The political shenanigans in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) in Eastern Ukraine took a new turn today when LPR President Igor Plotnitsky fled the republic and turned up in Moscow. Power in Lugansk now rests firmly in the hands of LPR Interior Minister Igor Kornet, who continues to insist that he doesn’t intend to overthrow Plotnitsky, merely rid the republic of traitors in the President’s entourage. Kornet’s forces have arrested a number of senior LPR officials, accusing them of working secretly for the Ukrainian government in Kiev and of preparing to betray the LPR to the Ukrainian Army. I don’t believe it. My impression is that in the LPR treason is what you accuse your opponents of when you want an excuse to get rid of them. Be that as it may, the events in the LPR put the Russian government in something of a pickle.
As I mentioned in my previous post, Moscow isn’t in full control of events in Donbass. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any say in what goes on, nor does it mean that it can just ignore what happens there. It seems to me that it has the following options:
- Recognize that Plotnitsky is a busted flush, discard him, and back Kornet. So far, the Russian government is insisting that what happens in Lugansk is an internal matter for the LPR. Maintaining this line would in effect amount to endorsing Kornet’s coup. The question would then arise of how to find a new President and who it should be.
- Try and work out some solution which returns Plotnitsky to Lugansk as President, but which in effect makes him little more than a figurehead while real power remains with Kornet.
- Find some way of restoring Plotnitsky to his previous position of authority.
- Get around the whole problem by abolishing the LPR and merging it with the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), and forming a joint ‘Novorossiia’.
The third option – restoring Plotnitsky – seems rather impractical. The Russians aren’t going to want to start a civil war within a civil war, so military action against Kornet is probably out of the question. Perhaps some diplomatic way could be found to pressure him to give up, by for instance making it very clear to him that if he continues on his current path, Moscow will cut all support to the LPR. But such a threat isn’t very credible. This is one of those situations where the patron pretty much has to cave into the client. Reversing the coup would probably be a bad option for Moscow even if it were what it actually wanted.
In some respects, the fourth option – merger of the LPR and DPR – appears optimal. The DPR has always given me the impression of being much better governed than the LPR, and its leader, Aleksandr Zakharchenko, has a charisma which Plotnitsky lacks. The DPR no doubt looks pretty attractive from a LPR point of view. A merger would in practice probably be a DPR takeover, and might well strengthen both republics. It is, after all, somewhat ridiculous that such a small geographic area as rebel-controlled Donbass should have two separate governments and two separate armies.
But while this option makes some sense, there are some problems with it. The only two ‘democratic’ votes which have taken place in the history of the LPR and DPR are the referenda of May 2014 which established the republics and the presidential elections of November 2014. Of course, one can argue about the quality of these elections and how truly democratic they really were, but the referenda and the elections allow the republics’ leaders to make a claim of legitimacy. Were Plotnitsky to be replaced, it’s hard to see what claim to legitimacy his successor could make. And since the LPR was established by referendum, it can be argued that it can only be dismantled by referendum. In a sense this is just a matter of formalities, but formalities matter, which is why even the Soviet Union went through the motions of elections.
Another problem with getting rid of Plotnitsky is that he signed the Minsk agreements, which provide the supposed road map to a peace settlement in Ukraine. If he goes, then his successor could claim to not be bound by the agreement. Moreover, if the DPR and LPR merge, then Kiev might have grounds to claim that since the quasi-states whose leaders signed the Minsk agreements no longer exist, it also is no longer bound by the agreements. That’s not something which Moscow would want.
So, it might be better to keep Plotnitsky. But it’s obvious that even if he were to return to Lugansk, he wouldn’t have any meaningful authority. One would imagine that Moscow wants to have its own man in the top spot in Lugansk, somebody it can count on to do what Moscow tells it when push comes to shove. But a Plotnitsky who’s more a puppet of Kornet than a puppet of Moscow wouldn’t be able to fulfil that role.
Overall, then, there aren’t any good options for Moscow. At this point, Kiev is probably enjoying the spectacle and thinking that things are going its way. But that might not be true either. A few weeks ago, LPR Foreign Minister Vladislav Deinovo remarked that Lugansk’s future lay back in Ukraine. Given that Kornet is justifying his insurrection on the grounds that LPR officials were conspiring to betray the republic to Kiev, one suspects that nobody in the LPR is going to be publicly repeating what Deinovo said for some time to come. An uncompromising line towards Ukraine is more likely.
In short, it’s a mess. I make no predictions as to what will happen next.