In the Donbas Moscow replaced uniforms by suits

After the murder of DNR-leader Zakharchenko this summer, last weekend saw 'elections' in the two pseudo-states in the Donbass, that are run by Moscow. It came as no surprise that Russia's candidates were elected. Reactions in Ukraine and the West were predictable as well. Moscow resorts to 'manual control' to keep the region in its sphere of influence. For the moment there is no escape of the stalemate.

oekraine donbas pushilinPonzi scheme business man Denis Pushilin elected as new leader of People's Republic of Donetsk

by Mark Galeotti

Last week’s elections in the Donbas pseudo-states of the Donetsk (DNR) and Lugansk (LNR) People’s Republics have been roundly denounced in Kyiv and the West as nothing more than a sham. Illegitimate charades ‘carried out under Russian guns’, said Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. ‘Illegitimate processes [that] were an attempt by Moscow to institutionalise its Donbas proxies’, said the US State Department. A ‘sham’ was the EU verdict. It has also been made clear that these elections do not conform to the letter or the spirit of the Minsk Accords, which are meant to offer the roadmap to peace.

Of course, all that is true. There was never any question but that acting incumbents Denis Pushilin (DNR) and Leonid Pasechnik (LNR) were going to win their respective elections. There is no meaningful opposition, and the high (80%+) turnouts, insofar as they were true, were in part arranged by offering everything from discounted food to lottery tickets to those who voted.

However, it is not the full truth. To treat the DNR and LNR as if they were Moscow’s Russian sock-puppets is dramatically to oversimplify the nature of the conflict and of the relationships, and it is the kind of caricature which distorts policy and helps ensure that this wretched war seems to have no likely end in sight.

Imperial nations have always found their subaltern states annoyingly have minds of their own. The Soviet Union was to an extent played by the regime it was propping up in Afghanistan, even while it had a hundred thousand troops in the country. The USA’s control of the governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, even in times when it effectively occupied them, was always imperfect, to say the least. Moscow’s control over Chechnya – a country it bankrolls through the federal budget to the tune of up to 40 billion rubles (over half a billion euro) a year – is likewise no more than skin-deep, for all Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s fulsome statements of loyalty to Putin.

Manual control

Ever since it intervened in the Donbas, following on the heels of firebrands and fire-starters like [Muscovite] Igor Girkin (‘Strelkov’), Moscow has found itself constantly having to manage local politics and expectations and reassert its authority, despite the fact that it provides the essential funding and security backstop for the pseudo-states. In May 2014, the Vostok Battalion, a force originally assembled from Chechen and other North Caucasus veterans, was sent into Donetsk and seized the government headquarters as a Russian show of force. The battalion was then ‘Ukrainianised’ and its command passed to Alexander Khodakovsky, now an opposition figure. Later that year, as Moscow definitely turned its back on annexation and also the idea of creating an independent ‘Novorossiya,’ the Russians also made sure Strelkov was relieved of his position as DNR defence minister and forced to return to Moscow.

Since then, periodically the Russians have been forced to deal with commanders too independent-minded for their comfort. In particular, this has meant assassination, by gun and by bomb. Although it is often difficult to tell the difference between internecine feuds over political precedence and criminal business, and hits carried out by the Russians, many bear the hallmarks of such operations. Most recently, it was the murder of DNR prime minister Alexander Zakharchenko, killed by a bomb on 31 August, that triggered the current elections. The Russians may have killed him, but even if Zakharchenko’s rivals were behind it, the odds are slim that this would have been done without at least tacit approval from Moscow.

Putin famously disparages the need for constant ‘manual control’ at home – how much more tiresome to have to keep applying course corrections and change the helmsmen in what are notionally your proxy states? The fact of the matter is that the DNR and LNR do have politics of their own, as well as interests of their own. Much of this is driven simply by the spiteful rivalries, business intrigues and criminal ambitions of the key figures there, but nonetheless politics do exist.

Indeed, this was evident in the efforts made to secure a strong result for Pushilin (over and above the inevitably rigging). Unlike Pasechnik, he is, after all, hardly a popular figure in his region, with a background working in the MMM pyramid scheme and no military record. In particular, all kinds of shenanigans had to be used to keep more charismatic commanders off the ballot: Khodakovsky was prevented from crossing the Russian border to be able to register, and other serious challengers were excluded from the ballot by the tame electoral commission.

oekraine dnr lnr map picture euromaidan pressIllustration Euromaidan Press

Nonetheless, it was clearly important for Moscow to replace Zakharchenko with Pushilin, the uniform with the suit. Zakharchenko was always a commander, a warlord, more comfortable in the field than in government. Pushilin, by contrast, is an opportunist deal maker, and one who since 2014 also has been much closer to Vladislav Surkov, Moscow’s shadowy imperial prefect in the Donbas.

In other words, this is another one of those course corrections, a reaffirmation of Moscow’s authority over the pseudo-states which would not survive without Russian money and Russian guns, but which keep trying to assert their own interests. Pushilin and Pasechnik are deemed to be ‘sensible’ – biddable – and also ‘presentable.’ These are people Moscow would be willing to stand up as plausible negotiation partners, in a way that Zakharchenko in particular clearly was not.

Neither side wants progress

This does not mean that we can expect some meaningful peace talks soon. There is really no scope for them at present. US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said of the DNR and LNR that ‘these entities have no place within the Minsk agreements'. This is absolutely true, as they called for local elections held under Ukrainian law and OSCE supervision, not this state-managed process, that Strelkov from Moscow derided as an ‘imbecilic spectacle.’

oekraine donbass alexander khodakovskyCombattants in fatigues like Alexander Khodakovsky are being replaced by managers

But that is more a comment on the stillborn Minsk Accords, which never had any prospect of success, and yet which, by their very existence, prevent any more useful process from emerging. The tragedy is that neither Moscow or Kyiv want progress enough to take risks and accept political costs. Moscow regards the current political and economic costs of the war as irksome but bearable. Pulling out on anything less than its own terms would be a colossal humiliation for not just Russia but Putin himself. Given that presidential elections in 2019 will likely see the return of Yulia Timoshenko, the undead queen of Ukrainian politics, the Russians are hoping then they may be able to make some kind of deal.

As for Kyiv, a wounded and wallowing Poroshenko hardly has the political capital to do anything which looks like a concession to Moscow. Furthermore, the continued conflict provides him with a degree of political cover with an increasingly weary West. Considering that reintegrating the Donbas, with its shattered economy, angry population, and proliferation of battle-scarred and -hardened thugs with guns, would be a long, costly and difficult chore, draping himself in camouflage and throwing up his hands in helpless horror seem much easier options.

For the moment, as with pretty much every aspect of its foreign policies, Moscow is digging in, anticipating a long, hard geopolitical winter. Annexation, even formal recognition of the DNR and LNR, are off the table, but likewise the opportunity to swap control of the Donbas for what Moscow really wants – Ukraine to accept that it is part of Russia’s sphere of influence – seems implausible in the extreme.

Dead hand of the Minsk Accords

So it is a matter of making the status quo as palatable and stable as possible. Ensuring it has ‘sensible’ local interlocutors who know who’s boss. Encourage the dominance of the shadowy South Ossetian-registered holding company Vneshtorgservis, that exports coal but also provides connective tissue for Russia’s influence over the economy. Continue efforts to turn an array of local militias into coherent armed forces.

So the 11 November elections may have had no international legal weight, but when it comes down to it, how many divisions do the Minsk Accords have? With no prospect of progress, Russia is trying to tighten its grip on the DNR and LNR, at least to ensure they provide as little trouble as can be. But like all the previous efforts, this is going to be partial and temporary, and the ‘manual control’ will continue.

Meanwhile, the dead hand of the Minsk Accords ensures that neither Kyiv nor the West is willing to talk to the DNR and LNR direct (which does not endow legitimacy: governments talk to insurgents, terrorists and kidnappers, after all) and see if it is possible to exploit the potential tensions between disgruntled Russian-speaking Ukrainians and a Kremlin that simply uses them for its own ends. And so the people of the region – between two and three and a half million people – continue to be regarded as pawns by Moscow and collaborators by Kyiv.

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