrainian leadership.

Kyiv/Brussels, 19 December 2016

A serviceman walks while guarding an area during grounds of the park ceremony in the separatist-held settlement of Makiivka (Makeyevka) outside Donetsk, Ukraine 22 March 2019. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko
Report 254 / Europe & Central Asia

Rebels without a Cause: Russia’s Proxies in Eastern Ukraine

Russia and the separatists it backs in Ukraine’s east are no longer quite on the same page, especially since the Kremlin abandoned ideas of annexing the breakaway republics or recognising their independence. The rift gives the new Ukrainian president an opportunity for outreach to the east’s embattled population, including by relaxing the trade embargo.

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What’s new? Russia’s gradual retreat from any plans to annex parts of eastern Ukraine has opened schisms between Moscow and its separatist proxies in the region. 

Why does it matter? For Kyiv, these divides could create opportunities to restart dialogue with the people of the east. Such contacts, in turn, could help lay the groundwork for Ukraine’s unification. 

What should be done? The rift between Moscow and its proxies should inform new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s policies. Kyiv should look to rebuild relations with the inhabitants of separatist-held areas, by easing the economic blockade on the east and increasing outreach to the population there.

Executive Summary

The spring of 2019 marked five years since Russian-backed fighters seized government buildings in two eastern Ukrainian cities and proclaimed the independent Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (D/LPR). The ensuing conflict, which has claimed over 13,000 lives, continues to fester, with neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian government thus far willing to take decisive steps to end it. As Russia has distanced itself from either annexing the de facto republics, as it did with Crimea, or recognising their independence, many separatists have fallen out with the Kremlin. For its part, the wider population feels neglected by both Kyiv and Moscow. With a new president in office, Kyiv has an opportunity to define a policy that is informed by this reality, is in line with the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements that lay out a roadmap to end the conflict, and also meets Ukrainian and local security needs. This policy should prepare the ground for those areas’ reintegration into Ukraine and restore lines of communication to their inhabitants, including by easing the economic blockade that keeps them isolated and impoverished.

Ukraine and its Western supporters typically have responded to Russia’s incursion into eastern Ukraine, or Donbas, through policies and rhetoric that treat the conflict as one entirely between Kyiv and Moscow. Ukrainian leaders frequently adopt language that suggests eastern Ukraine’s fighters, political leaders and population are foreign and conflates all three with Russian forces. Neither Russia’s aggression nor its substantial control over the de facto republics’ leadership is in question. But to view Donbas solely as Russian-occupied territory is to miss important developments on the ground. 

If, in 2014, Moscow’s aims in Donbas aligned with those of the rebels it backed, as the Kremlin supported the separatist project, since then, their respective aspirations have diverged. As Moscow lost its appetite for more Ukrainian territory, it shifted its calculus. In the near term, Russia is helping ensure the D/LPR’s hold on the territories they have gained, mainly to maintain leverage over Ukraine but also out of fear of reprisals were Ukrainian forces and allied militias to enter separatist-held areas. In the longer term, Russia aims to make the east’s reintegration into Ukraine less costly to the separatists and more advantageous to Moscow – that is, it wants a reintegrated Donbas with substantial autonomy or special status. To a large extent, the second Minsk agreement formalised these goals. While this new approach suited Moscow’s plans, it was not what the de facto leaders sought. Indeed, many of those who continue to fight against Ukrainian forces in Donbas still seek a Russian protectorate – even if Moscow is less than enthusiastic about the notion.

The ensuing conflict, which has claimed over 13,000 lives, continues to fester, with neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian government thus far willing to take decisive steps to end it.

Moscow’s abandonment of plans to annex the territory or recognise its independence has left the separatist movement in the east splintered. Meanwhile, shifts in the D/LPR leadership have solidified Moscow’s control over those in charge, while also removing from power some who had enjoyed a measure of grassroots support. The result is three distinct groups in the east: a proxy leadership financially and politically dependent on Moscow but with no clear policy goals or local base of its own; ideological separatists whose hopes of joining Russia have been dashed; and the majority of the population, worn out by war and frustrated at the seeming indifference of both Kyiv and Moscow.

With a new government in Kyiv, this evolution could present opportunities. Informed by the reality that perspectives in the D/LPR are far from unified, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy could start rebuilding Kyiv’s relations with the war-torn region. He has good reason to do so. Only with improved ties can the Ukrainian leader hope to convince the people of these regions that Kyiv has their best interests at heart, an essential starting point to reintegrating those areas into the Ukrainian body politic. The growing divides among Moscow, the original separatists and Donbas’s population also mean that while a deal with the Kremlin is a prerequisite for peace in Donbas, in itself it may not be enough. Russia’s proxies in power in the D/LPR would probably have to agree to whatever Russia signed off on, but could face discontent from an already angry population, including from separatists who might hesitate to lay down arms. Besides, improved relations with the Donbas population could potentially strengthen Kyiv’s hand in negotiations with Moscow. 

Building such ties will be hard, given the distrust and anger that exists both in the D/LPR at Kyiv and in Kyiv at the separatists and people living in areas they control. Nor does Kyiv have obvious interlocutors: the dependence of leaders of the de facto D/LPR governments on Moscow suggests that they can deliver little on their own. 

But there are people in Donbas who command local respect, are frustrated with the status quo and are open to discussing the region’s future. Some are early supporters of separatism, now disillusioned. Others are community leaders who have emerged over the past five years. They include, importantly in this otherwise male-dominated environment, some women. Even if the Ukrainian government itself does not seek to engage directly, President Zelenskyy can take steps to rebuild trust, make contacts across front lines easier and lay the groundwork for future engagement. Easing the economic blockade would help, for example, as would facilitating social, economic and community contacts across the line of contact. Kyiv should also take steps to ensure local residents’ access to their pensions and to lift restrictions on local official use of the Russian language. 

Resolving the Donbas conflict requires both Russia and Ukraine to carry out the Minsk agreements in full or to find another way forward. While they have in principle agreed on what needs to happen, in line with those accords, each has insisted that the other take the first step: Russia wants Ukraine to offer autonomy to the Donbas; Ukraine wants Russia to cease its military involvement and ensure that the forces it backs disarm. But even if Moscow and Kyiv concur on the initial moves, Ukraine faces an additional challenge. Reintegrating separatist-held areas will require Kyiv to persuade the people who live there that their future is Ukrainian. This process is unlikely to be rapid or smooth, but outreach is the place to start.

Moscow/Kyiv/Brussels, 16 July 2019

I. Introduction

Ukraine’s 2013-2014 Maidan revolution was a dramatic manifestation of a national debate over the country’s political and socio-economic future. The Maidan protesters wanted to be rid of a government that they felt was corrupt and had betrayed them by prioritising a strong relationship with Russia over growing closeness to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU). Many in parts of eastern Ukraine took the opposite position: they feared that too warm an embrace of countries to Ukraine’s west would hurt their livelihoods, a large number of which were tied to trade and close relations with Russia. Soon after the Maidan activists succeeded in changing the government, protests began in the east. Russia did not instigate this unrest – at least, not all of it. It did, however, help inspire, fuel and perpetuate the protests. First, Moscow’s move to annex Crimea emboldened a separatist movement in the eastern region known as Donbas, which harboured hopes that Russia would take in eastern Ukraine as it had the Black Sea peninsula. Then, Russia’s support for that movement ensured that it survived when Kyiv pushed back.

This report analyses the evolving relationship between Moscow and its proxies in eastern Ukraine since the early days of the crisis. Drawing on interviews in Crimea, Donetsk and Moscow 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 explores how Moscow’s objectives gradually have diverged from those of the separatists. It then offers recommendations for more effective Ukrainian engagement with the population in the east.

II. “We Are Ready to Rise Up – Just Give the Order”

The conflict in eastern Ukraine started as a grassroots movement, albeit one that Moscow inspired and then aggressively exploited. In November 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, under pressure from Russia, abandoned plans to sign an Association Agreement with the EU. The agreement would have facilitated free trade with Europe and paved the way for eventual EU membership, a longstanding goal of many Ukrainians. Moscow saw the agreement as a threat to Ukraine’s integration into the Eurasian Сustoms Union, the body co-founded by Russia in 2010 to rival the EU. The Kremlin also feared that the deal would allow Ukraine to slip out of Russia’s sphere of influence.[fn]See Mikhail Zygar, All the Kremlin’s Men (New York, 2016).Hide Footnote

Angered by the decision, protesters gathered in Kyiv’s Independence Square (in Ukrainian, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or the Maidan), first demanding the agreement’s restoration and later Yanukovych’s ouster. Despite at first tolerating the demonstrations, the government responded with violence. Protesters, some of whom were armed, defended themselves. At least 100 people died in the clashes. In late February, about to be rejected by his own government, Yanukovych fled to Russia and a new interim government headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk took over.

The new government was ill prepared for what followed. Almost immediately, it took two body blows: first, Russia’s incursion into and annexation of Crimea in February and March, and then insurrection in several cities in Donbas. The latter 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. They were joined by activists and volunteers from Moscow, in a movement that came to be known in the region as the “Russian spring”. Activists staged rallies that led to clashes, sometimes deadly, with the forces and supporters of the new government in Kyiv.

While many of these protests raised the prospect of secession, a number of demonstrators had no particular agenda vis-à-vis Russia but simply aimed to challenge the new Kyiv government. According to one activist:

When the “Russian spring” first started, people in Luhansk didn’t want to join Russia. Not even close. They just didn’t agree with events in Kyiv. People were looking at their televisions – they had never been to Kyiv before and didn’t want it to come to them. People didn’t understand why the takeover of the regional government building in Lviv [by pro-Maidan activists in January 2014] was good but in Luhansk it was a crime.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Moscow, March 2018. The Lviv reference is to events around the Maidan protests that toppled President Yanukovych in January 2014. Then, pro-Maidan activists set up barricades and seized government administration buildings in several oblasts in western Ukraine. See “Unrest in Ukraine: barricades erected in Lviv”, BBC, 24 January 2014.Hide Footnote

Others, however, were inspired by Russia’s takeover of Crimea and saw eastern Ukraine’s future in a merger with Moscow. Widespread support in Russia for Crimea’s “rejoining” Russia raised their hopes that the same could happen in Donbas. One veteran Kremlin adviser with strong connections in Crimea and Donetsk said:

[The Crimea annexation] triggered many offers and requests from Ukraine’s eastern regions, saying [to Moscow]: “We are ready to rise up. Just give the order”. [Militia] divisions were formed. They offered to take depots and get organised. Moscow did not give the green light [to rise up]. But it gave the green light to prepare.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Moscow, March 2018.Hide Footnote

Several other informed sources corroborated this account, though versions differ on the precise levels of support and involvement Moscow offered.[fn]Given the covert nature of Moscow’s involvement, it is difficult to gather or confirm information on the exact amount of support, what its conditions were and what orders, if any, were given. Some of this support evidently came from Russian officials acting very much in a personal capacity, albeit perhaps with tacit encouragement from above. Likewise, the role of Russian security personnel advising and coordinating on the ground in Donbas was initially opaque: there were those who went on their own initiative and those who were likely given orders. Based on some accounts, Moscow’s support was conditional upon success. Based on other accounts, it was unconditional. Crisis Group interviews, former officials, policymakers and activists, Moscow, March-April 2014 and March, April, August 2018.Hide Footnote  If they are correct and Moscow truly authorised these preparations, it did so because it saw an opportunity to co-opt the Donbas activists. The Kremlin had an interest in keeping Ukraine within its sphere of influence and establishing a protectorate over Russian-speaking people outside its borders. Moreover, it saw its objectives aligning with the pro-Russia Donbas groups, which it doubted could coexist with a new government in Kyiv.

Support for the Donbas protesters within Russia was high, especially in the wake of the Crimea annexation. Think-tanks like the Russky Mir Foundation and the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, headed at the time by former Foreign Intelligence Service agent Leonid Reshetnikov, promoted the increasingly popular idea of “the Russian world”, a cultural, religious and sometimes political concept which “reconnects the Russian diaspora with its homeland” – a homeland representing “much more than the territory of the Russian Federation and the 143 million people living within its borders”.[fn]See the Russky Mir Foundation’s website.Hide Footnote  In Donbas, “Russian world” proponents saw an opportunity to capitalise on Russian nationalist sentiment among Russian-speaking Ukrainians and protect civilians from what they (and many in eastern Ukraine) portrayed as a “fascist junta” that had seized power in Kyiv.[fn]«Больше не хунта: как поменялась риторика госканалов об украинском кризисе» [“No longer a junta: how state television rhetoric about the Ukrainian crisis has changed”], RBC, 1 July 2014.Hide Footnote  In line with the “Russian world” concept, they built a case for historical Russian claims to parts of eastern Ukraine, even occasionally referring to these lands as Novorossiya, or New Russia.[fn]Novorossiya was the term the Russian Empire gave to its new acquisitions, including Donbas, in 1764.The term Malorossiya, or Little Russia, was used to denote Ukraine within the Russian Empire during the 19th century. At various times, nationalists in Russia have sought to revive both ideas. The Ukrainian government regards the terms Malorossiya and Novorossiya as offensive. See “Ukraine conflict: Russia rejects new Donetsk rebel ‘state’”, BBC, 19 July 2017.
 Hide Footnote

According to Donbas political activists and Russian policymakers, this thinking found its way into the Kremlin.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, policymaker and activists, Moscow, March, April, August 2018.Hide Footnote  In the spring of 2014, for instance, Vladimir Putin referred to Donbas regions as being historically separate from Ukraine. “I’ll remind you: this is Novorossiya. Kharkov, Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolayev and Odessa were not part of Ukraine during Tsarist times. These were all territories given to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government. Why [the Soviets] did that, only God knows”.[fn]See this video excerpt from Putin’s call-in show, which aired on all state-run channels. “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin”, Russia Today, 17 April 2014.Hide Footnote  Though Putin did not go as far as to claim that Russia should reabsorb these lands, many have interpreted his comments as inspiration for the separatist cause.

The Kremlin’s policy toward eastern Ukraine proved neither coherent nor consistent.

In the early months of 2014, Novorossiya proponents developed a scenario that in many ways mimicked Russia’s annexation of Crimea – albeit without the large-scale Russian military presence. Local militias in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Dniepropetrovsk, Odessa, Zaporozhye and other parts of Donbas would seize government buildings and then, supported by undercover Russian forces, hold a referendum to demonstrate popular backing for either independence or unification with Russia.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, March-September 2018.
 Hide Footnote

In March and April 2014, encouraged by the enthusiasm in Russia, Donbas activists moved from street protests to more direct action. Copying what Maidan activists had done in western Ukraine, they seized government buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv, and tried to do the same in other eastern cities. They declared the independence of “people’s republics”, which they assumed Moscow would rapidly recognise, and called referenda on joining Russia, which they scheduled for 11 May.

But the Kremlin’s policy toward eastern Ukraine proved neither coherent nor consistent. An expert connected to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs described a split within government elites between “doves” who doubted that the Crimea scenario would work in Donbas and “hawks” who believed that Russia could count on local mobilisation to help oust Ukrainian forces and then annex as many as six eastern Ukrainian regions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Moscow, August 2018.Hide Footnote  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. One such businessman was Konstantin Malofeyev, who allegedly financed the first leaders of the nascent “people’s republics” in Donbas.[fn]Alexei Ponomarev, «Бизнесмен Малофеев рассказал о связях со Стрелковым и Бородаем» [“Businessman Malofeyev tells of his ties to Strelkov and Borodai”], Slon, 13 November 2014. EU authorities implicated Malofeyev in financing the de facto republics and destabilising Ukraine. See Council Implementing Regulation No. 826/2014, Official Journal of the European Union, 30 July 2014.Hide Footnote  Meanwhile, increasing numbers of Russian irregulars, encouraged by state propaganda and what they regarded as the government’s tacit approval, made their way to Ukraine.

The chief backer of annexation appears to have been Kremlin adviser Sergey Glazyev, an outspoken champion of Novorossiya.[fn]Several well-connected policymakers confirm Glazyev’s role. See also Glazyev’s interview quoted in “Sergei Glazyev: strongly, firmly and accurately”, Center for Strategic Assessment and Forecasts, 20 June 2014. Crisis Group interviews, Kremlin-connected policymakers, Moscow, March, May 2018.Hide Footnote  A former Kremlin official said Glazyev based his plan on the premise that pro-Russian sentiment was so strong and widespread in eastern Ukraine that, together with hatred for Kyiv’s new government, it would deliver the area into Moscow’s hands.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Moscow, May 2018.Hide Footnote  Evidence, including telephone conversations intercepted and recorded by Ukrainian intelligence, suggests that he gave direct instructions to the lead organisers of the Donbas uprisings, and talked of financial and military support pending the insurgents’ success.[fn]«Экс-глава луганской СБУ Петрулевич: Именно советник президента РФ Глазьев поднимал восток Украины после обкатки в Крыму сценария с ‘Путин, введи войска!’» [“Former head of Luhansk SBU Petrulevich: It was Russian presidential aide Glazyev who stirred up an insurgency in eastern Ukraine after trying the ‘Putin, send troops!’ scenario in Crimea”], Gordon, 14 July 2017.Hide Footnote  Pavel Gubarev, a Ukrainian who was one of the first self-proclaimed leaders of Novorossiya, cited a telephone call from Glazyev in which the Russian congratulated him after he and others seized administration buildings in Donetsk on 5 March 2014.[fn]Pavel Gubarev, Факел Новороссии (The Torch of Novorossiya) (St. Petersburg, 2016).Hide Footnote  (Glazyev, in an interview with Malofeyev’s Tsargrad television channel, denied having any involvement with the separatists.[fn]“Glazyev: ‘I am not interested in Nazis’”, Tsargrad TV, 2 March 2017.Hide Footnote )

The Kremlin itself denies interfering in Ukraine and in general does not reveal its foreign policy plans or actions. At the time of the Crimea annexation, for instance, Putin refuted claims of such involvement. Later, however, once the annexation was complete, he described how Russia took over the peninsula. In a Russian documentary aired in March 2015, Putin explained that on 23 February 2014, “[he] told all [his] colleagues, ‘We are forced to begin the work of bringing Crimea back into Russia’”.[fn]Putin reveals secrets of Russia’s Crimea takeover plot”, BBC, 9 March 2015.Hide Footnote  In Donbas, Moscow has continued to officially maintain that it has not and does not support the separatists. Putin insists that Russia has no troops in Ukraine. Verifying what the Russian government was doing or attempting to do in the spring of 2014 is therefore a challenge. But reports that Moscow was sending weapons and personnel to Donbas were plentiful.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kremlin-connected advisers, Moscow, March, August 2018. See also Thomas Grove and Warren Strobel, “Special report: Where Ukraine’s separatists get their weapons”, Reuters, 29 July 2014.Hide Footnote  Even Russian denials are not fully consistent: in December 2015 Putin said “we never said there were no people [there] who are working on resolving certain issues, including in the military sphere. But that does not mean there are regular troops”.[fn]«Путин признал наличие в Донбассе ‘решающих военные вопросы’ россиян» [“Putin admitted to the presence of Russians resolving military issues in Donbas”], RBC, 17 December 2015.Hide Footnote

There were certainly irregular forces. Russian volunteers, many with military or security backgrounds and combat experience, rushed to Ukraine, whether under tacit orders, impelled by their own enthusiasm or both. Their ranks first numbered in the hundreds, then the thousands. Most notorious was former Russian intelligence officer Igor Girkin, who went by the nom de guerre Strelkov. A World War II re-enactor and an avid proponent of Novorossiya, Strelkov had led irregular forces involved in the annexation of Crimea in February and March.[fn]Footage of Strelkov’s participation in a televised debate, video, YouTube, 27 January 2015. On the importance of World War II re-enactments in contemporary Russian nationalism, see Crisis Group Europe Report N°251, Patriotic Mobilisation in Russia, 4 July 2018.Hide Footnote  In April, he brought a unit of 52 men from Russia to the Donetsk region, and helped take over law enforcement offices in Sloviansk. He then called upon Russia to send troops to hold this city and Kramatorsk. When Ukrainian fighters joined his ranks, Strelkov became the most powerful commander in Donetsk at the time. In early May, he declared himself “commander-in-chief of all … armed formations, security services, police, customs, border guards, prosecutors and other paramilitary structures” in Donetsk region.[fn]«ДНР объявила войну Украине и призвала на помощь Россию» [“DPR declared war on Ukraine and called on Russia for help”], Novosti Donbassa, 3 March 2014.Hide Footnote

With the separatists losing steam, the Kremlin began to distance itself from the movement it had inspired.

But the separatist movement did not pan out as Moscow hawks had expected. Some of the population were indeed nervous about the new government in Kyiv, but majority support for joining Russia simply was not there.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former Kremlin official, May 2018.Hide Footnote  In city after city, separatists encountered pushback. In Kharkiv, where they proclaimed independence from Ukraine along with Luhansk and Donetsk on 7 April, Kyiv’s Interior Ministry troops suppressed the insurgency the following day, persuading the mayor to switch sides. In Odessa, clashes between separatists and Kyiv’s supporters culminated in a standoff on 2 May, during which over 40 people, mostly separatists, were killed. Many burned to death in a fire that engulfed the Trade Union Building they had tried to seize. The fire became a symbol of the “Russian spring”, but the separatists’ failure in Odessa also demonstrated the absence of local support for secession.

Even in the two cities where the “peoples’ republics” survived, public opinion on the proposed referendums was uneven.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civilians and fighters, Donetsk, May 2014.Hide Footnote  One young rebel told a visiting journalist that the path forward lay in uniting with Russia with President Vladimir Putin’s help.[fn]Crisis Group analyst’s interview in a previous capacity, Donetsk, May 2014.Hide Footnote  But many others spoke merely of greater autonomy from Kyiv, not of independence or merger with Russia.[fn]Crisis Group analyst’s interviews in a previous capacity, residents, Donetsk, May 2014.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, the stakes for Russia were rising. Viewing irregulars such as Strelkov’s personnel as Russian invaders, Ukraine in early April launched what it termed an “anti-terrorist operation” (in large part to avoid declaring war). The U.S., along with EU countries, imposed sanctions on Russia, much tougher penalties than those that had followed the annexation of Crimea.

With the separatists losing steam, the Kremlin began to distance itself from the movement it had inspired. A Ukrainian rebel in Strelkov’s regiment described a shift in the message from Moscow as early as late April. It was then that he began hearing calls for restraint in rebel efforts to take control of eastern Ukrainian towns and cities.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former irregular fighter, Moscow, April 2019.Hide Footnote  Kremlin insiders suggested that the change occurred later.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Moscow, March-September 2018.Hide Footnote  One described Putin undergoing a “sudden” change in tune expressed at a press conference after meeting with Swiss President Didier Burkhalter on 7 May.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Moscow, March 2018.Hide Footnote  In his remarks, Putin appealed to the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk to “hold off on the referendum in order to give dialogue the conditions it needs to have a chance”.[fn]Transcript of press statements, official Kremlin website, 7 May 2014.Hide Footnote

But the separatist movement in Donbas was determined to move ahead, choosing to ignore or creatively interpret Putin’s comments. Denis Pushilin, one of the members of the emerging separatist government in Donetsk, was among those who pushed forward with the referendum in that city. On 8 May, three days before the scheduled ballot, he took part in a closed-door meeting with local lawmakers and other leaders. A Crisis Group witness to the discussion was struck that participants appeared to take Putin’s words to imply the opposite of their literal meaning. A lawmaker, for instance, said:

The referendum has to happen. But I see that a number of people seem to be in a state of confusion after Vladimir Vladimirovich’s comments. This was an act of colossal support for us. … It was a proclamation to the whole world that we are holding a referendum. Thanks to Vladimir Vladimirovich’s statements, people from across the world will know that the Donetsk People’s Republic will express its will. It was a positioning of the Donetsk Republic as a people’s republic.[fn]A meeting of deputies in Donetsk witnessed by Crisis Group analyst in a previous capacity, 7 May 2014.Hide Footnote

After further comments in this vein, the meeting attendees voted unanimously to go ahead with the ballot. On 11 May, the referenda passed in both Donetsk and Luhansk. Though neither Moscow nor Kyiv recognised the result, the leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (D/LPR) declared independence from Ukraine.

III. “Cleaning Up the Mess”: Moscow Abandons Novorossiya

Moscow’s change of heart meant that it would not recognise the statelets. Annexing them was also out of the question. But neither was Moscow ready to hand them back to Ukraine. Moreover, in Donbas, Moscow’s clients and ordinary citizens feared that return to the Ukrainian fold would lead to violent reprisals, a potentially self-fulfilling prophecy. Moscow’s support, which remained unacknowledged (as Russia insisted that it was not a party to the conflict), thus aimed to help the statelets hang on to the territories they had gained in the near term. In the longer term, it sought to lay the groundwork for the D/LPR’s future reintegration into Ukraine with greater autonomy or special status sufficient to permit continuing influence over Kyiv’s policy choices.[fn]For an analysis of Moscow’s motivations and logic, see Tatyana Malyarenko and Stefan Wolff,
“The Logic of Competitive Influence-Seeking: Russia, Ukraine and the Conflict in Donbas”, Post-Soviet Affairs, vol. 34, no. 4 (2018), pp. 191-212.Hide Footnote

Officially, Moscow would not acknowledge backtracking on a policy it never admitted to supporting in the first place. But even in public statements, the change was visible. Starting in late 2014, mentions of Novorossiya by Putin or other state officials started to disappear. Belligerent rhetoric on state television describing the government in Kyiv as a fascist junta also diminished.[fn]«Больше не хунта: как поменялась риторика госканалов об украинском кризисе» [“No longer a junta: how state TV rhetoric about the Ukrainian crisis has changed”], RBC, op. cit.Hide Footnote  In 2018, Sergei Glazyev, the Kremlin aide who initially spearheaded support for the Novorossiya idea, described its abandonment as a mistake –  in effect acknowledging that Moscow had changed its plans or at least its aspirations. “We were supposed to free all of the [Ukrainian] south east. Why didn’t we free it? I think it was the result of Western provocation. … It was, I think, a blatant strategic error”.[fn]«Советник Путина: Отказ от освобождения юго-востока Украины был большой ошибкой» [“Putin’s adviser: Decision not to free the south east of Ukraine was a mistake”], Novorossiya Inform, 7 August 2018.Hide Footnote

Reflecting its shifting calculus, Moscow reportedly eased out the leaders, Ukrainian and Russian, who had led the initial fight with figures it found more manageable. One of the first out was Strelkov. On 14 August 2014, Russian state media reported that the DPR’s leadership had let the commander go at his own request.[fn]“Donetsk People’s Republic dismisses defence minister”, TASS, 14 August 2014.Hide Footnote  But 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”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kremlin-connected policymaker, Moscow, April 2018.Hide Footnote  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.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former rebel fighter, Moscow, April 2018.Hide Footnote  The D/LPR leadership also changed hands as Moscow sought to establish more order. In early August, Aleksandr Zakharchenko took over the DPR and Igor Plotnitsky the LPR; widespread reports suggest both were appointed on Moscow’s orders.[fn]See, for example, Anton Zverev, “Ex-rebel leaders detail role played by Putin aide in east Ukraine”, Reuters, 11 May 2017. See also «Москва убрала Стрелкова и Болотова с Подачи Ахметова» [“Moscow removed Strelkov and Bolotov at Akhmetov’s request”], APN, 8 July 2014. See also the posts by the well-informed Crimea-based blogger, Boris Rozhin, aka colonelcassad. In discussions with Crisis Group, Russian activists, policymakers and advisers said it was common knowledge that Moscow was behind such decisions. Crisis Group interviews, Moscow, March 2018, March 2019.Hide Footnote

To help the D/LPR forces defend the areas they controlled, Moscow beefed up its military support. In the summer of 2014 and in early 2015, Moscow covertly sent troops to help the de facto leadership secure positions it had taken and prevent their recapture by Ukrainian forces.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government advisers and policymakers, Moscow, March-August 2018.Hide Footnote  “The process of intensifying Moscow’s [military] support for the DPR and LPR and the process of abandoning the idea of Novorossiya went in parallel”, said a former Russian lawmaker, citing ostensibly humanitarian aims. “As the idea of Novorossiya waned, [military] support intensified, with the aim of protecting them from mass terror”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former Russian lawmaker, March 2018.Hide Footnote  Moscow denies taking these steps.[fn]Putin has repeatedly denied the presence of Russian armed forces in Ukraine. In December 2015, he admitted there may be some personnel but not regular troops. See «Путин признал наличие в Донбассе ‘решающих военные вопросы’ россиян» [“Putin admitted to the presence of Russians resolving military issues in Donbas”], RBC, 17 December 2015.Hide Footnote

The cornerstone of Moscow’s efforts to ensure that any reintegration would occur under conditions it considered favourable were the two peace accords signed by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, OSCE and the de facto republics (these parties also comprise the Trilateral Contact Group created in the spring of 2014 to maintain dialogue between parties to the conflict and seek resolution).

Moscow’s change of heart meant that it would not recognise the statelets [...] but neither was Moscow ready to hand them back to Ukraine.

The first agreement, the Minsk Protocol, was signed on 5 September 2014. The Minsk Package of Measures, colloquially known as Minsk II, was signed in February 2015. Both aimed to end intense fighting. The Protocol followed a battle for the city of Ilovaisk in Donetsk, but the attendant ceasefire failed to take hold, and fighting resumed at Donetsk airport by the end of the month. Minsk II was signed shortly after Russian-backed forces captured the airport and amid clashes around the strategic rail junction of Debaltseve. The second agreement, initially an addendum to the protocol, in effect replaced the initial package as the only internationally agreed-upon peace plan for Donbas. It stipulated a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weaponry by all sides from a contact line demarcated in the first protocol, amnesty for separatist fighters and implementation of a “special status” for rebel-held areas, among other provisions.

The other mechanism for resolving the crisis was the Normandy Format, launched in the summer of 2014 by representatives of four countries: Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France. The four have not met since 2016, although both Ukraine and Russia have voiced hopes of restarting conversations and expanding the format.

For Moscow, the Minsk stipulation of special status for Donbas was a victory. The status envisioned decentralisation or federalisation that would allow the areas in question more autonomy from Kyiv than any other region in Ukraine. It would also increase the political weight of Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine in national debates. As long as Moscow’s influence remains high with this population, such arrangements would translate into leverage for Moscow over Kyiv’s decision-making. For these same reasons, Kyiv saw the inclusion of special status in Minsk as a loss.

But D/LPR leaders were also unhappy. Even before the first Minsk meeting in September 2014, Zakharchenko and his associates complained that Moscow was obliging them to agree to reintegration into Ukraine against their will. Zakharchenko lambasted the conditions on special status set out in the 5 September agreement and rejected anything less than independence. In October, he threatened to resign, dismissing the contact line agreed to in Minsk as a betrayal because it precluded the possibility of a wider Novorossiya.[fn]Marina Akhmedova, «Начальник Донбасса» [“The Boss of Donbas”], Expert, no. 39, 2014.Hide Footnote  By February 2015, Zakharchenko had softened his public statements, but it seems that his concerns were not fully assuaged. Both he and Plotnitsky initially refused to endorse the package of measures at the second round of negotiations. It reportedly took Putin’s personal intervention – two hours of private conversation – to convince both to sign.[fn]At the talks’ end, the de facto republics rejected the agreement, leading to its near collapse. Putin withdrew to discuss the matter over the phone with Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky, and after two hours, the leaders agreed to a ceasefire. See “Can Merkel’s diplomacy save Europe?”, Spiegel Online, 14 February 2015. See also «В Минске договорились о прекращении огня на Украине» [“Ceasefire in Ukraine agreed to in Minsk”], Kommersant, 11 February 2015.Hide Footnote

Even long after Minsk II, Zakharchenko continued to espouse integration not with Ukraine but with Russia. “Russia is our motherland and everything that we are doing is so that we can … become one people”, he said in May 2017. “Unfortunately, history has divided us, but people change history. And we are all going to change history together. We have one aim – to return to our motherland”.[fn]See comments made at a session of the Integrational Committee of Russia-Donbas, 12 May 2017.Hide Footnote

For Moscow, Minsk II constituted a formal withdrawal of support for separatist aspirations. 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.

IV. Dependent, Embittered, Abandoned: The Legacy of Moscow’s Policy Shift

The Kremlin’s abandonment of the Novorossiya concept left in its wake a movement in Donbas whose interests no longer align with Moscow’s. Meanwhile, Moscow’s control over the de facto republics’ leadership has alienated the grassroots element that had given the separatist insurgency a modicum of popularity when it began. Today, after five years of war, Moscow’s shifting policies have split the Donbas polity into three groups: a proxy leadership dependent on Moscow but with no cause or real grassroots support of its own; an embittered set of fighters and activists whose hopes of independence or joining Russia have been denied, in their eyes, by Moscow itself; and a population worn out by war that feels abandoned by both Kyiv and Moscow.

A. The De Facto Leadership

The de facto D/LPR leadership is financially and politically beholden to Moscow, which, as of the spring of 2019, has further solidified its control over the statelets. During the war’s early years, Russia arguably struggled to retain control over de facto governments riveted by murders, coups and financial and political rivalries. Over the past two years – whether by design or providence – it has dealt with more pliant leaders.

But if the movement’s leaders are now firmly under Moscow’s influence, those who emerged from grassroots separatist movements in Donbas have effectively been sidelined. In the fall of 2017, the LPR’s “security minister” Leonid Pasechnik replaced LPR head Igor Plotnitsky in what was  reported to have been a Russian security services-backed coup.[fn]Christopher Miller, “What in the world is going on in the Russian-backed separatist Luhansk ‘Republic’?”, RFE/RL, 22 November 2017. “Кремль встал на сторону главы МВД в его конфлике с Плотницким» [“The Kremlin took the interior minister’s side in his conflict with Plotnitsky”], RBC, 21 November 2017. On Moscow’s backing and the limits of its control, see also Maxim Vikhrov, “The Luhansk Coup: Why Armed Conflict Erupted in Russia’s Puppet Regime”, Carnegie Moscow Center, 29 November 2017.Hide Footnote  Then, in August 2018, DPR chief Alexander Zakharchenko, whose relationship with Moscow had grown increasingly tense, was killed by a bomb in Donetsk, with both Moscow and Kyiv exchanging blame over his murder.

On 11 November 2018, following Zakharchenko’s assassination, the D/LPR held new elections. Moscow appears to have forced the exclusion of popular leaders and Novorossiya idealists like Aleksandr Khodakovsky and Pavel Gubarev. Khodakovsky was the former commander of the Vostok Battalion – an irregular regiment that rivalled Strelkov’s in the early days – and DPR “security minister”. Russian border guards barred his entry into Ukraine ahead of the vote. For his part, Pavel Gubarev, a former DPR leader, was prevented from registering his candidacy by DPR’s election authorities, on what were widely reported to be the Kremlin’s orders.[fn]Galina Korba, «Россия не хочет сюрпризов: К чему приведут выборы в ‘ДНР’ и ‘ЛНР’». [“Russia doesn’t want surprises: what the elections in ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’ will bring”], BBC (Ukrainian Service), 9 November 2018.Hide Footnote Moscow backed Denis Pushilin, the Donetsk politician who had urged moving ahead with the independence referendum after Putin expressed his reservations. He ran against lesser-known candidates and won with 60.8 per cent of the vote. In the LPR, the Kremlin continued to support Pasechnik, who prevailed with 68.4 per cent.

The choice of Pushilin may seem odd, given his push for the referendum, his past statements in favour of joining Russia and Moscow’s withdrawal of support for east Ukraine politicians espousing such ideas In February 2016, Pushilin argued that “the integration of the D/LPR into Russia is taking place de facto because Ukraine has done everything possible to push us toward the Russian Federation”.[fn]See Pushilin’s televised remarks, video, YouTube, 14 February 2016.Hide Footnote  In 2017, he described “integration with Russia” as compatible with the Minsk agreements. “Our Ukrainian opponents saw the process of integration with Russia as a violation of Minsk. On the contrary, we are fulfilling the Minsk agreements. … The law on special status stipulates free cooperation in cultural and economic spheres with regions of the Russian Federation, and we are moving ahead in that format”.[fn]People’s Council of the Donetsk People’s Republic website, 26 October 2017.Hide Footnote

The D/LPR’s new leadership thus also represents a gradual evolution away from the separatists’ aspirations to join Russia.

In fact, Pushilin, like his LPR counterpart, is more acquiescent than his predecessor. While he continues to make occasional public comments invoking Novorossiya and the possibility of joining Russia, he recognises that Moscow does not share this goal. He still talks of “integration” with Russia, but in ways that suggest anything from close economic ties to a union. He has also described integration as civic cooperation – if formal integration is not possible, he has said, then the DPR and Russia could cooperate in the areas of culture, labour and sports.[fn]«Донбасс однозначно держит курс на Россию» [“Donbas unequivocally holds a course toward Russia,”], News Front, 27 September 2018. News Front is a pro-DPR news agency.Hide Footnote  Instead of pushing hard for annexation, Pushilin now echoes Moscow’s line that the D/LPR should pursue closer cooperation with Russia while remaining formally inside Ukraine. “The majority of DPR residents want full-fledged integration into Russia. For different reasons that is currently unrealistic”, he said in September 2018.[fn]«Пушилин: ‘Второго тура выборов главы ДНР не будет’» [“Pushilin: ‘there will be no second round of elections for DPR head’”], Moskovsky Komsomolets, 20 September 2018.Hide Footnote

For his part, LPR head Pasechnik still pays homage to the “Russian world” concept. Yet he does so in loose terms that bow to the Kremlin’s prerogatives: “Today there are boundaries between Russia and Donbas, and formally we are different states. But in our hearts and minds we feel that we are not only part of the Russian world, but part of Russia itself”.[fn]Пасечник: сотрудничество с Россией за пять лет дало ЛНР больше, чем десятилетия с Украиной» [“Pasechnik: cooperation with Russia has given the LPR more in five years than Ukraine has in decades”], TASS, 23 October 2018.Hide Footnote  The D/LPR’s new leadership thus also represents a gradual evolution away from the separatists’ aspirations to join Russia.

B. The Splintered Movement

Moscow’s abandonment of plans to create Novorossiya as well as its subsequent assertion of control over the D/LPR leadership have widened fissures among the activists who led the early Donbas demonstrations. Unlike the de facto republics’ leadership, this movement is varied in vocation and enjoys some backing from the local population. It includes peaceful organisers and municipal administrators as well as people who took up arms against Kyiv. The movement’s grassroots element is now cut off from the D/LPR leadership, which it views as having betrayed the initial cause of Novorossiya, meaning separatist fighters spilled blood in vain.

This grassroots element has complicated and even paradoxical views of Moscow. Former separatist leaders who fit this profile have been sidelined by Moscow and are in opposition to new D/LPR leaders. On the one hand, they still harbour aspirations for unification with Russia, despite Moscow’s rejection of these goals. They refer to the territories becoming part of Russia or at least fully independent from Ukraine. On the other, they have become quite critical of Moscow, saying it betrayed Novorossiya. In private conversations, former fighters and de facto officials who were close to Zakharchenko express virulently anti-Kremlin views.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former rebel fighters, Russian volunteer, Moscow, March, April and September 2018, April 2019.Hide Footnote

A few have gone public with deep-seated resentment of the Kremlin and overt disdain for the D/LPR leadership. In January 2018, for instance, Alexander Khodakovsky said in a social media post:  

Why is it that I, … Igor Strelkov and many, many others, including the majority of residents of [areas outside Kyiv’s control], … keep making … turbulence? We were planning to [be part of] Russia and to be subordinate to Moscow … and could not even imagine being forced to be subordinate to [the D/LPR leadership].[fn]Khodakovsky’s post on the Vkontakte social media network, 9 January 2018.Hide Footnote

In Khodakovsky’s eyes, Moscow not only declined to absorb the de facto republics, but it also imposed its own people as leaders to whom he must now answer. He linked those leaders to criminal gangs, before admitting: “We believed in the reasonableness of Moscow, forgetting that there are people there, too, who are prone to making mistakes”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Other former leaders’ statements reflect both frustration with the abandonment of the Novorossiya idea and flexibility as to what the de facto republic’s future should be. Their views, like those of Russia’s proxies, are evolving. Andrei Purgin, a DPR leader sidelined in September 2015 by Moscow, allegedly for being too independent, once saw the territories becoming “part of some subcultural constituent within the Russian civilisational space”.[fn]«Андрей Пургин: Главные проблемы ДНР – мотивация и образ будущего» [“Andrei Purgin: DPR’s main problems are motivation and a vision for the future”], Eurasia Daily, 30 January 2018.Hide Footnote  In 2017, he maintained that joining Russia remains a priority for growing numbers of residents in the de facto DPR. “The Russian spring must continue”, he said, using the term separatist fighters and their supporters prefer for the Donbas uprisings.[fn]«Андрей Пургин: Русская Весна должна быть продолжена» [“Andrei Purgin: The Russian spring must be continued”], Svobodnaya Pressa, 17 January 2017.Hide Footnote  More recently, however, he pointed to “political changes in the near future” that fall short of joining Russia, “for instance, the creation of a neutral government and the formalisation of the territories through the UN Security Council”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Donetsk, May 2018.Hide Footnote

As for the tens of thousands of people who took up arms over the last five years, many also dislike their new leaders. The de facto authorities have in effect taken control of the original militias that fought Kyiv’s forces in 2014, but doing so was difficult amid infighting among separatist factions. “There is no more militia”, said a disgruntled former Ukrainian rebel fighter in Strelkov’s regiment who subsequently fled to Moscow. “They won’t even let them shoot back anymore”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Moscow, April 2019.Hide Footnote  (While probably an overstatement, this last remark does reflect widespread feelings that Moscow plays a constraining role.) Many fighters cling to the goals for which they fought, killed and died – independence from Ukraine and integration with Russia. Perhaps even more importantly, 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”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, LPR member, Moscow, March 2018.Hide Footnote

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.

C. The Voiceless Population

The popular mood in areas of eastern Ukraine outside Kyiv’s control appears ambivalent about the region’s political future. What emerges from (admittedly limited) polls and interviews is that the conflict has left people both alienated from Kyiv and disappointed with Moscow. Locals are tired of the war and appear ready to side with anyone who offers a plausible plan for fixing infrastructure, supplying aid and resolving the question of the region’s political status.

According to a rare poll of D/LPR residents, conducted in late 2016, 54 per cent of the 1,021 respondents felt less Ukrainian than before the events of 2013-2016, while 38 per cent reported no change in their sense of belonging. Fewer than half (44 per cent) wanted to join Russia: 33 per cent said they favoured autonomy within Russia, while another 11 per cent favoured joining Russia without any special status. A majority (55 per cent) wanted to remain in Ukraine, either with regional autonomy (35 per cent) or without (20 per cent).[fn]Gwendolyn Sasse, “The Donbas – Two Parts, or Still One? The Experience of War through the Eyes of the Regional Population”, Centre for East European and International Studies, May 2017.Hide Footnote

That said, Crisis Group’s recent interviews suggest that many residents lack strong feelings one way or another, stressing that they would accept whatever arrangement brought security.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, areas along the contact line, 2017-2018.Hide Footnote  “We don’t care anymore who takes us – Russia or Ukraine – we just need to be somewhere”, a pensioner crossing the line of separation near Luhansk told Crisis Group.[fn]Crisis Group interview, pensioner, Starobilsk, December 2017.Hide Footnote  “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”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, pensioner, Mariupol, May 2018.Hide Footnote  These views – including the allusion to the Soviet Union as a benchmark for social security – echoed those expressed by other residents in Donbas in 2018.[fn]See Crisis Group Europe Report N°252, “Nobody Wants Us”: The Alienated Civilians of Eastern Ukraine, 1 October 2018.Hide Footnote

Those who oppose reintegration cite mistrust of the Ukrainian government rather than enthusiasm for the de facto republics’ leaders. They rarely display a coherent vision for what life in an independent state or Russia would look like. “My wife is for Ukraine”, a factory worker from Luhansk explained, “but I’m for the LPR because, well, you know, we’ve got to support it. We’re under attack”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, factory worker, Sievierodonetsk, December 2017.Hide Footnote

People cite concerns that reflect both their first-hand experiences and tropes common in pro-Kremlin and “official” D/LPR media, notably the supposed ubiquity of state-sponsored, far-right violence in Ukraine and the perception that Kyiv is the aggressor. In the words of one Luhansk pensioner, who said a sniper had killed her non-combatant son, “[then-Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko is now saying we’re a crucial part of Ukraine – so then why did they kill so many of us?”[fn]Crisis Group interview, pensioner, Sievierodonetsk, November 2018. Poroshenko was president from 2014-2019. He lost the 21 April 2019 runoff election to Volodymyr Zelenskyy.Hide Footnote  While Russian propaganda distorts people’s perceptions, five years of policies from Kyiv have felt to many locals like an intentional effort to cut them off as punishment for ostensibly supporting the separatist cause. Those policies, while not necessarily intentionally discriminatory, have in effect erected legal, political, economic and ideological barriers isolating Ukrainian citizens in rebel-held territories.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, “Nobody Wants Us”: The Alienated Civilians of Eastern Ukraine, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Many residents lack strong feelings one way or another, stressing that they would accept whatever arrangement brought security.

In early 2017, a blockade initiated by armed vigilantes on the government-controlled side blocked the anthracite coal trade between Ukraine and the D/LPR. Kyiv initially condemned but then dramatically expanded the blockade, banning all trade with people or businesses located in the statelets. This measure further weakened the D/LPR’s economies and worsened the region’s humanitarian crisis. It also has had profound consequences for remaining links, whether political or economic, that Ukraine had with people in rebel-held areas. According to a Ukrainian lawmaker with a strong record of opposing Moscow’s actions in eastern Ukraine, “before the blockade we had a foot in the door”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Rada deputy, Kyiv, February 2019.Hide Footnote  Whereas beforehand tens of thousands of Donbas inhabitants received salaries in Ukrainian currency from Ukrainian employers to whom they felt some loyalty, the embargo on trade, which means that Ukrainian-owned companies cannot legally operate in the D/LPR, rendered such employment impossible. After the blockade, the lawmaker said, the door is shut.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The blockade, combined with the years of war, has led to shifts in local alignments and allegiances. New leaders have emerged in the economic, social and humanitarian spheres, some of them women. At the same time, some who were influential before the war also remain relevant.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kyiv, Avdiivka, Sievierodonetsk, Mariupol, Kramatorsk, Moscow and Rostov-on-Don, October 2017, December 2017, April 2018, September 2018, March 2019 and April 2019. See also Malyarenko and Wolff, op. cit.; Tetyana Malyarenko, “Evolving Dynamics and Conflict Potential in Eastern Ukraine”, Ponars Policy Memo 569, January 2019.Hide Footnote

That de facto officials and fighters – the vast majority of whom are Donbas natives – view Ukrainian rhetoric, law and policy as implying that they are not considered citizens generates wider distrust of Kyiv among Donbas residents. For example, Ukraine’s 2018 law on temporarily occupied territories defines both statelets as occupied by Russia. This wording can be interpreted to mean that their leaders are not Ukrainian, regardless of their country of origin or citizenship. As for D/LPR fighters, Ukraine’s military press service refers to them as “Russian mercenaries” or “occupiers” in daily reports – despite that, according to data collected by sources affiliated with Ukrainian nationalist fighters, those killed on the D/LPR side, at least since the February 2015 ceasefire, have overwhelmingly been Ukrainians.[fn]See Cargo200 Donbas, a table which lists members of armed groups and Russian servicemen killed in Donbas, including personal data and circumstances of death. The Ukrainian blogger Necro Mancer compiles the table from open sources. Tweet by Necro Mancer, @666_mancer, 12:18am, 8 October 2018. Mass media widely circulates Necro Mancer’s data but the blogger does not reveal their identity for security reasons.Hide Footnote  This sort of language affects the local population – if Kyiv does not consider local officials and neighbours who took up arms to be Ukrainian, many residents believe, then it might also regard ordinary civilians as foreigners. Ukrainian aid workers complain that the state treats them as something less than full-fledged citizens because they reside in and travel from rebel-held territories.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Ukrainian aid workers, Kyiv, Istanbul, July 2019.

The blockade, combined with the years of war, has led to shifts in local alignments and allegiances.

Civilians face exclusion in other aspects of their daily life. One of Kyiv’s policies – which the country’s Supreme Court deemed unlawful – limits D/LPR residents’ access to pensions.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, “Nobody Wants Us”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Given that the only recourse civilians have is to sue to get their pensions reinstated, many continue to live without them. When a long-awaited 2019 legislative amendment extended social subsidies for war veterans to civilians injured in the hostilities, it excluded those hurt while in D/LPR territory.[fn]See UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Report on the Human Rights Situation 16 November 2018 to 15 February 2019”, p. 8.Hide Footnote  In April 2019, the social policy minister of President Petro Poroshenko’s government said, “everyone who is pro-Ukrainian has long since left”, and that he felt “absolutely no pity” regarding the harsh conditions facing those who remained.[fn]See Facebook post by BBC Ukraine journalist Olga Malchevska, 26 April 2019.Hide Footnote  D/LPR media seized on his remarks, while not a single key member of that government criticised them.

That some in Kyiv question or even seek to undermine the citizenship of those who took up arms against the Ukrainian state is hardly surprising. But such rhetoric has broader, more pernicious effects, affecting the general civilian population, for whom militants and de facto officials are neighbours and relatives and who hear themselves described by Ukrainians as sympathetic to or complicit in the uprising. It is inconsistent with Kyiv’s stated goal of peacefully reintegrating the breakaway territories. It also reinforces the arguments of the separatists themselves that the local population is not, in fact, Ukrainian.

V. Toward Unity

A new president in Ukraine could bring fresh opportunities to break the deadlock in Donbas. As Poroshenko’s term drew to a close, the Ukrainian government’s approach to the parts of the east under separatist control seemed to stagnate. Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, however, has spoken of a new truce and renewed negotiations with Russia. He and his team have the opportunity to lay the groundwork for the eventual reintegration of rebel-held parts of Donbas.

For Zelenskyy, the worst option of course would be to try to forcibly retake the territories, as an all-out offensive would likely provoke a military response from Moscow and a bloodbath in Donbas. It could even lead Moscow, according to a former Kremlin official, to recognise the statelets’ independence, much as it did in 2008 during its war with Georgia over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Moscow, April 2018.Hide Footnote  The large-scale military option is mainly advocated by nationalists not members of Ukraine’s political establishment. But some prominent mainstream politicians refuse to rule it out.[fn]Турчинов заявив про силове повернення Донбасу: готові всі передумови” [“Turchinov spoke about forcible return of Donbas: all preconditions for this are ready”], Politeka, 14 February 2018.Hide Footnote  Crisis Group’s interviews in Kyiv suggest that some such politicians would prefer attempting a military takeover over granting the rebel-held areas special status or a degree of autonomy that would allow them a veto over Ukrainian policy decisions, whether in foreign policy or on key domestic issues.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Ukrainian lawmakers, Kyiv, 2018.Hide Footnote

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.

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.

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. In addition, better relations with the Donbas population might strengthen Kyiv’s hand in negotiations with Moscow.

Reaching out directly to leaders in separatist held areas probably does not make sense. Moscow insists on such direct engagement with the D/LPR de facto leaders, over and above that which is already required for the Trilateral Contact group in which they participate. Yet such engagement would not only be unacceptable for Kyiv, but also not differ substantially from talking directly with Moscow, given that D/LPR’s de facto leaders are so dependent on the Kremlin.

Instead, President Zelenskyy could attempt to build a constituency for reintegration among eastern Ukraine’s population. This constituency might even include people who favoured separatism but who, disillusioned with Moscow, might now be convinced otherwise, particularly if they feel that their safety and that of their families is assured. New local leaders have emerged as the regions have changed over the last six years, including some women. Key to such engagement is building their confidence that Kyiv can protect their interests. As a starting point, the new Ukrainian government could encourage contact between Ukrainians in government-controlled parts of the country with those on the other side of the line of separation. Such channels of communication might allow Ukrainians to reach out to their compatriots in these territories as a starting point to convincing them that their security and their livelihoods matter to Kyiv.

Removing barriers put in place over the last five years is essential. For example, Zelenskyy could ease or lift the economic blockade that now isolates the D/LPR. The new president’s representatives have already suggested this might be one possible component of a truce.[fn]Contact Group to discuss lifting Donbas economic blockade during next meeting”, TASS, 6 June 2019.Hide Footnote  It would enable economic links that, in turn, might help rebuild relationships across the front line. In line with the recent decision of its Supreme Court, Kyiv should take steps to enable residents of the D/LPR to receive their pensions by delinking pensions from provable status as internally displaced persons. Kyiv might also consider easing its language laws, which now significantly limit the use of Russian in public life. 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.

If Ukraine is to reunify its east, Zelenskyy’s government will have to define and forge consensus among Ukrainian parties and within society on what special status, autonomy and/or federalisation could entail. It will need to consider options for amnesties and security guarantees and prepare to address opposition from all sides, including Ukrainian nationalists and former separatists who fear reprisals in the event of reintegration. The challenges are substantial. But improved relations with the people of the east will make solutions to these problems better informed, more responsive to their needs and thus more feasible.

VI. Conclusion

Though Russian actions helped spark the Ukrainian conflict, and have fuelled it since, 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. Its task in this regard is difficult. But Kyiv would benefit from an approach that serves the interests of all Ukrainian citizens, wherever they live. Over time, such policies could bring a population in the east that feels abandoned by both Russia and Kyiv back into the Ukrainian fold.

Moscow/Kyiv/Brussels, 16 July 2019

Appendix A: Map of Ukraine

Appendix B: Map of Donbas Conflict Zone