When the ministers of foreign affairs of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia met in Berlin in the ‘Normandy format’ to discuss the ‘Donbas crisis’ (which, in reality, is war), I met someone who had been in Donbas for a long time and who had seen many things there. For certain reasons, I cannot give this person’s name. I will only note that I trust them. Of course, we have a subjective perception of events. But this subjectivity gives opportunities to see many things. The events which occurred shortly before and after the ministers’ meeting in the ‘Normandy format’ testified that Ukraine had given up certain positions. This does not mean some significant victory of Russia. However…
Why are we losing?
Are Russians fighting in Donbas?
It would seem the question is rhetoric. There is evidence of them being there. As of today, the structure of the ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ mercenaries is about as follows. 20% are locals. Mostly lumpen elements. De facto, the worst part of the so-called ‘rebellion.’
80% are people from Russia. However, the contingent is varied. We can make out three arbitrary groups. The first are current servicemen in Russia which are being sent there purposefully to fight without identification. They do not strive to lay their lives on the line for ‘Novorossiya.’ The morals of these people aren’t high. However, they are forced to carry out their command’s orders. They are the elite units of the ‘rebellion.’
The second group are those who mostly have military specialties and who had been recruited skillfully by the Russian military commissariats. They are offered to fight in Donbas for a certain amount of time. For this, they are promised certain subsidies – residence in a place they need, high salaries etc.
And, finally, the third group, the ‘Gastarbeiter.’ The latter include mostly so-called cossacks and Kadyrov’s men. They do not really want to join the front. They act mostly in ‘internal districts,’ establishing ‘order.’ However, they do not forget about themselves and skillfully take away property on location. Thanks mostly to such ‘rebels’ Donbas has turned into a zone of constant looting.
Are there any ideological fighters for ‘Novorossiya’? Yes. But they are few, the few who cannot see what is happening in reality.
How prepared to fight is this ‘rebellion’? Not really, to be honest. The level of professionalism should be better. The real professionals are mostly current Russian soldiers. Therefore, it is not surprising that the ‘rebellion’ is suffering severe losses. At least, these losses are bigger than those of our servicemen. The Russians never advertised their real losses. They are not doing it now either.
Russia’s human resource is significantly bigger than ours. It is not very difficult to find people here who are willing to fight for certain subsidies or for money. Especially in the current situation, when Russia has come to face numerous economic problems. Plus, the Russian army has a lot of old weaponry. So why not use it in Donbas?
Why are the locals keeping silent?
As of today, a real war is underway in Donbas. People’s homes and the infrastructure are being ruined. The people are not only frequently rid of social security, but they end up completely defenseless against the tortures inflicted upon them by the ‘rebellion.’ Some citizens of Ukraine ask why the people in Donbas are keeping silent, why they are not protesting, not demanding that the imported ‘liberators’ leave their turf. Some write off such ‘lack of intelligence’ in their behavior as the influence of Russian propaganda. It goes without saying that such influence is significant.
However, we shouldn’t overestimate this factor. The situation is much more complex. There is a specific political culture in Donbas. They need a leader. There are smaller leaders on location, which unwaveringly follow the orders of the main one. There are regular people who are not being taken into account, and who are forced to oblige the higher-ups to survive. So we have a vertical government. We also have unwritten rules which this land lives by. The essence of these rules is the Rule of Force. Which is why Donbas ‘favors the strong.’ Another characteristic of this culture is tribalism. Power is frequently passed down in families. If the father was a boss, then his place could be taken by his son or some other relative.
The war in Donbas did not change much. This government is not always there even on the territories controlled by Ukraine. Mostly, the offices are headed by the same people who not so long ago destabilized the situation, expressed their support of the ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR,’ even held ‘referendums.’ The businesses of local oligarchs continue to work in Donbas. What is more, Donbas is a sort of criminal-business ‘black hole’ now, which allows a huge amount of contraband to pass through and illegal deals to take place. All this under the protectorate of the local oligarchs and the officials tied to them. This ‘black hole’ encompasses not only the occupied territories, but some territories under the control of the Ukrainian government, too. We currently have a huge black market in Donbas, which involves a significant number of people.
It is clear that in this situation regular people have to heed the local bosses who are definitely no patriots of Ukraine. Kyiv turns a blind eye to this situation and does not will to change a single thing.
Overall, the situation in Donbas does not favor the Ukrainian government. Yes, we can claim that there are some pro-Ukrainian people here. But many of them had already left Donbas. Those who stayed ended up in the ‘underworld,’ they do not risk stating their positions – even on the territories controlled by the Ukrainian government. This control is very relative, in the end. The real Ukrainian government here is the army. And they do not count much on the locals.
What to do in this situation?
First and foremost, we have to change the vertical of power and do away with the oligarchs in Donetsk. But the Kyiv government does not want to do either of the two. Why is a different question. But we cannot do without radical changes in human resources and economics. If a real Ukrainian government is not formed in Donbas, if contraband continues to pass, if the underground economy continues to earn money, there is no hope of Donbas being Ukrainian.
Informational policies should be changed seriously as well. If Russia is leading a powerful informational war against was, in the best case scenario, we are holding an informational defense. We continue to pretend we have ‘freedom of speech,’ while our informational resources may be used against us. The informational activity of the Ukrainian army and law enforcement is quite primitive. The latter have a lot of ‘bomb’ information about the Russians’ involvement in the war in Donbas and their losses. In many cases, however, this information ‘sits’ within these institutions without being used. It could influence not only our own, but Russian audiences as well.
It is time for our government to understand that it is impossible to solve the ‘Donetsk problem’ by military means alone, even in combination with diplomacy. There should be will to make political and economic changes in this region. And changes in the sphere of informational policies.