The Donbass War: Outbreak and Deadlock

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Date: Spring 2017
From: Demokratizatsiya(Vol. 25, Issue 2)
Publisher: George Washington University
Document Type: Report
Length: 12,283 words
Lexile Measure: 1520L

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Between 1997 and 2004, the Party of Regions (POR) became the dominant party in Eastern Ukraine by channeling social discontent to regionalist protests and grabbing the potentially pro-Communist vote. Yet, precisely because of this, the population of Eastern Ukraine lost an outlet for social discontent that it had had during the Communist dominance there in the 1990s. After the Euromaidan Revolution, aware that their position had been weakened by Yanukovych's flight, the POR leaders of Donets'k Oblast appeased the Novorussian movement to use it as a bargaining chip with the new Kyivan authorities. This appeasement gave the early Novorussian movement tremendous opportunity to consolidate itself. The Novorussian movement consolidated itself as the Donets'k and Luhans'k People's Republics, but Russia requested that these republics' leaders abandon their initial revolutionary targets and obey the Minsk Process if they wished Russia to help them.

It is understandable that, in the early stage of studying the Donbass conflict, researchers concentrated on critically analyzing Russia's logic of intervention and territorial revisionism, which resulted in a somewhat dismissive attitude to local factors. (1) These studies did not analyze the intentions and behaviors of the Novorussian activists (2) and leaders of the Donets'k and Luhans'k People's Republics (DPR and LPR), but rather regarded them as no more than Russia's subordinates. Moreover, these studies understand Russia's annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbass conflict as parts of a single continuum. Even if some existing accounts of the Ukrainian crisis agree that Donbass does not have as much strategic value as Crimea does for Russia and that it is much more costly for Russia to keep Donbass than Crimea, they attribute this contradiction to psychopathology (Russian President Vladimir Putin's irrational choice) or Putin's populism targeting Russia's domestic audience. These explanations cannot answer this simple question: If Putin manipulated the Novorussian movement from the beginning, why did Russia need to press the DPR to remove Pavel Gubarev, Boris Litvinov and other Communists, Aleksei Aleksandrov, Andrei Purgin, and Igor Strelkov, and other early leaders of the Novorussian movement, who were the founding fathers of the DPR, from the DPR's leading positions, with the result that they became the opposition to the present (2016) DRP leadership, or Putin himself? A probable explanation would seem that the Novorussian movement started independently of Putin, but that Putin requested that the DPR become obedient if it sought Russia's help. A merit of the existing studies is that they correctly note that the characteristics of Russia's intervention in the Donbass conflict changed drastically in July-August 2014, from the previous "art of limited war" (Freedman 2014) to a more typical intervention.

A more substantial problem is that the existing studies underestimate the level of social discontent, a background condition common to both the Euromaidan and the Novorussian movements. This study shows the unexpected importance of the traditional right-left axis in Donets'k politics between 2010 and 2016, ignorance of which led us to perceive the Novorussian movement as Putin's puppet. Bringing social discontent back into our analysis,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A492538899