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ARCHIVES  Danyliw Seminar 2014
Oleksandr Melnyk
Oleksandr Melnyk
U of Toronto, Canada,





























The War in Eastern Ukraine



From the Russian Spring to the Armed Insurrection


In the aftermath of Euro-Maidan a number of eastern and southern Ukrainian cities experienced a veritable tidal wave of protest activity under the slogans of restoring legitimacy to the former government authorities, and federalization or unification with Russia. The “Russian spring”--as these demonstrations became known in the Russian nationalist segment of the internet--began in Sevastopol’ in late February. On 1 March anti-Kyiv rallies of varying size took place in Donets’k, Luhans’k, Kharkiv, Odessa, Dnipropetrovs’k and a number of smaller cities in southeastern Ukraine. In some places the protests--which in March-early April would become a staple feature of the Ukrainian political landscape--were accompanied by “elections” of “people’s governors,” disturbances of public order and clashes with Euro-Maidan/pro-Ukraine activists, attempts to seize regional administrations, the raising of Russian flags, and appeals to Russia to send military troops to Ukraine.  However, only in parts of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, and in part under the influence of outside actors, did the turmoil escalate into a full-scale insurgency and subsequent destruction of the Ukrainian state.


Not surprisingly, the origins of the “Russian spring” in the Donbas and its relationship with the armed insurrection have been subject of heated debate. Two sharply polarized meta-narratives have dominated the discourse both in the general public and in the scholarly community. One emphasizes domestic sources of the Donbas insurrection; the other one points to the centrality of the destabilization strategy implemented by the agencies of the Russian state.[1] By contrast, empirical studies have thus far been in short supply, whether of the protest movement in the cities of southeastern Ukraine in March-April or of the armed insurrection in the Donbas in the following months. Particularly scarce is research on activities of and relationships between various local and external state and non-state actors: official Kiev, oligarchs and other local power holders, Western governments, agencies of the Russian state, pro-Russian organizations in Ukraine, and, last but not least, a wide array of anti-systemic domestic and external non-state actors.


This paper is an attempt to fill this important lacuna by elucidating the genealogy of the violent conflict in the Donbas with reference to both the pre-existing political structures and the operational contributions by a wide array of domestic and external actors in March-April 2014.


In adopting such an approach, I will proceed from a series of assumptions:

  1. different actors have capacity to act and shape the historically conditioned environment;

  2. they possess unequal power and unequal amount of resources;

  3. they are inscribed within a system, wherein they often have to act in response to prior actions/re-actions by other actors with more or less power;

  4. their choices are not only guided by their strategic and tactical objectives, but are also structurally constrained by limited resources, pre-existing discourses, and activities of other historical agents.


By recognizing in this fashion the importance of structures, historical contingencies and operational contributions by various domestic and external actors, the paper will on the one hand challenge static and deterministic interpretations that position the violent conflict in the Donbas as a direct consequence of identity formations and domestic political divisions. On the other hand, by bringing into focus diverse structures, networks, and actors, I will also complicate conceptions that reduce the complex, multi-dimensional conflict(s) to the aftereffects of the Russian government conspiracy (which itself, as a rule, remains unproblematized).


Instead I propose to view the violent conflict(s) in the Donbas as a product of synergetic confluence of several clusters of structural and conjunctural factors, including, but not limited to:

  1. political and ethno-cultural profile of the regions that the Russian officials self-servingly refer to as the "South-East" or "Novorossiya";

  2. legitimacy crisis of the interim government in Kyiv in the aftermath of the Euro-Maidan revolution;

  3. destabilizing effects of the status quo created by Euro-Maidan victory—not only in terms of geopolitical disposition and Russia’s apparently compromised interests in Ukraine, but also in terms of relationships between different groups within Ukraine’s ruling elite, as well as in terms of perceived change of status of different ethno-political communities in Ukraine;

  4. Russian governmental operations aimed at reversing the status quo created by Euro-Maidan victory;

  5. residual influence of the once powerful criminal networks associated with the clients of the former president Yanukovych;

  6. culture of violence of the urban, working class milieu;

  7. proximity of the border with Russia and trans-border ethnic politics;

  8. weakness of the organized pro-Ukrainian groups in the Donbas;

  9. the incremental collapse of the law enforcement apparatus in the Donbas and the resultant lack of capacity of local power holders, such as governor Serhiy Taruta and oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.




[1] See, for example the recent exchange between Serhiy Kudelia and Andreas Umland.

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