Origins of the war in Donbass

I thoroughly recommend the latest podcast on Sean’s Russia Blog, in which Sean Guillory interviews Baylor University professor Serhiy Kudelia about the origins of the war in Donbass. You can listen to it here. For those of you who don’t have the spare time to listen to the whole thing, here are some key points.

  1. Many local officials helped the separatists in the early stages of the uprising, including helping to organize the referendums in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces in May 2014. In ‘the absence of the state’, which had collapsed following the change of power in Kiev, they were ‘hedging their bets’, but nobody was telling them what to do, Kudelia says. On the basis of research he conducted in Donbass, he comments that ‘There was clearly no hierarchical subordination to any elite actor at the very top. And a lot of the decisions that were taken by local officials were taken on their own.’
  2. ‘Strelkov was not an agent of the [Russian] state’, in Kudelia’s opinion. He and other Russians who came to Ukraine were ‘private individuals’ acting on their own initiative.
  3. The recently released tapes of Sergei Glazyev’s telephone conversations with anti-Maidan activists are ‘not very convincing’, in the sense of not proving that the anti-Maidan movement was being run by the Russian government. There is an ‘absence of a smoking gun in these tapes’. Glazyev is recorded speaking with activists in Odessa, Kharkov, and Zaporozhye, but not in Donbass. Furthermore, the conversations suggest that the activists were not in contact with any representatives of the Russian government in Ukraine. That in turn suggests that the anti-Maidan movement was not being controlled by members of the Russian intelligence services operating within Ukraine, as the Ukrainian government claimed.
  4. ‘A careless attitude of the Ukrainian government towards the use of indiscriminate force against the separatists … hardened grievances … and a sense of the illegitimacy of the Kiev government’, and so strengthened the rebellion.
  5. Kudelia argues that the war in Donbass meets the definition of a civil war. In August 2014, it became an ‘internationalized civil war’. But even after that it remained essentially about internal Ukrainian affairs.

Towards the end of the interview, Kudelia remarks that a correct understanding of the origins of the war is essential to resolving it. If the Kiev government is right, and the war was primarily the result of Russian aggression, then the solution lies in pressuring Russia. If, however, the war was mainly a product of local grievances, then the solution must involve addressing those grievances. That in turn requires Kiev to take the rebels’ demands seriously and negotiate with them.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I found Kudelia’s analysis most convincing. I would have liked Guillory to ask him a few more questions concerning the role of Western states in the conflict. To what extent has the West’s focus on Russia encouraged the Ukrainian government’s misinterpretation of the war as being primarily caused by Russia rather than internal grievances? And to what extent, therefore, must the West share some of the blame for what has happened?

9 thoughts on “Origins of the war in Donbass”

  1. Thanks Paul!

    I didn’t want to ask Serhiy about the US because wanted to the discussion to remain as close to the ground as possible. One of my complaints by many existing narratives is the tendency to elevate the conflict into a larger contest between the “West” and Russia. It certainly is that, but I feel that by placing the actions of locals within that context would have deprived them of the agency I was so interested in illuminating.

    On that note, I assume the US position gave the Ukrainian government a similar sense of hope that Crimea’s annexation gave separatists in the Donbas. And still does.


  2. I was THERE among the protesters in Lugansk in April 2014, My girlfriend was affiliated with the Party Of Regions who supported Yanukovych. She knew many of the protesters. They were local guys carrying sticks and erecting tire barricades as they has seen done at Maidan, They were acting entirely on there own. We were behind the barricades giving them tea and bread as they protested. The were not guided by Russia in any way and I saw no weapons at the time.
    On my last day of that trip my girl told me that it was known “Guys from Kiev are coming to kill our guys”, And as I left I saw eight attack helicopters, numerous tracked vehicles and many Ukrainian troops on the road going to Lugansk. I was on a bus which was boarded and searched. There were Su-25 Ukrainian planes in the sky.
    They basically moved in and attacked the unarmed resistance – it was Kiev putting down those who resisted the post coup d’état government the US installed.


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