Tag Archives: Donetsk People’s Republic

Little Russia

‘New Russia is dead! Long live Little Russia!’ Aleksandr Zakharchenko, leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), announced today the formation of a new state, Malorossiia, ‘Little Russia’ (the name by which Ukraine was known in the time of the Russian Empire). According to the rebel leader’s plan, Malorossiia will replace Ukraine, whose capital will move from Kiev to Donetsk. Ukraine will keep its current borders, but change its name, and be reformed into a federation, whose regions will have broad autonomy. At least, that is the idea.

It’s an odd one. Zakharchenko simply isn’t in a position to determine the future constitution of Ukraine, let alone its name, and I can’t in a hundred years imagine most Ukrainians accepting his proposal (while one can say for certain that a large chunk of them never would). Also, it appears that Zakharchenko forgot to consult his fellow rebels in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) before announcing his new project. The chair of the LPR parliament Vladimir Degtiarenko said that the LPR did not send any delegates to the conference at which the project was announced, and in any case didn’t support the idea. Malorussia, it seems, is dead at birth. The story rather undermines the idea that everything that happens in the DPR is dictated by puppet masters in the Kremlin. One would imagine that if the Kremlin was behind this, it would have bothered to check with the LPR first. So either this wasn’t the puppet masters’ idea, or they are bizarrely incompetent. It seems more likely that this was Zakharchenko’s own initiative, a conclusion which has left pundits scratching their heads and wondering what on earth he’s up to.

Over the past three years, Zakharchenko has seemingly adopted just about every conceivable position about the DPR’s future. Sometimes he’s in favour of joining the Russian Federation; other times he’s for the DPR’s independence; sometimes he says that he is committed to the Minsk process, and thus reintegration into Ukraine; other times he says that Minsk is dead and reintegration is no longer possible. Reading between the lines, it’s fairly clear that what he really wants to do is join Russia, but now he’s dropping that, and returning to the idea of rejoining Ukraine, but with a twist, namely that it won’t be Ukraine anymore.

A possible explanation for all this tacking hither and thither is that it represents Zakharchenko’s efforts to satisfy the various constituencies on which he depends. On the one hand, there’s his supporters in Donetsk, who for the most part, one imagines, have long since burnt their bridge with Ukraine and have no intention of going back. On the other hand, there’s the people paying the bills in Moscow, who, one suspects, would be only too happy to see the DPR vanish back into Ukraine if only some way could be found of doing so without losing face (which, of course, there isn’t, short of the extremely unlikely event of the total collapse of Ukraine and the DPR army marching into Kiev). Perhaps somebody in Moscow has made it clear to Zakharchenko that he should forget any ideas of unification with Russia, and so he’s come up with some hairbrained scheme of how he can imagine being back in one country with his former Ukrainian compatriots. It gets Moscow off his back while making it clear to the guys in Donetsk that he’s not planning to sell them down the river. This sort of makes some sense, but I can see this irritating Zakharchenko’s Muscovite sponsors as well as his LPR allies. And it has already gotten France pressuring the Kremlin to get Zakharchenko to back off, with the French Foreign Ministry declaring that the scheme is contrary to the Minsk agreements. I’m not sure that I see how the Malorossiia project is going to make the DPR’s life any easier.

Writing in Lenta.ru, journalist Igor Karmazin provides another explanation: the move is possibly connected to plans being discussed by the Ukrainian parliament to change the status of the war in Donbass. If the plans go ahead, the war will cease to be called an ‘anti-terrorist operation’. Instead, the Ukrainian government will recognize the DPR and LPR as being occupied by the Russian Army, and that Ukraine is thus in effect at war with Russia. Responsibility for the war zone will pass from the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) to the Army. From the DPR’s point of view, this is seen as proof that the Ukrainian government has finally turned its back on Minsk, and that a return to full-scale war is inevitable. Given that, goes the logic, it makes sense for the DPR to prepare for war, including establishing a plan for its broader political objectives. Perhaps, suggests Karmazin, Zakharchenko also believes that the Ukranian ‘regime’ is bound to collapse, and is preparing the ground to seize power himself throughout the country.  Maybe that’s right, but again, it’s just speculation.

In a way, none of this matters. Little Russia isn’t going to happen. But in another way, it does matter, as it sheds some light into what Ukraine’s rebels want, as well as the nature of their relationship with both Ukraine and Russia. The problem is interpreting that light. What does it all mean? Damned if I know. It’s all rather puzzling. I await enlightenment.

Aliens in Donetsk

Where did the Donbass rebels get their weapons in 2014? Many say that they got them from Russia. Many others say that they stole them from the Ukrainian army and security services. Others still maintain that it was a combination of the two. Now, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, has revealed the truth.

Speaking in Gorlovka a couple of days ago, Zakharchenko said the following:

You know – in 2014, we met people from another planet. They gave us their technology. And we use this technology to work on the “Ukrops”.

Well, that’s settled then. I’m glad that we finally learnt the truth. No ‘fake news’ on this blog!

Electrical separation

On Monday, the Lugansk Electricity Union, which provides electricity in Lugansk province in Ukraine, announced that it would no longer supply rebel-held areas of the province with power. According to the Union’s director, Vladimir Gritsai, this follows the receipt of instructions from Ukraine’s Fuel and Energy Minister Igor Nasalik.

The decision is just the latest step in the Ukrainian government’s efforts to blockade the rebel Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics (DPR & LPR). In March this year, the government confirmed that it would no longer purchase coal from the DPR and LPR. And last week, sources suggested that Ukraine might also stop buying coal from Russia, to prevent the Russians from exporting to Ukraine supplies which they had purchased from the DPR and LPR.

The strategy, in so far as there is one, appears to be to try to impoverish the rebel republics and undermine their leaderships’ legitimacy in the eyes of their people, hopefully thereby at some point persuading the people to abandon their rebellion. At the same time, the blockade imposes costs upon the Russian Federation, which might serve to persuade it to stop supporting the DPR and LPR.

If this is a conscious strategy rather than merely the product of domestic political pressures, most notably from the far right and the volunteer battalions, it isn’t very well thought out. For sure, the blockade is imposing costs on Russia, but it seems that those are costs which Russia is quite willing to bear. The Russian government announced today that if Ukraine did stop supplying electricity to Lugansk, it would step in to provide it instead.  The effect of Ukraine’s action will thus not be to assist the re-integration of the DPR and LPR into Ukraine, but rather to accelerate the process of their separation from Ukraine and their integration with Russia. As Russian spokesman Dmitry Peskov put it, Ukraine’s action ‘is one more step on Ukraine’s path of tearing the territories away from itself.’

From the start of the crisis in Ukraine, the Russian government has shown a consistent preference for a solution which sees Donbass remain within Ukraine but with some form of autonomy. Russian leaders have repeatedly made it clear that this is only possible if the Ukrainian government negotiates a settlement directly with the rebels. Russian policy has in part been oriented towards coercing Ukraine into accepting this reality. This policy has, however, failed. Ukraine still refuses absolutely to speak to the DPR and LPR. This has placed Russia in an awkward position. It cannot abandon the rebels, both because that would be unacceptable to domestic public opinion and because it would mean losing whatever strategic leverage it still has over Ukraine. But supporting the DPR and LPR is expensive. The optimal policy thus involves supporting the republics, but keeping the costs low.

Because of this, it initially suited Russia to keep the rebels integrated as much as possible with Ukraine – if Ukraine could pay for pensions etc, and support the rebel economies by trading with them, Russia’s costs would be lower. The Ukrainian blockade has rendered this policy impractical. Russia has to step in to provide what the Ukrainians won’t. At the same time, it has become necessary to maximize the rebels’ own sources of income. This in turn has meant that it has become necessary to further sever economic ties with Ukraine by placing major industrial enterprises under so-called ‘external management’, stripping the Ukrainian owners’ of their management rights and forcing the enterprises to pay taxes to the DPR and LPR.

In this way, bit by bit, as a result of the Ukrainian blockade and the Russian and rebel responses to it, the DPR and LPR are turning into de-facto independent states without any substantial economic ties to Ukraine. The longer this goes on and the deeper the process the goes, the harder it will be to reverse it. As the process continues, a side effect will be that the state institutions of the DPR and LPR will become stronger. In an interview yesterday with Izvestiia, DPR leader Aleksandr Zakharchenko commented that,

There are natural problems in constructing a new state. In first place is the problem of personnel. And it’s not just a matter of many specialists having left the republic when combat operations were going on. Turning a region of a unitary state into an independent country requires a large number of new specialists. We are doing everything we can to prepare new personnel. We are opening educational institutions, and new faculties within existing institutions in those subjects which are needed in the management of the state and the national economy. And so we are resolving this problem, albeit not quickly.

As time goes on, Ukraine and everybody else will find that they are no longer dealing with a rebellion but with fully fledged state formations. This will inevitably change the political dynamic as the new states will demand recognition as such, if not de jure then at least de facto. As Zakharchenko told Izvestiia, when asked if he would accept reintegration in Ukraine on the basis of federalization:

That train has already left the station. We were willing to speak to Kiev about federalization in spring 2014 until Kiev began to shoot us from tanks, guns, and combat aircraft. Now we are willing to engage in dialogue with Ukraine only on the basis of equal rights, as an independent state. … Perhaps, as an independent state we will be willing to negotiate with Ukraine about co-existence on a confederal basis. But this will only be possible once not only those in power in Kiev, but the entire ruling elite, is changed.

In January 2015, I remarked that:

Kiev is now pinning its hopes on turning its own territory into a zone of good government and prosperity while blockading the DPR and LPR so that they face economic and social collapse, thereby in the long term convincing the population of Eastern Ukraine to rejoin the rest of the country. Should the leaders of the DPR and LPR succeed in consolidating their republics, this strategy will fail.

Two years later, we can conclude that this strategy has indeed failed. Indeed, it has been thoroughly counterproductive, as the policy of blockade has actually encouraged and enabled the process of state consolidation. It has also given the rebels’ Russian backers no option other than to promote total independence. Things are now so far gone that there is almost certainly no way back. The DPR and LPR will complete the process of state formation and their economies will become fully integrated with that of the Russian Federation, while both entities will remain officially unrecognized. This isn’t what anybody wants, and it is a thoroughly unsatisfactory outcome. But I no longer see how it can be avoided. Rather than pursuing futile dreams of re-integration with Ukraine via the Minsk process, it would make more sense, therefore, for all concerned to recognize this reality (even if only in private) and to focus instead on how to bring about a lasting ceasefire, so that both Ukraine and its lost territories can go their separate ways in peace.

Jus in bello in Ukraine

This semester I am teaching a class on military ethics, and for the past couple of weeks we have been discussing issues of jus in bello – that is to say, who may do what during a war. A couple of events in Ukraine this past week have directly touched upon the subjects of our classroom discussions.

The first is the assassination of Givi, a commander in the army of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), who was killed by a rocket fired into his office in Donetsk. We do not know who was responsible. But if it was the Ukrainian army, the question arises as to whether such killings are justifiable under the ethical and legal rules of war.

To answer that question, we have to pose two more; what is a legitimate target? And what are legitimate methods of killing? These are not quite as simple as they seem.

The concept of discrimination (sometimes known as ‘distinction’) is a crucial part of jus in bello. It is almost universally accepted that during war one may intentionally kill some people but not others. The problem is that attempts to find a philosophical principle which allows one to determine who falls into which group, haven’t been very successful.

On the assumption that people have a right to life, some writers maintain that to become targets in war people have to have done, or have the potential to do, something to have forfeited that right. Normally, this is seen in terms of them doing harm, or posing a threat, to others. The problem with this principle is that it doesn’t explain why one may shoot a sleeping soldier but not a worker in a weapons factory or somebody who writes computer code for military computers. The latter two may in fact be posing far more threat than the soldier; yet they are classified as a civilians, and may not be intentionally targeted.

Some philosophers therefore focus on the idea of proximity. It’s not enough to be engaged in doing harm, or in being part of an organization which does harm; one has to be fairly proximate to the act, or threat, of harm. This rules out killing the armaments worker in his home. But it still doesn’t explain why one may bomb a military cook while he sleeps in a base thirty kilometres behind the front line.

Arguments based on forfeiture of rights, or on the idea of doing harm, do not, therefore, provide very good explanations of why we have the rules that we do. A better explanation is a practical, rule utilitarian one. We wish to minimize the damage caused by war. Therefore, we wish to place certain people and objects off limits. The latter need to be clearly distinguishable by means of a simple rule which everyone can understand. Thus, we develop a rule saying that you can intentionally target people in uniform, but not people who aren’t in uniform. The fact that you can therefore shoot the sleeping cook 30 kilometres behind the lines, but not the far more important computer programmer, may not make much sense from the point of view of military necessity, but at least it is a clear rule which can be easily enforced.

With this in mind, we can answer the question as to whether a soldier in the DPR army is a legitimate target. The answer, according to the logic above, is yes. S/he is a soldier, who wears a uniform. S/he is therefore a legitimate target wherever s/he might be. The fact that the killing is in an office, not at the front, is irrelevant.

As for whether the methods used are legitimate, that depends on what they are. Philosopher Michael Gross writes that one of the problems with targeted killings in war is that they constitute perfidy. There is something to what he says. Restraint in war depends on the warring parties abiding by the agreed rules. Based on the argument above, this means abiding by the rule that uniforms distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate targets. But that rule only works if both sides wear uniforms. If they take them off in order to gain some military advantage, they make it impossible to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate targets and so undermine the very fabric of the system.

With this in mind, the answer as to whether an assassination in downtown Donetsk is justifiable depends on how the assassins do their job. If they are members of the Ukrainian army, and they creep through rebel lines, wearing their uniforms and openly bearing arms, then they act in accordance with the rules. But if they take off their uniforms and hide their weapons until the moment of firing them (which seems more likely given the practicalities involved), then their action is perfidious.

The second case is somewhat simpler. The Ukrainian online newspaper Censor.net reports that a Ukrainian court has sentenced a 50-year-old Russian citizen, who goes by the pseudonym ‘Yakut’, to 8 years in prison for serving in the DPR army. He was captured in September 2015, apparently trying to sneak into Mariupol in an effort to desert. According to Censor.net, when captured, ‘he was dressed in camouflage’, in other words in uniform.

The newspaper describes Yakut as a ‘mercenary’.  If so, then he was not a legal combatant, since mercenaries are prohibited under international law. However, the term ‘mercenary’ is very narrowly defined as someone who fights for money. Soldiers who receive pay, but fight for other reasons, are not mercenaries. The label ‘mercenary’ in this case is, therefore, probably misleading. Moreover, being a mercenary was not the crime for which he was convicted. Instead it was being a member of a terrorist organization.

His conviction, I think, is a disturbing development. As noted, Yakut was wearing uniform, or something like it, when captured. His alleged crime was being part of what is clearly an army, which openly bears arms, and has a command structure. Anybody fighting for the armed forces of the DPR thus fits the criteria of a combatant under the Geneva Conventions, namely 1) wearing identifiable insignia (e.g. uniform), 2) being part of a command structure capable of enforcing the rules of war; and 3) carrying arms openly. If captured, any such people must be treated as prisoners of war, unless they have broken the laws of war, in which case they may lose their rights. But Yakut was not charged with any specific breaches of the laws of war. He should, therefore, have been designated a prisoner of war.

The only way I can see to justify these cases is by reference to certain theories which my students and I shall be discussing in this week’s class. Unsatisfied with existing explanations of how people become legitimate targets in war, a number of philosophers, most notably Jeff McMahan, have argued that in bello issues of discrimination have to be linked to ad bellum issues of just cause. What makes one a legitimate target is not that one threatens other people, but that one ‘unjustly’ threatens them. The ‘just’ side in any war may be compared to the police; the ‘unjust’ side to criminals. The latter forfeit their rights; and the former obtain additional rights. If Ukraine is the ‘just’ side, therefore, members of the DPR army have no rights, while the Ukrainian state has the right to kill or convict them.

The problem with this logic, however, is that both sides in every war think that their cause is just, and if they were to follow McMahan’s argument the rules of war would collapse, to the harm of everyone involved. Thus even McMahan admits that his ideas cannot be the basis of law.

Restraint in war depends upon reciprocal recognition as legal equals. I fear that these recent cases undermine this fundamental principle.

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.

Misgovernment in Ukraine

This week there was a failed coup in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), and one of the alleged coup leaders has committed suicide in a Lugansk jail. As I have said before, a key issue in determining the outcome of the conflict in Ukraine will be the extent to which the governments in Kiev and the rebel republics are able to turn the areas they control into models of good governance and prosperity. With the events in Lugansk in mind, how are they are getting on?

The picture in the government-controlled parts of Ukraine is mixed. On the plus side, total economic collapse has been averted. The economy is beginning to grow again, albeit extremely slowly – it will take many years before the country again reaches the level of GDP it enjoyed before the Maidan revolution. And politically, the country is managing to muddle through. The fall of the Yatseniuk government earlier this year did not lead to the dissolution of parliament or to political chaos. The system barely has its head above water, but it is nevertheless managing to keep on swimming.

However, massive hikes in the price of gas are lowering the standard of living of ordinary Ukrainians still further. And, as the arson attack a couple of weeks ago on the Inter TV station in Kiev showed, militia groups continue to operate outside the law with relative impunity. In an article in today’s Guardian, opposition MP Vadim Novinsky complains about an ‘increasingly bold witch-hunt by the government’ against its opponents. According to Thomas Theiner, a vocal supporter of Euromaidan with business experience in Ukraine, ‘By now it is clear that the corrupt and thieving government-mafia clans are still in charge’.

How about the situation on the rebel side?

Of the two rebel republics, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) has always seemed like the better governed, and its leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, has a charisma that the LPR’s leader, Igor Plotnitsky, entirely lacks. Recent reports from Donetsk suggest that the DPR is doing about as well as could realistically be expected for a small region in which the state entirely disintegrated two years ago, and which is cut off from the most of the world and forced to spend its limited resources on fighting a war. In a recent report for Meduza, a media outlet not by inclination favourable to the Donbass rebels, journalist Nigina Boroeva wrote the following about a trip she made to Donetsk:

The streets are quiet, cozy, and clean: the locals say the city has never been so well-kept, not even before the war. … The main boulevard is packed with glamorous coffee shops. … A private entrepreneur named Roman … says that some residents have even regained their cars, which were seized two years ago. ‘The courts are overloaded with cases, but rulings are being made and implemented,’ Roman says. … The businessman complains, however, that a stronger presence of the law has a downside, too: ‘In Russia, if you break the rules, you bribe the traffic cop and drive on. As for our inspectors, they are afraid to take bribes now.’

By contrast, the LPR appears to be bedevilled by corruption and political scandals. In 2014, self-styled Cossacks (some local, others from Russia), played an important part in the rebellion in the LPR. The regions under their control became notorious for banditry, and the Cossack leaders zealously defended their autonomy against any attempts to centralize power. The result was a series of violent power struggles, which resulted in the assassination of several prominent rebel leaders. Eventually, with Moscow’s support, Plotnitsky got the upper hand, but it would appear that attempts to concentrate power in the hands of the state authorities have been much less successful in Lugansk than in Donetsk. Various militia leaders remain resentful of Plotnitsky and his Russian backers, and perhaps also feel that their revolution has been betrayed and that one corrupt system has merely been replaced with another. The upshot was a failed attempt to assassinate Plotnitsky in August of this year, followed by the coup attempt this week. Apparently, the DPR had to come to Plotnitsky’s rescue by sending to Lugansk.

This does not bode well for the rebellion’s prospects. Unfortunately for Kiev, its less than inspiring example means that it is not in a position to take advantage.

Report on Donbass

Given the poor quality of much commentary about Russia’s role in the war in Donbass, it was good this week to read something which was actually quite informative, even if I disagreed with some of its assumptions and policy recommendations. The report in question was published by the International Crisis Group (ICG) on 5 February and entitled ‘Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine’. The points which I found most interesting were these:

Continue reading Report on Donbass