What is the nature of the “Ukraine crisis”?

New evidence throws light on the origins of the Russian-Ukrainian war. 

Andreas Umland
15 November 2016

February 2015: Russia-backed separatists ride into Debaltseve, Ukraine. (c) Vadim Ghirda AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Over the past few weeks, Russia-watchers have been intrigued by a leak of emails sent and received by the office of Vladislav Surkov, an official adviser to president Putin.

The Surkov Leaks, which have renewed discussion around Moscow’s involvement in the pseudo-civil war and emergence of “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine, confirm once more that the armed conflict in the Donbas is, to large extent, a Kremlin project. The conflict is merely one part of Moscow’s broader policy of undermining the Ukrainian state after the victory of the Euromaidan revolution in February 2014.

Yet while the Surkov Leaks provide important additional documentation, they do not alter, in principle, our understanding of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The leaks confirm and support earlier mainstream interpretations of the armed conflict in the Donbas as a covert Russian invasion of Ukraine. Two months earlier, another leak did, however, provide evidence that has (or should have) questioned earlier interpretations of the genesis of the tensions in eastern and southern Ukraine. These leaks deal with the prehistory of the events that eventually led to the start of the still ongoing low-intensity war in the Donets Basin, in April 2014.

In August 2016, Ukraine’s General Prosecutor published a video tape containing illustrated and annotated audio recordings of a number of conversations between Sergey Glazyev, a Russian presidential advisor (an official governmental position), and several Russian as well as Ukrainian pro-Kremlin activists located or living in southern and eastern Ukraine. These dialogues were recorded in late February and early March 2014. The recordings vividly illustrate Moscow’s covert support for anti-governmental protests in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking regions following the victory of the Revolution of Dignity on 21 February 2014.

The tapes reveal the involvement either of the Russian state itself, or of a formally non-governmental Russian group directed from the Kremlin in the initiation, coordination and financing of separatist meetings, demonstrations, pickets and similar actions on Crimea as well as in various regional capitals in Ukraine’s eastern and southern parts immediately after the victory of the 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity.

Putin’s advisor Glazyev, for instance, on 1 March 2014 informs his interlocutor Anatoliy Petrovich in the southeast Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia:

“I have an order to raise everybody, to raise the people. People should gather on the square [of Zaporizhzhia] and demand to turn to Russia for help against the Banderites. Specially trained people should throw out the Banderites from the regional council’s building. Then they should arrange a meeting of the regional council, create a regional executive committee, give it executive power and subordinate the police to this new executive. I have direct orders from the leadership [of Russia] – to raise the people in Ukraine wherever we can. That means we have to bring people to the streets, as we did in Kharkiv – according to this example! And as soon as possible! Because, you see, President [Putin] has already signed a [presidential] decree. The operation has already began, there is information that the troops are already moving out. What are they waiting for? We can not do all this with [military] force. We use force only to support the people – nothing more! But if there are no people, what support can there be?”

While the tapes became a hot topic in Ukraine’s mass media and caused an angry reaction in Moscow, they have been ignored by most western newspapers and think-tanks. The recordings were, if at all, mentioned only in passing  by European and American journalists and researchers in reports about Ukraine  at that time. Their Russian contents were, to be sure, quickly translated into English and annotated with supplementary information by the Ukrainian analytical website UA Position. Yet, so far, only a few observers (for instance, Radio Liberty’s Brian Whitmore) have made these tapes a focus of their analyses of the Kremlin’s operations against Ukraine.

This may have been partly due to the fact that Ukraine’s General Prosecutor office has still not published the raw recordings. Some suspect that the published records were tampered with, or/and that they do not reveal the full story of the events they are supposed to illustrate. It is, however, unlikely that these recordings are mere fakes. The published conversations are interactive and made by interlocutors whose voices can be easily ascribed to individuals on the basis of their audible statements recorded in video material published elsewhere. The Kremlin would have already published proof of any manipulation had it taken place. Nor has there been any other public questioning of the genuineness of these audio documents.

An English-language transcript of the Glazyev Tapes.

The continuing lack of international attention for the Glazyev Tapes was and is surprising. That is because the Glazyev Tapes are important enough to modify our understanding of the origins and nature of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. The most notable aspect of the Glazyev Tapes is arguably not their contents. What is remarkable about these conversations is the time of their recording (February-March 2014), that is, several weeks before the post-Euromaidan civil conflict in eastern Ukraine turned into a pseudo-civil war in the Donbas.

Prior to the publication of the Glazyev Tapes, the prevalent interpretation of the roots of the Russian-Ukrainian War was that Moscow intervened into an already escalating confrontation between pro-Kyiv and pro-Moscow Ukrainian citizens in Donbas first with paramilitary and later regular military forces. To be sure, few serious observers ever doubted the Kremlin’s crucial role in turning these initially unarmed (though often already violent) confrontations on the streets of the east and south Ukrainian cities into a putatively civil war in the Donets Basin, in spring 2014. Yet, among Ukrainian and foreign observers of these events, there was still a debate about the character of the pro-Moscow protest actions that had preceded, and supposedly led to, the escalation of armed violence.

Even many “Russocentric” interpreters of the confrontation in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas conceded that the cultural-regional differences between Ukraine’s Russophone east and south, on the one side, and Ukrainophone west and bilingual centre were the predominant cause of the tensions in such Russian-speaking cities as Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk or Odessa, after Euromaidan. The story went that the post-revolutionary anti-Kyiv grassroots activities (street protest, pickets, storming of official buildings etc.) of several ten thousand Russian-speakers in Ukraine led to their confrontation with the new pro-western and nationally oriented leadership that came to power as a result of the Revolution of Dignity. The local tensions, so it seemed, led to a conflict in the Donbas that the Kremlin eventually felt — depending on your interpretation — obliged, forced or convenient enough to intervene in.

The genealogy of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict appears, after the publication of the Glazyev Tapes, somewhat different than before

To be sure, the evidence contained in the Glazyev Tapes does not nullify Ukrainian interregional tension (not a particularly unique characteristic of Ukraine, in any case) as a significant cause for the emergence of the Donbass conflict. In fact, the conversations published do not concern the Donbas, but other regions in eastern and southern Ukraine. One can only infer from these recordings that similar Russian state-sponsored mingling was happening in the Donbas too, and that the now documented involvement of the Kremlin in certain locations is merely the tip of the iceberg.

The Glazyev Tapes could, in fact, be seen as strengthening the argument about the relevance of regional differences within Russian-speaking Ukraine – an old theme in post-Soviet sub-national studies. They indicate that Moscow was engaged in a broader attempt to destabilise the Russophone regions of Ukraine, but was only able to instigate a pseudo-civil war in the Donets Basin. Russia’s informal influence was, however, not strong enough to do so or/and the Ukrainian state was stronger in other Russian-speaking regions in which Glazyev with his local partners, as the tapes proof, actively supported secessionist tendencies. The leak could be thus read as evidence for earlier interpretations emphasising the crucial role of specifically regional factors in Ukraine’s break-up.

Yet, the time of the recording and documented depth of Glazyev’s involvement in these events also support a different narrative. They imply that Russia was by no means merely an additional third actor or late intervening factor when the protests turned massively violent and led to the first armed skirmishes, in April 2014. Rather, the Glazyev Tapes indicate that Moscow had been already entangled in the still largely unarmed protests across eastern and southern Ukraine immediately following the victory of the Euromaidan, in late February and early March 2014.


March 2014: a Russian flag flies above the entrance to Crimea's regional parliament building during the Crimean "referendum" in Simferopol. (c) Vadim Ghirda AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The Kremlin had been behind at least some separatist activities several weeks before the actual war started. Yet, Moscow’s clandestine pre-war activities were remarkably unsuccessful in mainland Ukraine, in late February and early March 2014. Surprisingly, the distinctly weak Ukrainian state — just shaken by a full-scale revolution — was still strong enough to resist Russia’s clandestine non-military assault on its sovereignty and integrity, at that point. The only partial exclusion, in late February 2014, was Crimea where, as we already know, Russian special forces played a crucial role in starting the secession process.

The genealogy of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict appears, after the publication of the Glazyev Tapes, somewhat different than before. It looks now as if Moscow or, at least, a part of the Russian leadership was, in late February 2014, involved in a comprehensive attempt to annex not only Crimea, but also large chunks of mainland southern and eastern Ukraine. In order to do so, pro-Russian local activists had first to produce some legal or/and political pretext for an official Russian military intervention. The employment of Russian troops abroad had just been made (domestically) legal by a special Federation Council resolution adopted on 1 March 2014 granting the president the right “to use Russian military forces in Ukraine to improve public and political situation in that country" (a right revoked in June 2014).

Yet for the Russian public and international audiences, the Russian leadership still needed a weighty justification for such expansionism coming from inside Ukraine. To this purpose, an official document (at least in appearance) or particularly grave political event would first have to appear in the respective Ukrainian region up for invasion, and to provide some basic fodder for the Kremlin propaganda machine. Such an initial move in this or that Ukrainian region could have then been spun by Russian media as providing sufficient legitimacy for preparing and conducting an armed “humanitarian” intervention by Moscow on Ukrainian territory — and to finally annex the occupied areas either formally or informally.

The Glazyev Tapes now illustrate that the entire east Ukrainian uprising was from its start not as popular a phenomenon as it earlier seemed

This scenario materialised more or less in Crimea. Glazyev’s conversations with the Russian imperialist politician Konstantin Zatulin and Crimean pro-Russian separatist Sergey Aksyonov illustrate some of the particulars. But even in Simferopol, the crucial session of the autonomous republic’s parliament that initiated Crimea’s secession had to be assembled and made to vote with the help of Moscow’s paramilitary forces, as one of their members, notorious Igor Girkin (“Strelkov”), professed in a later interview.

Something similar, as the Glazyev Tapes indicate, was also tried or, at least, intended in Kharkiv, Odessa and other cities. But the hoped-for Ukrainian calls for Russian help did not come about as planned, during the first few weeks after the Euromaidan. The following “civil war” that only began more than a month later in the Donets Basin was seemingly Moscow’s Plan B. It may have been an altogether improvised scenario that spontaneously grew out of the initially unarmed, yet abortive subversion of the Ukrainian state by Russia-directed activists, in late February and early March 2014. More revelations and research will be necessary to fully verify, further specify and properly document this course of events.

Still, the Glazyev Tapes now provide first direct evidence for what earlier empirical research (by, among others, Nikolay Mitrokhin, Vyacheslav Likhachev and Anton Shekhovtsov who focused on the Russian far right’s role) had already indicated. At least one important circle within the Kremlin was already actively fanning the east Ukrainian social conflict several weeks before it was replaced by a covert Russian paramilitary invasion. Whereas Mitrokhin, Likhachev and Shekhovtsov emphasised the ultra-nationalist ideological motivations of the Russian or Russia-supported activists in eastern Ukraine, the Glazyev Tapes illustrate the financial remuneration that the Kremlin or a Kremlin-directed group provided to the pro-Moscow “anti-fascists”.

To be sure, one could have suspected something like this already before the Glazyev Tapes were published. There had been two obvious contradictions in the “Ukrainocentric” narrative of the origins of the conflict in the Donbass. First, comparative regional studies have emphasised some peculiarly “uncivil” traits of society in the Ukrainian Donbass. Ukraine’s easternmost population has been characterised as relatively more pro-Soviet and patriarchal than people in other Ukrainian regions. After Ukraine’s assumption of independence in 1991, the Donbas’s crucial social, political and economic structures were, moreover, largely captured by the semi-criminal Donetsk clan and its political wing, the Party of Regions. Against this background, it was, in spring 2014, remarkable how well and sudden the most Soviet-nostalgic sections of the Donbas’s society managed to seemingly self-organize a large anti-governmental protest without much (official) help from the dominant regional Donetsk clan. Even before the Glazyev Tapes appeared, this story — implicit in the civil war narrative of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict — looked, at least, incomplete.

Second, while prior to the conflict the Donbas was characterised by certain socio-cultural pathologies, it still had a functioning and structured social life. Like any other modern populated region in the world, the Donets Basin had, before Russia’s covert intervention, a multitude of established and interlinked political, industrial, educational, cultural and other institutions with formal heads and informal leaders known to all or large parts of the area’s citizenry.

When the Donbas “uprising” started in spring 2014, not a single widely known local dignitary seems to have visibly taken part in it, not to mention, led it. Although the Donbas had, like any other society, regionally prominent politicians, journalists, doctors, entrepreneurs and writers , apparently none or very few of the Luhansk and Donetsk notabilities chose to become, if not a leader, then at least an open participant of the 2014 so-called “Russian spring”.

The only prominent Ukrainian politician ever officially involved with the putative insurrection in the Donets Basin was Oleg Tsaryov, a notorious member of Ukraine’s pre-Euromaidan parliament (who had, during the uprising of winter 2013-2014, tried to deport approximately three dozen foreigners, including myself, from Ukraine). Tsaryov became for a while the speaker of the joint and by now defunct Novorossia joint parliament of the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. However, Tsaryov is not from the Donbass, but from the neighbouring Dnipro oblast —perhaps, one of the country’s most staunchly pro-Ukrainian Russophone regions. Instead, the leaders of the Donbas uprising and so-called “People’s Republics” were either Russian citizens, like the prolific ultra-nationalists Igor Girkin or Aleksandr Borodai, or hitherto little known representatives of the Donbass — some of them, like the first Donetsk “People’s Governor” Pavel Gubarev, were also Russian ultra-nationalists.

The Glazyev Tapes contribute to explaining the reasons for these contradictions. The post-Euromaidan unrest in eastern and southern Ukraine had certainly weighty local sources; and the peculiar grievances and antipathies conducive to these events were more pronounced in the Donets Basin than anywhere else in mainland Ukraine. Yet at the same time, the allegedly popular insurrection – the “Russian spring” throughout eastern and southern Ukraine – was from its beginning in late February 2014 an undertaking meticulously guided and heavily supported from Moscow. The para-rebellion in the Donbas  thus did not need before and did not generate at the time a significant pro-Russian local civil society to self-organise. As political leadership and resources were provided by Moscow, a notable involvement of regional notabilities was also unnecessary for the putatively local mutiny to happen.

This interpretation should not only modify public narratives of the “Ukraine crisis”, but also have repercussions for the western approach to the Minsk Agreements. In particular, the west should reconsider its insistence on Ukraine’s soon fulfilment of the political parts of the Minsk Agreements. Not only is it obvious that Ukraine was forced to accept enormous political concessions to Moscow against the background of extremely bloody Russian military offensives, during the negotiations of both Minsk Agreements in September 2014 (Ilovaisk) and February 2015 (Debaltseve).

The Glazyev Tapes also illustrate that the allegedly social regional rationale for far-reaching new political rules in the Donbas envisaged in the Minsk Agreements, a considerable reduction of Ukraine’s sovereignty in the currently occupied territories‚ is slim. In other words, the peculiarities of the population of the occupied territories that would justify a special arrangement for the Donets Basin are more putative than real. An underlying assumption of the western interpretation of the concessions to the separatists in these agreements had been that the mere fact of an, at least, initially grassroots insurgency in the Donbas should be somehow reflected in its future status. Yet, the Glazyev Tapes now illustrate that the entire east Ukrainian uprising was from its start not as popular a phenomenon as it earlier seemed. If one acknowledges the Russian involvement in, and imperial rather than local dimension of, the insurgency, then the apparent compromise in the Minsk Agreements assumes a different notion.

The Minsk compromise appears now not any longer as a result of Ukrainian and western consideration of certain peculiarities of the Donets Basin. Rather, a future special status of the currently occupied territories looks, after publication of the Glazyev Tapes, as a reward for the partial successes that Russia had in fuelling otherwise weak separatist tendencies in eastern Ukraine following the victory of the Euromaidan.

It is less the Donbas’s specific regional interests than the partial successes of Russia’s secret subversion efforts that found their way into the texts of the two deals between the Ukrainian government and the separatist pseudo-republics in Minsk. The west should treat the questions of whether, when and how Kyiv needs to implement the respective domestic political articles of the Minsk Agreements accordingly.


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