If you believe Vladimir Putin, the current conflict in eastern Ukraine represents a populist insurgency motivated by the Ukrainian government’s oppression of the rights of Russian-speakers. The people of Donetsk and Luhansk have risen en masse demanding independence from Ukraine and reunification with their Russian brethren, led by a valiant corps of insurgents from the region.
Question: Is any of this true?
Eastern Ukraine: Ethnic composition
Who lives in eastern Ukraine? The graph below shows the composition of the Donbas (the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk that lie around the basin of the Don River) as well as (for the sake of comparison) the neighbouring provinces of Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, and Dnipropetrovsk, as well as the Crimean peninsula to the south.
In the Donbas, ethnic Ukrainian-speakers make up 57-58 per cent of the population; ethnic Russian-speakers 38-39 per cent. In neighbouring provinces the proportion of ethnic Ukrainian-speakers is between 70 and 80 per cent. In comparison, in areas of western Ukraine such as Ivano-Frankivsk, the ethnic Ukrainian component increases to 97.5 per cent. [Data from the All-Ukrainian population census of 2001.] In the Donbas, Russian-speakers tend to be concentrated in urban areas; Ukrainian-speakers in rural ones.
What’s important to emphasize here is that, in common with many areas in Eastern Europe that have had a complicated political history, where frontiers have frequently moved back and forth in the past, and where there is a complex patchwork of ethnicities that have lived in the region, native Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking populations have co-mingled in the areas of eastern Ukraine for centuries [See Ukraine of the brink for a much more extensive discussion of this topic.]
Ukraine: Linguistic and ethnic rights
In the contemporary Ukrainian state there has been no systemic discrimination against ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers. Ukrainian is Ukraine’s state language, however, the Legislation on languages in Ukraine guarantees that any administrative district (province, county, town) where a minority language population exceeds 10 per cent, can elect to use a “regional language” that can be officially used in courts, schools, government offices, etc. This applies to Russian in all of the provinces discussed above, as well as to the Hungarian, Moldovan, and Romanian languages in areas of Ukraine where there are populations of these linguistic groups.
Indeed, in 2012, prior to the recent conflict, the authors of the legislation, Serhiy Kivalov and Vadym Kolesnichenko, were awarded the Pushkin Medal by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself for their, “great contribution to the preservation and promotion of the Russian language and culture abroad” making Putin’s accusations in 2014 of ethnic discrimination against Russian-speakers in Ukraine not just unbelievable but entirely surreal.
All Ukrainian citizens, irrespective of their ethnic origins and use of language are equal under the Constitution and the law, and the last quarter century of Ukrainian independence, while politically tumultuous, has not been so for ethnic or linguistic reasons, but for political ones having to do with differing visions of economic and social development of the country.
Ukraine: Support for a unitary state
In 1991 Ukraine voted to become an independent state. This declaration of independence was supported by an overwhelming 92.3 per cent of the population in a referendum in which 84.2 per cent of the population participated. Independence was supported by majorities (most of them very large) in all 27 administrative districts of Ukraine, even in predominantly Russian-speaking regions such as Odessa (85.4 per cent) in the south and Donetsk (83.9 per cent) and Luhansk (83.8 per cent) in the east. Even in Crimea, which has the strongest ethnic Russian identity (58.5 per cent of the population is Russian-speaking), 54.2 per cent supported Ukrainian independence, 57.0 per cent in the regional capital of Sevastopol.
Support for a unitary Ukrainian state remains high throughout the country. Polling conducted earlier this year by the International Republican Institute found that 73 per cent of Ukrainians including those in the Donbas (political circumstances precluded conduct polling in Crimea) support the current unitary Ukrainian state; 17 per cent would like to see a federated Ukrainian state with regions having greater powers; and only 2 per cent support division of the country or annexation by Russia.
In eastern Ukraine including the Donbas (where the largest concentration of Russian-speakers live), only 5 per cent of the population supports Russian annexation or an independent state. Forty-nine per cent support a unitary Ukrainian state (with or without Crimea), and 35 per cent a unitary state with a federal structure giving greater autonomy for local regions, i.e., 84 per cent support a unified Ukraine. In western Ukraine, 98 per cent of the population support a unified Ukraine; in central Ukraine, 93 per cent; and in southern Ukraine, 87 per cent.
Dunces on the Don
Despite all of this, Vladimir Putin has pressed on with his war-by-subterfuge. And despite his support for the insurgents, supplying them with massive infusions of cash and weaponry, the influx of mercenaries and Russian armed forces personnel purportedly “on vacation” from their normal duties — by early August, 2014 the wheels of the insurgency were falling off and the whole enterprise appeared poised on the verge of collapse. Frustrated by the military incompetence of his proxies, Putin cashiered the insurgent’s political and military leadership.
In that context, it’s worth examining who the past and present leaders of the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” are. What kind of people have been selected by the Kremlin to lead this purported “struggle for ‘self-determination”? Who are the vanguard of this movement in whom the “oppressed citizens” of Eastern Ukrainians have been asked to place their faith and future?
Chairman of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Council,” Denis Pushilin resigned his post on July 18, 2014 and fled to Moscow. Pushilin’s background is as an operative of MMM, one of the largest Ponzi schemes of all time, which defrauded customers of millions of dollars (in the aftermath at least 50 investors committed suicide). Pushilin happily acknowledge his participation arguing that, “pyramid schemes were legal in Russia at the time.” Clearly an inspiring figure to have at the helm of government.
The so-called “People’s Governor” of Donetsk Pavel Gubarev has also just fled to Moscow. Gubarev, is a member of the neo-Nazi Russian National Unity Party from which he has received paramilitary training. Before becoming a people’s governor, Gubarev worked as a for-hire Ded Moroz — a Russian Santa Claus! A neo-Nazi who moonlights as Santa Claus? Clearly perfect qualifications for running a “People’s Republic.”
There’s no recent word on Gubarev’s wife, 31-year-old Ekaterina Gubareva, a painter, children’s animator, and actress who was unaccountably made Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of Donesk. Earlier reports had her hiding in Rostov-on-Don in Russia along with her three children.
Alexander Borodai, a Russian national and former “Prime Minister” of the Donetsk People’s Republic, abruptly announced his resignation (August 7, 2014) and returned to his home in Moscow for “consultations.” Russian media have identified him as a major general in the Russian FSB, the successor agency of the KGB. Borodai, however, claims that none of this is true.
Now Moscow has installed Vladimir Antyufeyev as chairman of the Donetsk government. Antyufeyev is a wholesome individual, a former Russian secret police (OMON) operative wanted by law enforcement agencies in both Lithuania and Moldova for organizing failed coup attempts, crimes against the state, releasing assassins from prison, abuse of power, misappropriation of public funds, destruction of documents, and other such civic activities.
Since 2004 he has been a persona non grata in the European Union, not permitted to enter EU territory. Clearly Antyufeyev is sterling material for a head of state; someone prepared to do Moscow’s bidding, and to inspire the democratic confidence of the people of Donesk. And if you believe that, I have a great bridge in Brooklyn that you might want to purchase.
Igor Girkin (a.k.a, Igor Strelkov), the former commander-in-chief of the “Popular Army” of Donetsk, is a former Russian mercenary who fought in Bosnia as a “volunteer” and under contract in Chechnya, and is implicated in the Višegrad massacres in which some 3,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered during ethnic cleansing in 1992. A former GRU (Russian military intelligence) agent, and resident of Moscow, he has been charged with terrorism by Ukraine and is sanctioned by the European Union. Girkin/Strelkov was relieved of his duties as defence minister and has vanished from the Donetsk scene, either “on vacation,” assigned to “other tasks” or seriously wounded according to conflicting reports.
Meanwhile, Valery Bolotov, the president and self-proclaimed leader of the Luhansk People’s Republic, abruptly resigned his position on August 14, 2014 after apparently being wounded in fighting. A former sergeant in Soviet Army, he participated in the Nagorno-Karabakh War before becoming a manager of a meat plant. There’s no word on his present whereabouts. A recently installed (August 25, 2014) “government” in Luhansk is lead by Gennady Tsyplakov, Oleksiy Karyakin, and Vasiliy Nikitin. We await further information about them.
The cast of characters running the show eastern Ukraine might be suitable material for a Marx Brothers farce; what they are manifestly not capable of is running a country. Crooks, thieves, scammers, mercenaries, and neo-Nazis: who can imagine that a republic lead by such people would be anything but a criminal conspiracy? What citizens would like to live in and support such a republic of scoundrels? Ukrainians of sound mind, of all ethnicities, want no part of such a lunatic enterprise foisted upon them from abroad.
It should be clear from all of the above, that there is neither plausible reason nor public desire for a divided Ukraine. The vast majority of the Ukrainian populace — North, South, East, and West — favour a unitary Ukrainian state, as it currently stands, or a more loosely federated version of it.
The current conflict is a child of Vladimir Putin and his acolytes. Putin’s motives are a complex constellation of personal political gain, imperialism, Slavophilia, territorial desires to establish a NovoRossia (New Russia), economic dreams of grandeur in a Eurasian Union directed by the Kremlin, a re-embracing of ultra-orthodox Russian Orthodoxy, and a distrust in and distaste of western liberal democratic values such as religious tolerance, pluralism, democracy, and freedoms of press, assembly, and speech.
[This is Part VIII of a series on the political situation in Ukraine. Previous sections include VII: Russians in revolt: Annexing Crimea but losing your soul, VI: Ukrainian aspirations: Material, moral, and spiritual dignity, V: Blundering in Ukraine: Putin’s strategic debacle, IV: Fallen aircraft and smoking guns: The deadly consequences of Russian insurgency in Ukraine, III: Faces of war and peace on Moscow streets, II: Crisis in Ukraine: Disinformation and useful idiots; and I: Ukraine of the brink . The following section, Part IX, is Ukraine: the left turn right through the looking glass.]
Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He has a Russian Studies degree from Dalhousie University and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.