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Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine
Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
A Shadow over Ukraine’s Presidential Election
A Shadow over Ukraine’s Presidential Election
Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko (C) looks at a Ukrainian flag brought from an eastern region of the country where a military conflict took place, 14 October 2015. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Briefing 79 / Europe & Central Asia

Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine

A 2015 ceasefire signed in Minsk is largely holding in eastern Ukraine, while the most likely outcome is a brittle, long-term frozen conflict. Nevertheless, Russia is juggling many options, and Minsk remains a vital possible path to resolution. The deal deserves steadfast, sanctions-backed support from the U.S. and European Union.

I. Overview

Despite repeated expressions of support for the Minsk process and recognition of Ukraine’s sovereignty over the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DNR, LNR), Moscow’s policy in Ukraine’s east looks more likely to strengthen those entities than prepare for the dismantlement the Minsk agreement envisages. The Kremlin views Ukraine’s European choice as a major security threat and the 2014 overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych as Western-backed and aimed at isolating Russia. It wants to keep Ukraine under its pro-Western leadership unstable, embroiled in open-ended military confrontation it cannot afford, so as to return it eventually to its sphere of influence. Moscow often seems to play with several options, but its tactical fluidity is dangerous. Almost 10,000 have died in the conflict, and tens of thousands of troops face each other along a 500-km line of separation. While recognising the risk of the Minsk process becoming a substitute for settlement, the international community should urge Russia to show its commitment to that process and remind it that sanctions will remain until Minsk is fully implemented.

The ceasefire in the east has largely held since 1 September, casualties are down, and all sides express determination to implement the Minsk agreement. Few Minsk provisions have been fully implemented however, and the timetable for completion has been extended into 2016. This gives Moscow further opportunities to concentrate the parties more on process than a settlement.

After showing little interest in building political institutions in the DNR and LNR or enthusiasm for funding social policies, Moscow has begun in the past four or five months to bankroll pensions, social benefits and salaries to local officials and the separatist military forces. If consistently maintained, this will cost it over $1 billion a year, a substantial sum for the Russian treasury in straitened economic times. 

Some observers in Donetsk are persuaded the measures are increasingly clear signs Moscow has decided to transform the crisis into a frozen conflict, a scenario international participants in the peace talks have long feared. Though a protracted conflict in eastern Ukraine would be very different from those in Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transnistria, it would have the advantage for Russia of pushing the issue further off the international agenda. 

Rather more persuasively, some seasoned observers of Moscow’s tactics in the east, including senior separatist officials, suggest that the Kremlin is probably considering several options, from freezing the conflict while keeping Minsk alive, to dropping the entities at a convenient time. It may also be waiting to see how other global agendas with potential for cooperation between Russia and the West – Syria, for example, and counter-terrorism – are developing. 

Russia says it is pushing hard for complete implementation as quickly as possible, but Ukraine and its Western supporters maintain that it has not done enough to remove weaponry and discuss a troop pullout. The Kyiv government has been unable to assemble enough votes to pass crucial constitutional amendments Minsk requires, to the indignation of Russia and its separatist allies, and is reluctant to accept sweeping amnesty for separatists. There has been little progress on what Minsk envisages to be an “all for all” exchange of prisoners, though several hundred releases have taken place. The opposing sides are also still arguing over inclusive, internationally-supervised local elections that would in theory help normalise the political situation in the entities.

Meanwhile, in addition to the many troops Russia retains on its side of the border who can deploy quickly throughout the DNR and LNR, separatist sources and Western officials say, it has a number of units inside the entities. One of the most useful steps Moscow could take to demonstrate its willingness to help resolve the conflict would be to quietly withdraw those units. This would substantially increase Ukrainian and Western confidence that it is indeed committed to Minsk. The international community could then ensure that Ukraine did not try to take advantage by moving across the line of separation. 

Another important step for Russia would be to reduce military supplies to the entities. Cuts in fuel, lubricants and ammunition for artillery and other heavy weapons would gradually diminish their forces’ mobility and effectiveness. As Russia still denies providing such items, this could be done with minimal publicity or face loss. The international community, including the U.S., might react with confidence-building measures, perhaps including a security dialogue in the region, or consultations on ways to dismantle the poorly-disciplined LNR and DNR militaries. 

Until there is a clearly positive change in the core Russian approach, the international community needs to build its policy toward Moscow over eastern Ukraine on the assumption that anything, including more serious fighting, is possible. For now, this may seem highly unlikely. Russia is embroiled in Syria, the Donbas has been banished from its media, and the economy is under great strain, due in part to sanctions, in part to low oil prices. But large Russian units have already fought twice in Ukraine, once (February 2015) even during peace talks. Moscow could resort to such means again should the lower-cost, lower-visibility approach of supporting the entities in a protracted conflict fail. The European Union (EU), especially member states Germany and France, and the U.S. should avoid the trap of letting a potentially lengthy resolution process and different interpretations of its provisions undermine their vital consensus on maintaining sanctions until Minsk is fully implemented. 

Research was conducted in Kyiv, Dnepropetrovsk, Krasnoarmiisk, Kurakhove and Moscow and during five visits to DNR/LNR-controlled areas of Donetsk city and oblast since July 2014. The briefing focuses on recent political changes in the entities, their relations with Moscow and the nature of Russia’s presence and control.

Protesters from National Corps and other right-wing groups gathered to demand the arrest of presidential associates implicated in a defense sector corruption scandal, on 23 March 2019. CRISISGROUP/Katharine Quinn-Judge

A Shadow over Ukraine’s Presidential Election

With Ukraine’s establishment forecasting doom after the presidential runoff, the far right’s influence on politics is impossible to ignore. Its resurgence is both a symptom and a cause of the country’s ills: there is less daylight between it and the political mainstream than either admits.

On 31 March, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko suffered a double-digit defeat in the presidential election’s first round to comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, whose only previous political experience is playing the president on television. The incumbent is widely expected to lose a second and final time in Sunday’s runoff vote. Zelensky’s campaign has hinged on shying away from policy specifics, while appealing to voters who are wary of Poroshenko’s increasingly familiar rhetoric about containing Russian aggression and promises of Westernisation. The comedian blames Moscow for the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine, but says both sides should “just stop shooting”. He says he favours integration with the West, but questions whether European states will ever treat Ukraine as a peer.

Apocalyptic predictions abound about his potential victory. Poroshenko says his opponent is a Kremlin plant who could bring about the death of the Ukrainian state. Poroshenko’s harshest critics, many of them also concerned about Zelensky’s inexperience and flippancy, have claimed that the sitting president could use voter suppression tactics in order to prevail on election day. Some commentators even see a plot by the country’s substantial far right to help elect Zelensky and then seize power in a coup.

Sunday's [runoff vote] looks increasingly unlikely to bring large-scale violence.

Sunday looks increasingly unlikely to bring large-scale violence, as there are no signs of Poroshenko preparing to disrupt voting or rig the results, and the far right does not appear to be planning a show of force. But the dire prognostications and the absurdities of this campaign nevertheless reflect real concerns with which Kyiv and its friends will have to contend. For the past five years, Kyiv has pledged to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity after Russia’s invasion, fight corruption and adopt European standards of good governance. Yet amid continuing reports of high-level corruption, including in the defence sector, these pledges have increasingly felt like hollow slogans and ploys to attract Western aid. This has created fertile ground for the rise of protest figures – people who, like Zelensky mock the apparent insincerity of these noble goals – or, like the far-right groups that have played such a noisy role in the campaign season, propose unworkable or destructive paths to achieving them.

Though they do poorly in elections, far-right groups’ patriotic credentials and anti-corruption stances strike a chord with large numbers of Ukrainians who might otherwise be lukewarm, at best, toward their views. At the same time, some of the far right’s positions mirror and may influence mainstream sentiments. In that sense, they are both a symptom of Ukraine’s political system’s sickness and a cause thereof.

The Far Right Makes Its Mark

Proponents of Ukraine’s integration with the West tend to downplay the significance of far right groups. But their underwhelming electoral performance obfuscates the major role the various groups and their viewpoints play in public life. The ideas that the far-right parties propagate, from “traditional” values to militarism to disparagement of civilians living in the eastern territories occupied by Russia, are shared by powerful mainstream politicians. The groups themselves are well organised and disciplined; many members own firearms and have combat experience. Crucially, they take visible stands on issues with deep public resonance, from budget transparency to conditions in orphanages, which generates a certain degree of passive support from citizens who may be unaware of their violent, white supremacist, patriarchal ideology – or are unbothered by it.

Ukraine’s far right, in its current iteration, grew out of the 2013-2014 Maidan protests.

Ukraine’s far right, in its current iteration, grew out of the 2013-2014 Maidan protests that ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. Then, right-wing groups stood alongside students and frustrated members of the middle class to bring down a regime that had thumbed its nose at them all. After Yanukovych fled the country and a Russian-backed insurgency erupted in the east, far-right and nationalist groups formed militias that helped fend off enemy troops as Ukraine’s weakened armed forces rebuilt themselves. While Kyiv’s new government fashioned itself as centrist and pro-Western, it welcomed the militias’ support. Meanwhile, Moscow’s feverish characterisation of these groups as fascist all but ensured that Kyiv officials and their Western friends would rally to defend these “patriots”.

While many fighters in the Azov battalion – a prominent far-right militia that came together in 2014 – were partly motivated by a desire to defend Ukraine against corrupt leaders and an oppressive neighbour, it was no accident that they wore crests and used rhetoric that had Nazi echoes. Journalists highlighted how fighters’ professions of love for homeland would sometimes dissolve into approving references to Hitler. The conduct of these militias also raised concerns, as rights groups documented their possible war crimes. Still, many of Ukraine’s international supporters as well as its ordinary citizens have tended to see the rightists as self-sacrificing if confused young men, and criticisms as a product of either Kremlin propaganda or overwrought liberal anxiety.

Though the government took steps to bring the Azov battalion and similar militias under state control, their leaders retained political prominence, and some of the largest groups, including Azov, were integrated into Ministry of Interior forces, often as intact units. National Corps, Ukraine’s largest right-wing party, is led by key Azov figures; its sister vigilante group National Militia is rumoured to have links to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. (He denies any ties, but has defended the vigilantes’ right to conduct unarmed street patrols.)

It is only recently, when right-wing groups have begun publicly protesting against the incumbent government en masse, that they have faced real pushback.

Protesters from National Corps, which claims it can mobilise 20,000 activists at any given time, clashed with police two weekends in a row in March, compounding pre-existing concerns about election violence. The protests were aimed at Poroshenko and his circle, particularly Oleg Gladkovsky, the former deputy head of the National Security and Defense Council, who was fired in February after press reports exposed his apparent involvement in a defence sector corruption scheme. Activists called on police to arrest him and others suspected of profiting from crooked deals that siphoned off money from Ukraine’s armed forces, even as its members continue to fight and die in the east. The focus on corruption helped the protesters portray themselves as legitimate and cast the government in an unflattering light.

Following the 9 March protest, Kyiv accused National Corps of playing into Russia’s hands – the same charge it had once hurled at the right’s critics. Interior Minister Avakov announced that protesters had injured 22 police and reprimanded them. A handful of National Corps members were listed on Myrotvorets, a self-styled non-governmental database, created by two prominent officials, which purports to name “pro-Russian terrorists, separatists, mercenaries, war criminals and murderers”. The president’s party issued a statement saying the protest was the work of “pro-Russian revanchists and exiled oligarchs” aiming to “bring down the democratic, pro-European government”.

An Uncertain Hold on the Moral High Ground

Despite National Corps leaders’ attempts to draw parallels, their March protests bore little resemblance to the start of the uprising that overthrew Yanukovych. The idealists who formed the core of that movement in its early days were absent from the crowds of young men wearing face masks and well-practiced glares. National Corps is a white supremacist group that talks of “reconquering” European soil and whose members have attacked Roma camps. Its members appear to have ties to American, European and Russian neo-Nazi groups. One of their regional leaders on the morning of 15 March posted the Christchurch mosque shooter’s footage on social media with the words “anti-terrorists win”. That footage showed one of Azov’s favoured symbols, the black sun, on the shooter’s vest.

In Ukraine, the government’s ability to hold the moral high ground over groups like National Corps is uncertain.

But in Ukraine, the government’s ability to hold the moral high ground over groups like National Corps is uncertain: the far right’s accusations of corruption appear at least partly justified. The protesters’ rowdy calls to arrest Gladkovsky and his associates merely channel the anger many Ukrainians feel at having chased out their kleptocratic leaders in 2014, only to see their replacements engage in what appears to be war profiteering. After watching a video of marchers kicking at policemen’s shields on 9 March, a Kyiv intellectual called the footage a vivid embodiment of popular sentiment.

Meanwhile, some – though far from all – of the Poroshenko government’s members and vocal supporters are themselves ultraconservatives with militaristic and exclusionist ideas. For example, active members of National Guard units plug the president on social media while posting hate-filled rhetoric about eastern civilians and rejoicing at attacks on Ukrainians who insist on speaking Russian. One of the country’s top-ranking security officials reportedly refers regularly to eastern civilians as traitors who are now getting their just desserts.

The Poroshenko government and their far-right opponents share a view of the war in the east as a nation-building exercise. They not only recoil at the idea of reintegrating breakaway areas as semi-autonomous entities through which Russia could maintain leverage over the country’s economic and foreign policy – a wariness many Ukrainians share – but behind closed doors, speak of the war in positive terms as a way to forge a national identity distinct from Russia’s. To both groups, the ongoing trickle of civilian and military casualties – as well as losses among the Russia-backed armed groups, where the vast majority of those dying on the front lines appear to be Ukrainian citizens – is a cost they are willing to accept for what they believe history will view as the dawn of the country’s independence.

After Sunday

Sunday’s vote will probably proceed peacefully. But the campaign has highlighted risks that will persist well beyond. Over the past five years, many talented public servants have pressed hard to reform corrupt institutions, make the country safer and hasten its reintegration. At the same time, however, the Poroshenko government has helped legitimise the far right’s ideology by embracing a militaristic brand of nationalism, strengthened its capacity to use force by loosening the state’s monopoly on violence and fed its sense of righteous anger by fuelling suspicion that the government is presiding over war profiteering. Whoever wins on Sunday will need to find a way to remove some of the momentum behind this growing movement lest it further destabilise the country. Convincing the public that the government’s primary aim is to strengthen and reunify the country – rather than merely profit off the promise to do so –would be a good place to start.