The Monday before last, the Donetsk opera house filled every single one of its 1,000 seats. They had come to see famed Russian baritone Iosif Kobzon, who separatists with the Donetsk People's Republic had invited to sing. Kobzon is a member of Russian parliament, a friend of President Vladimir Putin and also a recipient of Russia's highest civilian honor, the Order for Merit to the Fatherland. The 77-year-old, toupet-wearing singer, born in eastern Ukraine's Donbass region, said he wanted to demonstrate that "the defenders of New Russia cannot be forced to their knees."
Kobzon is no longer welcome in Latvia because of his outspoken Russian patriotism and he has also been declared persona non grata by Kiev. Still, that didn't stop him from traveling to Ukraine, across the rebel-controlled border, together with the choir and orchestra -- a group more than 100 strong -- belonging to the Russian Interior Ministry's armed forces. Russian border patrol officers waited in line to get their picture taken with him.
The event came one day afterUkrainian parliamentary elections -- a vote that was boycotted in Donetsk and Lugansk. In an additional act of protest, they refused to set their clocks back like the rest of Ukraine as daylight savings time ended.
'It's As If the USSR Has Returned'
On stage, Kobzon said he was pleased residents of Donetsk had now joined Moscow's time zone. Then he sang a list of old Soviet standbys. In the end, he sang the song, "I Love You, Russia," together with the rebel republic's prime minister. "It's as if the USSR has returned," one clearly moved older woman sighed.
There's some truth to it as well. The People's Republics have very close ties to Russia and can count on Moscow's backing. At the same time, though, the show of Russia folklore is also being used to mask the fact that the Kremlin has no idea how to proceed in the Donbass region. Each day, Vladimir Putin seeks to somehow demonstrate his resolve throughout the world. He sent his bombers out to patrol the Baltic Sea and announced Russia's claim to 1.2 million square kilometers (460,000 square miles) of the Arctic Sea. But when it comes toestablishing, and then perhaps annexing, "Novorossiya," progress has been slow. The term, which literally means "New Russia," was used by the Russian Empire of old to refer to the region north of the Black Sea, an area that encompasses much of present-day eastern Ukraine.
One Moscow political scientist suggested recently that the Ukrainian army plans to launch an offensive soon against Novorossiya, claiming Kiev badly needs coal from the Donetsk basin. Meanwhile, a Russian parliamentarian compared the situation following the Ukrainian election to that in Germany at the beginning of the 1930s, "when the fascists rose to power on a wave of nationalism and anti-communist sentiment."
Russian television has also been peddling the idea that radicals somehow prevailed in the Oct. 26 vote -- despite the fact that the opposite is true. The fact is that the right-wing extremist parties didn't even clear the five-percent hurdle necessary to gain seats in parliament.
There's no coalition and no government yet, but many Russians have already made up their minds that the People's Front of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is dead set on war. Although it appears President Petro Poroshenko may be resigned to the loss of the Donbass region, they say, Yatsenyuk and his supporters want to recapture the area.
Television stations in Moscow continued unperturbed last week with their venomous attacks on neighboring Ukraine. The spin was also designed to dispel any doubts about the legality of another election, the one separatists held on Sunday in which they confirmed separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko as the head of the Donetsk People's Republic.
The West had expected Russia to distance itself from the decision by the People's Republic to go it alone and hold an election. Back in May, when rebels sought to hold a vote on independence for their region, Putin appealed to the separatists to delay the action. Events proceeded differently this time around.
A 'Threat to the Peace Process'
Five days before the vote, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would recognize the election results, adding that the vote "will be important to legitimize the authorities" in the two people's republics. The move marks yet another snub of the West: Two months after the cease-fire agreement reached in Minsk, Moscow's actions are again escalating the Ukraine crisis.
Poroshenko spoke of a "threat to the peace process," and neither the United States nor the European Union have recognized the results. In a statement, the EU's new foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini of Italy said, "I consider today's 'presidential and parliamentary elections' in Donetsk and Lugansk 'People's Republics' a new obstacle on the path towards peace in Ukraine. The vote is illegal and illegitimate, and the European Union will not recognize it."
In Germany, Steffen Seibert, the government's chief spokesman, described the vote as "illegitimate" and said it violated the Ukrainian constitution as well as the Minsk agreements. He said the vote would further complicate efforts to resolve the Ukraine crisis. "It is even more incomprehensible that there are official Russian voices who are respecting or recognizing this election," he said. Seibert then called on Russia to ensure that the provisions of the Minsk Protocol are finally implemented.
With that, the brief period recently, which saw tension between the West and Moscow gradually easing, is over. Russia's recognition of Sunday's vote means that any talk of ending or rolling back sanctions is over for the time being.
Putin, for his part, is acting once again as though the government in Kiev is exclusively to blame. He says the Ukrainian government had promised in Minsk that it would hold local elections in November, but then broke the pledge by delaying them until December. Yet it was the separatists themselves who contradicted Putin. The prime minister of the Donetsk People's Republic claims that no date had been agreed to in Minsk and that the separatists would have held the vote anyway -- with or without Kiev's agreement
So is Putin once again saying one thing publicly while secretly driving the creation of an independent state in eastern Ukraine? It's not as simple as that.
Of course the Kremlin would prefer the separatists to adhere to the terms of the Minsk Protocol, says Moscow-based security expert Alexei Arbatov. The entire peace process and possible lifting of sanctions against Russia hinges on it. Still, he adds, Moscow can't tell leaders in Donbass to subordinate themselves to Kiev and its laws. "There wouldn't be anyone left if it did so because Kiev's troops would march in and Russia would then be left wondering why it went through the trouble of facing sanctions in the first place," Arbatov says.
That demonstrates that Novorossiya was not originally a Moscow-led project. The revolt in Donetsk was begun by toppled President Viktor Yanukovych and his followers. Putin later took advantage of the situation in order to foment a revolt against Kiev throughout the east, from Kharkov to Odessa. It didn't work though, and the Kremlin is now just barely keeping the Donetsk People's Republic on life-support, but it can't completely shut it off either.
Russia did meddle in preparations for the elections in Donetsk by ensuring that any real rivals to the acting prime minister were removed from the ballot. Otherwise, though, Moscow has restricted itself to largely symbolic acts. "Who knows what will become of Novorossiya," says one source inside the rebel's leadership circle.
The Russian media even remained silent about a dramatic plea for help from Igor Strelkov, the former "defense minister" of the Donetsk People's Republic. Just days ago, he posted an urgent video address on the Internet warning of the downfall of the People's Republic. "The numerically small, poorly armed and poorly managed militia units would be quickly annihilated without direct Russian assistance," he said, "and Novorossiya will cease to exist before it has even been born."
The appeal was likely intended as a means of applying pressure on Moscow. The situation in Donetsk and Lugansk is indeed critical, but the problem isn't a lack of support for the militia. It's the precarious social situation. People in the region are uncertain about how developments will unfold.
The Real Test for Rebels Will Come in Winter
Despite the cease-fire, isolated battles continued -- at the Donetsk Airport, for example, and at a railway hub in Debaltseve and in the southern part of the area. But the situation has remained largely calm in Donetsk itself.
Schools there reopened earlier this week despite teachers there not having been paid since July, when Kiev stopped transferring money. The only facilities in rebel republics still being funded by Kiev are daycare operations and hospitals. So far, separatist leaders have only paid teachers compensation of around €200 ($250). Pensions haven't been paid for an extended period either.
The state-owned companies in particular have no idea how they're going to survive. In the opera house where Iosif Kobzon performed, for example, only one-third of workers have been able to keep their positions. Three of the four directors have been fired and the fourth is apparently in Kiev. Those who still come to work live on humanitarian assistance and, lacking money, they come to work by foot. There is still plenty of food in Donetsk, but some 38 villages and towns in the surrounding area have no power, little water and few medications. Coal prices are also rising quickly.
Indeed, the real test for the people here is yet to come. If the blast furnaces, steel works and coke plants remain out of operation this winter, tens of thousands of people could lose their jobs. If that happens, it will make it harder for separatist leaders to continue to direct the collective discontent at Kiev given that they were the ones who cut ties with the rest of the country.
The government of the People's Republic has announced its plan to establish its own state bank as well as an academy of sciences. But the establishment of real state structures isn't really moving forward, particularly given the lack of economists among the leadership. Prime Minister Alexander Zakharchenko, who mostly makes appearances in combat fatigues, is considered to be a military man through and through.
In addition, the disputes between leaders in Donetsk and Lugansk are growing -- a development Moscow views with dismay. Their citizen militias are disintegrating into different groups that are each pursuing different agendas. Some are refusing to recognize the leaders of the People's Republics and others don't want to accept the terms of the Minsk Protocol. One of the biggest problems is the Cossacks, who control 80 percent of the Lugansk region and have now proclaimed their own state, the Lugansk Democratic Republic. The situation in Lugansk itself is especially complicated given that the city is partly under the control of criminal gangs.
Resistance is even stirring in Donetsk. Three weeks ago, a party calling itself "New Russia" held a protest in the city center and pilloried leaders of the separatist republic for agreements they had made with Kiev. Speakers at the demonstration said the cease-fire must be ended immediately and that attacks against Ukrainian positions should resume.
A short time later, assailants perpetrated an assassination attempt against New Russia's leader, who as recently as this spring had been the "people's governor" of Donetsk. Afterwards, the election staff of the separatist prime minister were attacked, allegedly by fighters answering to a commander based in the city of Horlivka some 50 kilometers away. The commander also refuses to recognize the government in Donetsk.
"It is difficult to find someone within the territories of the People's Republics with whom one can bargain," the Russian magazine Ogoniok wrote last week. And that goes to the heart of Putin's biggest problem. As long as there is no one in charge in Donetsk who can be taken seriously, it will be impossible for Kiev to take up talks with the breakaway regions. Nor will it be possible to establish peace.
The aim of elections in the Donbass region on Sunday had been to tackle this problem and to provide Zakharchenko with the appearance of at least a modicum of legitimacy. But in contrast to the independence referendum in May, very few even seemed interested in the vote in the days immediately leading up to it.
So few that the rebel election commission announced just before the poll that not only residents, but also "internationalists" from Russia could cast ballots -- the very people "who came here to defend Donbass freedom with weapons in their hands."