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Donbas, Pandora’s Box: Shortcomings of the Proxy War Approach

A separatist guards his position near the division line with Ukrainian army with anti-tank missile near Dokuchaevsk, eastern Ukraine, Friday, June 5, 2015

On Friday, November 24, Igor Plotnitsky, leader of the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LPR), resigned “due to health issues,” and Leonid Pasechnik, the “state security minister,” took over. This change in leadership resulted from a conflict between Igor Plotnitsky and the “siloviki” bloc, in particular “Minister of Interior” Igor Kornet and Pasechnik (they are former senior officers of the Ukrainian Police and Ukrainian Security Service, respectively). In opposing Igor Plotnitsky, Kornet and Pasechnik received military support from Donetsk, which was decisive for the success of the coup.

Such a rapid and effective coup d’état in the self-declared LPR was unexpected even for its main stakeholders, first and foremost the Kremlin. The events confirm the vulnerability of proxy war technologies in contemporary conflicts and foreign policy. Neither funding, nor supplying arms, nor providing military advisers can guarantee the Kremlin full control over the self-proclaimed regimes in eastern Donbas.

The Ukrainian narrative about the Donbas characterizes the actors on the other side as “terrorists,” “separatists,” and “collaborators.”

Proxy agents have their own interests in conflicts. On realizing them, proxies may abandon the patron’s agenda, thus changing the dynamics of the conflict entirely. Moreover, it became evident that Moscow’s and Kyiv’s understanding of the socioeconomic and political processes playing out in the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) and the LPR is often faulty and potentially misleading. The main explanations for Moscow’s mistaken perceptions lie in the lower priority of the DPR and LPR for Russian foreign policy and Moscow’s illusion of having full control over them. For Kyiv, the main reasons are a paucity of objective information from the rebel-controlled territories and the dominance of the propagandist approach in Ukrainian public discussions and media concerning eastern Donbas. The Ukrainian narrative about the Donbas characterizes the actors on the other side as “terrorists,” “separatists,” and “collaborators.”

With the Minsk agreements seemingly stalled, populations living in the rebel-controlled territories, including individuals, the local community, and the business community, are adapting to the current reality. A similar process is taking place in post-Maidan Ukraine. Ukrainian society and communities in the noncontrolled territories live in two profoundly different and fast-changing worlds. The changes are occurring in politics, the economy, and society. And there is an obvious lack of horizontal communication between Ukrainian society and eastern Donbas communities after war, blockade, and the flight of entire social strata from the war-affected territories.

If the changes in government-controlled Ukraine are well monitored and debated, the situation in the DPR and LPR is not that well known. What has actually changed in eastern Donbas?

  1. According to my data, there has been a structural shift in the economy of the self-declared republics. Agriculture, a nontraditional sector for the Donbas, is playing an ever more important role. Nonprofitable enterprises, especially coal mines, which for decades survived on subsidies from Kyiv, have now been closed. Further, some industrial forces have been converted for machine building. Local businesses have retrained their focus from Ukrainian to Russian supplies and markets. The Russia-oriented companies (mainly those engaged in cattle breeding and the food industry) and the publicly funded construction sector are showing progress.

However, the DPR-LPR economies suffer from international and Ukrainian sanctions and limitations, as well as from labor migration to the EU and Russia.

Undoubtedly, the current eastern Donbas economic model cannot provide innovation-based growth and development, but there are clear signals of recovery from the economic collapse of 2014–2015. With the growth of their economies, the DPR and LPR are loosening the Kremlin’s economic control.

  1. The DPR has seen the full concentration of political and military power in the hands of its leader. This concentration follows from annihilation of the norms and even the trappings of democracy. Along with establishing the armed forces, police, border guards, and other armed services, the DPR warlord created his own guards, the newly formed Cossacks of Aleksander Zakharchenko. They were enrolled based on the criterion of personal loyalty to the warlords and direct subordination to them. The quick deployment of Zakharchenko’s guards to Luhansk in support of Igor Kornet, the rebellious LPR minister of internal affairs, demonstrates that the DPR leader has strengthened his own political and military weight, which is not entirely dependent on Moscow.

Igor Plotnitsky, the former LPR ruler, had been going down the same path, but less efficiently. Plotnitsky lost his position to Igor Kornet. Now, after the coup, the same model will most likely be applied with greater efficiency, if the LPR intends not be absorbed by the DPR.

In any event, the creation of personally loyal military guards makes the DPR leader somewhat less controllable by Kremlin.

  1. There is a deepening process of militarization of society in the DPR and LPR. It is particularly visible in the compulsory military education in secondary schools and universities, as well as in the mandatory conscription and training for all groups of the population. Also, internal propaganda and the spread of a culture of war through the media are becoming stronger and stronger. All these processes contribute to the education of “ideal warriors and citizens.”

Simultaneously, the educational system and the media promote personal loyalty to Aleksander Zakharchenko as the “national and beloved leader.” His picture hang in schoolrooms, on the walls of public institutions, and on city billboards. Students must study his biography. And Zakhar Prilepin, the Russian writer and DPR activist, made a series of TV shows about Zakharchenko. That, together with the local cult, inspired Zakharchenko to rule with greater independence from the Kremlin.

Finally, there have been attempts to create a “new” Donetsk identity that would substitute for the “old” one. Before 2014, the identity-building efforts in the Donbas focused on consolidating the local electorate during the Ukrainian elections behind political parties controlled by local elites. Moreover, the Donetsk identity was heavily connected to Ukrainian civic identity, much as other regional identities in Ukraine are.

 In the rebel-controlled territories, the vacuum created a space for the construction of new identities.

After 2014, the military conflict in eastern Ukraine triggered the consolidation of Ukrainian identity in the government-controlled territories. In the rebel-controlled territories, the vacuum created a space for the construction of new identities. These identities were shaped with reference to the wartime experience of the eastern Donbas populations and establishment of the political entities of the DPR and LPR. Currently, information policies and educational programs in the noncontrolled territories emphasize “irreconcilable differences” between communities in Donetsk and Luhansk and those in the rest of Ukraine.

Altogether, the above processes have led to a situation in eastern Donbas in which both Moscow and Kyiv have limited, and shrinking, influence. The Kremlin cannot rely on its client regimes as well-controlled proxies in its conflict with Ukraine and the West. Official Kyiv has very little communication with communities in the noncontrolled territories. Today eastern Donbas is a gray zone, with unpredictable effects for people living there and for their neighbors in Ukraine and Russia. Warlordism and emerging local leaders promote secessionist ideas and anti-European and anti-Western attitudes throughout Eastern Europe. And all these processes and attitudes will have a significant impact on future conflict settlement.

About the Author

Tetyana Malyarenko

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American expertise and knowledge of Russia, Ukraine, and the region. Through its residential fellowship programs, public lectures, workshops, and publications, the Institute strives to attract, publicize, and integrate new research into the policy community.  Read more