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.


Friday object lesson #5: The Knout & the Russians

The next in my series of Russian/Soviet objects is a book by Frenchman Germain de Lagny, translated into English and published in London in 1854. The year of publication is significant, as the book came out soon after the start of the Crimean War.


The copy in my possession was awarded as a prize to a student at St Peter’s Commercial School, Park Street, Mile End, London, in 1857.


Two press clippings were pinned into the book at a later date. This first is from The Daily Mirror on 21 September 1912, ‘Russia can furnish some wonderful examples of longevity’, it says, ‘At the centenary celebrations of the battle of Borodino there were present eight old soldiers whose average age was 115.’



The second clipping is from The Daily News and Leader, 11 July 1913. It describes Grand Duchess Elizaveta Fedorovna, who had abandoned her royal lifestyle and become a nun. The article’s author, Rothay Reynolds, also penned several books including My Russian Year (1913), described by The New York Times as ‘the work of a witty and sympathetic observer’, and My Slav Friends (1916), which was published in the midst of the First World War and was described as having ‘a more definite purpose, which amounts almost to propaganda’.



It is interesting to see the changing line in propaganda over half a century.







Putin the liberal

Vladimir Putin gave his annual speech to the Russian parliament on Thursday. His stance on international affairs was uncompromising. ‘Talking to Russia from a position of force is an exercise in futility’, he remarked. American plans for missile defence in Europe were ‘a threat not only to Russia, but to the world as a whole’. ‘Sovereignty for Russia is absolutely necessary for survival`, said Putin. Russia is being told to comply with the West on Ukraine, but ‘This will never happen.’

Add all this to the president’s opening remarks about the importance of Christianity and his mention later in the speech of ‘conservative values [such] as patriotism and respect for the history, traditions, and culture of one’s country’, and the picture which emerges is a thoroughly conservative one.

But the economic section of the speech took Putin in another direction entirely. Noting the problems which lie ahead for Russia’s economy, the Russian president warned against autarky and laid out an agenda for economic recovery based on freeing small businesses from burdensome regulation. ‘Conscientious work, private property, the freedom of enterprise’ are ‘fundamental values’ he said, and then added:

It is essential to lift restrictions on business as much as possible. … It is crucial to abandon the basic principle of total, endless control. … Concerning small business, I propose establishing ‘supervisory holidays’. If a company has acquired a good reputation and if there have not been any serious charges against it for three years, then for the next three years it should be exempted from routine inspections by government or municipal supervisory agencies. … Businessmen talk about the need for stable legislation and predictable rules, including taxes. I completely agree with this. I propose ‘freezing’ the existing tax parameters as they are for the next four years. … two-year tax holidays will be provided to small businesses registering for the first time.

Putin, therefore, apparently sees the way out of impending recession as lying not in more state intervention, but rather in liberating small business. As he said:

The most important thing now is to give the people an opportunity for self-fulfilment. Freedom for development in the economic and social spheres, for public initiative, is the best possible response both to any external restrictions and to our domestic problems. The more actively people become involved in organising their own lives, the more independent they are, both economically and politically, and the greater Russia’s potential.

I have claimed elsewhere that Putin is best seen in light of the Russian tradition of liberal conservatism. His speech seems to bear that out. Putin is a conservative. But in some respects he is a liberal too.

One model fits all

Recently I attended the annual conference of the Association of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) in San Antonio, Texas. One interesting panel examined Russian/East European development assistance to the Third World during and after the Cold War, a subject I had done some work on in my 2013 book Aiding Afghanistan: A History of Soviet Assistance to a Developing Country. Of particular interest to me was a paper by Patty Gray of Maynooth University in Ireland, which discussed Russia’s move from being a recipient of development assistance after the collapse of the Soviet Union to once again being a donor.

Russia’s contemporary aid agency is Rossotrudnichestvo (Russian Cooperation in English). Gray pointed out that this organization evolved not from the Soviet institutions which were involved in development assistance but rather from those which handled cultural ties and exchanges with foreign countries. Because of this, Rossotrudnichestvo has to date focused on cultural matters. However, the organization’s website recently added a section devoted to ‘international development assistance’ which speaks of providing ‘financial, technical, humanitarian and other aid, helping the social-economic development of states’.

Rossotrudnichestvo's logo
Rossotrudnichestvo’s logo

As yet there is not much evidence to indicate what this will mean in reality. In Soviet times, development practice closely tracked academic theory. With this in mind, I asked Dr. Gray whether there even was any modern Russian development theory. Her answer was revealing. There are apparently a handful of contemporary Russian textbooks on development theory, but there are no university programs dedicated to the subject and very few academics are paying any attention to it. To overcome this deficit, the European Union (EU) has been running courses on the subject for Russians and others from Eastern Europe. According to Dr. Gray, the EU courses do not present different concepts of what development is and how it can be helped, but rather teach a single model (the EU’s model) which it is assumed students will apply once they go home. In practice, though, said Dr. Gray, students do what is expected of them and parrot what they are taught in order to pass the course, then when they go home mainly ignore it all in favour of their own country’s traditions and experiences.

'From the people of Russia' - label attached to aid supplied by Rossotrudnichestvo
‘From the people of Russia’ – label attached to aid supplied by Rossotrudnichestvo

This story neatly encapsulates the arrogance of much of Western ‘capacity building’. In theory, we know that local institutions matter and that you cannot impose the same template on every country. But we keep on acting as though you can. Soviet development assistance was not notably successful, but its results weren’t generally any worse than that provided by its Western competitors. As it takes up this activity once again, Russia needs to start thinking seriously about how it can make its aid effective. This means doing more than simply copying a template provided by the West.

All opinions welcome

On 4 December there will be a conference at the University of Ottawa about Ukraine, sponsored by the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) and the Sociology and Anthropology Graduate Students Association. Details of the conference can be found here. I will be giving a talk about ‘Russia’s role in the war in Donbass’.

The event has caught the attention of the organization ‘Euromaidan Ottawa’, which sent out the following email:

“We have learned of an event being planned at the University of Ottawa on December 4th 2014 that, in reviewing the program, includes topic that carry the potential of being twisted into Kremlin’s propaganda.  … EuroMaidan Ottawa is asking that our community attend this event, and that all those who support freedom across the globe be prepared to address Russian propaganda that may be presented. … While we should always value and encourage free exchange of ideas and perspectives in a respectful forum, the fact remains that, Ukraine is in the midst of an information war.  The Kremlin is spending hundreds of millions to paint a bizarre artificial portrait of Ukraine, and this campaign includes the cultivation of ostensibly objective academics to propagate their dirty work for them. It is our hope that the discussion at the upcoming seminar will be based on fact, however, it is important to remain vigilant and to ensure that discussions about the crisis in Ukraine be rooted in truth, therefore we encourage members of our community to be present at all such events, to correct the record if required.”

My first response to this is to point out that neither I nor any of the other presenters have received a kopeck from the Russian government. Nor has the conference, which in fact has received no funding at all other than the provision of tea, coffee and cookies courtesy of GSPIA. Euromaidan Ottawa is no doubt anxious that participants may present analyses of the events in Ukraine which do not coincide with its own narrative. It is right to expect this. But it is completely wrong to believe that anything which it doesn’t agree with is ‘Russian propaganda’, and that the ‘ostensibly objective academics’ who may challenge its point of view are saying what they are saying solely because they have been paid to do Moscow’s ‘dirty work’.

I hope, in fact, that some members of Euromaidan Ottawa will attend the conference and that we will have the opportunity to engage in a civilized academic debate. One of the points I will emphasize in my own presentation is that many of the basic facts about events in Ukraine in the past year remain highly contested, as do the interpretations of those facts. I do not pretend to know the ‘truth’. Instead, I seek to move somewhere closer to it through a dialectical process which involves debate with people with other points of view. If they can teach me something which changes my mind, all the better. Sadly, the Euromaidan email does not make me think that its members see things the same way. Rather, it suggests that they believe they know what is true and see their role as being to suppress all alternatives to that ‘truth’. I hope that this is not the case. We shall see.

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