On May 6, 2015, CERES welcomed Paul Quinn-Judge, current Program Director of Europe and Central Asia Programs at the International Crisis Group. Quinn-Judge spent the last few months travelling from Kiev to Donetsk and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine to analyze the fragile security situation in Ukraine’s current conflict. He focused his recent discussion on the nature of separatist leadership, their relationship to Russia, and the tenuous state of the ceasefire.
According to Quinn-Judge, the elites of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) are “accidental leaders.” Many were not hand-picked by the Kremlin, as some Western analysts have suggested, but instead stepped in to fill a power vacuum after the ouster of former president Viktor Yanukovych. One example is the current self-proclaimed Prime Minister of the DNR, Alexander Zakharchenko, who was a mine electrician before the war. The motivations for locals to fill the vacuum were varied, and the leadership of both the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) remains divided. The DNR and LNR also have little in the way of an overarching ideology. Separatist leaders work instead in a highly corrupt economic system, with networks of drug, arms and coal smuggling.
These separatists in East Ukraine have an unenthusiastic ally in Russia, says Quinn-Judge. Russia views the Donbass as dispensable and therefore strives to scale back its involvement in the region. He pointed to the role of Igor Strelkov as evidence of the improvised nature of Russia’s support. When Strelkov became too unwieldy and harmful to the separatist cause, Russia sidelined him.
Yet Quinn-Judge reported that Russian assistance is still generous and directed in times of crisis. This assistance was especially after the August 14, 2014 Battle of Ilovaisk, when Russian army regulars directly fought the Ukrainian army. Following that battle, Russia stepped up its military assistance dramatically.
The DNR and LNR are aware of their precarious position with Russia and need to keep Russia involved, both economically and militarily. Quinn-Judge explained that the separatist leadership has no incentive whatsoever in implementing the Minsk II agreement, because the only way to keep Russia involved is to keep the war raging.
For the DNR, the most galvanizing argument right now is that so much violence has already occurred. Separatist leaders repeat that too much blood has spilled to compromise now, and that narrative remains resonant among locals.
Meanwhile, Kiev is doing its own part to keep the East feeling isolated. President Petro Poroshenko is not travelling to the periphery or anywhere near the front. The new administration stays exclusively in and around Kiev, where the war feels very distant. The Ukrainian government does little for the civilian population in the East, in both rhetoric and practical aid.
Considering all of this insight, the future continues to look grim for the shaky ceasefire, as Russia continues its military and economic support of the LNR and DNR. A resumption of major hostilities is very likely, as the separatist leadership needs to keep Russia closely involved in their struggle.