Disorder Spreads Among Russian-Backed Ukranian Rebels

New Eastern Europe, 20.7.2015.


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On Tuesday (July 14th) morning Yelena Filippova, secretary to the head of Ukraine’s rebel Democratic People’s Republic (DPR) of Donetsk, Alexander Zakharchenko, was badly injured when her car exploded as she drove to work. That afternoon, a prominent DPR politician was shot and wounded on one of the main streets of the city. With evening came fragmentary reports that a military building in central Donetsk had been blockaded by troops.

A senior military officer then told interviewers that the DPR defense ministry had been “abolished”. Throughout all this, Zakharchenko remained silent and invisible. So did his defense minister, Vladimir Kononov, and another power broker, Alexander Khodakovsky, secretary of the rebels’ national security council.

Comment, in the DPR media or from the authorities, has been vague and sparse. Following events in eastern Ukraine in the year since the creation of Moscow-sponsored separatist entities in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk has never been easy. The government is small, suspicious of Westerners and laconic in its comments. Access to the area is difficult, leaving outsiders mostly dependent on bloggers, social media and occasional phone calls with officials.

DPR officials told pro-rebel media that Tuesday’s car bomb attacks were political in nature, and then a senior DPR official, Denis Pushilin, vice-speaker of the People’s Council -(parliament) lashed out at what they described as mounting “provocations” by former heroes “of the DPR independence struggle”.

Pushilin also announced that the ranking DPR officer who had announced the defense ministry’s “abolition”, Sergei Petrovsky (better known by his radio call sign, “Grumpy”), was not qualified to make such claims; such allegations, he added, could only come from someone who was working for Ukrainian or other enemy intelligence. No one from the defense ministry has, however, commented.

Donetsk officials then stated the blockade of a military building was part of a criminal investigation by the Ministry of State Security. The flurry of claims and counter claims is strangely timed. Persistent though so far unconfirmed reports in local Donetsk media claim that Vladislav Surkov, President Putin’s point man on Ukraine, arrived in Donetsk on Tuesday. He does not come often, and one would have thought the DPR would be on its best behaviour.

Tuesday’s violence and confusion follow a month or two of mounting anxiety and tension in Ukraine’s separatist camp. Speculation is growing that Moscow has lost interest in Donetsk and Luhansk, but, rather than declaring peace and going home, that it wants to concentrate on a longer-term effort to subvert Ukraine politically.

Rumours that Zakharchenko will be replaced have been circulating for months. He also seems out of his depth in politics, and can swing wildly across the political spectrum, at times talking obediently of the need to implement the Minsk peace agreements, at others denouncing them and rejecting Moscow’s assertion that Donetsk and Luhansk are still really part of Ukraine.

Khodakovsky has been widely described as Zakharchenko’s most likely successor. A former commander of the pre-war Ukrainian counter-terror forces in Donetsk oblast, Khodakovsky has Russia’s trust, but is roundly disliked by many other military commanders, especially those who want a swift and decisive resumption of military activities.

So what do Tuesday’s events mean?

For a start they are a reminder that the self-declared government of Donetsk is a fragile and volatile mess. Though better organised than its junior separatist partner in Luhansk, it is unstable, fragmented and could one day simply implode. Its half dozen or so leaders and their factions are constantly jostling for power in struggles that have ended several times in the death of senior military figures.

Moscow has created and equipped a large rebel fighting force, well armed, but neither particularly well trained or disciplined. There is not even a reliable estimate of the separatists’ military strength: Ukraine claims they number 33,000, Donetsk many more. In fact, Russia has done little to create a working government structure in either Luhansk or Donetsk, which some see as a sign that it views the two separatist entities as short-term expedients.

There is just a chance, though, that the events of Tuesday night could be in part an indication that the Kremlin realises that they have created a big problem – for themselves as well as Ukraine. The latest issue of one of Moscow’s smaller military journals, Voenno-Promyshlenny Kur’er, known for its discussion of fashionable issues such as hybrid war, carried an article on the U.S. doctrine of “stabilising operations”. After a long discussion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the article veered off to the Donbas.

The Kur’er referred to the “endless stream” of contraband, much of it illegal weapons, that has been crossing the Ukrainian-Russian border since fighting started. It warned of the risk of increased criminality on both sides of the border. “We should admit that fighting in the Donbas is a seriously destabilising factor, which should be urgently nipped in the bud”, it said.

Stepping gently round the question of Russian military operations – after all the Kremlin denies any military engagement in eastern Ukraine – the article suggested that “covert participation by the Russian side would not only improve the humanitarian situation, but also facilitate a normal political atmosphere in the south east”, one that would thwart “attempts to divide up power, which lead to murders.”

If this article in fact reflects thinking within the Kremlin, rebel-held Donetsk may well see more turbulence and unusual night-time operations.