Tag Archives: Donbass

Dolphin hunting in Lugansk

The ‘investigative journalism’ website Bellingcat has caused another stir this week by claiming to have identified a Russian general who operated in the rebel Lugansk People’s Republic (LNR) in Ukraine in summer 2014. Several radio intercepts from the period involve a Russian operating under the codename ‘Dolphin’ (‘Delfin’ in Russian). By comparing the intercepts with a recorded telephone conversation, Bellingcat has come to the conclusion that Dolphin is a Russian general, Nikolai Tkachev, who officially retired from the Russian Army in 2010 but who has since held a number of military-related positions, including being an advisor to the Syrian army and for the past few years heading a military school in Yekaterinburg.

Because the Dutch commission investigating the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH-17 has expressed interest in Dolphin’s identity, the Bellingcat report is being widely touted as further evidence of direct Russian involvement in the MH-17 affair. Indeed, Bellingcat titles its report “Russian Colonel General Identified as Key MH-17 Figure.”

I’m not qualified to comment on Bellingcat’s methodology, and so won’t express an opinion on whether Tkachev really is Dolphin, but I have a few things to say about other aspects of the affair:

1) The fact that there was a retired Russian general codenamed Dolphin helping rebels in Lugansk in 2014 is hardly news. It has been known for some time.

2) More broadly, the fact that there were individual Russian servicemen, and ex-servicemen, helping out the rebellion as so-called ‘vacationers’ is also hardly news. It’s necessary here to draw a distinction between individual vacationers and entire Russian military units. While we don’t have evidence for the latter in Donbass until August 2014, the presence of the former is not seriously disputed. Whether Dolphin was Tkachev or somebody else isn’t a matter of great importance in terms of our general understanding of what happened in Ukraine in summer 2014.

3) There is nothing in the radio intercepts linking Dolphin to MH-17. The MH-17 headlines are a red-herring. Bellingcat’s revelations, even if true, don’t add anything to our knowledge of Russian involvement, or non-involvement, in the MH-17 affair.

That leaves the question of what Dolphin was doing in Lugansk, and this is what I think is truly revealing. To answer this question, Bellingcat relies heavily on the reporting of Russian blogger Colonel Cassad. I don’t have a problem with that – in summer 2014, I found Cassad extremely well informed about events in the rebel republics, and he had a knack of getting things right when others were well off the mark. Despite his open pro-rebel sympathies, he developed a well-earned reputation for reliability. The fact that even Bellingcat trusts him is telling.

Via Colonel Cassad, Bellingcat quotes one-time rebel leader Igor Strelkov as saying: ‘Delfin’ and ‘Elbrus’ [another ‘vacationer] were involved in the coordination of separatist units in the LNR and partly in the DNR.’ Bellingcat then says,

In a 3 January 2015 blog post, Colonel Cassad described the chaotic situation in the LNR during summer 2014, describing Delfin as a figure sent by Moscow to bring order to the situation in Luhansk: ‘The shooting and murders in the LNR are an entirely logical reflection of the more anarchic nature of the local republic (in comparison with the DNR), where in the summer there were more than twenty different military formation in Luhansk that were not subordinate to anyone. Neither Bolotov [note: now-deceased leader of the LNR from May to August 2014] nor those who were sent from Moscow (this was in fact the reason why ‘Elbrus’ and ‘Delfin’ failed) were able to handle this.’

Let’s break this down. The situation in the LNR in summer 2014 was ‘anarchic’. There were a large number of rebel militias which ‘were not subordinate to anyone’. A Russian general arrived to try to bring some order to the chaos and ‘failed’. Moreover, he failed precisely because he was sent from Moscow (and so, one must assume, was seen as an outsider and lacked authority).

In other words – and this is the crucial point – what all this proves is that Moscow was quite definitely not in control of the rebellion in Lugansk in summer 2014. In fact, it’s obvious that nobody was. Instead, there were a plethora of locally-raised militia who did their own thing regardless of what Moscow wanted.

As I’ve said before, this matters, because if you can’t understand the origins of the conflict correctly, then you have no chance of finding a solution. The narrative which clearly emerges from the Bellingcat report (rather against Bellingcat’s desire, I suspect) fatally undermines the concept that the war in Donbass is entirely the product of ‘Russian aggression’.

Unfortunately, some in Ukraine are now doing their best to suppress this truth. A bill is now being considered by the Ukrainian parliament which would make it a criminal offence to deny ‘Russian aggression’. Rada Deputy Anton Gerashchenko, who is pushing the bill, has made it clear that he sees it as a way of silencing those who would call the war in Donbass ‘a civil war’.  We must hope that the bill never becomes law. If it does, it will become impossible for Ukrainians to address the truth of what has happened to their country.

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Patron-client relations

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.

Bite and hold

In the First World War, armies developed the tactic of ‘bite and hold’. Rather than trying to break through ‘the mud and the blood to the green fields beyond’ (which almost always failed), they would carry out well-prepared and thoroughly rehearsed operations of limited scope designed to seize (‘bite’) a small patch of enemy territory, after which they would halt and defend (‘hold’) what had been captured against the inevitable counterattack.

Judging from recent reports, the Ukrainian army has adopted similar tactics in its war against the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics (DNR and LNR). Over the past few months, the Ukrainians have carried out what RFE/RL calls a ‘creeping offensive’, occupying ground in the so-called ‘gray zone’ between the Ukrainian and rebel front lines. The Ukrainian attacks are not the result of local commanders getting out of hand and ignoring the official ceasefire. According to one analyst, they are the product of intense planning and rehearsal, and use surprise to bite off a small chunk of the gray zone and then hold onto it. Until recently, the rebels’ response has been fairly limited, perhaps because the DNR and LNR are under instruction from their Russian ‘curators’ not to escalate the conflict. This week, however, the rebel forces reacted strongly to the latest Ukrainian incursion in the area of Avdeevka. The result has been the most severe fighting for several months. Both Avdeevka, on the Ukrainian side of the front line, and nearby Yasinovata, on the rebel side, have been cut off from heating and water. Several soldiers and civilians on both sides have been killed.

There seems to be little doubt that the Ukrainians began the latest upsurge in fighting. Even RFE/RL, which is normally very pro-Ukrainian, admits as much. According to RFE/RL:

Observers say the Ukrainians appear to be trying to create new facts on the ground … since mid-December Ukraine’s armed forces have edged farther into parts of the gray zone in or near the war-worn cities of Avdiivka, Debaltseve, Dokuchaievsk, Horlivka, and Mariupol, shrinking the space between them and the separatist fighters.

Especially following the election of Donald Trump, Ukraine is anxious that it is losing Western support. Some commentators have therefore concluded that Ukraine is trying to provoke to a violent response from Russia and the rebels, in order to confirm its victim status in the eyes of the West and to put pressure on the West not to improve relations with Russia. This may be the case, but I’m not totally convinced, as it implies a capacity for strategic thinking which I doubt Kiev actually has. The fact that the current fighting began while Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko was meeting German chancellor Angela Merkel, and that Poroshenko felt obliged to cut short his visit to Germany, suggests that he was rather taken by surprise by the scale of the fighting. That in turn suggests to me that Ukraine’s ‘creeping offensive’ is more tactical than strategic in nature. It is a case of the Ukrainian army opportunistically seizing territory whenever it thinks it can get away with it, but on this occasion discovering that the rebels were willing to fight back.

Those in the West who are naturally inclined to support Kiev come what may, will no doubt take recent events as an excuse to urge their countries to increase their backing of Ukraine. The Globe and Mail newspaper, for instance, today ran an editorial drawing attention to the fighting in Ukraine and calling for Canada to renew its military training mission in that country ‘perhaps with some adjustment upwards’.

Given that RFE/RL says that one of the causes of the recent fighting is that ‘Ukraine’s army appears to feel emboldened’, emboldening it still further in the manner proposed by the Globe and Mail seems to be a recipe for even more violence.

In any case, Canada is rather exceptional in its pro-Ukrainian stance. Elsewhere, it isn’t obvious that Kiev’s creeping offensive will serve its strategic aims. When even RFE/RL notices that the Ukrainian army is responsible for major violations of the ceasefire, one may be certain that others have noticed too. According to RT:

A report in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung said Berlin is increasingly laying responsibility for such incidents on Kiev. The latest tensions may have been provoked by the Poroshenko administration, which is concerned with a possible lifting of anti-Russian sanctions by US President Donald Trump, some figures in the German government believe, according to the newspaper.

Rather than consolidate international support for its struggle, Ukraine’s military offensives may, therefore, have the opposite effect. This highlights the poverty, or perhaps total lack, of strategic thinking in Kiev, which seems to have no coherent plan for regaining control of its lost territories. The creeping offensive sabotages any effort to find a political solution to Ukraine’s problems, but it doesn’t substitute a military solution. The rate of advance is so slow that the Ukrainian Army can never hope to retake the whole of Donbass this way. ‘Bite and hold’ may recapture small bits of territory, but it cannot end the war.

Neither war nor peace

Nezavisimaia Gazeta has published the results of an interesting Ukrainian opinion poll, which sheds light on why the conflict in Donbass remains unresolved.

According to the survey, 18.6% of Ukrainians support the idea of continuing the war in Donbass until final victory, down from 30% at the start of the year. However, only 23% are willing to countenance changing the Ukrainian constitution to give special status for Donbass, as required under the Minsk agreements. The most favoured policy option (30% of respondents) is to declare Donbass ‘occupied’ and isolate it. Only 12% of those polled supported the Minsk agreements in general. More specifically, although those agreements state that elections should take place in Donbass before the rebels hand control of the border back to the Ukrainian government, merely 24% of people supported this idea, whereas 51% opposed it. The agreements similarly oblige Kiev to grant an amnesty to the rebels. This has the support of 34% of people, but is rejected by 38%.

To borrow a phrase from Leon Trotsky, the situation in Ukraine is ‘neither war nor peace’. The poll suggests that this is no accident. Ukrainians have no great appetite for war, but they are unwilling to take the steps required to bring peace. If they have ended up with something in between, it is because that is what they appear to prefer. As Nezavisimaia Gazeta concludes, Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko ‘cannot not take these circumstances into consideration’. At this stage, therefore, a major change in Ukrainian policy is unlikely.

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?

Book review: Ukraine à fragmentation

Frédérick Lavoie is an independent journalist from Quebec, who speaks Russian and has spent his career reporting on the countries of the former Soviet Union. His new book Ukraine à fragmentation (which unfortunately is only available in French) takes the form of a long letter to Artyom, a real four year old boy from Donetsk who was killed by a Grad rocket in January 2015. Lavoie says that the purpose of his book is to explain to Artyom why his life was cut short. ‘I am not trying to prove the justice of any cause,’ Lavoie writes, ‘What concerns me is understanding and explaining to you why a conflict which could have remained purely political not military ended up with a rocket falling on your head.’

Lavoie divides his book into two sections: the first is an analysis of the events which led to the war in Donbass; the second is a description of a month-long trip to Ukraine in early 2015. Along the way, the author views the damage caused by government and rebel shelling, meets supporters of both sides in the conflict, and allows each their say.

Lavoie’s journey begins in Kiev, from where he goes to the former rebel strongholds of Kramatorsk and Slavyansk, after which he enters rebel-held territory and attends Artyom’s funeral in Donetsk. He then travels to the port of Mariupol in southern Donbass before returning to Kiev and ending his trip in Lvov. Lavoie remarks that ‘my instinct tells me that the European model remains the best option for Ukrainians, even the Russophones of the east.’ Nevertheless, he comments that, ‘Everyone is to blame … for this vain and useless war,’ and it is ‘the revolutionaries of Euromaidan’ and the politicians whom they brought to power who receive the brunt of his criticisms.

Lavoie dates Ukraine’s fragmentation back to 30 November 2013 when Ukrainian police forcibly broke up a protest camp on Maidan square in Kiev in order to erect a Christmas tree. Violence was never used during previous demonstrations. Now it spiralled out of control. The protestors responded to their eviction by returning in force. Extremist voices became louder, and although they were a minority, ‘they led the charge’, and their tactics became more and more aggressive. In the process, says Lavoie, ‘Maidan made political violence acceptable’. As the father of one of the anti-Maidan protestors killed in the 2 May 2014 fire in Odessa tells him: ‘The revolution created a precedent. It showed that you could seize power with rocks, Molotov cocktails, and weapons. After that, Pandora’s box was opened. If you could do that in Kiev, why not also in Donetsk and Lugansk?’

The events of Maidan struck fear into many people in Crimea and Donbass. Whether these fears were justified isn’t important, Lavoie says. What mattered was that these fears existed. Addressing Artyom, he writes, ‘Your parents’ worries and those of millions of others about what happened on Maidan were not fictional. … They needed to be reassured.’ Instead, according to Lavoie, ‘Those who took power in Kiev suffered from a victor’s complex. They could not think of negotiating with those who opposed the changes. They had achieved their revolution at the cost of a hundred dead. They believed that they had won the right to impose their vision of the country. It was for the vanquished to adapt, to ally themselves with the victors, or to shut up.’ The result was war.

Towards the end of the book, Lavoie meets pro-Maidan liberals in Kiev. ‘They are young, intelligent, cultivated,’ he writes, ‘They are the incarnation … of the best in Ukraine. … And yet. When I talk about the causes of your [Artyom’s] death … they are suddenly intransigent, Manichean, even ignorant. They are selectively indignant. Their capacity for empathy, discernment and self-criticism stop where the front line starts.’ The only explanation they have for Ukraine’s fragmentation is the ‘external enemy’. Lavoie complains: ‘Whether it is a rebel leader or a grandmother at a loss in the face of the bombardment of her village, they don’t want to hear them. … They don’t want to know their reasoning, to understand how they shifted from neutrality to hatred of Kiev because of a shell negligently fired at their house.’

These people are well-informed, says Lavoie, ‘except for the conflict in the east. On that subject, reasoning is reduced to one word: Putin.’ ‘The revolutionaries will tell you that this isn’t a civil war, but purely and simply a foreign invasion,’ he says. But this isn’t the whole story. As he writes, ‘Without Russia’s aid the rebels could not have resisted the Ukrainian forces for more than a few weeks. But without substantial local support, rebellion would never have taken root in Donbass.’ The problem is that ‘Kiev … will not admit its responsibility.’

The author concludes: ‘As long as the victors of the revolution deny their share of responsibility for the current tragedy, Ukraine can only continue to fragment.’

At a presentation Lavoie recently gave in Ottawa, a Polish diplomat delivered a long rant denouncing him for ignoring what the diplomat considered the real cause of the war in Donbass – Russia. I fear that this reaction may be fairly typical, and that Lavoie’s message will fall on deaf ears. This is a shame. The message needs to be heard. I encourage Frédérick Lavoie to have his book translated into English so that it can reach a wider audience. It deserves to.