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Explaining the coup in Luhansk

This week, armed men occupied administrative buildings in the “Luhansk People’s Republic” and the territory’s separatist leader fled to Moscow. What does this herald for the conflict in eastern Ukraine?

The flag of the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic and a soldier’s weapon at a polling station in Luhansk, November 2014. Photo (c): Valery Melnikov / RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

The Russian-controlled “people’s republics” in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine have suffered their biggest shakeup since 2014. Igor Plotnitsky, leader of the separatists in Luhansk, has apparently fled to Russia after a nervous standoff with his Interior Minister. Yesterday, fighting erupted in the village of Krymske, which saw Ukrainian government forces try to gain ground on the back of the instability in Luhansk, only to be met with a fierce counter-attack.

Plotnitsky was seen arriving at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in a video published on YouTube Thursday evening. There was no immediate official confirmation, but Zakhar Prilepin, the prominent Russian author who is serving as a commander and adviser to Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko, told the RBC news site that Plotnitsky had taken the same flight from Rostov to Moscow. Earlier rumours about his departure from Luhansk were backed up by the fact that Plotnitsky did not appear in public all day and his website was inaccessible since around midday (his supporters claimed a cyberattack).

Whether Plotnitsky will be ousted permanently remains to be seen, but the burly former artillery officer has seen his authority slip dramatically since Tuesday morning, when the Luhansk “Interior Ministry” was cordoned off by mysterious armed men, thought to be from the neighbouring “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

Mysterious armed men in masks cordoned off administrative buildings throughout the centre of Luhansk, refusing to answer reporters’ questions

This force backed “Minister” Igor Kornet in his increasingly bitter struggle with Plotnitsky, who had fired him on Monday, officially for having seized a mansion for his private use. Kornet, whom Plotnitsky ten days earlier humiliatingly forced to hand back his Luhansk luxury home to its lawful owner, while being filmed by state TV, defied his sacking, and the troops apparently hindered Plotnitsky from installing a successor in the ministry. The soldiers’ uniforms had no insignia apart from white ribbons, they wore masks on their faces and refused to answer reporters’ questions.

While outside observers initially suspected Russian special forces, drawing parallels to the “green men” who led the annexation of Crimea in the spring of 2014, it came as a surprise when it emerged that the troops might really be from Luhansk’s brothers-in-arms in Donetsk. This was suggested by inscriptions on their armoured vehicles and by observations from the OSCE monitoring mission, who said that a large convoy drove from Debaltseve, a town controlled by the Donetsk separatists. On Thursday, the Donetsk “State Security Ministry” confirmed in a statement that it had conducted a security operation in Luhansk together with the local Interior Ministry.

“No comment.” Armed men without insignia in the centre of Luhansk, 21 November 2017. Image still via ГТРК ЛНР / YouTube. Some rights reserved.

A day earlier, Kornet had claimed that he received help from “our friends [...] the law enforcement organs of the Donetsk People’s Republic” and that together with officers from Luhansk some ten “Ukrainian agents” had been detained. These agents had apparently penetrated deep into the government, and had misled Plotnitsky “by offering him distorted information”.

On the same day, Plotnitsky held an improvised press conference, during which he called Kornet a “small man with high ambitions” and accused him of staging a coup.

The feud inside the Luhansk leadership is not new. Critics from within the separatist camp have long accused Plotnitsky of being corrupt, unpopular (especially among fighters) and of having business links with Ukrainian oligarchs. Plotnitsky was born in the village of Kelmentsi in the Chernivtsy region of Ukraine. Although Plotnitsky has lived in Luhansk since 1991, these western Ukrainian origins may play some role in his unpopularity.

While a string of assassinations in 2015 and 2016 killed prominent field commanders fiercely opposed to Plotnitsky (most observers suspected that Moscow was responsible), Kornet and his powerful ally, State Security “Minister” Leonid Pasechnik, continued to serve in the separatist “government”.

Pasechnik’s “Ministry” on Wednesday began publishing video interviews in which detained members of the “LNR” Prosecutor General’s office confirm the theory that a coup attempt in Luhansk in 2016 was staged by Plotnitsky’s people in order to create a pretext for persecuting his senior opponents. (In one of them, a prosecutor says that former “Prime Minister” Gennady Tsypkalov did not hang himself but was tortured to death in prison after being arrested in the wake of the coup.)

Even though it is too early to say what will become of Plotnitsky, the fact that a relatively small force from Donetsk (the OSCE recorded just 100 men and four armoured personnel carriers in the city centre) was enough to tip the scales in Luhansk shows the separatist leaders’ profound weakness. Plotnitsky failed to mobilise a single soldier, let alone militia unit, to come out in support.

“It turns out that Plotnitsky has no significant forces ready to die for him, except his own bodyguards”

“It turns out that Plotnitsky has no significant forces ready to die for him, except his own bodyguards,” said Kirill Mikhailov, a researcher at Conflict Intelligence Team, a Russian-language website that conducts open-source research on conflicts involving the Russian military.

By contrast, Plotnitsky’s opponent Kornet apparently controls the police force, including Berkut riot units. Moreover, his Donetsk-based rival Zakharchenko has sizeable and well-motivated forces, first and foremost the Republican Guard, the armed formation presumed to be in Luhansk. On Wednesday, Zakharchenko’s fame apparently even led a Luhansk battalion commander to record a video address, in which he called on the Donetsk leader to take over Luhansk.

Zakharchenko himself abstained from making public comments about the drama in Luhansk, which was accordingly ignored by the Donetsk-based official news sites DAN and DNR-online.

So, just who called the “DNR” guards to Luhansk?

It is hard to believe that this happened without Moscow’s involvement. After all, the Kremlin has massive clout over both “republics” because they are fully dependent on Russia — both financially and militarily. Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s point man for the conflict in Donbas, is rumoured to make regular inspections in both Donetsk and Luhansk.

One speculation, popular in Ukraine, is that the conflict in Luhansk just reflects another one in Moscow. Plotnitsky, according to this theory, is Vyacheslav Surkov’s man, while Kornet represents the interest of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). “Most probably, they could not agree on how to share the pillage,” Ukrainian MP and Interior Ministry adviser Anton Herashchenko wrote in a blog post.

He who calls the shots? “Interior minister” of the Luhansk People’s Republic Igor Kornet gives a video address on 21 November. Image still via Луганский Информационный Центр / YouTube. Some rights reserved.

On the other hand, there have been signs that Plotnitsky really has managed to alienate his backers in Moscow. Already a year ago, several Russian media reports suggested that the Kremlin was so fed up with Plotnitsky that it had stopped its subsidies, forcing the “LNR” to halt payments of pensions and government workers’ wages (the issue was somehow solved two weeks later).

Mikhailov said that the Kremlin might have lost trust in Plotnitsky after he failed to build a functioning “power vertical”, despite Moscow helping him by killing many renegade field commanders: “Maybe Kornet called Moscow and Moscow called Zakharchenko and Zakharchenko sent troops.”

However, this does might fully explain the rationale for one unrecognised republic’s armed incursion into another.

Some asked if Donetsk would annex Luhansk like Russia did with Crimea. A popular joke on social media was “that Donetsk sent troops to Luhansk to protect the Donetsk-speaking population”. On a more serious level, these events have triggered debate about the pros and and cons of merging the two so-called “people’s republics”.

In the past, analysts have explained the continued existence of two separatist republics instead of a single entity by referring to the old Russian principle of “divide and rule”. Some also argue that it helps maintain the status quo by making the ongoing peace talks in Minsk even more complicated.

A popular joke on social media was that “Donetsk sent troops to Luhansk to protect the Donetsk-speaking population”

A strong case for a merger can be made from a financial point of view: Both “republics” suffer from bloated governments. The “LNR”, which has no more than 1.4m people (probably less), boasts 17 “ministries” plus another 17 “agencies”. Given that, by all accounts, their control does not always extend beyond Luhansk city, their expenditures could probably be put to more efficient use. On Tuesday, influential Russian lawmaker Konstantin Zatulin said that a merger was possible. Likewise, Donetsk commander-turned-pundit Alexander Khodakovsky said merging Luhansk with Donetsk would be good — but added that New Year was still way ahead.

However, legal and political considerations could save not only the “LNR” but Plotnitsky, too: “Moscow does not need (an efficient state), what it needs is dependency,” Mikhailov told me. He added that the Kremlin probably wants those who signed the Minsk agreement to remain in place.

Plotnitsky and Zakharchenko both signed the Minsk protocol and memorandum of autumn 2014, as well as the package of measures of February 2015.

The point about Plotnitsky’s signature was made also by Igor Girkin (aka Strelkov), the veteran Russian commander who is credited with starting the armed separatist struggle in Donbass in April 2014. “Without Plotnitsky’s scribble this document loses its force,” Girkin said in a video interview published Wednesday. And a Russian government source quoted in Friday’s Kommersant newspaper suggested that Plotnitsky would return to Luhansk because a leadership change at this point would mean undesirable costs.

The question is, what amount of authority Plotnitsky will have to act — even just as a figurehead — if and when he returns to Luhansk.

About the author

Nikolaus von Twickel is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. He served in the OSCE Mission as a media liaison officer in Donetsk 2015/16 and writes about events in the self-declared “people’s republics” of eastern Ukraine. He has also written about Georgia and the Caucasus region since the 1990s.

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