Russia’s role in the war in Donbass

As previously mentioned, a conference about the war in Ukraine took place at the University of Ottawa this past Thursday. There was a full house, and the debate was civilized and in keeping with the academic venue. All in all, I considered it a great success.

My own paper was on ‘Russia’s role in the war in Donbass’. The conference was filmed, so once the video has been posted online, I will provide a link. For now, though, here are the key points of what I said:

  • Russia’s annexation of Crimea mistakenly encouraged anti-Maidan protestors in Donbass to believe that if they were to hold demonstrations and occupy some buildings, the Russian Army would invade as it had in Crimea. In this way, Russia is indirectly responsible for the uprising in Donbass. We lack evidence, however, to prove that the Russian state was directly involved in provoking it. Most of the demonstrators were locals, and it cannot be shown those who came from outside, e.g. Strelkov and his men, were operating under orders from Moscow; indeed there is some reason to doubt that they were.
  • There appear to be perhaps 3-4,000 Russian citizens fighting in Ukraine, most of whom are civilian volunteers, but some of whom are members of the Russian Army on ‘extended leave’. Some of the latter have provided training to the rebel forces. Nevertheless, 90% of the rebel fighters are Ukrainian citizens.
  • Russia has provided weapons and ammunition to the rebels, although I conjecture that this has been more in the form of concealable items such as anti-tank weapons, man-portable air defence systems, and shells, than of big-ticket items such as armoured vehicles. Large quantities of the latter have been captured from the Ukrainian Army. The evidence tends to indicate that deliveries of military supplies from Russia were small in volume until late July, after which the quantity sharply increased.
  • There is no good evidence that units of the Russian Army were directly involved in the war until mid-July, at which point it seems likely that Russian artillery did sometimes fire across the border at Ukrainian units located in the so-called ‘southern cauldron’. Large-scale Russian units did not appear in Donbass until the offensive of 24 August, in which they played an important role. They came and went very quickly, and there do not appear to be large units in Donbass at present.
  • The purpose of the August offensive Army was not to save the rebels from military defeat, as commonly supposed, since the Ukrainian Army was not in fact on the verge of winning the war. By late August, capturing Donetsk and Lugansk was probably already beyond the capacity of the Ukrainian Army, and attempts to do so would have caused massive destruction and thousands of civilian casualties. The purpose of the Russian offensive was to forestall such a humanitarian catastrophe and to force the Ukrainian government to the negotiating table in order to bring the fighting to an end.
  • The Russians did not at first have much control over the rebel forces or the rebel political leaders, many of whom pursued agendas contrary to that of Moscow. Russia therefore engineered a change in political and military leadership in mid-August designed to put into power people more amenable to compromise with Kiev. The political changes and the military offensive were, therefore, part of the same strategy, designed to halt the war.
  • This strategy has not been successful. Kiev still shows no sign that it is willing to compromise, while rebel forces retain a good deal of independence. It is becoming clear that Moscow is not likely to achieve its preferred outcome – an autonomous Donbass within Ukraine. Russia is, therefore, having to deal with the reality of two independent quasi-states on its border. There is a need to establish proper centralized authorities in Donetsk and Lugansk, as well to provide humanitarian and economic support. Since the notional ceasefire of 5 September, Russia has been making efforts in this direction.

Much of this is, of course, speculation, albeit informed speculation. As I pointed out in my talk, Russia’s relationship with the rebel republics in Ukraine is shrouded in mystery.

5 thoughts on “Russia’s role in the war in Donbass”

  1. “Russia has provided weapons and ammunition to the rebels, although I conjecture that this has been more in the form of concealable items such as anti-tank weapons, man-portable air defence systems, and shells, than of big-ticket items such as armoured vehicles.”

    The recent ARES report seems to come to a similar conclusion ( It claims that most of the rebels’ arms came from Ukraine. However, it observes the use of “flag items” which can only have come from abroad, including a small number of vehicles (pp. 84-86). What is your assessment of the research?

    “Large-scale Russian units did not appear in Donbass until the offensive of 24 August, in which they played an important role”.

    This seems to be a slightly different position to your earlier talk, posted on 14 October, in which you gave a more ambivalent answer about the participation of Russian units. I’d like to ask whether your position has indeed changed and, if so, what new evidence you took into account?


    1. Thanks for the link to the ARES report, which I hadn’t seen, and which is very useful. It strikes me as thorough and convincing.

      You are right that my latest analysis is less ambivalent about the participation of Russian units in the conflict. A number of factors have contributed to this shift in position:

      1) evidence of the ‘flag items’ you refer to, in particular destroyed T-72 B series tanks. It is possible that these were donated to the rebels by the Russian Army, but given the timing (mid/late August) I consider it more probable that they indicate the presence of Russian units.
      2) reports of burials of Russian soldiers in Russia. One analysis of this (to which I don’t have the link – I will have to hunt for it again) suggested that these were all from units of the Russian peacekeeping corps. Also, there was a photo from a Guardian journalist showing an armoured vehicle with a peacekeeping corps logo on it, so there is a fit there.
      3) the capture of several Russian soldiers in Ukraine – while they claim to have crossed the border by mistake, there were rather too far from the border for this to make sense. That said, they seemed remarkably clueless, so you never know!
      4) Accounts by Russian soldiers of their time in Donbass. This one is particularly good: He doesn’t actually admit that he’s a Russian soldier, but it’s clear that he is.
      5) hints by well-informed people close to the rebels, e.g. Colonel Cassad on his blog who refers sometimes to ‘rabotniki voentorga’ (workers of the voentorg) which is clearly a veiled reference to Russian soldiers. Also, Strelkov in an interview recently made similar veiled references to Russian participation in the August offensive.

      Overall, therefore, I have become convinced that Russian units were present in Donbass in late August. That said, I can’t say in what quantity. Also, Western journalists who rushed to the battle sites immediately afterwards couldn’t find any Russians, thus my conclusion that they came and went pretty quickly.



      1. Paul . . . My name is Michael Murphy, and I am currently working on a well-researched manuscript about the plight of the Ukrainian people in the Russian controlled regions. I think that I have a lot of information for you if you are still interested in the subject of Russia’s involvement in the war in Donbass.
        You can check me out, my first work is titled “The Ashes of War” by MH Murphy, you can find the listing and reviews on It is about the plight of the Vietnamese people after the Viet Nam War.
        If you are interested in communicating my contact information is below.
        Michael Murphy


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