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A member of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic forces stands guard at a checkpoint at the frontline with the Ukrainian armed forces near the town of Avdiivka, outside Donetsk, Ukraine, 17 March 2016. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Ukraine: The Line

The 500km line of separation between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatist rebels suffers heavy daily violations of the ceasefire agreed in Minsk in 2015. Escalation is possible, and the status quo risks a political backlash against the Kyiv government and no way out of sanctions for Moscow. All sides should pull back heavy weapons from front lines, take responsibility for civilians trapped there, and return to other steps toward peace set out in Minsk.

I. Overview

The 500km line of separation between Russian-supported separatist districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and the rest of Ukraine is not fit for purpose. The ceasefire negotiated at the February 2015 Minsk talks is being violated daily and heavily. Tens of thousands of well-armed troops confront each other in densely populated civilian areas. The sides are so close that even light infantry weapons can cause substantial damage, let alone the heavy weapons they regularly use. This presents major risks to civilians who still live there – about 100,000 on the Ukrainian side alone, according to an unofficial estimate – often next door to troops who have taken over unoccupied houses. It also heightens the risk of an escalation. Kyiv, Moscow and the separatists all bear responsibility for the security and well-being of civilians living along the front line.

Likewise, Kyiv’s European allies, Washington and Moscow all have crucial roles to play in addressing the overall situation. They should insist that both sides withdraw their heavy weapons, as Minsk requires, from the front line to storage areas monitored by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). They should also press their respective allies – the Ukrainian government on one side, and the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (DNR and LNR) on the other – to separate troops from civilians and to substantially widen the line of separation. Russia’s role in this is vital. It insists it is not a party to the conflict, but its military intervention in early 2014 triggered the crisis; two major incursions by its armed forces in 2014 and 2015 deepened it; and it is now the sole source of military, economic and other assistance to the two entities. Its officers train and largely command the separatist forces, and it continues to assure the separatists that it will intervene again if Ukraine attacks. Given Russia’s continued role in the conflict, international sanctions need to be maintained.

There is little doubt that the death toll is significantly higher than either side admits. Fighting takes place daily along large parts of the line, much of it unreported. Both sides often use howitzers, heavy mortars and rocket systems or park them menacingly in the centre of large urban areas where they risk at the least becoming targets for the other’s artillery. The Minsk agreement to withdraw heavy weaponry, meanwhile, is violated daily.

Both sides should take urgent measures to address the security and humanitarian, including health, needs of the civilians stranded along the front line. Troops and military equipment should be moved out of civilian buildings and settlements. It would be helpful if the OSCE, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) specifically identified in their public monitoring reports those locations where civilians and military are intermingled. Ukraine also urgently needs to address the humanitarian fallout of the conflict, including clear signs of psychiatric distress in front-line villages. If it is unable to do this, an experienced international organisation like Doctors without Borders should be encouraged to survey the needs. And the Ukrainian government should order local civil administrators, most of whom seem to have abandoned settlements on the front line, to return to work and at least be in contact with the population concerned.

The humanitarian crisis on the front line is also a political one. President Poro­shen­ko’s poll ratings in the east, including those areas Kyiv controls, have declined substantially. One oft-cited reason is the sense that the country’s leadership is not interested in the east. Ukraine, whose sovereignty over the occupied territories is internationally recognised, needs to take the lead in addressing these problems. Doing so would not be a sign of weakness, as some Ukrainian voices argue, or imply equal guilt with Moscow for the damage inflicted by the conflict. On the contrary, it would be proof that Kyiv was acting as a legitimate and responsible member of the international community that cares for the well-being of all its citizens.

The government-controlled areas of the two oblasts are also the stronghold of one of Ukraine’s main opposition parties, the Opposition Bloc. Widely described as pro-Russian and oligarch-funded, the Bloc is running nationwide ahead or neck and neck with the president’s party in many polls. Failure to help its own citizens on the border thus could well have political cost for the Kyiv leadership and fuel conflict by strengthening anti-government feelings in Luhansk and Donetsk.

This briefing, based on travels along the Kyiv-controlled side of the line of separation in April-May 2016, focuses on the intermingling of civilians and military in front-line areas on the Ukrainian side. It also surveys the views and outlook of Ukrainian military officers stationed along the front line. The officers are younger and more confident than those encountered two years ago. But their opinions were bitingly critical of the country’s political and military leadership, including President Petro Poroshenko. The president and other top leaders would be well advised to pay more attention to the mood of what is in essence the next generation of Ukrainian military commanders. All officers interviewed described the Minsk process as dead and strongly supported the idea, floated by some leading politicians, to seal off the separatist enclaves for the foreseeable future – a policy move the international community should caution against in no uncertain terms. 

II. Home on the Front

A. Elusive Statistics

Government officials in Kyiv and in the east were unable to provide figures for the number of civilians still living in the many villages and settlements that are now part of the front line. Staff of the Agency for the Restoration of Donbas, the very theoretical government lead for work in the east, said they knew of no consolidated data. The Donetsk governor’s office, Donetsk police, internal affairs ministry and state statistical service, among others, were unable to provide up-to-date figures. 

Enquiries to local military or civil administrators in the combat zones yielded some estimates: 10,000 highly vulnerable in the Luhansk district of Popasna; 1,500 in the industrial town of Avdiivka, whose suburbs are part of the front line; a substantial portion of the population of Marinka, a small front-line town with a pre-war population of over 9,000; and 1,500 out of a village of 3,000 in a position close to Mariupol. The UN Humanitarian Response Plan for 2016 estimates the civilian population in Ukrainian-controlled front-line areas at 200,000. Other specialised international organisations feel this may be an overstatement. Given a pre-war population of approximately 230,000 in these areas of Luhansk and Donetsk, it seems reasonable to assume that the most at-risk population – those living in government-controlled areas where front-line military units are based, and which are frequently subject to attacks – number around 100,000. 

Crisis Group was not able to conduct research on the separatist side of the front, as access to much of the separatist-controlled territory is becoming increasingly difficult. However, earlier visits to the self-proclaimed People’s Republics and reports from major international organisations leave no doubt that the intermingling of civilians and military is also prevalent there.

There is no distinction between military positions and civilian dwellings in many front-line settlements. Combat units are embedded in villages, usually scattered in houses beside civilian dwellings. In Marinka, a town just beyond the western edge of Donetsk city, many civilians still live in Matrosova Street, once a quiet area of pleasant small houses and large gardens. Military units now occupy abandoned houses, and the beginning of the front line is marked by a heavy machine gun position on the street corner. Separatist positions are 150 metres or less away. During firefights, which usually happen at night and are frequent, casualties are evacuated along Matrosova and parallel streets. An officer who coordinated casualty evacuations noted that he preferred to use small passenger cars rather than ambulances, as those drew heavy incoming fire that left civilians “pretty scared”.

In the hamlet of Zaitseve, military armour pokes out of the bushes, and visitors observed fresh craters from a 152mm howitzer and an 82mm mortar on the edge of a newly tilled vegetable plot. Local people said the shells had dropped short of a military position. On Kirova Street in Avdiivka, a Ukrainian military observation post is on high ground behind residents’ gardens. Just across the road, troops occupy houses, one of which had been seriously damaged in fighting a few weeks earlier. The front line is only 50 to 100 metres away. 

B. Those Who Stay

Those who remain in the front-line area usually have nowhere else to go or lack the means to leave. They are more likely women than men, are often pensioners and sometimes have to care for family members too infirm to leave. Moving requires considerably more financial outlay than pensioners can afford. A one-bedroom apartment in Kramatorsk, the temporary seat of the Ukrainian government’s Donetsk regional administration, costs approximately 1,500 hryvnia ($60) per month, about three quarters of a monthly pension. Utilities would add substantially to this. With schools closed or on the other side of the line and mines everywhere, families have usually left or sent children to relatives. Schools and health facilities in Horlivka, some 15km from the front, used to service a significant part of the area, but the large industrial town is now on the separatist side of the front, a strategic part of the defences of Donetsk city and frequently subject to shelling and attacks. 

Few if any civilian males of military age have stayed – not surprisingly given military suspicions that locals are separatist sympathisers (see below). Often one person, usually a woman, has remained to ensure that the family home is not sequestered by the military or damaged. The military takeover of temporarily uninhabited homes and other buildings seems ad hoc and arbitrary. In many places, the houses have become billets for small units or fire positions. As a soldier explained, a house is more comfortable to live in than a trench. In some places, residents have protested, usually with little success. 

People living along the front line have drastically simplified their daily routine. Most sleep in cellars for all or part of the night, remaining close to their house and shelter through late morning. Firing usually tapers off around noon or early afternoon, before residents edge closer to shelters. Work prospects in the villages have largely disappeared. Those previously employed outside them are unable to travel, most local mines are closed, and farming has become dangerous.

The front line has cut through some of eastern Europe’s richest farmland and vegetable gardens, bringing agriculture to a halt in most places and making even subsistence farming dangerous. Large fields are mostly untilled, for fear of shelling or mines (see below). Any planting is usually limited to potatoes in vegetable patches close to the house – in some cases the small green space outside village houses where in quieter times the elderly would sit. Even these relatively sheltered areas are vulnerable. In Avdiivka, the coke-smelting town whose suburbs flow into the front line, a 75-year-old woman was killed by what locals say was an incoming shell while working on her potatoes. The police report attributed her death to “careless handling of ammunition”.

The military on both sides carries out hit-and-run raids from largely civilian areas. Several front-line residents in Avdiivka related how a small Ukrainian unit recently sped in, strafed its foes, then pulled back. These actions inevitably trigger retaliation, well after the soldiers have left. Donetsk residents described separatist mortar teams using the same tactics and provoking the same response. 

Given the volatility of the situation, few who have left show any sign of wanting to return permanently to the villages. Residents of Zaitseve reported a family briefly returning to plant potatoes, “in case there is peace later this year”. Villagers said that even occasional visits from relief agencies offer little hope. An international organisation explained to Avdiivka residents that it was too early to distribute roofing and other building materials, as they would only have to be replaced again in a few months.

Those able to leave are among the 1.7 million officially registered internally displaced persons (IDPs). About one million are registered as living in other parts of Luhansk and Donetsk, though it is quite possible that many have moved elsewhere or even returned home on the other side of the line. Most IDPs are said to live with relatives, friends or in rental accommodations in larger towns that offer more safety and work opportunities.

C. Military-civilian Relations

Civilians in the east agree that the Ukrainian military’s behaviour has improved substantially since the grim days of 2014, when its troops were a byword for indiscipline, drunkenness and sometimes violence. But there are lingering suspicions on both sides. Some civilians, echoing a line favoured by many separatist propagandists, discreetly remarked to visitors that if the troops were not living next door, their homes would not be under fire. 

The military has its own preconceptions regarding the locals. One holds that civilians have chosen to remain at the front because of separatist sympathies. Quite often, in Avdiivka for example, residents reported allegations by soldiers that local people helped DNR sabotage teams that slipped into the area at night. Another frequent comment offered by the military was that local people were getting what they had asked for in the May 2014 separatist-organised referendum on self-determination. Some senior officers were more direct: “50 per cent of my civilians are separatists”, claimed a battalion commander; in another area, an officer estimated hard-core sympathisers at about 10 per cent of the population. Soldiers said they could hear separatist radio stations from their civilian neighbours’ homes, which reinforced their suspicion. One of the few local officials on the ground remarked that, on the rare occasion he or his colleagues were able to achieve something for the local population, separatist media claimed credit, and the news quickly spread among locals. 

Separatist media are ubiquitous, because in the vast majority of settlements along the front line, towers carrying Ukrainian broadcasting were destroyed in the early days of the fighting and have not been replaced. The only choice for most civilians are local radio stations from nearby separatist-controlled towns. The governor of Donetsk acknowledged the problem but noted that repair of transmission equipment is the central authorities’ responsibility.

D. Mines

Visitors to a hamlet in Zaitseve are instructed on arrival to use only well-trodden paths between houses, never shortcuts. Mines – anti-personnel and anti-armour – have been laid all across the front line. Both sides recently added trip wire devices. Few have been mapped, so regular troop rotations mean that any institutional memory of the mines’ location has been lost. Inhabitants of the front-line villages often cite mines as the main reason for sending children to relatives. “The shelling is bad enough, but at least we see or hear the risk: with mines you had to keep children in prison”, a woman explained. On Kirova Street in Avdiivka, a resident said his five dogs had “gone”, probably killed by mines just beyond his back garden, which opens out on the front.

Demining specialists believe that clearing all mines once hostilities end will take a minimum of five years and up to twenty if sufficient funding is not available. Large-scale demining cannot begin, however, until the Ukrainian parliament passes legislation determining which government authority oversees the removal of mines and unexploded ordnance, and establishing national technical standards, including a framework for the accreditation and quality. Meanwhile, the number of mines and explosive remnants of war is increasing daily. Western diplomats say the legislation is so far moving slowly. 

E. Distress and Alcohol

The sheer terror of living in a war zone, the highly limited opportunity of moving even a few miles away, the lack of work, the separation of families and general social disruption have for two years subjected the remaining inhabitants of front-line areas to inordinate social pressure that has disproportionately devolved upon women. The state has done little or nothing to address these problems, and visits by international monitors and aid organisations are rare. Residents are mostly anxious and depressed: few conversations continue for more than a few minutes without an interlocutor showing signs of this.

Alcohol abuse has long been an engrained feature of village life in Russian and Russian-speaking areas, but usually among men. In villages along the front line, alcohol consumption by women is widespread. Church volunteers in Marinka, as well as members of other local groups working with villagers, expressed concern that constant military activity was leading to an increase in serious diseases. After particularly heavy attacks in mid-June, a pastor reported “pathologies” among the local children: “their hair starts falling out, their legs and arms shake, and some stop speaking”. None of the villagers recalled visits by psychiatric health professionals. A senior regional government official shrugged off the question when asked if such visits had been made. There is urgent need for a survey of the psychiatric health needs on the front line by a competent international body.

F. Where Are the Officials?

A number of local government officials recently joined a delegation of the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) Human Rights Committee on a visit to Marinka. The committee chair, Hrihoriy Nemyria, recalled that local people were surprised they were from the district administration. No one recognised them: local officials left with the onset of war and have been handling administrative affairs from the small resort town of Kurakhove, a good distance from the front. Zaitseve residents said they did not recall any visits by officials. A military commander in Dokuchayevsk mentioned that civilian administrators initially joined him on front visits. They would note requests, leave and not follow up. “People here are abandoned” by the local government, he said. “There is no sense of interest in their problems, and the quality of civilian officials is very low”. The result is that people on the front line are left to fend for themselves.

G. Holes in the Line

There are six official vehicle-crossing points between Ukrainian and separatist-controlled territories, while mostly local people use a hastily-repaired bridge in Stanitsia-Luhanska, the single official pedestrian crossing. Over 700,000 passed through the official checkpoints in May, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). They tend not to live along the front line, are usually relatively affluent, own vehicles, can pay for fuel and food and have a certain sophistication in dealing with the sometimes intimidating military or security personnel. Even so, the crossing is challenging. Waits of ten hours or more – often overnight – are common. Crossing points are usually close to military installations, increasing the danger of shelling or mines. Many who live on the front line, on the other hand, have neither the money nor experience required to deal with men in uniform. Some complain that they are asked at Ukrainian checkpoints for proof they are registered as displaced, which they are not.

On rare occasions, local officials on both sides have unofficially created crossing points. These purely local initiatives, distinct from the officially stipulated crossing areas, allow front-line residents to visit nearby settlements on the other side to buy food – considerably cheaper on the Ukrainian side – visit relatives and, when possible, collect pensions. They must show proof of registration in a settlement close to the border: despite the current armed conflict, all Ukrainian citizens remain required to register in their place of permanent residence. Two such informal points were known to exist as of early 2016. One, in Popasna, remains functional while another, near Marinka, has reportedly closed. 

There are other ways to get across, but not for simple residents. Ukrainian soldiers know the village of Verkhnetoretskoye as a smugglers’ crossing. Some contraband is for local consumption, but much is part of the major smuggling operation – of coal, scrap, weapons and probably drugs – that is enriching officials on both sides of the line. A prominent blogger and volunteer supporter of the armed forces, Yuriy Kasyanov, described watching a goods train passing through the village and into the separatist-controlled area of Donetsk oblast. Fighters from the ultra-nationalist Right Sector prepared to attack the smugglers’ train, but were stopped, Kasyanov said, by Ukrainian soldiers.

There has also been at least one instance of soldiers on both sides cooperating to improve conditions on their part of the front. Ukrainian troops said that sometime in May 2016, they contacted the troops facing them; one of their number crossed to the opposing front line and over a bottle of vodka suggested they might shoot at them less often. The separatists explained that military service was one of the few ways to earn money in the entities – a frequently heard complaint in the DNR. They reportedly agreed, however, that on those days when they were on duty they would fire away from their targets. They added that they could not answer for the Russian troops on duty the other days. 

III. The Military

Around 90,000 troops face each other across the 500km-long line of separation. The Ukrainian government says it has 69,000 troops in its Anti-Terror Operation (ATO) zone, not all of whom are based directly on the front line. Kyiv and its allies usually estimate the separatist military strength at 35,000, though this is probably high. In addition, Ukrainian officials say, more than 8,000 Russian troops remain inside the separatist entities, with a much larger force permanently stationed just the other side of the border, ready to intervene. Moscow denies any such plans, just as it does having ever intervened militarily in Ukraine over the past two years. Separatist officials say the permanent Russian military presence is considerably less than Ukraine claims, but they stress that Russian troops on the border could deploy throughout the entities in hours if needed. 

A. Officer Politics – Criticism of the President, 
Support for Sealing-off the Separatists

Most observers agree that the Ukrainian military is very different from the poorly led, often demoralised force sent into action two years ago. Many battalion commanders and their deputies are in their early thirties. A lieutenant colonel who hopes to leave soon for staff college said most of his peers in neighbouring front-line positions were between 29 and 32. At 34, he is feeling old, he joked. In private, the officers are deeply critical of their country’s military and political leadership. One started his analysis by describing the deadlock in the conflict as beneficial to both Russian and Ukrainian leaders: “The Russians can maintain pressure on us, and our president has an excuse for not carrying out reforms”. 

All expressed belief that the Minsk process is “dead”. This line has been increasingly echoed by Ukrainian officials, Western diplomats and many Russian commentators. As a result, the officers said, the crisis could only be solved by military means. None, however, felt this would happen soon. There is wide agreement among analysts and the military that while the front-line advantage has shifted moderately in favour of Ukraine (see below), the key factor remains Russia’s readiness to intervene militarily in support of the separatists. As long as this holds, the officers felt, Ukraine would not attack to regain control of the entities. 

The idea to seal off the separatist entities from the rest of Ukraine, cutting political and economic ties and excluding their population from elections, has been floated since January 2016 by political leaders in Kyiv – including such prominent figures as the secretary of national security and defence, Aleksandr Turchynov, and Rada Speaker Andriy Parubiy. It has gained some support, but also considerable criticism. 

Officers interviewed along the line of separation were unanimous in their support for the idea. “People in the separatist areas are totally brainwashed. They still live in the Soviet Union”, one said. “Maybe, just maybe, they will one day come to their senses, and they will return to us, but until then we should close them off”. Another officer, who hails himself from a separatist-occupied area, was equally blunt: “Let the people who want to be Russian go to Russia; we will help them leave. In the meantime, the separatist districts should be fenced off, and Russia left to support them”. 

Proponents of sealing the border see a number of advantages, both political and economic. The Minsk agreement obliges Ukraine to pay for the restoration and rehabilitation of the entities, an endeavour that would cost billions of dollars. Sealing the enclaves off would in their view shift the whole financial burden onto Russia, which for months has already been paying salaries and pensions. This would intensify economic pressure on Moscow at a time when it is hard pressed by international sanctions and declining revenues. The assumption behind this line of thought, however, is questionable – Moscow has not formalised ties with the entities, and while it has provided social support, it has not indicated it would provide reconstruction or rehabilitation funding.

Ukraine is preparing for a difficult transition – with any luck – to a modern Westernised state, and the entities allow Russia to maintain military pressure that forces it to divert major budgetary resources from economic development to defence. Elections during the transition period are likely to be tense and volatile. Removing the entities from the voting process for several years would neutralise the votes of a million or more Ukrainians who, many politicians and analysts believe, would be little inclined to support the country’s present leadership. 

Proponents of the idea, who say they briefed senior Western ambassadors early this year, maintain that Poroshenko privately is sympathetic to the idea but cannot be seen as in essence amputating part of the country. Opponents fear sealing off the separatist enclaves would accelerate their slide into organised crime and contraband. Moves to close off the separatist entities from the rest of the country would concern several of the country’s most influential oligarchs, who have extensive holdings in the separatist areas. Many made their fortunes during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, and most – Rinat Akhmetov, Sergei Lyovochkin and others – are heavily invested in the area’s oil, steel and natural gas. Further limited access would be financially deeply painful to these businessmen. Ukraine’s Western allies should stress to all in Kyiv that isolation would be a risky policy choice that could exacerbate the conflict, create new tensions and deepen the sense of many inhabitants of separatist-controlled areas that Kyiv has abandoned them. 

B. Combat, Casualties

1. Ukrainian strategy: erode and probe

Front-line commanders are more confident than in the past that their troops could make serious inroads into separatist territory, or even destroy the entities, but the main factor stopping such an attempt is the threat of another major Russian invasion. Front-line Ukrainian forces consequently seem to be probing separatist territory in order to gradually erode military manpower. Local commanders noted that separatists are not only less well-trained than Ukrainians, but that it is much harder for them to replace lost equipment or personnel – the latter because of their very small recruitment pool. Many analysts sympathetic to the separatists agreed. 

Ukrainian troops have edged forward along most of the line into the so-called grey zone – a thin stretch of land between the fronts which both sides had until recently refrained from entering. By occupying this zone, Ukrainian troops have strengthened their positions along the border modestly, by inhibiting vehicular traffic on the other side, or gaining better forward observation positions. Asked whether this was a new strategy, officers sidestepped the question. 

In some cases, the troops are going further. In an area along the Mariupol sector, a battalion commander said his men had moved 1.5km into separatist-controlled territory. Similar movements have been reported elsewhere. Around Debaltseve, the site of a major Ukrainian defeat in February 2015, a military volunteer from one of the many groups that raise money to equip troops reported that a unit of the 54th Mechanised Brigade had advanced 1.5km and dug in. This could be, as an officer suggested, pure opportunism; it might also be that some units are trying to gauge Russian patience with such incursions. Officers routinely refused to comment on operational matters, but a senior government security adviser and avowed hawk in the confrontation with Russia described the penetrations as efforts by some commanders to maintain morale, combat preparedness and discipline. The static, often trench warfare saps morale, the adviser suggested, and when this happens, “the Ukrainian army drinks”.

2. A ceasefire ignored

Both sides complain that they are under instructions not to violate the ceasefire. Ukrainian troops said they are told to observe and report violations and only respond if their lives are threatened. “That is an instruction that only a staff officer could think up”, a Ukrainian senior lieutenant complained. “Everything we fire is life-threatening, for f***’s sake”. Separatists have complained for months that their Russian military handlers (kurators) have strictly enforced the ceasefire. In fact, both sides have violated the ceasefire daily for several months, most commonly with light weapons, but also with artillery rocket batteries and armour that should have been withdrawn many months ago. 

Ukrainian front-line officers all described Russia’s current military posture in the same terms. Its troops have pulled back from the front line: any remaining Russians are usually commanders of the separatist units or small groups of special forces. The Ukrainians portrayed many of their adversaries as poorly trained locals, with little inclination to fight and drawn more by the pay. Monthly salaries for separatist troops reportedly range from 15,000 roubles ($230) for a private to 46,500 roubles ($715) for a colonel. Some Ukrainian officers, however, singled out several separatist units for grudging approbation: the “Viking” battalion, named for its founder’s radio call-sign, and Vostok, which has been involved in some of the most intense fighting around Avdiivka.

3. Hiding the casualties

Both armed forces play down the intensity of fighting and often under-report casualties. Ukrainian troops on a section of the front line which has not figured extensively in official combat reports stated that they have been involved in almost 60 engagements since deployment in late 2015. Another officer in the same unit said his troops have taken “heavy” loses but that the figure has been classified – “the General Staff does not want to be embarrassed”. Civilian volunteers who help resupply Ukrainian troops have at times denounced the official military spokesman for disinformation or covering up the real situation. In March 2016, a volunteer juxtaposed on his social media site a photograph of the burial of elite Ukrainian troops with a military spokesman’s announcement that there were no casualties that day. 

The same thing happens on the separatist side. The commander of DNR’s Viking battalion resigned in December 2015 along with a number of staff officers in protest at a high command decision to reclassify military casualties as victims of civilian accidents. Supporters of the separatist militia, usually Russian nationalist groups, have on occasion leaked much higher death tolls than officially admitted. For instance, a supportive website revealed that in late March and early April 2016, separatists had lost at least 90 fighters along a small stretch of the front line around Avdiivka. More recently, a well-informed Russian nationalist blogger quoted a DNR officer saying that a regiment heavily involved in late May fighting “no longer had” two companies.

4. A message from Moscow?

Separatist civilian and military officials have admitted privately for some time that the Russian military exercises complete control over militias. Russian officers command units, handle operational planning and oversee the military. Given regular separatist complaints that they are not allowed to respond to Ukrainian fire without the permission of their Russian minders, analysts on both sides have posited that sudden spikes of violence along the line are explicit reminders from Moscow that war could quickly escalate if deemed necessary. “I think we sometimes dial up or down the pressure as needed”, a veteran Russian analyst remarked. A recent burst of costly attacks on Ukrainian positions in late May followed signals of Moscow’s frustration with the Minsk process. Shortly before the escalation, a Kyiv politician with close links to Moscow expressed concern the situation could turn ugly.

C. Unpaid Bonuses, Understrength Front-line Positions

Ukrainian military confidence and morale may be higher in 2016, but many problems remain. Most are connected to what front-line troops see as incompetence at best, venality at worst among the country’s top military and political leadership.

Mid-level officers, in particular the deputy commanders responsible for troop morale and related matters (zampolit) in several places raised the same problems. They said troops rarely received the 1,000 hryvnia (approximately $40) bonus they were promised for every time they were engaged in combat. Other promised bonuses – for destruction of enemy heavy weapons or armour, for example – have also not materialised. Instead, troops have been warned they must reimburse the defence ministry for damaged uniforms and equipment on demobilisation. 

Delays in demobilisation are another source of resentment. Troops said they had to stay on the front line for weeks – in one case several months – after their eighteen-month rotation had officially ended. An officer in an affected unit remarked that such delays had drastically reduced the number of conscripts willing to remain in the army under contract at the end of their service. “Six months ago, half my company were ready to sign contracts and stay in the army”, he said. Now the number planning to stay is “in single figures”. Shortages of equipment are another regular complaint. Many units still depend to some degree on volunteer groups who raise funds, providing them with anything from electrical cable to night vision gear, binoculars and food. 

Troops seem most concerned, however, about the clumsy and chaotic process of bringing front-line units back up to strength when a cohort of conscripts has ended its service and left for home. This often leaves front-line positions dangerously understrength and lacking in combat experience for weeks. “Our ‘specialists’ have had two years to get this right”, an officer said, “and it is still a cock-up”. 

These delays can have lethal consequences. Lieutenant-Colonel Andriy Zhuk, 32-year old commander of the 3rd battalion of the 72nd independent mechanised brigade (72OMBr ) stationed in the area of Dokuchayevsk, was killed on 28 May in a brief clash. An investigative journalist who specialises in military affairs interviewed his fellow officers immediately after. The officer had spent much of the past eighteen months on the front line, and his battalion was desperately short of armour and troops: most of his men had been demobilised in April and he was reportedly left with 100, 20 per cent of a full-strength battalion, to control a 15km stretch of the line. Given the lack of experience of his remaining men, the journalist wrote, he took it upon himself to investigate reports of unidentified armed men and was killed. An informal 72nd brigade Facebook page posted photographs of Zhuk’s funeral. Just under that posting was a message urging any would-be volunteers to make their way directly to brigade positions on the front line, bypassing recruitment centres.

D. A Non-functioning Pullback

The persistent and regular violation by both sides of a key part of the Minsk agreements – withdrawal of all heavy weapons from the front line – has further deepened military insecurity and tension. Their ample inventories of heavy weaponry seem to rotate almost permanently from storage areas to front-line positions and back. Most OSCE daily monitoring reports note the absence of tanks, rocket systems and artillery from storage areas and, more occasionally, their return. Weapons covered by the agreement have been extensively used in recent fighting, most often tanks and artillery. Others are relocated to major population centres, usually Luhansk and Donetsk cities. On 5 June, a relatively typical day, monitors checking Ukrainian government sites and positions inventoried a number of forbidden systems, including two surface-to-air SA-8 missile systems, six 152mm towed howitzers, and three 100mm anti-tank guns. They also noted 33 howitzers missing from two storage sites. The next day, monitors recorded Grad missile batteries and anti-aircraft systems in the LNR and DNR areas.

OSCE monitors complain regularly that their teams are harassed and on occasion refused access to areas. They also report that their drones have been shot down and monitoring equipment shut down. They continue to do a thorough job under very difficult circumstances. However, their reports have no tangible consequences for the violator. Until Europe and Washington on one side and Russia on the other are willing to force their allies to observe the pullback – by withholding military or other aid, for example – the situation will remain highly volatile.

IV. Conclusion

A temporary fix on eastern Ukraine’s front line has become, by oversight or neglect, a semi-permanent “solution”, like so much in the Ukrainian crisis today. In the absence of a genuine settlement, most parties would probably welcome a frozen conflict, even though they are unwilling to say so publicly. But the situation on the ground is too unstable to guarantee even this. There are too many troops far too close to each other. A crucial agreement to withdraw heavy weaponry from the battlefield is violated daily by both sides. The needs of many thousands of civilians stuck along the line and the many grievances of troops who are fighting there have been ignored.

A number of issues need to be addressed immediately. A substantial distance – much more than the 100 or so metres currently common – should separate the sides. Military positions and civilian settlements should be clearly distinguished. These are not just requirements for Kyiv. The separatists should take the same steps. The DNR and LNR have shown neither capacity nor interest in doing so. Kyiv should do better. 

By failing to address these issues, Ukraine’s leadership is storing up political problems for the future. Civilians’ feeling on both sides of the line that the government has abandoned them plays into the hands of Opposition Bloc, President Poroshenko’s major political rival in the east and an important actor in Ukraine’s parliament (Rada), where it is often decisive in key votes. Meanwhile, on the other side of the line, Ukrainians living under separatist control regularly complain of being abandoned by Kyiv. When eventually Kyiv is able to restore full control over the east, there is a serious risk that the several million residents in the whole of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts will have become a strong anti-centre political force. The needs of another important constituency also must be considered. Incompetence, neglect and corruption in the military high command, both military and civilian, may well turn a large pool of angry, militant and articulate critics of Poroshenko – active duty and demobilised troops – into a force that could prove even more of a threat to Kyiv.

This does not detract from Russia’s responsibility for the situation. Moscow denies, against all evidence, that it is a major actor – and the main initiator – of the present crisis. It should pressure its separatist allies to support serious efforts to defuse the situation. And while many western analysts and diplomats seem increasingly to view a frozen conflict in the east as the least bad option, even this will be impossible without firm action to increase the distance between opposing front lines and address humanitarian problems. 

Kyiv/Brussels, 18 July 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