It has become customary for there to be a clash of interpretations when describing events in Eastern Ukraine. The ongoing conflict has been referred to as a civil war, a national liberation movement against the forced Ukrainization of language in the Russian region, and a display of separatism, since the DPR and LPR declared independence from Ukraine after holding referendums on the issue. There is also talk of an anti-terrorist operation…
Signs of a civil war are definitely in evidence. There are quite a few people in both the east and west of Ukraine whose opinions differ from those of the majority. Some of the Banderites that can be found in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics are helping government forces and militants from Pravy Sektor’s volunteer battalions. At the same time, there are quite a few from West Ukraine, the citadel of Russophobia, who are not just rejecting neo-Nazi ideology, but are actively fighting against its propagation, to the point of taking part in military operations alongside the Novorossiya army. In both the first and second instances, the line of opposition often divides members of the same family.
In central and southeastern Ukraine, which is untouched by the fighting, the situation is even more acute as events in Odessa and Kharkov have shown. It is common knowledge that it was not only Odessan neo-Nazis who were involved in burning people alive at the Odessa trade union building, but also football fanatics from Kharkov. Also, members of the Kharkov neo-Nazi group Patriot of Ukraine, one of the first acts of which was shooting at a peaceful demonstration of Kharkov People’s Republic supporters in the spring of 2014, make up the backbone of the notorious punitive battalion Azov.
* * *
The view that what is going on is a national liberation movement also has the right to exist. Historically, the inhabitants of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, as well as a number of their Ukrainian neighbours, have nothing to do with Ukraine as they were originally populated by the descendants of Don Cossacks. The territory from Ukraine’s eastern border right up to the Kalmius River on which Donetsk stands, meanwhile, was, up until the 1920s, part of the Don Host Lands, representatives of which took part in the Battle of Kulikovo under the banner of the Prince of Moscow, Dmitry Donskoy. That was also when they swore to defend the southern borders of Rus’.
In the mid-19th century, when Donbass began to emerge as an industrial centre in the Russian empire, the region was not so much populated by Little Russians as people from Central Russia, as well as immigrants from Southern and Central Europe – Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Germans… And the whole of the Soviet Union was involved in the restoration of Donbass after its liberation from the Nazis. Even in independent Ukraine, the region has always been considered the most un-Ukrainian, a region united by Russian language and Russian culture that categorically rejects forced Ukrainization and the glorification of Nazi collaborators from OUN-UPA.
So there is good reason to regard the protests of Southeast Ukraine and particularly of the two regions that have been able to stand up against the Ukrainian military with its own military forces, forces that are predominantly made up of local inhabitants, as a national liberation movement.
* * *
With regard to Donbass separatism, then these speculations are justified when it comes to the spring of 2014, when there was talk in Donetsk and Luhansk of severing all ties with the new Kiev regime and gaining independence following the uprising that had taken place in Kiev. After the defeat of the Ukrainian army at Debaltseve, however, DPR and LPR leaders gave serious thought to whether the Novorossiya army would stop at restoring control over the territories within the administrative borders of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts. Moreover, they were not thinking about a ‘march on Kiev’, but the full inclusion of Ukraine in Novorossiya.
The position evolved during the Minsk talks, and the idea of the DPR and LPR joining Ukraine under the terms of a confederation prevailed in Donetsk and Luhansk. Even earlier, the leaders of these two republics, Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, had promised they would not start military operations against forces sent from Kiev so long as Ukraine adhered to the Minsk agreements. Otherwise, they warned, offensives would resume to take the second largest city in Ukraine, Kharkov, after which an attack on Kiev would only be a matter of time.
Considering that Ukraine is still subjecting Donetsk, Luhansk, Gorlovka and other populated areas of Donbass to massive artillery shelling that should have been withdrawn from the front line back in February, there is little point talking about Kiev’s adherence to the Minsk protocol. Petro Poroshenko’s promise to retake Donetsk airport, meanwhile, shows he is gearing up for a new attack on Donbass. If that is what is going to happen, then it will unleash the Novorossiya army for a counterattack. The leaders of the DPR and LPR understand perfectly well that attempts to suppress opposition in Donbass with military force will continue no matter what.
* * *
The term ‘anti-terrorist operation’ can only be applied to the war in Eastern Ukraine if it is understood that it is not the rebels who are using terrorist methods but the government forces, and they are making no secret of the fact that their aim is to create an atmosphere of fear among the people of Donbass. This is the main feature of state terrorism and it is being achieved through a broad range of measures, from the artillery shelling of residential neighbourhoods to the torture, kidnap and execution of civilians.
There have been widely-publicised reports by international human rights organisations on the war crimes committed by militant neo-Nazis from Aidar and Azov battalions, while media outlets loyal to Kiev (the only ones in Ukraine owing to severe censorship) are full of reports such as «Terrorists restore railway», «Terrorists continue to repair tracks», and «Militants repair 22 hospitals, 3 children’s homes and 74 other facilities».
Once again, when it comes to the subject of an ‘anti-terrorist operation’, it is not referring to Ukraine’s punitive operation against the population of Donbass, but to the Novorossiya army’s fight against the Ukrainian military, which is busy destroying residential areas in the DPR and LPR and intimidating the civilian population.
* * *
The successes of the unrecognised Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in restoring the war-ravaged infrastructure compared to a complete lack of similar steps on the part of Kiev, the gradual development of a banking structure and public administration, and the resumption of welfare payments amid an economic and social blockade by Kiev suggests that in the long term, ‘Project Novorossiya’ has far more chance of success than ‘Project Ukraine’. Even today, when the DPR and LPR are still experiencing military pressure from Kiev. And if we consider that the deadline for the payment of external debt is in June, and Kiev has already admitted that repayments will be impossible, then we can expect that the prospects of crystallising a new Ukraine around Novorossiya will become even clearer.