After the murder of DNR-leader Zakharchenko last weekend saw 'elections' in the two pseudo-states in the Donbass, that are run by Moscow. It came as no surprise that Russia's candidates were elected. Reactions in Ukraine and the West were predictable as well. Moscow resorts to 'manual control' to keep the region in its sphere of influence, says columnist Mark Galeotti. For the moment there is no escape of the stalemate.

oekraine donbas pushilinPonzi scheme business man Denis Pushilin elected as new leader of People's Republic of Donetsk

by Mark Galeotti

Last week’s elections in the Donbas pseudo-states of the Donetsk (DNR) and Lugansk (LNR) People’s Republics have been roundly denounced in Kyiv and the West as nothing more than a sham. Illegitimate charades ‘carried out under Russian guns’, said Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. ‘Illegitimate processes [that] were an attempt by Moscow to institutionalise its Donbas proxies’, said the US State Department. A ‘sham’ was the EU verdict. It has also been made clear that these elections do not conform to the letter or the spirit of the Minsk Accords, which are meant to offer the roadmap to peace.

Of course, all that is true. There was never any question but that acting incumbents Denis Pushilin (DNR) and Leonid Pasechnik (LNR) were going to win their respective elections. There is no meaningful opposition, and the high (80%+) turnouts, insofar as they were true, were in part arranged by offering everything from discounted food to lottery tickets to those who voted.

However, it is not the full truth. To treat the DNR and LNR as if they were Moscow’s Russian sock-puppets is dramatically to oversimplify the nature of the conflict and of the relationships, and it is the kind of caricature which distorts policy and helps ensure that this wretched war seems to have no likely end in sight.

Imperial nations have always found their subaltern states annoyingly have minds of their own. The Soviet Union was to an extent played by the regime it was propping up in Afghanistan, even while it had a hundred thousand troops in the country. The USA’s control of the governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, even in times when it effectively occupied them, was always imperfect, to say the least. Moscow’s control over Chechnya – a country it bankrolls through the federal budget to the tune of up to 40 billion rubles (over half a billion euro) a year – is likewise no more than skin-deep, for all Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s fulsome statements of loyalty to Putin.

Manual control

Ever since it intervened in the Donbas, following on the heels of firebrands and fire-starters like [Muscovite] Igor Girkin (‘Strelkov’), Moscow has found itself constantly having to manage local politics and expectations and reassert its authority, despite the fact that it provides the essential funding and security backstop for the pseudo-states. In May 2014, the Vostok Battalion, a force originally assembled from Chechen and other North Caucasus veterans, was sent into Donetsk and seized the government headquarters as a Russian show of force. The battalion was then ‘Ukrainianised’ and its command passed to Alexander Khodakovsky, now an opposition figure. Later that year, as Moscow definitely turned its back on annexation and also the idea of creating an independent ‘Novorossiya,’ the Russians also made sure Strelkov was relieved of his position as DNR defence minister and forced to return to Moscow.