In any patron-client relationship, the client has some degree of independence. On occasion, the client may even be in a position to more or less control the patron. This is the case, for instance, when the client understands that the patron’s prestige is dependent on the client’s survival. In such circumstances, the client has the patron over a barrel; he can do as he pleases because he knows that patron will have to continue supporting him come what may.
Afghanistan provides a good example of how this works. In the 1980s, the leaders of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seemed to spend as much of their time squabbling with each other as with the mujahideen who were attempting to overthrow them. They pursued social and economic policies which their Soviet patrons often considered very ill-advised. Attempts by the Soviets to make them behave better never achieved very much. It was only when the Soviets made it clear that they were leaving that the PDPA under Najibullah began to get its act together even slightly. Similarly, we have seen in the last decade that although the current Afghan government is utterly dependent on American aid, the Americans aren’t able to control their Afghan clients, who appear to have a good understanding that they can get away with an awful lot and the supply of the American money will keep flowing. The Americans had the same problem in Vietnam: successive client governments did their own thing, in direct contradiction to American desires.
One can observe this dynamic at play in Ukraine. The Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) is currently undergoing another of its occasional bouts of in-fighting, with forces of the LPR’s interior ministry taking to the streets against the republic’s president, Igor Plotnitsky, following Plotnitsky’s attempt to fire the interior minister, Igor Kornet. It’s hard to determine exactly what’s going on. Kornet claims not to be carrying out a coup, just to be acting against treacherous personnel, supposedly working for Kiev, in Plotnitsky’s entourage. Interior ministry forces are backing Kornet, while the military police and presidential guard are remaining loyal to Plotnitsky. Rumours abound that troops from the neighbouring Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) have arrived, and are preparing to merge the LPR and DPR into one. The LPR army, meanwhile, is sitting the whole thing out.
In the Western press, the DPR and LPR are often portrayed as nothing more than Russian puppet states. But if this is the case, where are the puppet masters? It doesn’t look like the Russians are playing any role in what’s happening in Lugansk, and it would be strange if they were. Undoubtedly, the LPR and DPR are highly dependent on Russian aid. Yet, it stretches credibility a bit to imagine that the Russian government wants the LPR to be the chaotic mess that it is and is pulling all the strings in the current coup, or non-coup, or whatever it is. Like Afghanistan in the 1980s, the LPR is clearly seething with personal rivalries, and local dynamics drive much of what occurs. Local leaders have a lot of firepower at their disposal. The few Russian officials that may be present don’t. The clients have much more independence than one might imagine.
In short, these most recent events should caution us against assuming that Russia determines everything that happens in Donbass. Undoubtedly, Russia’s relationship with the DPR and LPR is one of patron and client. But the patron isn’t and never has been in full control of the client. Given the way that the leaders of the LPR behave, it would probably be better for all concerned if it was, but clearly it isn’t, and we have to accept this reality. This has important ramifications in terms of possible political settlements of the war in Ukraine, namely that if one doesn’t want Moscow to take full control of Donbass, then the interests of its clients there will have to be taken into consideration. Moscow will have to take them into consideration; it can’t just abandon them. And Kiev and the West will have to take them into consideration if they want to strike a deal, for the simple reason that they exist and have some degree of power and agency. It may not be pleasant, but that’s the way it is.