ARCHIVES Danyliw Seminar 2014
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The War in Eastern Ukraine
The Donbas Insurgency:
Origins, Organization and Dynamics of Violence
The variation in the capacity of the insurgents to take over some parts of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, but not others, is one of the commonly overlooked facts of the war in Donbas. It points to the importance of disaggregating the region of conflict and exploring the zones of control on the sub-regional level. A more close study of this spatial variation can offer important clues about the reasons for the relative success of the separatist insurgency in controlling one sub-regional zone, but not another. It also challenges some of the prevalent macro-level explanations for the Donbas conflict, which attribute the start of the war to exogenous variables. Hence, this paper takes the variation of insurgent control over Donbas as the starting point of its analysis.
The Origins of the Donbas Insurgency:
The Role of the State Capacity
On the structural level political rather than economic variables seemed to have been decisive in making the Donbas insurgency possible. They included the fragmentation of state sovereignty, revolutionary power transfer and the crisis of political representation. The anti-incumbent popular mobilization in 2013-14 sidelined party leaders and brought forward the foot soldiers of the revolution. The diffusion of protests to other regions was accompanied by a seemingly chaotic storming of government buildings by crowds of masked men with Molotov cocktails and gas bombs throughout Western and Central Ukraine. The capture of regional state administrations was accompanied by the creation of parallel governing structures that rejected the authority of the president and the government in Kyiv. It also exacerbated regional polarization and lifted the political constraints that maintained the cohesiveness of Ukrainian state for over two decades.
Yanukovych’s ouster and the violence that accompanied the transfer of power was another important trigger behind the uprising. Firstly, it undermined the legitimacy of the new authorities, whose right to rule was particularly strongly rejected in the Donbas. Approximately half of all respondents in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts said in early April they were confident that acting president and the new government were illegal. Secondly, the arming of Maidan’s self-defense units and the use of firearms against law enforcement in the final days of the revolution was also unprecedented for Ukraine. The success of Yanukovych’s overthrow legitimized the use of force in political confrontations with the government. Finally, the implosion of the Party of Regions and defection of almost half of its MPs to the new majority meant that the residents of the Donbas lost their representation in Kyiv.
Origins of the Donbas Insurgency: Estimating Russia’s Role
The process of the state fragmentation was triggered by the domestic political conflict, but the exogenous factors helped to accelerate it and incite the start of the country’s disintegration. Russia’s invasion of Crimea under the pretext of protection of ethnic Russian minority and its subsequent annexation following a dubious referendum became a model for pro-Russian activists in other regions. It set a precedent of a successful and peaceful secession, which could now be repeated elsewhere. It also showed that Russia was willing to deploy its troops to protect its co-ethnics in Ukraine – a principle, which could have helped to reassure other secessionist leaders that they could count on Moscow’s support. Given that Russian officials continued to argue that the new government violated the rights of Russian-speakers in Ukraine, the repeat of the Crimean scenario might have seemed likely at the time. The costs of further secession could have also seemed lower given Ukraine’s inability to resist Crimean annexation.
The expectation of Russian support could have certainly encouraged previously marginal pro-Russian activists to use this window of opportunity to capture power. Still, it does not explain broader popular support for the secessionist movement even after Russia rebuffed their appeals for Crimea-style annexation, while Ukraine demonstrated its ability to fight back. One opinion poll conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in June 26 – July 4 showed that 34.8% of respondents in Donetsk oblast said they trusted leadership of DNR and 26.2% of Luhansk oblast residents expressed trust in the leadership of LNR. However, in May it already became clear that Russia would not respond to the secessionist attempts in the Donbas in the same way as it did in Crimea. While Russia facilitated the development of the secessionist movement, the mere expectation of the Russian aid could not explain local collaboration with insurgents.
The Origins of the Donbas Insurgency: The Role of Emotions
The state capacity alone, however, also cannot explain one of the puzzles of the insurrection in the Donbas – the variation in the ability of the insurgents to control different parts of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. The group-level emotional factors – such as fear and resentment – became instrumental in pushing local residents for en masse support of the referendums to create two independent republics, which preceded the beginning of the full-scale armed conflict.
Resentment emerges out of perception that one’s group has been unfairly subordinated and will remain in a politically inferior status unless force is used. In Donbas, this emotion was linked to its regional identity of an industrial stronghold “feeding” the rest of Ukraine and to its predominantly Russian-speaking culture. The peculiar Donbas identity has been rooted in its historic status as a “frontier land” that traditionally resisted the metropolitan attempts at domination either by Moscow or Kyiv. This identity solidified during Ukraine’s independence with 69.5% of Donetsk respondents identifying themselves primarily with their own region. In the whole Donbas the share of people identifying themselves primarily with their region or town is smaller, but it still was the most common type of identification (44%). A ten-year rule of Yanukovych and the Party of Regions allowed Donbas residents to feel both politically influential and protected from discrimination on cultural or ethnic grounds. Its abrupt end accompanied by the party’s disintegration and prosecution of some of its members meant a sudden reversal of their politically privileged status. The composition of the new government skewed in favor of the politicians from Western Ukraine only made matters worse. As a result, just 9% in Donetsk and 11% in Luhansk thought that the new government represented “all Ukraine.” The combination of the feeling of being influential, but suddenly excluded, is particularly combustive. As one large-N statistical study shows political exclusion of an ethnic group is especially likely to produce conflict if it has experienced a recent decrease in power status. Of all different regions after Euromaidan Donbas had the highest level of support for secession from Ukraine with 31% in favor and 13% undecided. Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians were equally more likely to support Donbas secession (22-23%) than ethnic Ukrainians (6%) or bilinguals (7%).
Resentment-based emotion in Donbas was further amplified by the rise of fear. Fear spreads in situations of state collapse when institutions and rules safeguarding a certain group have become non-functional. Resulting violence is then viewed as a form of self-defense and targets a threatening group. In Donbas fear was a direct response to the growing prominence of nationalist paramilitary groups, like the Right Sector. The first “self-defense” units to protect Donbas from the “neo-Nazis” emerged even before Yanukovych’s ouster, in early February, and multiplied after he fled. Expressions of fear in reference to Ukrainian nationalist groups have been common for many pro-Russian rally participants across Donbas. In early April 46% in Donetsk and 33% in Luhansk oblasts viewed disarming illegal radical groups as the main step to maintain the country’s unity. Instead, the government authorized transforming them into semi-private militia battalions tasked with fighting the separatists in the East.
The strength of the two emotions - fear and resentment – was likely to be tied to one’s group identity. Variation in the duration of insurgent control of various towns in the Donbas reflects this pattern (see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: Share of native Ukrainian speakers vs. Number of days under insurgent control of eighty towns in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (Data: Ukrainian Census, 2001; RNBO reports; Youtube.com).
Most of the towns and villages in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts with the share of native Ukrainian speakers over eighty percent never came under rebel control. By contrast, the majority of towns with fewer than twenty percent of population speaking Ukrainian as their first language has remained part of the self-proclaimed DPR and LPR after six months of counterinsurgency operations. In addition the variation in towns’ linguistic composition could have also meant a variance in the attitudes to the insurgent cause. As a number of studies show, insurgents only need a neutral majority to operate effectively and they are likely to fail in maintaining their base when faced with majority disapproval. So the Ukrainian-speaking majority in any particular town or village could have also meant a stronger commitment to maintaining the unity of Ukraine.
The Dynamics of Violence: The Perils of Enemy-Centric Counterinsurgency
Once the armed conflict starts, civilian attitudes to the incumbent and insurgent sides become heavily influenced by the type of violence they employ and the dynamics of territorial control. There were three major mistakes in the conduct of Ukrainian counterinsurgency campaign, which could have helped to boost local recruitment and aid of the insurgency. First, the government agreed to form paramilitary forces out of volunteers linked to Maidan’s self-defense groups, funded from private sources and operating de facto outside direct government command. Some of these auxiliary forces, like the Azov, Aidar or Shahtarsk battalions, included individuals with neo-Nazi beliefs or ex-criminals, which served to confirm the pro-secessionist narrative about the reality of a “fascist threat.” Many have become implicated in the widespread human rights abuses, including abductions, theft, torture, unlawful detention and possible executions.
Secondly, the use of air power, artillery, multiple rocket launchers and clustered munitions against densely populated towns by the Ukrainian armed forces imposed a heavy toll on the local civilians. The series of reports documented the shelling of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and private residences, by the Ukrainian armed forces. Whatever the army’s motivations for the use of indiscriminate weaponry, the end result of the intensified long-range shelling of rebel-held areas was reinforced hostility of the local population to the incumbent side and its aligning with the insurgent forces.
Thirdly, the government’s political outreach lacked substance. Continued framing of the counterinsurgency operation as the one targeting terrorists and separatists proved counterproductive as a communication strategy. It was meant to discredit the insurgents. Instead, it only strengthened the anger at military actions among those who felt unfairly targeted by the army’s indiscriminate force.
The Organization of the Donbas Insurgency
Counterinsurgency strategy should also be based on the understanding of how the rebels are organized – something that also seemed to be lacking in the government’s response. The secessionist movement in the Donbas evolved along the lines of “parochial insurgencies,” which draw on vertical linkages of different leaders to local communities to build localized power centers with few connections between each other. These types of insurgencies reflect the particularities of the regional social structure where horizontal ties between activists or developed civic groups were weak or non-existent. Instead, each town relied on its own strongman to set and enforce the new rules. The parochialism of the Donbas insurgency also explains the relative ease with which a majority of staunchly pro-Ukrainian residents could stem a separatist tide, as happened in Svatove. Lack of a centralized direction over the diffusion of DPR and LPR projects across the Donbas meant that their success was conditional on local community compliance and the availability of locally embedded leaders who could take the lead in promoting the separatist cause.
The variation in attitudes and commitment of many remaining in the Donbas to the Ukrainian state leaves some room for cautious optimism about the future of the region. However, it would require the Ukrainian authorities to reverse some of their preconceived notions about the effective ways of dealing with the insurgent challenge. First, they should rein in the paramilitary battalions implicated by the international organization in human rights abuses and stop the use of indiscriminate weaponry against civilian areas. Secondly, the government should continue providing humanitarian assistance to the rebel-held areas and ensure the payment of social benefits to people living there. Thirdly, Ukraine-controlled parts of the Donbas should receive special treatment and broader powers to demonstrate the government’s commitment to decentralization policies. Finally, the government’s communication strategy should aim at exposing the governing incompetence and criminality of the insurgent leaders rather than at further demonizing Russia. The parochial structure of the insurgents makes them particularly vulnerable to internal fratricide. Strategic patience combined with the economic incentives for the rest of the Donbas may therefore prove far more fruitful than a new round of violence.
Serhiy Kudelia (PhD Johns Hopkins) is an assistant professor of political science at Baylor University. His articles appeared in Post-Soviet Affairs, Problems of Post-Communism, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, East European Politics and Societies, and Demokratizatsiya. He was the recipient of the Danyliw Seminar Emerging Scholar Award in 2011.