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Rebels without a Cause: Russia’s Proxies in Eastern Ukraine


Russia and the separatists it backs in Ukraine’s east are no longer quite on the same page, especially since the Kremlin abandoned ideas of annexing the breakaway republics or recognising their independence. The rift gives the new Ukrainian president an opportunity for outreach to the east’s embattled population, including by relaxing the trade embargo.

What’s new? Russia’s gradual retreat from any plans to annex parts of eastern Ukraine has opened schisms between Moscow and its separatist proxies in the region.

Why does it matter? For Kyiv, these divides could create opportunities to restart dialogue with the people of the east. Such contacts, in turn, could help lay the groundwork for Ukraine’s unification.

What should be done? The rift between Moscow and its proxies should inform new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s policies. Kyiv should look to rebuild relations with the inhabitants of separatist-held areas, by easing the economic blockade on the east and increasing outreach to the population there.

The spring of 2019 marked five years since Russian-backed fighters seized government buildings in two eastern Ukrainian cities and proclaimed the independent Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (D/LPR). The ensuing conflict, which has claimed over 13,000 lives, continues to fester, with neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian government thus far willing to take decisive steps to end it. As Russia has distanced itself from either annexing the de facto republics, as it did with Crimea, or recognising their independence, many separatists have fallen out with the Kremlin. For its part, the wider population feels neglected by both Kyiv and Moscow. With a new president in office, Kyiv has an opportunity to define a policy that is informed by this reality, is in line with the 2014 and 2015 Minsk agreements that lay out a roadmap to end the conflict, and also meets Ukrainian and local security needs. This policy should prepare the ground for those areas’ reintegration into Ukraine and restore lines of communication to their inhabitants, including by easing the economic blockade that keeps them isolated and impoverished.

Ukraine and its Western supporters typically have responded to Russia’s incursion into eastern Ukraine, or Donbas, through policies and rhetoric that treat the conflict as one entirely between Kyiv and Moscow. Ukrainian leaders frequently adopt language that suggests eastern Ukraine’s fighters, political leaders and population are foreign and conflates all three with Russian forces. Neither Russia’s aggression nor its substantial control over the de facto republics’ leadership is in question. But to view Donbas solely as Russian-occupied territory is to miss important developments on the ground.

If, in 2014, Moscow’s aims in Donbas aligned with those of the rebels it backed, as the Kremlin supported the separatist project, since then, their respective aspirations have diverged. As Moscow lost its appetite for more Ukrainian territory, it shifted its calculus. In the near term, Russia is helping ensure the D/LPR’s hold on the territories they have gained, mainly to maintain leverage over Ukraine but also out of fear of reprisals were Ukrainian forces and allied militias to enter separatist-held areas. In the longer term, Russia aims to make the east’s reintegration into Ukraine less costly to the separatists and more advantageous to Moscow – that is, it wants a reintegrated Donbas with substantial autonomy or special status. To a large extent, the second Minsk agreement formalised these goals. While this new approach suited Moscow’s plans, it was not what the de facto leaders sought. Indeed, many of those who continue to fight against Ukrainian forces in Donbas still seek a Russian protectorate – even if Moscow is less than enthusiastic about the notion.

The ensuing conflict, which has claimed over 13,000 lives, continues to fester, with neither the Ukrainian nor the Russian government thus far willing to take decisive steps to end it. 

Moscow’s abandonment of plans to annex the territory or recognise its independence has left the separatist movement in the east splintered. Meanwhile, shifts in the D/LPR leadership have solidified Moscow’s control over those in charge, while also removing from power some who had enjoyed a measure of grassroots support. The result is three distinct groups in the east: a proxy leadership financially and politically dependent on Moscow but with no clear policy goals or local base of its own; ideological separatists whose hopes of joining Russia have been dashed; and the majority of the population, worn out by war and frustrated at the seeming indifference of both Kyiv and Moscow.

With a new government in Kyiv, this evolution could present opportunities. Informed by the reality that perspectives in the D/LPR are far from unified, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy could start rebuilding Kyiv’s relations with the war-torn region. He has good reason to do so. Only with improved ties can the Ukrainian leader hope to convince the people of these regions that Kyiv has their best interests at heart, an essential starting point to reintegrating those areas into the Ukrainian body politic. The growing divides among Moscow, the original separatists and Donbas’s population also mean that while a deal with the Kremlin is a prerequisite for peace in Donbas, in itself it may not be enough. Russia’s proxies in power in the D/LPR would probably have to agree to whatever Russia signed off on, but could face discontent from an already angry population, including from separatists who might hesitate to lay down arms. Besides, improved relations with the Donbas population could potentially strengthen Kyiv’s hand in negotiations with Moscow.

Building such ties will be hard, given the distrust and anger that exists both in the D/LPR at Kyiv and in Kyiv at the separatists and people living in areas they control. Nor does Kyiv have obvious interlocutors: the dependence of leaders of the de facto D/LPR governments on Moscow suggests that they can deliver little on their own.

But there are people in Donbas who command local respect, are frustrated with the status quo and are open to discussing the region’s future. Some are early supporters of separatism, now disillusioned. Others are community leaders who have emerged over the past five years. They include, importantly in this otherwise male-dominated environment, some women. Even if the Ukrainian government itself does not seek to engage directly, President Zelenskyy can take steps to rebuild trust, make contacts across front lines easier and lay the groundwork for future engagement. Easing the economic blockade would help, for example, as would facilitating social, economic and community contacts across the line of contact. Kyiv should also take steps to ensure local residents’ access to their pensions and to lift restrictions on local official use of the Russian language.

Resolving the Donbas conflict requires both Russia and Ukraine to carry out the Minsk agreements in full or to find another way forward. While they have in principle agreed on what needs to happen, in line with those accords, each has insisted that the other take the first step: Russia wants Ukraine to offer autonomy to the Donbas; Ukraine wants Russia to cease its military involvement and ensure that the forces it backs disarm. But even if Moscow and Kyiv concur on the initial moves, Ukraine faces an additional challenge. Reintegrating separatist-held areas will require Kyiv to persuade the people who live there that their future is Ukrainian. This process is unlikely to be rapid or smooth, but outreach is the place to start.

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