In the elections that took place in the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics on November 2, 2014, the winner was the Russian presidential administration. This, and only this, was the political point of the voting. But the victory remains precarious and conditional.
From the very beginning of the revolt in south-eastern Ukraine the presidential administration in the Kremlin set out to establish its control over the processes that were unfolding. Its effort fared badly, since the spontaneous protest followed its own logic, while the leaders who had been placed in key positions with Moscow’s support either flew out of control – as with the former employee of the Federal Security Service Igor Strelkov, who as leader of the militias turned into a major headache for the Kremlin – or lost their posts, as happened to the Kremlin henchmen whom Strelkov in July drove out of Donetsk in disgrace.
The Kremlin faced a dual problem. On the one hand, it was essential to stop the movement developing in the direction of social revolution – rebel workers were variously seizing control of enterprises, or demanding nationalisation, or advancing anti-oligarchic and anti-capitalist slogans.
In both Lugansk and Donetsk the leaders of the republics were constantly declaring the need to set in place “elements of socialism”. In practice everything was restricted to general utterances, but in themselves these statements bore witness to a growing pressure from below, while the demands put forward in Donetsk were also finding clear support on the other side of the border.
On the other hand, it was necessary to restrain the radicals who were anxious to pursue the war with the Kiev government to a victorious end, overthrowing the existing Ukrainian authorities. For all the frictions that now exist between Moscow and Kiev, preserving the current regime in Ukraine is the Kremlin’s most important policy priority. The oligarchic regime of Petro Poroshenko is more or less understandable and predictable. Its fall would automatically set in train a cycle of far-reaching changes in both countries, putting in question the survival of the existing order in both Ukraine and Russia.
The Kremlin managed to bring the situation under control only toward the end of August, after Igor Strelkov had been removed from the military leadership in Donetsk. It is true that following Strelkov’s departure Aleksey Mozgovoy and a number of other field commanders with still more radical views moved to centre stage, but by that time Moscow had already devised methods for effectively influencing the processes under way. Either cutting or increasing supplies of foodstuffs, weapons and ammunition, and directing these supplies to certain sub-units or to others, the Russian administrators gradually established the configuration of forces they needed, blackmailing the dissatisfied and encouraging the loyal.
After supporting the offensive by the militias in late August, Moscow then forced them to halt a few kilometres from Mariupol, the capture of which would have threatened a sharp change in the strategic relationship of forces (the insurgents might have gained control of a large port that had not been damaged by the fighting, and that would have allowed them to carry on their own independent trade, bypassing Russian territory). After this, the militias were bound by the Minsk peace accords, which in effect foresaw the restoration of control by Kiev over the rebel territories.
A key element in this process, however, was to be the legitimation through elections of the new leadership in Donetsk and Lugansk. The acting prime ministers of Donetsk and Lugansk, Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, who had placed their signatures on the peace accords, had to be turned into legally elected heads of the republics, supported by loyal new members of the Supreme Soviets. To be completely sure of this outcome, the most capable and influential representatives both of the left and of the radicals were banned from running in the elections.
The methods employed were at times exceptionally crude. For example, after the party of Pavel Gubarev – whose popularity in Donetsk was at least as great as that of Zakharchenko – had been banished from the polls, an attempt was made on Gubarev’s life. Gubarev himself, after surviving through pure luck, finished up in a hospital bed in Russia. Even the relatively moderate speaker of the Donetsk parliament Boris Litvinov found that the Communist Party of Donetsk, which he had founded in accordance with all the rules, could not be registered for the elections.
In Lugansk the situation was somewhat better, considering that Aleksey Mozgovoy and other military leaders of the militias had threatened repeatedly to block the elections from taking place on the territory under their control. Ultimately, however, the situation ended in a compromise: Mozgovoy avoided a direct confrontation with the government, while the authorities in the Lugansk republic showed more restraint than in Donetsk. For leftists, a consolation prize was the adoption soon before the elections of a new coat of arms for the Lugansk Peoples Republic, conspicuously mimicking the Soviet symbol.
The electors, who turned out to vote in massive numbers, were not so much supporting the new leaders as the sovereignty of the young republics. As was to be expected in these circumstances, Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky won by substantial margins. Both republics now have leaderships that can no longer be replaced simply by the will of a meeting of field commanders, and which are prepared to implement, even if without great enthusiasm, the conditions of the Minsk accords as dictated by Moscow.
The Kremlin leadership, it might seem, is now able to celebrate a victory. But the situation, it turns out, is not so simple. In the Kremlin’s new strategy, established by the end of August 2014, the key element has been the reaching – at the cost of one-sided concessions – of a compromise with Kiev, and more importantly, with its Western patrons. The concessions were made, and were accepted readily by the other side, but no matching concessions followed. The West carried on with an aggressive propaganda campaign, interpreting even Moscow’s concessions as proof of belligerence, or at best, of treacherous intent. Russia’s failure in practice to observe the terms of its own sanctions against the European Union (the shelves of Russian shops remain laden with “forbidden” produce) has not only failed to bring about a corresponding softening in the West, but to the contrary, has been perceived as a sign of weakness. Meanwhile the elections in the DPR and LPR, which in terms of the political logic of the process were a key guarantee of the fulfilment of the Minsk accords, were declared by Kiev, Brussels and Washington to be neither more nor less than a step aimed at undermining these agreements.
The Ukrainian army began massing for a new offensive, expected to begin on the very day of the elections. Kiev’s forces had already been drawn up in position when the Kremlin leaders, understanding the extent of the danger, took the decision to resume the military shipments to Novorossiya that had been cut off after the truce was declared. When the militias managed to bring significant amounts of new equipment to the front line, the readiness of the Kiev politicians and military chiefs to renew the offensive quickly subsided. There was no massed attack on Donetsk either on November 2 or on the following day. The liberal press in Russia, however, uttered howls of outrage at the “new aggressive war” that Putin was supposedly about to launch.
The elections in the DPR and LPR did not solve, and could not have solved, a single one of the problems the republics face. This was not the reason why the polls were planned or conducted. But neither did they solve the problems of the Kremlin, which had left the situation ambiguous and hanging in mid-air – against the background, meanwhile, of growing political and social tension within Russia itself.
But the elections had the effect of dramatically intensifying the political demarcation within Novorossiya, prompting radical supporters of independence, supporters of a “liberation march on Kiev” and members of the left to unite in a common front. The fact that the agenda of this broad front was incompatible with Moscow’s policies in relation to Novorossiya was also obvious to the great majority of the people taking part in it.
Further developments in Novorossiya, however, will now be determined less by the vagaries of the political struggle in Donetsk or even in Kiev than by changes in the situation within Russia itself. The evolution of the economic crisis, the growth in the number and size of social protests, and also the mounting confusion of the ruling elite, which clearly has no functional plan of action, together provide ample basis for predicting that the political struggle will intensify and reach “Ukrainian” dimensions. This time, however, the resistance will unfold simultaneously on both sides of the border.
Translated by Renfrey Clarke