Most commentaries assume that the Moscow-backed secessionist “Donetsk Republic” arose in response to the Maidan at the end of last year and the beginning of this, but in fact, Sobkorr.ru reports, an online group promoting that idea appeared on Russian Vkontakte pages as early as 2008.
That pre-history is important for two reasons. On the one hand, it lends support to those who argue that Vladimir Putin began planning for his aggression in Ukraine at the time of his war against Georgia, calculating that the limited Western response to his actions there opened the way for a move against Ukraine.‘Donetsk Republic’ organization in 2010
And on the other, it highlights the need to monitor such groups elsewhere because such online communities may be an important way for the Russian security agencies to identify and recruit those they would like to use in the future and even to assess how much of an opportunity for Moscow any particular one presents.
The Sobkorr.ru site reports that in 2009, the online group claimed to have about 100 members, although it is far from clear how many of them were simply followers and how many were deeply committed. And it says, a survey by the group at that time found that at least some of them had arms.
According to the news portal, at that time, those taking part in the “Donetsk Republic” Vkontakte page were divided between those who wanted to create an autonomous republic within Ukraine and those who wanted to unite with Russia.
Even before the site went up, prosecutors in Donetsk in 2007 opened a criminal case against several pro-Donetsk activists charging that the latter were seeking to seize power and threaten the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Four of those charged were sentenced to jail terms of from two to five years.
The “Donetsk Republic” Internet group was active between 2008 and February 2010 when Viktor Yanukovych replaced Viktor Yushchenko as president of Ukraine. It then re-emerged in the winter of 2013 and now numbers 60,000 members. But the news portal stresses that some of those involved now were involved earlier as well, including Andrey Purgin who became “vice prime minister” of the self-proclaimed republic.
Yanukovych, while he was Ukrainian prime minister in 2006, had spoken out against the idea of a Donetsk Republic saying that “this movement will not be supported in any part of our state,” according to Sobkorr.ru.