Rebels without a cause

I’ve long said that if you want to bring peace to Ukraine, you need to develop a proper understanding of how the war in Donbass began and of the exact dynamics between the various players, including the government in Kiev, the Russian Federation, and the rebel movement. Attempts to view the conflict purely in terms of ‘Russian aggression’, ignoring its internal dimensions, are bound to point towards policies which see the solution as lying solely in pressuring Moscow. Such policies will fail because they ignore the local nature of the rebel movement and the genuine fears and grievances of the people of Donbass. At a minimum a peace settlement will require autonomy for Donbass, an amnesty, and a change in various Ukrainian policies such as those connected with language.

To make this argument, I have provided evidence in this blog and in various academic and other publications that the initial uprising in Donbass was local in nature; that the overwhelming majority of rebels have always been Ukrainian citizens; that the Russian government only slowly and reluctantly became involved (in large part to gain control of a process over which it originally had little control); that Moscow’s preference has always been for Donbass to be reintegrated within Ukraine with some sort of autonomy, a preference which has put it at odds with the rebel leadership; and finally that patron-client relations are complicated and do not give patrons complete ability to manipulate their clients (indeed the patron may even become something of a captive of the client). All this means that the wishes of the people of Donbass and of the leadership of the rebel republics cannot be ignored. Instead of blindly supporting Kiev as it does its best to alienate eastern Ukraine, Western states should be pressuring it to live up to its commitments in the Minsk accords.

This argument is, of course, entirely at odds with the prevalent narrative coming out of Kiev and Western capitals. It is satisfying, therefore, to read a report which pretty much confirms everything I’ve been saying these past five years. Entitled Rebels without a Cause: Russia’s Proxies in Eastern Ukraine, the report was published yesterday by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG). The ICG gets a lot of its funding from governments, notably Qatar, Australia, Canada, France, Finland, Norway and Sweden, as well as from foundations such as Soros’s Foundation to Promote Open Society. It’s not by any stretch of the imagination a ‘Kremlin proxy’. That makes its conclusions all the more striking.

The ICG’s report is based on interview 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 is very clear about the origins of the war in Donbass, telling readers that:

The conflict in eastern Ukraine started as a grassroots movement. … 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.

This is, of course, in direct opposition to the line peddled by Kiev and its Western allies, like Samantha Power who told the press in April 2014 that, ‘It’s professional, coordinated. Nothing grassroots about it’. Power was talking nonsense. So too were those who argued that Moscow had a clearly conceived plan of aggression from the get-go. On the contrary, says the ICG (echoing what I wrote in my 2016 article ‘Russia’s Role in the War in Donbass’),  ‘the Kremlin’s policy toward eastern Ukraine proved neither coherent nor consistent.’ The Kremlin didn’t support separatism in Donbass, but it also felt sympathy for those expressing pro-Russian views there. It couldn’t decide what to do. Thus, concludes the report:

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.

In short, the likes of Strelkov and his backers were acting on their own, not at the Kremlin’s behest. In fact, after initially boosting the idea of ‘Novorossiya’, Russian leaders rapidly peddled backwards. But the rebels in Donbass weren’t inclined to do what Moscow wanted. The ICG comments:

A Ukrainian rebel in Strelkov’s regiment described a shift in the message from Moscow as early as late April [2014]. It was then that he began hearing calls for restraint in rebel efforts to take control of eastern Ukrainian towns and cities. … But the separatist movement in Donbas was determined to move ahead, choosing to ignore or creatively interpret Putin’s comments.

In other words, Moscow wasn’t in control in Donbass in spring 2014. In time, though, it decided that it needed to start exercising some control. It therefore set about changing the rebel leadership. According to the ICG,

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”.  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.  The D/LPR leadership also changed hands as Moscow sought to establish more order.

This is exactly what I wrote in an August 2014 article in The American Conservative. Back then, I was speculating. It’s interesting to see my speculations confirmed.

Having changed the rebel leadership, Moscow then strong-armed it into accepting the two Minsk agreements, in September 2014 and February 2015. According to the ICG,

For Moscow, the Minsk stipulation of special status for Donbas was a victory. …

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.

To put it another way, the patron can’t abandon the client any more than the client can abandon the patron. Moscow can’t just impose any terms it wants on the rebel leadership. Any peace settlement will have to take the wishes of the later into account.

So where are we now? The ICG report says that Moscow’s ‘betrayal’ of the Novorossiya cause and its efforts to impose its own chosen leaders on the rebel republics has created a divide between those leaders and the rebellions’ grassroots supporters. The ICG notes that,

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”. …

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.

Again, Moscow is not in full control, even now. It can’t force the rebels to commit suicide. Any peace settlement will have to give them something they can support. This, of course, has long been blindingly obvious, but it’s good to see somebody lay it out so clearly.

The ICG notes, however, that there’s a third group in Donbass as well as the rebel leaders and the ‘betrayed’ grassroots: the mass of the population. The ICG claims that for the most part ordinary people in Donbass want nothing more than an end to the war and a return to normal life. They cite the response of a typical interviewee:

“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”.

If Ukraine is to have any chance of reintegrating Donbass, the ICG argues, it has to win over this ‘silent majority’. However, Ukrainian policy – economic blockade, language laws, and the like – have had the opposite effect. To succeed, Kiev will have to make a dramatic shift in policy, the ICG argues. As the report says,

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.

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.

To this end, the ICG recommends that Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, lifts the economic blockade of Donbass, makes it easier for Donbass residents to receive their Ukrainian pensions, and softens Ukraine’s language laws. ‘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.’ Overall,

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.

This isn’t rocket science. I’ve been saying it for years. Let’s hope that someone will listen. I fear, though, that it may already be far too late.

24 thoughts on “Rebels without a cause”

  1. I suppose the Ukrainian endorsement of the EU economic war against Russia is also a part of Donbass’s disenchantment. Donbass has lived from exporting industrial products to Russia, and without that export they have nothing to live from.

    As i have got it, closing export to Russia was a demand from the EU for letting in agricultural products from western Ukraine. So for Ukraine, it was a matter of letting down either the eastern or the western part of their country. According to my friend, the economist Erik Reinert, who has lectured a lot in Ukraine, they are beginning to see that sacrificing industry to favour agriculture is a very poor economic policy. So perhaps the new Ukrainian government will change its priorities.

    By the way, a short interview with Reinert:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “According to my friend, the economist Erik Reinert, who has lectured a lot in Ukraine, they are beginning to see that sacrificing industry to favour agriculture is a very poor economic policy”

      But muh agrarian superpower!/s


  2. “If the Ukrainian government wants to peacefully reunify with the rebel-held territories, it cannot avoid…”

    The “if” there is not the stylistic turn of a phrase. It’s there for a reason.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m sure the South Vietnamese government wasn’t keen on having the Vietcong represented at peace talks involving the former, North Vietnam and the US.

    Recall that the ending of the 1990s Bosnian Civil War was negotiated without direct representation from the Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat entities.

    In all of these instances, South Vietnam, the Bosnian Muslim and Kiev regimes weren’t/aren’t looking to legitimize the local armed opponents.

    The internationally recognized Cypriot government has periodically had talks with people associated with the Turkish propped entity in northern Cyprus.

    In 2014, the Kiev regime participated in discussion with the Donbass rebels in Minsk. At last notice, the latter remain a reality.


  4. “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)”

    This small throwaway phrase actually speaks volumes about those who penned this report. Because Minsk I-II already include a step-by-step program of it’s implementation, i.e. that the full amnesty for the People Republic’s military personnel would precede any other steps to even try to implement the restoration of the official Kiev’s control of, say, border with Russia.

    By implying that there might be some “liberties” in the implementation order, the authors of this report, therefore, take Kiev’s side and, yes, ask DNR and LNR to commit suicide. Indeed, these people forgot nothing, and learned even less, because:

    “…Any plausible settlement will involve the withdrawal of Russian troops”

    implies, that Russia is the side in the conflict – but Minsk I-II contravenes this. And everyone and their monkey in the halls of power within the EU drones on and on that “there is no alternative to Minsk accords” ©. Question – how would the official Kiev force Russia to remove those who are not present? What, would the newly elected president of the Ukraine stupefy all low and sundry with his skill at playing the piano?

    “I fear, though, that it may already be far too late.”

    After the new language law? Yes, yes it is.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very interesteing that this report comes from this source. I’d like to remark that the recent JIT presser also seems to confirm this narrative. Strelkov and Borodai are portrait to be lobbying for support in order to receive AT artillery and AA systems but have a tough time making Russia to act. The conversation Borodai-Surkov also seems to emphasise the latter had in organizing support in the Kremlin. Far from the ‘coordinated Russian invasion’ Kiev keeps hinting at.


  6. I suspect that the post-Maidan regime in Ukraine is totally uninterested in the reintegration of the Donbass. Conquering it would be too costly, and reintegrating it would undermine the Ukrainian national project which is in fact being helped by the absence of Crimea and Eastern Donbass, the areas where ethnic Russians formed a majority.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Even if Zelenskii wanted to make concessions and re-integrate Donbass, he’d have to face the wrath of the various Nazis infesting Ukraine, not to mention the fury of the US Ambassador.

    Anything less than Drang Nach Osten and the Nazis will assassinate him.

    Anything less than frothing at the mouth russophobia and the US Ambassador will summon Ze into his office for a Very Stern Talking To. This will include some unsubtle hints that the IMF may express dissatisfaction with Ukraine’s anticorruption efforts and western prosecutors may suddenly take a deep interest in Mr. Kolomoiskii’s business activities.

    That the Americans will do nothing to protect Ze from the Nazis (and might even encourage them) goes without saying. After all, the Nazis have a track record of assassinations in Ukraine.

    Crimea is simply gone forever. Russia cannot be seen to let Crimea go and the populace will not allow themselves to be forced back into the tender mercies of Ukraine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Just yesterday, Kiev’s police detained a man with a hand grenade mooching around Verkhovna Rada’s building. After checking him out, they found out, that he’s a 22 y.o. deserter, already at large for this for some unspecified amount of time.

      In the Ukraine there is hardly a week goes by without some other grenade related incident. If you are wondering – no, the legislation in the Ukraine does not allow its private citizens to acquire military grade stuff for personal use (e.g. when you urgendtly need a grenade launcher to express your disagreement with those pesky journos). Yet the people SOMEHOW acquire them – by the dozens, it looks like.

      Probably this is not the most telling, but one of the most visible indicators that shows that there is no such thing as functional state in the Ukraine. With whom Russia could possibly stuck a deal, if the state apparatus is divided between various clans and factions, who can’t/won’t control charming “civil rights activists” brandishing various angular solar symbols and sporting rather telling tattoos (see the photo of that deserter in the link above)? The state monopoly on the violence, the ability to enforce the laws – impossible, utterly impossible. But that’s not Russia’s fault – it’s the Ukraine internal problems. Can’t get your shit together even at the urging of the Western Partners? No? Get used to the consequences.

      Ukraine is truly a libertarian dream come true! “Rebels without a cause”? How about “entire country without raison d’être”?

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I would argue that the Donbass rebellion is pretty well justified. And thus has, in stark contrast to the title, quite a solid cause.

    A very incomplete list of the anti Maidan grievances of Donbass.

    -Maidan essentially means that Donbass gets taxed without having representation (as under Maidan rules, Donbass politicians elected to Kiev are essentially hostages).
    -Further, Donbass used to have representation. People are far more likely to rebel if you take away existing representation from them as opposed to denying them representation they never before had.
    -EU association agreement essentially means that western Ukraine loses an economic hand, central Ukraine loses an economic arm, and Donbass loses its economic head. Throughout history, regions quite frequently rebelled against attempts to essentially end their economy by legislative means.
    -Bonus rebellion points for those legislative means, due to their termination of neutral status, actually being in violation of the Ukrainian constitution, the ukrainian declaration of state sovereignity and the ukrainian declaration of independence.

    The 13 colonies essentially rebelled over point 1, the confederacy over the equivalnt of point 3 although their cause was a lot less good then the one of Donbass.

    And now, we have all of the other Maidan stuff like setting up a second ideologized army, essentially doing a new officer purge, shitting on Russianspeakers whenever they can propagandistically etc.
    The destruction of the KPU and the splintering of the party of Regions also means that Donbass was denied even attempting to adress their grievances in a democratic way, and in the unlikely case that Donbass would, despite all this, manage to win an election, a new donbass influenced government could and would simply be Maidaned again.

    As far as the question of “should you rebell or not?” goes, for Donbass its a clear yes. Even a simple restoration of the Status quo ante Maidan, meaning that Donbass has a say in Kiev and is not a fiefdom to be handed to various parachutists, requires that Donbass at least matches Maidans violence potential.
    The related question of “can you rebell or not?” is also a yes. Sanctuary and support in/from a neighbouring great power, considerable degrees of military experience, the afromentioned long list of legitimate grievances all contribute to a probably successfull outcome (in terms of denying Maidan to impose its will on Donbass).

    Liked by 1 person

  9. “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”.
    That’s what the Silent Majority wants, not just in Donbass but much of the rest of Ukraine, especially East of the Dniepr.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. And speaking of Troubled Times:

    Today is July 22, 406th Anniversary of the coronation of Tsar Michael Romanov, officially ending the Time of Troubles. I just finished a series of posts containing a review/recap of the Russian TV series “Godunov Season 2”, a semi-fictional soap opera set in these times.
    Might be of interest to those interested in this fascinating history.


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