The overemphasis by many Western commentators on the divisions within Ukrainian society risks bringing into being the very “Yugoslav scenario” these authors ostensibly seek to avoid.
Driven by the bread-and-butter issues of economic development and corruption, the broad-based Euromaidan movement — which was initiated by a journalist of Afghan background, and which drew upon the support of Ukrainians of all religious and ethnic backgrounds — has brought into being a new civic Ukrainian identity. To the surprise of many longtime Ukraine observers, overwhelmingly Russian-speaking Dnipropetrovsk has become a bastion of patriotic sentiment, its Lenin Square renamed after the “Heroes of the Maidan”; while Odessa, the “non-Ukrainian” city whose very place in the country’s history and culture was until recently “very much in question,” saw its brief outbreak of civil unrest brought under control by a “fierce, grassroots” pro-Ukrainian movement — one that just happens to operate in the Russian language.
Differences among Ukrainian regions with regard to language use and geopolitical orientation preference remain, but they have never been remotely clear-cut. There have always been those who speak Ukrainian at home and yet push for closer ties with the Russian Federation, just as there have been those who speak only Russian at home but support an independent or European future for their country. And now, after the recent presidential election that expressed a broad national consensus for the pragmatic pro-European policies of Petro Poroshenko, the salience of these regional differences is diminishing.
Yet we see a recent worrying trend among Western commentators to emphasize not this remarkable unity, but quite the opposite. With an almost lurid focus on Ukraine’s “festering divisions” and seemingly imminent “unraveling,” these authors have urged policymakers not to support the newly inaugurated president’s campaign against the rebels, but instead to encourage Kyiv to pursue other options, such as the “negotiated settlement with [the] separatists” that Samuel Charap of IISS advocates, or as Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment even more radically suggests, the “radical step” of partition.
The picture painted above picture gets one important dimension wrong—that of eastern Ukraine, where the separatist movement is simply not representative of the local population—and leaves out another almost entirely: Russia and its role in the conflict.
Who Represents Eastern Ukraine?
The mid-April poll cited by Charap, commissioned by Dzerkalo Tyzhnya (Weekly Mirror) did indeed find that 70% of the population of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts considered the interim government in Kyiv to be “illegal,” but this survey also found that the same percentage (70%) of adult residents of southern and eastern Ukraine did not consider ousted leader Viktor Yanukovych to be the legitimate leader of the country. Meanwhile, even the other finding quoted in the op-ed — that 80% in Eastern Ukraine believed that the interim government “did not represent all of Ukraine” — is hardly the sign of total disenchantment with the country’s political system that Charap suggests, given that the same IFES study also revealed that 67% planned to vote in the 25 May presidential election. Indeed, the democratic election of Poroshenko and the forthcoming nomination of a new, more representative slate of ministers (together with the planned early parliamentary elections) ought to settle any claims that the national government in Kyiv is illegitimate.
It is thus difficult to support the conclusion that eastern Ukraine is a case in which, as Charap argues, “the civilian population has as much or more sympathy for the alleged terrorists than it does for the military doing battle with them,” as with the Chechnya war of the early 1990s or the Turkish campaign against the PKK . Even if one were to grant arguendo that anti-Kyiv sentiment could be found among a majority of the local population in the Donbas region, this would still not clarify matters. Right now, the relevant question is whether the armed separatist movement has enough indigenous support to merit the “good-faith attempt at a negotiated settlement” that Charap advocates.
In an article broadly sympathetic to Russian foreign policy concerns, CSIS scholar Andrew Kuchins nevertheless bluntly acknowledges that the “sham referenda” held in Donetsk and Luhansk on 11 May made “clear that there was inadequate support for the…group of thugs and sociopaths with no positive political program besides causing mayhem.” By contrast, a volunteer initiative, the “National Referendum” on support for the country’s territorial unity, organized in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts the week prior to the referenda, saw almost 200,000 participants but received virtually no attention beyond the Ukrainian media.
While one might understandably doubt how representative the findings of a poll organized by activists and conducted with ballots printed in the colors of the Ukrainian national flag, scientific opinion polling has found broadly similar numbers—around 70-72% in favor of continued unity. According to a Pew Research Center survey released in May, 18% of eastern Ukrainians want to allow regions to secede; similarly, a late April poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that 77% of the area’s residents do not support the actions of the armed separatist bands, 70% are opposed to separatism in general, and a majority believes that that Russia is illegally intervening in Ukrainian internal affairs.
The Missing Dimension: Russia
Surprisingly, the word “Russia” appears only once in Charap’s op-ed — and at that, only in the context of the first failed counterinsurgency campaign in Chechnya, which is ironic, given the prominence both of individual Chechens and the current Chechen government in the current conflict. While Rumer and his Carnegie colleague Andrew S. Weiss are correct to note in their Politico article that there is more to the separatist movement “than a mere Russian ploy,” it equally strains credibility to focus almost exclusively on the internal Ukrainian dimension when analyzing this movement.
Russian activities in eastern Ukraine have been less direct and less overt compared to the straightforward coup carried out in Crimea. Nonetheless, there is a great deal of hard evidence—confirmed in private conversations with former and current intelligence officials in Ukraine and elsewhere—that without such activities, the insurgency would not be taking place on its current scale. Separatist leaders argue that their weaponry has all been either looted from Ukrainian depots or bought on the open market within the country, which is doubtful. Erik Männik explains in a forthcoming ICDS report that their use of certain weapons systems — such as the RPG-26 grenade launcher produced only in Russia and in active use only in the armies of Russia, Jordan, and Kyrgyzstan, or the Polish-made Grom air-defense systems captured from Georgia by Russian forces in 2008 — belies such claims.
In general, cross-border flows have been, as Männik puts it, “too extensive either truly to be plausibly denied by the Russian side, or to have been organized privately.” In part, this is because of the relatively porous nature of the eastern border—evidenced by this column of “Cossacks” crossing into Ukraine through the Luhansk Oblast town of Antrasyt (Anthracite) and cited by the BBC as a “key hub for the traffic in troops and weapons, or the Chervonyi Partyzan and Dovzhanskyi customs stations, which the insurgents were able to seize this week from Ukrainian border guards, subsequently sending through a reported 15 truckloads of separatist fighters within a single night.
As a result of these cross-border flows, the Russian presence among the separatist fighters is considerable. Indeed, in the largest single battle to date in the conflict, in which the Ukrainian army regained control of Donetsk Airport between 26 and 27 May, an “overwhelming majority of those killed…were Russian citizens,” as evidenced by the return of over 30 dead by improvised refrigerator truck to the Russian border.
Further evidence of the numerical balance between local and Russian fighters can be found in a recent YouTube rant by Igor Girkin, the military commander of the Donetsk separatists, Moscow native and rumored Russian intelligence officer. Girkin complains about not being able to get enough locals—“not even 1,000 fighters in a region of 4.3 million people.” In this widely circulated video, Girkin went on to lament the “cowardice” of local men, whom he intended to “humiliate” by inviting local women to fight in their place.
It is accordingly not surprising that the separatists have relied so heavily on fighters from Russia itself. Some are “retired” servicemen, like Afghanistan and Chechnya paratrooper veteran Sergey Zhdanovich, killed in action against Ukrainian troops at Donetsk Airport on 26 May—and who shortly beforehand had been called up for “refresher courses” in the neighboring region of Rostov. But more infamous is the so-called Vostok (east) Battalion, bearing the name of the unit that fought on Moscow’s side in the second successful counterinsurgency campaign in its members’ home of Chechnya, and against the Georgian government in South Ossetia. While the unit features a new command structure and includes non-Chechens and other new volunteers, there are elements of continuity as well. As Mark Galeotti has noted, the Vostochniki “form the core of the battalion, [which] appears to be a hybrid ‘patriotic mercenary’ unit of volunteers happy for a fight, for a chance to get back with their comrades, and for pay”—some $100 [€74] per week, according to the New York Times.
Meanwhile, Chechen members of the battalion have freely admitted their identities to reporters in Donetsk. Some explained that they were volunteers—in keeping with Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov’s claim on his favored social media platform Instagram that any Chechens found fighting in eastern Ukraine were there of their own accord—while other members contended that Kadyrov in fact “gave the order…and so we came.” Either way, such a prominent Chechen presence within the insurgency underscores its non-indigenous nature—one that extends to the highest levels of its leadership. Describing himself as an “independent political consultant” by profession, Donetsk separatist republic prime minister Alexander Borodai, “makes no secret about being a Muscovite,” nor about his previous work on behalf of “oppressed” Russian-speakers—either in Crimea earlier this year or in Transnistria during its war with the Moldovan central government in the early 1990s.
Certainly, the separatist movement has attracted some level of local support. Political disenchantment and economic frustration in the Donbas region is real, as are the grievances against the Ukrainian government that result from them—grievances that have, when combined with the impact of the Russian media environment, pushed some local residents into making the ultimate sacrifice. Yet, the best means of responding to these grievances is to address the root cause: the lack of sorely-needed political and economic reform in the region.
The West, in cooperation with the new government in Kyiv, needs to support such reform while focusing on the principal current obstacle to making such reform possible: an unpopular armed insurgency inspired, supplied, and directed in large part by outsiders. Given that national unity is clearly favored by an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians—including those in the east of the country—Western policymakers should support Poroshenko’s two-track effort to defuse the conflict by means of offering amnesty or safe passage home to Russia to militants—while stepping up operations to defeat those who refuse to lay down their arms. If instead Western policymakers choose to believe the defeatist views of those who believe some form of partition is inevitable and pressure Poroshenko to make concessions to the separatists, Moscow and its allies will be able to, as Dmitri Trenin put it, “create facts on the ground”—making what is now an illusory division of Ukraine all too very real.