Kremlin initiates “re-Ukranization” of pro-Russian militants

As the Ukrainian government offensive quickly gains ground in the Donbas, entering Luhansk and tightening the cordon around Donetsk, the Russian government has quietly re-shuffled the leadership of their proxies in Ukraine. Only a few weeks ago, following a prolonged purging of local leaders and the appointment of leaders from Russia, the Kremlin seemed hell-bent on consolidating their grip over fighters in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). Russian citizens with connections to the Russian security services had gradually pushed out locals from positions of power in the pro-Russian movement.   However, the recent resignations of several militant leaders has apparently reversed this trend, instituting a process of ‘re-Ukrainization’ within the Donbas militant ranks by bringing formerly obscure locals to positions of power.

Igor Girkin, a Muscovite and former military leader of the militants in Donetsk, resigned his post last week, following the examples of former DNR prime minister Alexander Borodai, and DNR military commander Igor Bezler. Girkin’s present whereabouts remain unknown; Russian media has reported that he suffered an injury and is taking time off to recuperate. Alexander Zakharchenko, a Donetsk native, has replaced Borodai as the DNR prime minister. In a similar fashion, Russian citizen and former LNR leader, Valery Bolotov, resigned from his position to be replaced by a local Ukrainian. These rapid changes in the leadership structure of the DNR and LNR are hardly random developments, and are almost certainly directed from Moscow for strategic purposes. Interpreting Kremlin motives is always a difficult task, but there are several possible motivations for the Russian government’s reversal.

For one, much criticism was directed at Russia for its barely concealed control of militant groups in eastern Ukraine. The preponderance of Russian citizens with ties to Russian security services, such as Igor Girkin, undermined the Kremlin’s strategy of plausible deniability in Ukraine. Western leadership pointed to the preponderance of Russians in the DNR and LNR as strong evidence of Russia’s meddling in Ukraine. Even for the European countries most skeptical of the sanctions policy against the Russia, the Russian Federation’s flaunting of its control over the Donbas militants was simply too much to bear. Moscow’s ‘re-Ukrainization’ of militant forces may be one of several strategies to shield Russia from more sanctions.

Another possible explanation, and one that is a bit more optimistic, is that Russia is looking for a cleaner exit from the conflict. Putin has personally invested far too much in eastern Ukraine to suffer a complete defeat. Without an outright invasion of eastern Ukraine, the Donbas militants are almost certainly headed for destruction. Even with significant material and personnel support from across the Russian border, the Ukrainian offensive continues to gain traction because of the sheer number of fighters that its military and volunteer battalions are able to amass.  If the pro-Russian militants are facing an imminent defeat then the Kremlin needs to simultaneously blame others for its failures while also avoiding total humiliation through a negotiated settlement. By replacing barely concealed Russian agents with less experienced locals, the Kremlin can point fingers at local Ukrainians for the insurgencies failures.

The Ukrainian government has always claimed that it will only negotiate with locals, not foreign interlopers, in eastern Ukraine. Given that the Russian government is unlikely to countenance a total defeat, the re-shuffling of militant leadership might open an opportunity for a negotiated settlement advantageous to the Ukrainian government, while still allowing Russia some reprieve. Kyiv has said that it is willing to meet some local demands by decentralizing power to the Ukrainian regions and cities without going so far as federalizing the country.

A summit in Minsk, where presidents Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko are meeting now for the first time since June, might serve as an important moment in de-escalation of the conflict. If President Putin does indeed want a resolution, then the roundtable in Minsk might serve as a pivotal moment in encouraging direct engagement between the Ukrainian government and Donbas locals. Such negotiations, although unsettling for many Ukrainians who view the Donbas militants as terrorists, are likely the only exit out of the conflict without provoking an even stronger response from Russia.

Of course, Russia’s ‘re-Ukrainization’ of the militants might turn out to be a ruse, another distracting move in the larger chessboard that is the conflict between Russia, Ukraine, and the West. Putin has made seemingly conciliatory gestures in the past, only to push back harder soon afterwards. The difference this time is that Ukraine is winning, a prospect that is pushing the situation toward drastic changes in the coming days and weeks. Something needs to give, and we can only hope that it is in favor of de-escalation rather than more open confrontation.

Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center