What role does Russia play in the Donbas? Did the local population rise up against Kyiv in the name of Novorossiya?
Every day in the Donbas is a public holiday. The party never stops. But neither does the war. The public holidays – with masses of soldiers waving flags and marching behind leather-clad bikers who occasionally invite colleagues from other self-declared republics to join in – are for domestic consumption, to divert attention from the fighting and despair. With these festivities, the local authorities are trying to fill the everyday life that they themselves destroyed.
The war in the Donbas is in its third year now and still shows no sign of ending. Some 10,000 people are confirmed as having been killed and more than double that number wounded. The real number is probably much higher. The material destruction has been massive. Russia intervened in the Donbas with the aim of bringing Ukraine into Russia’s orbit after the Maidan revolution and President Viktor Yanukovych’s flight from the country.
But Moscow misread the Donbas. The local population did not rise up against Kyiv in the name of Novorossiya. The intervention did not lead to the Ukrainian government’s collapse. Instead, Russia ended up bogged down in the Donbas fighting a war without a clear exit strategy in sight. Russia now “owns” the Donbas. It continues to provide far-reaching military, political, and material support for its proxies. Without Moscow’s support, the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk simply would not exist.
Meet the separatists
The history of the People’s Republics did not begin with Russia’s military intervention in the spring of 2014, but much earlier. The first Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) tent, topped with the familiar black-blue-red tricolour flag, appeared in the central square of Donetsk in the early 2000s. Several newspapers and magazines appeared out of nowhere, but everyone knew they were funded by Moscow. At around the same time, new NGOs of unclear origin set up operations. These were run from Russia by the “International Eurasian Movement”, headed by chief ideologist Aleksandr Dugin.
The Donbas and Russia have always had close ties. Even Lenin emphasised the importance of the Donets Basin for the country. In the 1990s, these ties only became stronger even though there was no "Soviet people" any more. The Russian secret services effectively took over the Donbas in the 2000s, not least through the involvement of the Ukrainian diaspora in Moscow, many of whom were quite happy to collaborate with criminal circles and the Russian services. Regional mafia structures helped to plant Russian agents of influence in regional businesses and state structures. Some were sent to manage large companies owned by local oligarchs.
Others were sent to take up leadership positions in the regional and city offices of the Ministry of the Interior or the Prosecutor's Office. Many Russian military veterans decided to move to Ukraine in the early 2000s and set up private security firms, work out in private paramilitary sports clubs, and carry out propaganda work. They would recruit young men into seemingly innocent organisations, such as paintball clubs, where they could brainwash them while providing them with weapons training.
Russia in the Donbas
Today, Russia exercises political and administrative control over the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk on three levels. At the top of the pyramid is the chief “curator” of the entire DNR/LNR project: President Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov. He is also the Kremlin’s point man on Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The first is the official level. This is the level of the “national leaders”; in Donetsk’s case, Aleksandr Zakharchenko; and in the LNR, Igor Plotnitsky. These people control finance and trade flows in the region under tight instruction from Russia. Zakharchenko is a creature of the pro-Russian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, while Plotnitsky is beholden to Aleksandr Yefremov and Natalia Korolevskaya, who used to work for the pro-Russian Party of the Regions that Yanukovych used to lead.
Plotnitsky has control over the export of coal that is mined in legal and illegal mines and shipped to companies on Ukrainian-controlled territory. He largely trades in Russian humanitarian aid and petrol products that come from Russia. Zakharchenko has established control over most of the profitable companies in the city of Donetsk and the surrounding region. His fighters allegedly extort money from cafes, bars, and restaurants, and from the few companies that are still afloat. As the chief organiser of illicit flows of goods into the DNR, he also sells humanitarian aid from Russia in stores that he has taken over from Ukraine’s largest retailer - the ATB network.
Both "presidents" have their own military units for the purposes of personal protection. These units monitor and control the city’s businesses and make up the second level of the system established by Russia in the Donbas.
The “DNR/LNR forces” comprise of locals as well as Russian army units. Russian military personnel of all rank wear DNR/LNR insignia to hide their origin. Most of the "local" warlords have obediently joined the units, which operate under Russian military command and control. Given the short distances, Russia sends in troops and heavy weapons from bases in Russia to the frontline in a couple of hours. This happens under the cover of darkness, when international observers do not operate. Plotnitsky and Zakharchenko have no control over the armed forces, making them puppets that have a fairly high degree of freedom but are easily replaceable at any given moment in time.
Ukraine's security services know the identities of many of the Russian officers fighting in the Donbas against Ukraine. These officers of junior and middle rank are periodically rotated, while the senior command tends to stay on longer tours. It is the presence of Russian commanders that explains the military victories of the DNR and LNR forces. Ukrainians solders say that they can tell from the accuracy of the artillery whether a separatist or a Russian is manning the weapon. The first line tends to be local soldiers while the second line, where the heavy weapons are, tend to be Russian soldiers. Without the Russian soldiers, the DNR/LNR forces would be overrun by the Ukrainian military.
The concept of a "volunteer" in the Donbas is arbitrary. The mercenaries are the real volunteers – people with military experience, wanting to earn some extra money, and probably also taken in by the relentless propaganda. But we cannot call serving military personnel volunteers. The junior officers and non-commissioned officers of the Russian regular army now fighting in Ukraine simply do not have a choice. Moreover, exactly how voluntary can the presence of these high-ranking officers in an unrecognised republic really be? It is simply impossible to imagine a scenario in which a Russian general who fought in both Chechen wars would "of their own volition" suddenly decide to head an army corps in the DNR or LNR. If captured, however, the Russian solders have been instructed to say that they are merely volunteers.
The third level of the system is made up of Russian curators within local civil and military departments which appeared, in particular in Donetsk, back when Igor Girkin – one of the separatist leaders more commonly known as Strelkov – and his collaborators were still in Slavyansk. The function of curator is carried out by FSB agents and other military experts called upon by the state to take care of such sensitive issues. City officials are also in the Kremlin’s pocket, with many travelling to Moscow immediately after taking office to receive instructions. Russian curators have a common base in Donetsk and a branch in Luhansk called the “Centre for the Management of Reconstruction”. There is a direct link between this organisation and the Russian military and political leadership, which oversees the DNR and LNR.
Despite the ongoing crisis in the DNR and LNR, the number of registered members of political organisations such as the Donetsk People's Republic, Young Republic, or the Union of Donbas Youth keeps increasing. This is because employees of local companies are forced to sign up. They are offered a simple choice: either they apply to join a party, or they “resign” from their job. Losing your job in the DNR or LNR, especially if it is because of non-cooperation with the authorities, is such a dreadful thought that people prefer to run the risk of the party membership lists ending up in the hands of the Ukrainian secret services (as they probably do).
Life in stagnation
In the two Donbas republics, there is pretty much total unemployment, mass denunciations for collaborating with the other side or corruption (everyone denounces everyone else), and endemic poverty. With conditions as they are in the Donbas you could do worse than serve in the DNR/LNR armed forces as it guarantees a small but steady salary. All the more so since getting a job in the local civil service is almost impossible without personal connections. The people who work in the security and tax departments are for the most part the same people as before. This has provided some continuity of staff and has enabled the Russian curators to maintain some semblance of control. However, there are not enough professionals at all management levels. The DNR and LNR’s biggest problem is the lack of skilled people and the absence of any coherent management or reform strategy.
These days, there is a curfew in towns and cities. From 11pm to 5am no movement of people or of public and private transport is permitted without a special permit issued by the "authorised state bodies". If you break the curfew, you risk being taken down into the basement chambers of the security services. The law-enforcing bodies are the Ministry of the Interior and the local equivalent of the Soviet KGB – the MGB. The MGB is headed by Russian FSB officers. There is a reserve unit across the border in Rostov-on-Don. Quite often, Ministry of the Interior police will not answer emergency calls from the public, especially if they think they might meet resistance from paramilitary gangs. Employees of law enforcement agencies are heavily involved in confiscating people’s private property. However, you can sometimes recover your flat or house if you know the right people from the mafia underworld and are prepared to pay the ransom.
The main currency in circulation is the rouble, though it is still possible to use the hryvnia. Some businesses, such as Akhmetov’s DTEK, pay their employees in hryvnia. Pensions are paid in roubles, using such a bad exchange rate that people get half what they used to in hryvnia. But many are glad even of that. Some have managed to register themselves as IDPs in Ukraine and receive a pension there, too. The Rinat Akhmetov Foundation’s humanitarian aid is of great importance, much more so than that of the Russian state, which is largely sold to people, defying the point of aid in the first place. Despite this, a volunteer group called Responsible Citizens, whose head was jailed for a month and members were expelled from Donetsk, were allowed by the MGB to distribute humanitarian aid from Akhmetov and international NGOs, on the condition that they told beneficiaries it came from the local government. This was an offer they could not refuse.
The economic situation in the region is dire. There is no investment whatsoever, not even from Russia. The Donbas is now a place whose landscape is marked by old factories, dilapidated infrastructure, and the signs of war. The risk of conflict and the complete mess in the legislature makes it difficult to move forward. There are different laws in force in the two “republics”. In Donetsk, they are a mixture of Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian law. The LNR relies much more on Russian law. But anyway the whole thing is a fiction. There is no uniform legislative space and no prospect of one in the near future. The authorities are enriching themselves by dividing up companies between themselves. Sometimes literally. They are cutting up metal and sending it to Russia. Operations that are deemed to have good potential are being taken apart piece by piece and exported wholesale to Russia by the Russian secret services, along with their machinery, experts, and families.
The Donbas is being carved out from the inside. The most efficient and high-tech manufacturing is being taken away to Russia. The regional market is also being flooded with money, weapons, and produce from Russia. Both pro-Ukrainian locals and DNR supporters have noted the incredibly poor quality of food products from Russia.
The Donbas’s engineering plants are busy repairing damaged military equipment, but the mills, bakeries, fish, meat, and dairy factories are still more or less operational. The Donbas has its own small range of tobacco and spirits which make it to shops and stalls that are adorned with the most extraordinary adverts talking about the spirit of the "Russian world" and the mythological “people’s republics”. There are portraits of Putin and Zakharchenko, Shoigu and Plotnitsky everywhere.
The banking sector is virtually non-existent. Russia supplies the physical cash on a special train that also carries weapons, ammunition, and cartridges – products that the DNR and LNR cannot manufacture themselves. In the DNR, you can send money abroad via Russian banks with branches in bordering Russian cities.
From top to bottom, all the administrative, military, and civil structures in the two “republics” are subsidised. The few taxes that are collected would not pay 5 percent of what is needed.
The patchwork Russian-Ukrainian identity
The ethno-national composition of the Donbas has never been uniform, but nationality has never been the deciding factor of a person's identity here. According to the 2001 census – the first and only one carried out since the fall of the Soviet Union – in the Donetsk region 56.9 percent identified as Ukrainian and 38.2 percent as Russian. However, 74.9 percent of locals considered their native language to be Russian.
According to Deutsche Welle polls conducted in June 2013, 59 percent supported Ukraine joining the EU, and 24 percent were against it. After the European football championships were held in Ukraine (including Donetsk) and Poland in 2012, the idea of European integration started to gain wider currency. An International Republican Institute poll carried out in 2016 shows that in the east of Ukraine (except the occupied territories), supporters of the EU and the European Eurasian Union were almost equally split – 31 percent to 30 percent.
Now, every individual chooses their own nationality and language of education. There is almost no uniformity. Some go to Ukraine proper to get a Ukrainian passport, others just buy a Russian one. Some have a temporary certificate, not wanting to get either a Donetsk “passport” or a Ukrainian one, but there are some who have a DNR passport. It is not difficult to get one, but it remains to be seen quite what you can do with it and where you can go. The same holds true for other forms of civil documentation. People living in the People’s Republics tend to go to the Ukrainian controlled side to receive birth certificates, marriage certificates, and so on since they know that the ones issued by the DNR and LNR are useless.
However, regardless of their nationality and passport, everyone in the DNR and LNR watches Russian state TV. From morning to evening, Russian journalists colourfully set out who is to blame for all life’s problems and who is in a position to save the Russian-speaking world. They lie shamelessly, brainwash continually, and know what buttons to press.
It is impossible to overestimate Russia's cultural, political, and military influence in the Donbas. Almost none of the supporters of the "Russian world" wanted war or the creation of the DNR, but they are not against becoming a part of the Russian Federation. The Russian language, the common Soviet past, the Orthodox religion are a small, yet important, set of values for supporters of the “Russian Spring” and those who voted in favour of DNR and LNR independence.
Almost all of them now realise that they made a mistake, though they will not admit it. They no longer believe the rhetoric of the DNR authorities, seeing them as incapable of doing anything useful beyond filling their own bank accounts. However, they do not accept the Kyiv authorities either, and in particular their attitude towards those who live on the other side of the frontline.
But for many people, especially the older generation, Russia is still a shining light on the horizon. For the most part, they do not understand what Russia is like now. Some of them have never been there. But many remember trips to Moscow in Soviet times as people from the provinces travelled to the “golden-domed” city for food and goods, or just on trips with their families. To visit Red Square and see Lenin’s tomb was a pilgrimage of fundamental importance for hundreds of thousands of Soviet people.
It is not clear how far Moscow plans to integrate the region into its economic or educational spheres. But things are slowly moving in this direction. In schools, lessons are conducted in Russian, Russian school textbooks are used everywhere, and Patriarch Kirill – the chief Orthodox Christian bishop in Russia – is seen as Vladimir Putin’s top aide.
Russian Orthodox Christianity was always the main religion here, so the cultural-religious ties between the Donbas and Russia have naturally continued. However, a large part of the church hierarchy in the Donbas does not support the pro-Russian regime. Most Orthodox priests in Ukraine are very sceptical about Patriarch Kirill. People believe that Russian Orthodoxy is more of a social affair than Christianity in the strict sense of the word.
Back to the future
People in the Donbas are desperate for some form of certainty. Life in the unrecognised republics is tiring. Shattered hopes and dreams are forcing people to rethink their positions on Ukraine and Russia. They wanted to join Russia, but instead ended up joining the Soviet Union. And a form of the USSR that never existed. It is a place where portraits of Stalin on the main street happily coexist with the protection of Orthodox values which, in turn, fit perfectly in the "Eurasian civilisational project" in which there is no place for love and forgiveness in the Christian spirit.
Everything is very vague and undefined. However, Russian propaganda is so effective that locals firmly believe Kyiv is full of fascists, that the US was behind Maidan, that the war in Abkhazia was just, that Stalin was right to expel the Crimean Tatars, and that the EU is bent on destroying traditional family values. And standing behind this convoluted plot are, of course, either the Rothschilds or aliens. But then again, every day is a public holiday, so what do we have to complain about?
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.