Moscow Meddling The Forgotten War in Eastern Ukraine

Russia is making little effort to disguise its leadership role in the self-proclaimed people's republics in eastern Ukraine. Putin needs the regions to blackmail Kiev.
Ukrainian soldiers at the front in Donetsk

Ukrainian soldiers at the front in Donetsk

Foto: MARKIIAN LYSEIKO / EPA-EFE / REX / Shutterstock

Does anyone still remember Donetsk? Europe, it seems, has long since forgotten the place. And yet there's still a war going on there -- one that has lasted longer than Hitler's campaign against the Soviet Union. Soldiers and civilians on both sides die there almost daily.

On Sunday, Donetsk was back in the headlines because of elections held in the self-proclaimed Peoples' Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. The European Union and the United States aren't recognizing the vote because it represents a violation of the Minsk agreement. Kiev has described it as a farce, saying the elections have nothing to do with the will of the people. And Russia? Moscow is once again trying to convey the impression that it nothing to do with the ballot.

But Sunday's election does in fact deserve attention, because this time they were less a provocation than the product of political negligence. It goes back to Aug. 31, the day of the assassination of Alexander Zakharchenko, the head of state and prime minister of the Donetsk People's Republic. When he and a handful of supporters entered a cafe that evening just around the corner from the government's headquarters, an explosive device went off above the entrance.

There is much to learn from what happened in the wake of the Donetsk assassination. First and foremost: Russia doesn't particularly care about honesty when it comes to its dealings with the people of the eastern Ukrainian separatist republics.

After the explosion, Moscow -- which always seems to view offense and the best form of defense -- immediately accused Kiev of murder. The elimination of Zakharchenko, the Russian Foreign Ministry said, meant that Ukraine was transforming the hostilities in the Donass region into a "bloody war." The head of Russian parliament, the Duma, said he viewed the ongoing peace negotiations as having ended in failure and that the assassination "resets the meaning of the Minsk agreements to zero." The same day, security forces in Donetsk reported they had arrested "Ukrainian saboteurs" responsible for the murder and that they would soon reveal the men behind the slaying. But that never happened. And soon, there was no longer any talk of the alleged saboteurs either. There is now broad consensus that Zakharchenko was either killed by Russian forces or by people from within his own camp.

Zakharchenko, who took power as prime minister of the Donetsk Republic in 2014 and later declared in an interview  with DER SPIEGEL that he wished for a "Russian spring" in Donetsk and Crimea, was considered to be obstinate and difficult to control. Insiders in Moscow say that for the months before his assassination, he had been under a kind of house arrest. In an hours-long meeting with a high-ranking Western diplomat, which would prove to be his last with a foreigner, Zakharchenko said he was soon planning to step down from his post. By that point, however, he no longer had things under control.

As with Zakharchenko, a number of high-ranking separatists and commanders have either been sidelined or toppled in recent years. At the end of last year, it was the turn of Igor Plotnisky, the leader of the neighboring Luhansk People's Republic. He wasn't killed, but he fled to Russia. Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky are both signatories to the 2015 Minsk Agreement, alongside François Hollande, Angela Merkel, Petro Poroshenko and Vladimir Putin. They were supposed to be guarantors of peace in eastern Ukraine.

Cleaning Up

It was a role they never lived up to. Instead, they did as they pleased and relied on criminal methods to secure their power. And all of it was accepted by Moscow in order to maintain their story that local representatives of the people governed in Donetsk and Luhansk. Then came the assassination. Even Putin's own people can't seriously believe in the idea of a Kiev-backed conspiracy. Particularly given what has happened since: an ongoing purge of the separatist leadership in Donetsk. The deputy head of govenment was arrested and people close to him left the republic "for security reasons." The minister for taxes and duties -- who was considered to be one of Zakharchenko's closest friends -- also disappeared.

A special commission is now examining "illegal" expropriations said to have been initiated by the minister. Among other things, he is said to have confiscated the property of a large Donetsk merchant market with armed fighters last year, embezzling 850 million rubles in the process. Even the markets and companies "nationalized" by Zakharchenko are now being returned to their rightful owners -- possibly even the Ukrainian supermarket chain that suddenly belonged to his wife. Specialists with Moscow's domestic intelligence service, the FSB, are investigating further cases of corruption, and armed separatist units have been placed under Russian control.

Taken together, the steps would seem to confirm longstanding claims made by Igor Girkin, the officer -- suspected of being a member of the GRU, Russia's military intelligence service -- who started the war in Donetsk in 2014. He would later become "defense minister" of the People's Republic of Donetsk. Girkin claims that "bandits" took power in both republics, and that the Donbass region is "simply getting robbed." Many of the recent murders may have been part of a brutal battle for influence and riches.

Girkin claims Moscow is to blame. He says Putin's Donbass respresentatives sucked the region dry and brought the most important specialists to Russia, thus doing serious damage to the economy. He claims Moscow never had the intention of turning the areas into independent countries and that they were just using them as levers in the dispute with Kiev.

That seems to be the case. Contrary to all its propaganda, Russia has never really done anything for the people living in the separatist areas. The economy is struggling badly, and in the mines that are still operating, miners only earn 15,000 rubles, about 200 euros, per month, not even a third of what miners in Russia earn. Electricity and water are frequently switched off, as is the mobile phone network.

Moscow's Direct Influence

Still, its not in Moscow's interest for the regions to implode completely. Which is why the assassination of Zakharchenko is not unwelcome to the Kremlin. Now, Moscow is pulling the strings in Donetsk directly -- and it isn't really even trying to hide its influence anymore.

On the night of Oct. 1, OSCE observers documented for the first time how a convoy of trucks carrying anti-aircraft guns crossed the border from Russia to the separatist region on a dirt road. After the assassination, important Donetsk decision-makers were also put on buses and driven to Rostov-on-Don in Russia, where representatives of the Moscow presidential administration informed them of the future course of the "People's Republic." Russian officials also chose Zakharchenko's successor, Denis Pushilin, who previously served as the head of the local parliament. He was brought to Moscow specifically for this purpose.

Upon his return, he announced increases in wages and pensions -- the usual means Russia uses to calm the people. Voters formally elected Pushilin on Sunday in a vote that has been described as a sham by the United States and the European Union. Popular figures who have their own ideas about the future of their "people's republics" were kept from running under spurious pretexts.

Pushilin has been installed to ensure that order returns to the separatist territory and that it functions at least halfway like an ordinary Russian constituent republic. This isn't because Russia cares about the welfare of the people there -- it's because eastern Ukraine remains an instrument Moscow can use to foment unrest in the remainder of the country. And also because the people in the east would likely lean back toward Ukraine if conditions became worse there than in the west over the long term. Even now, 63 percent of residents of the Donetsk Peoples' Republic support reintegrating their territory into Ukraine.


The east, in other words, is only a means to an end. And Russia is doing little to hide that fact. What, for example, does Ukraine's decision to break away from the Moscow Patriarchate and establish an independent Orthodox Church have to do with the Donbass? Nothing really. But the uproar in Moscow has been considerable, since it will result in Russia losing significant influence in Ukraine.

Respresentatives of the Moscow presidential administration have threatened that it would worsen negotiations over the return of the Donbass region if Kiev were to carry out the plan. But connecting the one issue with the other is tantamount to blackmail. Worse yet: This blackmail goes hand in hand with with calls by Russian state television for parishioners of churches in Ukraine that have thus far been under the control of Moscow, to rise up against Kiev -- essentially a call for civil war.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 46/2018 (November 10th, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.

Moscow issued the same appeal to eastern Ukraine after the 2014 Maidan uprising. And that's also how it played out in Crimea. Moscow wasn't interested in the people there, either. Russia only ever saw its own strategic interests. It needs Crimea as a military post against the West and the Donbass region to be able to blackmail the regime in Kiev. But can Putin succeed?

It's difficult to answer the question with a clear "no." The leadership in Ukraine still has no idea how to resolve the conflict. It is trying to gradually win back land in the east and now has moved almost as many banned heavy weapons to the front as the separatists. Politically, the country is paralyzed until next year's presidential election. And none of the candidates have a plan for the future. If one considers that large cities such as Odessa or Kharkiv continue to be predominantly pro-Russian, an ominous conclusion becomes unavoidable: Yet another major political shift in Ukraine cannot be ruled out. That is what Putin is counting on. And that is why he won't be budging anytime soon in Donbass.

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