There are growing signs that the leaders in Donbass are trying to build an identity that separates them from both Ukraine and Russia. What does this mean for the future of the conflict?
Although media attention on eastern Ukraine has fluctuated in the years since 2014, especially in Western media, fighting and daily provocations between the Russian-backed troops and separatists and the Ukrainian army have not stopped. From the moment Moscow began implementing the plan to enter eastern Ukraine, as well as the annexation of Crimea, it became clear that such an action would not be short-lived.
Commentators have linked the escalation since late autumn this year to Russia's military build-up in April. By the end of April 2021, the ceasefire agreement of the summer of 2020 had already collapsed to a large extent. The escalation gradually increased with periodic exchanges of fire along the line of contact, and Western forces, mainly Britain and the United States, began moving troops to Eastern Europe long before autumn.
It has become clear that diplomacy is limited in what it can achieve in Ukraine. It appears that eastern Ukraine is on the trajectory of joining the so-called frozen conflicts, which abound at the frontiers of today's Russian Federation. From Central Asia through the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, there are a number of historic time bombs waiting their turn. Let us not forget Transnistria, a Moscow-backed separatist enclave in Moldova, which continues to govern itself and poses a security threat to Ukraine and Moldova.
And while the diplomatic and military history of the conflict in eastern Ukraine is largely known to the general public, little is known about the reality in the occupied territories, which today are de facto governed by the self-proclaimed People's Republics in Donetsk and Luhansk. Fragmented data from the inside comes mainly through Ukrainian intelligence and separatist channels.
And here we must recall something that is missing from many analyses - the war in Ukraine's Donbass has never stopped, as it has not stopped in Syria or Karabakh; it is simply guided by other methods. Increasingly frequent news of captured spies from the Ukrainian or Russian side, the use of modern equipment such as drones and hybrid warfare tools, speak for themselves.
Chaos in Donbass
There are growing signs that the leaders in Donbass are trying to build an identity that separates them from both Ukraine and Russia. They see themselves as friendly with Moscow, but not puppets. This has led to several tensions not only inside Donetsk and Luhansk but also between them and the Russian establishment.
Attempts to create a Transnistrian-type model are a problem for both Kiev and Moscow. Even if Ukraine and Russia reach some kind of agreement, Donbass will stand as a patch, a region that will not feel like it’s a part of any one country. This is one of the long-term dangers of such a historical development, as we have seen since 2014 in Ukraine. The disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are encyclopaedic examples of a possible development if things remain the way they are. At the moment, the situation is a stalemate.
Identity is a huge problem in conflicts and frozen conflicts in general. The people who inhabit those regions experience a separate reality that lasts for years. In the case of Donbass, the population of Donetsk and Luhansk lived apart from the rest of Ukraine long before the separatists emerged. This local culture, which is often associated with Russia, serves as a tool for creating quasi-statehood. And while Ukraine's position on Donbass is very clear, as it is an area that seceded from its territory after a foreign invasion, the same cannot be said for Russia.
Tensions between separatist leaders and the Kremlin have erupted several times culminating in targeted attacks by Russian intelligence. During the years of fighting, Russia tried to create military structures in Donbass that mimicked the Russian army. For example, the 1st Corps and 2nd Corps in Donetsk and Luhansk are under the Southern Command of Russia. So far this Russian attempt has not been successful on the ground, as the separatist forces set their own pace and agenda, as well as internal battalion structures based on local principles and militias.
Internal struggles for supremacy are common, as are political assassinations of opponents. The security services of such separatist enclaves in the region are often archaic and brutal. Moscow needs stability in Donbass to secure its border and interests inside Eastern Ukraine, and is worried by Kremlin-backed commanders in Donbass who act against Moscow’s goals. Some have been assassinated in infighting that experts believe were provoked by Russia to get rid of the more visible separatist leaders causing problems. Any attempt by the Luhansk and Donetsk People's Republics to play separately from Russian intelligence will lead to a purge.
Instability is the future
There are a number of problems between the Donbass command and Russia. One of the issues is border control. The trafficking of weapons, drugs and other goods is so worrying that even the Russian media is paying attention and calling on the Kremlin to tighten control.
However, attempts to do so were blocked due to the unwillingness of the separatists to take it seriously. Donbass is an isolated area that depends on trafficking, among other methods, to survive. Commanders will not attack the smugglers’ channels as they bring profits. Donetsk has a whole underground world, which has created structures on both sides of the border between Ukraine and Russia, and these networks have reached Poland, Moldova, and even Western Europe.
The situation in Eastern Ukraine is important for Russia in several ways, so Moscow's policy until recently has been to defend the positions of the authorities in Donbass on behalf of the Kremlin. Yet several times since the beginning of the last escalation this year, the Russian Foreign Ministry has been trying to shift attention and responsibility to the leadership in Donbass. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, for instance, has directed the West to talk to Donbass about the front lines, not Russia. This was considered a sign that Russia may not bring in military aid in the event of an escalation between Ukraine and Donbass.
It has become apparent that the Kremlin can no longer rely on the unconditional loyalty of Donetsk and Luhansk, especially if Moscow decides to close its borders at some point. Donbass is a serious challenge with an uncertain future.
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