This article is part of ECFR's Wider Europe Forum
The Donbas is seeing a coup within a coup, as two of the leading separatists turn on each other.
The little green men are back in Luhansk. But this time they seem to have appeared as part of a local power struggle between Igor Plotnitsky, the “President” of the “People’s Republic of Luhansk” (LNR), and Igor Kornet, the head of LNR’s security structures and “Minister of the Interior”.
On Monday 20 November, Spetsnaz and armoured personnel carriers showed up on street corners in Luhansk and closed down the city centre. They seemed to come from the neighbouring “People’s Republic of Donetsk” – making this an invasion within an invasion. Locals dryly joked that the Donetsk forces had intervened in Luhansk in order to protect the Donetsk speaking population. Such is the new normal of the once peaceful city.
Locals did not panic at the “invasion”, but were naturally concerned. The lack of information did not help. Many civilians have left the city but, tellingly, doctors have been forbidden to leave.
By Thursday evening, reports appeared that Plotnitsky had left Luhansk for Rostov-on-Don and then Moscow. Footage of him arriving in Sheremetyevo airport spread on social media. Whether this means he is in Moscow to seek refuge or to negotiate with the Kremlin is not yet clear.
The separatists turn on each other
How did this conflict within a conflict begin? It has a long history with several layers. It concerns not only the distribution of cash flows into Luhansk, but also the power struggles within the courts of the Kremlin. At the heart of this conflict is the fact that Plotnitsky and Kornet report to different masters in Moscow. Plotnitsky is supported by the Kremlin aide and Donbas “curator”, Vladislav Surkov, while Kornet has the backing of the FSB. Both Plotnitsky and Kornet are puppets of their Moscow masters. And as any good puppet, their standing in Luhansk reflects the influence of their Kremlin protectors.
Before the war, Plotnitsky has been an ordinary official. He was considered suitable by the Kremlin to head the “People’s Republic” because of his bureaucratic and organizational experience – and exceptional loyalty to Moscow. When he became leader of the LNR in 2014, he moved quickly to enrich himself – through confiscation of property and business assets - and to consolidate his power. With the help of Russian special services, he liquidated the criminal elements who had been instrumental to overrunning Donbas in 2014 under the slogan of creating Novorossiya. Once these criminals and other pro-Russian bandits had fulfilled their role as warmongers, their usefulness to the Kremlin ended. They were purged or disappeared.
Igor Kornet, who controlled the police, was a major threat to Plotnitsky. Plotnitsky was not able to physically eliminate Kornet, so instead sought to weaken his influence. But an assassination attempt on Plotnitsky in August 2017 placed the power struggle in stark relief.
At this point there were two options: find a modus vivendi, or kill the other. Either option had to be coordinated with the Kremlin. In mid-November, both Plotnitsky and Kornet went to Russia separately to seek support from their respective masters. They both returned to Luhansk on the same day, 16 November 2017.
A coup within a coup
On 20 November Plotnitsky went on the offensive, firing Kornet and accusing him of robbery as he had confiscated someone else's house. Kornet refused to surrender. Instead he retaliated by ordering the security forces, most of whom stayed loyal to him, to surround government buildings where Plotnitsky and his loyalists were staying. Spetsnaz without insignia assisted in the operation. Columns of military equipment with unidentified forces arrived from Russia via Krasnodon on Tuesday. The media started talking about the unification of the "DNR" and "LNR" with the new "capital" in Donetsk. By Wednesday, security forces had occupied the "prosecutor's office". It was clear by mid-week that Plotnitsky had lost control of the situation. On Thursday he showed up in Moscow.
It is now up to the Kremlin how this coup-in-a-coup will play out. Will they decide to merge the LNR and DNR? Will they enforce peace between Plotnitsky and Kornet? Or will they replace Plotnitsky in favour of Kornet or a new puppet acceptable to Moscow?
It is noteworthy that the Russian Federation clearly took Kornet’s side at first, providing him with military support. Comments from the Kremlin on this were not official, but through intermediaries. Official statements that came later were cautious. This is not surprising, as Russia may feel that it needs to keep Plotnitsky on the "throne" until next year's elections, in order to ensure a "legitimate" transfer of power thereafter.
The Kremlin’s Head of Social and Economic Cooperation with States, Mikhail Arutyunov, noted that "the events in Luhansk are an internal affair of the LNR, and no one from Luhansk asked the Kremlin for support." Bu then why did Plotnitsky and Kornet go to Russia, independently of each other, rather than in unison? The Kremlin is predictably dishonest on this question.
Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov has traditionally avoided commenting on the conflict, saying that Moscow is following the developments in Luhansk but does not comment due to the lack of detailed information. In other words, the Kremlin, having sent an additional military contingent to Luhansk, keeps the situation under control but tries to avoid a scenario that it would be uncomfortable with. At the same time, the Kremlin clearly does not like Plotnitsky’s ‘bad behaviour’, characterised by his lust for profit and power that exacerbated the internal power struggle. That is why, in practice, the Kremlin supports Kornet.
What options does Plotnitsky have in this situation? He has to wait to see what his masters in Moscow will tell him, and it remains to be seen what Surkov can do for him in the current context. One thing is clear: the Kremlin will do its utmost to ensure that reconfiguring power in the Donbas does not turn into bloody clashes. Moscow does not need a revolt, or the appearance of chaos.
Both Plotnitsky and the “President” of the Donetsk People’s Republic, Zakharchenko, may be de facto Kremlin puppets, but they are also signatories of the Minsk agreements. They passed the rite of initiation through fake elections. This gives them a reason to say that they were chosen by the people, giving the republics a veneer of legitimacy. If Moscow chooses to remove Plotnitsky, it will give the process a façade of decency.