The economics of rebellion in eastern Ukraine

In April 2014, angry mobs and armed men stormed administrative buildings and police stations in eastern Ukraine, waving Russian flags and proclaiming the establishment of “Peoples’ Republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk. At the time, some observers predicted that the “pro-Russian” uprising would spread to other parts of southeast Ukraine, throughout the vast territory Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to as historical “New Russia”.

Contrary to these forecasts, the rebellion remained surprisingly contained. No region outside Donetsk or Luhansk experienced large-scale armed conflict or fell under rebel control. Not only were separatists unable to realize the project of a greater “Novorossiya” (‘New Russia’) stretching from Kharkiv to Odesa, they failed to consolidate their grip even within the borders of the Donbas. Not more than 63% of municipalities in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were under rebel control at any time during the first year of the conflict, and less than a quarter of these territories showed resistance to government forces during Kyiv’s attempt to liberate them.

What explains local variation in rebellion? Why is rebel violence more intense in some areas than in others? Why have some towns in eastern Ukraine remained under government control while others fell to the separatists?

The most common answers to these questions have fallen into one of two categories: ethnicity and economics. The first view expects rebellion to be more likely and more intense in areas home to large concentrations of ethnolinguistic minorities – in this case, Russians or Russian speaking Ukrainians. According to this logic, geographically concentrated minorities can overcome some of the collective action problems associated with rebellion – such as monitoring and punishing defectors – while attracting an influx of fighters, weapons and economic aid from co-ethnics in neighboring states. Among others, Vladimir Putin too has cast the Donbas conflict as a primarily ethnic one: “The essential issue is how to ensure the legitimate rights and interests of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the southeast of Ukraine”.

An alternative explanation for rebellion is economic opportunity costs. According to this view, as income from less risky legal activities declines relative to income from rebellious behavior, participation in rebellion should rise. As Maidan and the Revolution of Dignity proclaimed adherence to European values and set the path towards Europe and away from the Custom’s Union with Russia, the opportunity costs of rebellion declined in the Donbas. As a heavily industrialized region with deep economic ties to Russia, the Donbas was uniquely exposed to potential negative economic shocks caused by trade openness with the EU, austerity and trade barriers with Russia. A rebel fighter with the Vostok battalion summarized this view: “Many mines started to close. I lost my job. Then, with what happened during the spring, I decided to go out and defend my city”.

In an article forthcoming in the Journal of Comparative Economics, I evaluate the relative explanatory power of these two perspectives, using new micro-level data on violence, ethnicity and economic activity in eastern Ukraine. I find that local economic factors are stronger predictors of rebel violence and territorial control than Russian ethnicity or language. Ethnicity only had an effect where economic incentives for rebellion were already weak. Separatists in eastern Ukraine were “pro-Russian” not because they spoke Russian, but because their economic livelihood had long depended on trade with Russia and they now saw this livelihood as being under threat.

The economic roots of the pro-Russian rebellion are evident from new data on violence and control, assembled from incident reports released by Ukrainian and Russian news agencies, government and rebel statements, daily ‘conflict maps’ released by both sides, and social media news feeds. The data include 10,567 unique violent events in the Donbas, at the municipality level, recorded between then President Viktor Yanukovych’s flight in February 2014 and the second Minsk ceasefire agreement of February 2015. Figure 1 shows the geographic distribution of rebel violence and territorial control during the first year of the conflict.

1-eng

To explain variation in the timing and intensity of violence and control, I considered the proportion of Russian speakers residing in each municipality, and the proportion of the local labor force employed in three industries, differentially vulnerable to post-Euromaidan economic shocks. These included machine-building, which is heavily dependent on exports to Russia, highly vulnerable to Russian import substitution, and currently lacks short-term alternative export markets. At the other extreme, there is the metals industry, which is less dependent on Russia, and a potential beneficiary of increased trade with the EU. Finally, I considered employment in the mining industry, which had grown dependent on Yanukovych-era state-subsidies, and became highly vulnerable to IMF-imposed austerity measures. Given the relative exposure of these industries to post-Euromaidan economic shocks, one should expect the opportunity costs of rebellion to be lowest in machine-building towns and highest in metallurgy towns, with mining towns falling in the middle. Figure 2 shows the spatial distribution of these variables. I also accounted for a host of other potential determinants of violence, like terrain, logistics, proximity to the Russian border, prewar electoral patterns, and spillover effects from rebel activity in neighboring towns.

2-eng

A statistical analysis of these data reveals that a municipality’s prewar employment mix is a stronger and more robust predictor of rebel activity than local ethnolinguistic composition. In municipalities more exposed to negative trade shocks with Russia (municipalities with high shares of population employed in machinery and mining), rebel violence was more likely to occur overall, and was more intense. For a median Donbas municipality, an increase in the machine-building labor force from one standard deviation below (4%) to one standard deviation above the mean (26%) yields a 44% increase (95% credible interval: a 34%-56% increase) in the frequency of rebel violence from week to week.

These municipalities – where the local population was highly vulnerable to trade disruptions with Russia – also fell under rebel control earlier and took longer for the government to liberate than municipalities where the labor force was less dependent on exports to Russia. On any given day, a municipality with higher-than-average employment in the beleaguered machine-building industry was about twice as likely to fall under rebel control as a municipality with below-average employment in the industry.

By contrast, there is little evidence of either a “Russian language effect” on violence, or an interaction between language and economics. The impact of prewar industrial employment on rebellion is the same in municipalities where a majority of the population is Russian-speaking as it is where the majority is Ukrainian-speaking. Russian language fared slightly better as a predictor of rebel control, but only under certain conditions. In particular, where economic dependence on Russia was relatively low, municipalities with large Russian-speaking populations were more likely to fall under rebel control early in the conflict. The “language effect” disappeared in municipalities where any one of the three industries had a major presence. In other words, ethnicity and language only had an effect where economic incentives for rebellion were weak.

The seemingly rational economic self-interest at the heart of the conflict may seem puzzling, given the staggering costs of war. In the eighteen months since armed men began storming government buildings in the Donbas, over 8000 people have lost their lives, and over a million have been displaced. Regional industrial production fell by 49.9% in 2014, with machinery exports to Russia down by 82%. Suffering heavy damage from shelling, many factories have closed. With airports destroyed, railroad links severed and roads heavily mined, a previously export-oriented economy has found itself isolated from the outside world. If local machinists and miners had only known the scale of the destruction to come, the economic rationale for rebellion would surely have appeared less compelling. Yet when choosing between a high-risk rebellion to retain one’s economic livelihood and an almost certain loss of income, many people chose the first option.

From a policy standpoint, the economic roots of the Donbas conflict should be seen as good news. Despite the ethnocentric media coverage of this war in Russia and the West, the data show that attempts to divide Ukraine along ethnic or linguistic lines are likely to fail. These results can also explain why the conflict has not spread beyond Donetsk and Luhansk. Home to a large concentration of enterprises dependent on exports to Russia, highly subsidized and traditionally shielded from competition, the Donbas became exposed to a perfect storm of negative economic shocks after the Euromaidan. No other region in Ukraine, or the former Soviet Union, has a similarly vulnerable economic profile. Without a compelling economic motive, a pro-Russian rebellion is unlikely to occur elsewhere in Ukraine.

By: Yuri M. Zhukov, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Michigan

Over 2,000 Russian troops killed during Ukraine invasion

A Moscow newspaper reported that Russia had lost “no fewer than 2,000” dead in the fighting in Ukraine and another 3,200 serious casualties by February 1, 2015, a story that stayed up until Kremlin censors removed those lines from the article lest it call into question Vladimir Putin’s constant refrain that there are no Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine.

In an article about increased pay for Russian soldiers in 2015, Delovaya zhizn reported these numbers, but they didn’t remain on the site for every long, according to Konstantin Zelfanov of Novy Region-2 yesterday.

But the original uncensored article remained accessible in a cached version, and the key passage of that reads as follows, Zelfanov says. “The government of the Russian Federation has taken an important decision about the monetary compensation of military personnel who have taken part in military actions in the east of Ukraine.”

“For the families of those who have died in the course of military actions in the east of Ukraine, monetary compensation has been set at three million rubles [40,000 US dollars] and for those who have become invalids during the military actions at 1.5 million rubles [20,000 US dollars].”

Moscow had already paid monetary compensation “for more than 2,000 families of soldiers who had been killed

“In addition,” the original version said, Moscow plans to pay contract soldiers a supplement of 1,800 rubles [25 US dollars] for each day of combat. As of February 1, 2015, Moscow had already paid monetary compensation “for more than 2,000 families of soldiers who had been killed and for 3,200 soldiers who were seriously wounded and recognized as invalids.”

Given that six months of fighting have passed since that time, Russian losses, both killed and wounded, must now be much higher, although the Moscow authorities are doing everything they can, including censorship of this kind, to hide that fact lest Russians learn the tragic human costs they are paying for Putin’s aggression.

Ukrainians ‘called us occupiers,’ returning Russian insurgents tell media

Many commentators have speculated that Moscow faces a potentially serious problem when those who have gone to fight in Ukraine return to Russia with their anger and their military skills, the Kremlin may face a more immediate danger: those returning are undercutting Russian propaganda about what is happening in Ukraine.

Today, Yekaterinburg’s independent online news agency reported that “about 180” volunteers from the Urals returned from Ukraine today and are telling their families, friends and the media that “local people [in Ukraine] called us occupiers,” an epithet that calls into question Moscow’s messages.

The returnees were led by Vladimir Yefimov, the spetsnaz veteran who recruited them to go to Ukraine in the first place. When they left for Ukraine in March, they formed “the largest official local group of volunteers since the declaration of the armistice. Only half returned today; the rest continue to fight in the guard of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

“We worked in guard posts and went on patrol,” Yefimov said. “There were no serious battles,” only occasional shooting and provocations. But the weather in the Donbas was terrible and everyone suffered with the flu, heart problems and lung infections.

He added that he and his men “had become disappointed in the Donetsk People’s Republic to which they had gone initially because of its ‘duplicitous leadership’ and the attitudes of the local population.”

“According to Kyiv law, we are terrorists. According to a Madrid court, we are also terrorists. According to the law of the Luhansk Republic, persons who are not included on the lists of its armed forces are also members of illegal armed formations. And if one takes money for service there, then we become mercenaries” under Russian law, Yefimov said.

But it was the attitude of the local people in Luhansk, he said, that really repelled him. “They are clearly drawn to Ukraine. They pay taxes to it. And the local population in some places calls us occupiers. We simply lost the desire to work in this republic and transferred to the Donetsk People’s Republic” where the situation is “much better.”

Yefimov told the Yekaterinburg journalists that he had had to pay for the train tickets of his men back home because of a quarrel he had with his original sponsor: That individual objected to the fact that he had named him during a media interview despite the fact that he wanted to remain anonymous.

Despite all this, Yefimov said, he “plans to prepare a new group of volunteers” and has already found 40 who are ready to go. But his words about how the people of the Donbas really view “Russian volunteers” like himself are likely to have a bigger impact on future events than anything he or they might do in Donetsk.

War stirs Ukraine’s youth to action

KYIV – While voting statistics show political engagement among youth in Canada, the United States and parts of Europe is declining, the same cannot be said of Ukraine. Maybe what Canada needs is a nasty little foreign invasion on its eastern flank to stir greater interest among its young people in politics and the country’s future. It sure seems to be working in Ukraine.

A rich blend of teens and twenty-somethings assembled with a core group of 40- to 70-year-olds on Maidan or Independence Square in downtown Kyiv last Sunday, as speaker after speaker criticized the government’s handling of the war in the Donbas or exhorted citizens to put their patriotism into action by saving energy and supporting their soldiers with donations of food, clothes and money.

And this happens almost every weekend.

“We are standing on the very place it all began,” an opposition speaker declares, alluding to the revolution last winter that saw the departure of former president Viktor Yanukovich, accused of corruption and close ties to Russia. “Take off your hats and give a minute’s silence for the fallen,” and everyone does, including 15-year old Ihor Dykun and three of his peers.

Dykun says he and his friends are involved because the burden of protecting the state from Russia’s soldiers and the separatist rebels on the eastern border, which lately has exploded into more deadly warfare in places like Debaltese, will fall to them in a few short years. As well, he says, they soon must grapple with the corruption and enormous debt that also threatens the welfare of Ukrainians.

“It’s our country, it’s our life, it’s our soldiers, it’s our brothers,” he says. “We are children but we can also do something – we can write letters to the soldiers, save energy, wear Ukrainian flags and symbols,” as his friends nod in agreement. “I think in Ukraine there are a lot of teenagers like us who really interested in politics.”

Nearby, 21-year-old Helena Vigowskaja, dressed like Bugs Bunny to lure people into paying her for a picture, listens carefully to what the speakers – opposition members, civil society activists, soldiers from the east – say.

Ihor Dykun, 15, right, and his friends at a political rally Sunday in downtown Kyiv.
Ihor Dykun, 15, right, and his friends at a political rally Sunday in downtown Kyiv.

“Every Sunday they talk about the things they want,” she says. “More changes. Our Ukrainian money is down, down, down. The cost of products is up, up, up, and people don’t like this. If we want to integrate with Europe we must have higher wages. It’s bad. People here have a very hard life. And this is only one of a number of problems.”

Other young people have starker links to the war. Eighteen-year-old Andrey Kalinchenko’s father is fighting there and he himself is a “volunteer,” meaning a civilian who devotes many hours to helping accumulate, package and convey food and other materials to the men and women at the front, since the government is unable to supply them sufficiently.

His father, he says, was fighting in Debaltseve but now is in hospital. In recent weeks dozens of soldiers have been injured or killed in intensified fighting which has seen the rebels take additional turf in the oblast of Donetsk.

Katya Konta, 30, married and the mother of a little boy, says that before the war “we weren’t interested” in politics “but today we have war, so we must.” She is also a volunteer who has traveled east more than 10 times.

“Tomorrow we have the funeral of a very, very close friend,” she says, pausing and tearing up. “Ivan was 37. He was killed in Luhansk on 29 of January. A sniper (got him). He was a very good friend, a good man. He had two sons, a wife, and he was very popular in our town, Fastov. Everything I can, I do.”

Something is rotten in the Luhansk Republic

Infighting, assassinations, and anti-Semitic conspiracies: something is rotten in the Luhansk Republic.

On January 1, as Russians and Ukrainians were still recovering from the traditional heavy New Year’s night partying, news of the death of Batman (the alias of retired Ukrainian police captain turned separatist field commander Alexander Bednov) shook the blogosphere and media. News of his fate initially was scarce and contradictory, some claiming Bednov was still alive, others reporting his car destroyed in an ambush and the base of his eponymous “rapid response group” under siege by fellow Luhansk Republic separatist forces. Still, others blamed “Ukrainian guerrillas” and even a Russian Spetsnaz operative named Wagner (not an alias).

What we do know is that the night before his death, Bednov recorded a video where, surrounded by children (locals, apparently), he wished the people of “Novorossiya” (New Russia) peace and prosperity in the New Year. By the evening, Batman was most certainly dead – but it is still unclear how exactly he met his end.

An official communiqué by the self-declared Luhansk Republic prosecutor’s office the next day (apparently the first of its kind, or at least the first reported by the media) claimed the commander was killed while resisting arrest, allegedly for torturing locals they kept as prisoners.

Batman’s group, on the other hand, has a page on the Russian social network Vkontakte that tells quite another story. They claim Bednov’s car was struck with RPGs while on the road the morning of January 1st. Their story, supported by several prominent pro-Russian observers, suggests Batman was killed on the orders of Igor Plotnitsky, the current “elected” head of the Luhansk Republic, as part of Jewish conspiracy. According to this scenario, the “rebellious” field commanders in Luhansk are being liquidated so that the “West-Ukraine born yid” Plotnitsky can carry out a sinister and subversive plot to yield Donbas back to Ukraine.

[insert]plotnitsky[/insert]

An anti-Semitic anti-Plotnitsky cartoon posted on Batman’s Vkontakte page.

A failed state that never was

The story of the Batman’s end may just be the tip of the iceberg to the turmoil in the fragile Luhansk Republic. Since the start of the Russian-backed insurgency, Luhansk has been the smaller, poorer relative to Donetsk, run by what Buzzfeed’s Max Seddon describes as a “motley band of locals” – as opposed to the “founding fathers” of the Donetsk Republic, Muscovites Igor ‘Strelkov’ Girkin and Alexander Borodai; one an ex-Security Service agent, the other – a political expert.

Prior to his own departure, former and original Luhansk Republic chief Valery Bolotov never saw eye to eye with his Donetsk counterparts, putting the first official nail in the coffin of the New Russia project. Since his departure in August, the power vacuum still has yet to settle.

But this divide is not only relegated to insurgent leadership, but rather rooted in the composition of the grunts forming the bulk of Luhansk militants.

In one interview back in July, a Russian intelligence commander in Luhansk told the New York Times that roughly 80% of separatist insurgents in the city were ‘scrappy locals who had never seen battle’ who were also as quick to desert as they were to enlist. More recent explanations come by way of Vladimir Yefimov, a former member of the Russian Spetsnaz now organizing Russian insurgents in Ukraine via a Sverdlovsk veterans’ organization. From an organizational standpoint he readily explains that the best soldiers – those from the Special Forces and elite – are assigned to Donetsk, while neo-Cossacks and those without combat experience are relegated to Luhansk.

According to FT’s Courtney Weaver, the way the fractious Luhansk statelet is run “makes even the government of the Donetsk People’s Republic look like a slick operation”. While the Donetsk Republic maintains somewhat of a semblance of a state, propped up by Russian financial, humanitarian and military aid, Luhansk seems to be unraveling.

Separatism from separatists

At least three independent “Cossack republics” created by Russian Don Cossacks have refused to submit to the “central” authorities in Luhansk, and have since set up their own checkpoints where “cossacks in dirty old uniforms beg for cigarettes and food,” describes Pavel Kanygin, a reporter of Russia’s independent Novaya Gazeta. Deaths from starvation have been reported in towns around the occupied Luhansk region, which have yet to see any of the now infamous “Russian humanitarian aid” coming across its natural border. Canned food from Russian producers has appeared on store shelves instead.

On his way from Luhansk, Kanygin met two Russian volunteers, fleeing to Donetsk and fed up with the lack of supplies and infighting they had experienced in a unit led by Alexey Mozgovoy, one of the visibly rebellious Luhansk commanders. However, Mozgovoy’s old war comrade Igor Girkin, the man who by his own confession “pulled the trigger” of the Donbas war back in April, has now taken to urging them to take a different path. While denouncing the murder of Bednov, he warned that any infighting would be interpreted as a rebellion against the Kremlin and weaken the separatists to the Ukrainian threat, instead suggesting Russian volunteers should follow his example and leave “Novorossiya” altogether, for good.

Girkin himself returned to Moscow back in August, days before a Russian offensive turned the tide of the war in the Donbas. Himself seen as an independent figure, his exit allegedly was one of the conditions for Russian troops to enter the fighting directly. Another independent separatist commander and Girkin’s ally, Igor “the Demon” Bezler followed suit in November. Nikolay Kozistsyn, a neo-Cossack commander who’s ‘Great Don Army’ at one point claimed control of 4/5ths of occupied Luhansk, fled in December, allegedly removed over a dispute with the Luhansk Republic over control of local coal mines and shipping of their product to Russia. Pavel Gubarev, the man who led Donetsk pro-Russian protests from the very beginning in March, saw his party removed from ballots in the city’s November 2 “elections” and became victim of an alleged assassination attempt weeks prior. It’s worth noting that Bednov was similarly banned from elections in Luhansk, turning them into a Soviet one-party imitation.

Those elections apparently did serve a purpose – that of legitimizing the current leadership of the quasi-states. Pavel Kanygin in his in-depth analysis of Kremlin control over the republics suggests a plan to strengthen Kremlin control by removing “independent” separatist leaders and replacing them with Russia’s yes-men, orchestrated by one Vladislav Surkov, a sinister string-puller inside the Kremlin. Surkov, Igor Girkin arch-enemy and probably the man behind the purges, has sent his envoys to Donetsk, which has since gained some Moscow chiс – for example, oysters appearing on restaurant menus, a sight unseen even before the war.

It is unclear what Surkov’s endgame might be: whether it is restoring life in Donbas back to normal, setting up a staging point for a further Russian invasion, or eventually yielding the occupied territories back to Ukraine on some face-saving terms, remains to be seen.

One thing is certain: whatever this plan is, independent and popular separatist leaders are seen as a spanner in the works and dealt with ruthlessly, turning the authoritarian “Russian spring” to a decidedly cold winter.

By: Kirill Mikhailov & Mat Babiak

Bureaucrats denying soldiers injury status

ARTEMIVSK, Ukraine – Bureaucratic stonewalling is hurting the morale of Ukraine’s fighting men and women by denying their rights, injured soldiers have charged. Some are even taking photos of their deployment to prove their involvement to disbelieving officials.

 “The government does nothing for the volunteers,” said a soldier, 25, who was ill and on antibiotics. When his friend was shot and injured by a sniper he couldn’t get status as a casualty of anti-terrorist operations, which affects his ability to get benefits.

His brother, serving in the 95th Brigade, was advised to take photographs as proof of his war service. “The bureaucrats won’t help the men who are fighting,” he said.

Another problem is a lack of rotation. A man with a head wound said “the same people who are here for months get 20 days off and then have to return to the war. This is not fair. Others do not go to the war at all.”

The bed, helmet and kit bag of one of the soldiers alleging some of their officers are betraying them.
The bed, helmet and kit bag of one of the soldiers alleging some of their officers are betraying them.

The three, who refused to give names or be photographed for fear of punishment from the army, spoke to a Canadian journalist and his Ukrainian interpreter who were placed in their room recently at the regional hospital here while traveling with volunteers.

One of them had been injured that afternoon after the turret of a large gun on an armored vehicle swung unexpectedly and struck him, which he attributed to officer error; he bled from the ear and wears a bandage around his head.

This city of 78,000 is about 88 kilometres north of Donetsk, where fighting has raged over control of its airport, despite the Sept. 5th ceasefire. The United Nations Human Rights Office reports that at least 3,517 civilians and Ukrainian soldiers have died in the war since April. Since the ceasefire, 49 Ukrainian army servicemen have been reported killed and 242 wounded.

Normally, soldiers are not allowed to speak to the press unless officers are present.

The soldiers also said that some of their senior officers were selling information about their whereabouts to the enemy, but this could not be confirmed. They said many of their peers have died when shelled by separatists after their coordinates were sold.

One soldier said evidence of this is that on one occasion the men refused to stop as scheduled, and proceeded on. Later, the place they would have been was shelled.

The hospitalized soldiers also said the separatists have superior weapons to their own outdated guns, and this was mentioned in the report by the UN, its sixth about the war: “In a number of areas, Ukrainian armed forces reported being bombarded by the armed groups with advanced weaponry.”

The injured men described the tactics of the separatist rebels who, according to the report, are assisted by 3,000 to 4,000 Russian soldiers: “First they fire their artillery. Then they send tanks and foot soldiers. A new shell comes right down onto the trenches,” and sends shrapnel far and wide, injuring and killing, the head-wound man said.

One of the injured men said that since they lack winter clothing and other equipment, the Ukrainian army may have to shut down operations for the winter. He had to buy most of his own gear, such as body armor and helmet.

The third soldier said: “This is the bad side of the war. A journalist came to film the soldiers but the commander did all the talking. The soldiers did not have a chance to complain….And the media does not want to reveal this information.”

Mr. Bird is a Canadian journalist.

Helping international “observers” see armed men at “polling stations” in the Donbas

Graham Phillips, a controversial British reporter for the Kremlin’s disinformation serviceRussia Today, has interviewed Austrian right-wing politician Ewald Stadler, who is one of the “observers” at “elections” in the Donbas.

According to Stadler, “there is no pressure to the people. Soldiers and people with guns are outside, not inside. Everybody can vote here free”.

OK, so Stadler does not see a man in military fatigues standing behind him. So let’s help Stadler see something else, shall we?

Donbas election
Photo by Novaya Gazeta
armed2
Photo by Oleksiy Matsuka
Donbas election
Photo by RIA Novosti
Donbas election
Photo by Komsomolskaya Pravda
Photo by EPA
Photo by EPA

Right, according to Stadler, there are no armed men “inside” polling stations. This may actually be true: there are no polling stations in the Donbass because there are no elections there.

[hr] Cover photo: AP

Fake monitors “observe” fake elections in Donbas

The “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) and “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR), the organizations which are recognized as terrorist by the Ukrainian authorities, will hold “parliamentary elections” on Sunday, 2nd of November, on the territories occupied by them with the help of the Russian army.

These “elections” are widely considered illegal and illegitimate, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon deplored “the planned holding by armed rebel groups in eastern Ukraine of their own “elections” on 2 November, in breach of the Constitution and national law” adding that “these “elections” will seriously undermine the Minsk Protocol and Memorandum, which need to be urgently implemented in full”.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin is said to be willing to recognize these “elections”, yet again completely dismissing the advice from the UN let alone defying the laws of Ukraine that Russia has invaded in February-March 2014. The DNR/LNR “elections” will not be recognized as legitimate either by the EU or the US that threaten Russia with further sanctions for undermining Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty.

As it happened before, the Kremlin will employ puppet “election monitors” that will “observe” and legitimize the “elections” held by the terrorists. Evidence suggests that two “election monitoring organizations” have been in charge of setting up “election observation mission” for the DNR/LNR: the Eurasian Observatory of Democracy and Elections (EODE) run by Belgian fascist Luc Michel and the European Centre for Geopolitical Analysis (ECGA) run by Polish far right politician Mateusz Piskorski – both have been in the service of the Kremlin’s foreign policy since 2005-2006.

(left to right ) The leader of the DNR terrorists Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Fabrice Beaur (EODE / extreme right Parti communautaire national-européen), 1 November 2014, Donetsk
(left to right ) The leader of the DNR terrorists Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Fabrice Beaur (EODE / extreme right Parti communautaire national-européen), 1 November 2014, Donetsk
(left to right ) The leader of the DNR terrorists Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Mateusz Piskorski, 1 November 2014, Donetsk
(left to right ) The leader of the DNR terrorists Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Mateusz Piskorski, 1 November 2014, Donetsk

At the time of writing, the following names of international “observers” hired by the the EODE and ECGA the can be disclosed:

observer table

As my analysis of the movements of these international “election monitors” shows, they arrived to Donetsk from Moscow via Rostov-on-Don. This means that they have all entered Ukraine illegally, as they did not pass pass the official Ukrainian border control. Thus, they can be all persecuted for the crime of illegal border crossing.

According to Moscow-based journalist Alec Luhn, at the press conference in Donbas, the international “observers” suggested creating the Association for Security and Cooperation in Europe (ASCE), but then Stadler proposed the name “Agency for Security and Cooperation in Europe” (ASCE). The name obviously refers to the Oganisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an international organization that, in particular, monitors elections in different parts of the world. Since it provides objective and independent monitoring of elections and referenda, the OSCE is hated by the EODE and ECGA, as well as Russian authorities.

However, while constantly vilifying and trying to discredit the OSCE’s observation missions, Russian state-controlled media intentionally present fake “election monitors” as members of the OSCE. For example, in March 2014, Russian TV channel “Rossiya 24” claimed that notorious fascist Michel was “the organizer of the OSCE observation mission” at the illegal “referendum in Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea that Russia annexed afterwards.

Belgian fascist Luc Michel, the head of the EODE, in Crimea. The caption reads: "Organiser of the OSCE observation mission in Crimea"
Belgian fascist Luc Michel, the head of the EODE, in Crimea. The caption reads: “Organiser of the OSCE observation mission in Crimea”

This imposturous presentation of Michel to the Russian-speaking audience reveals the high status value of the OSCE even in the generally anti-Western context.

The “elections” planned for the 2nd of November may be a start of a new offensive of the DNR/LNR extremists against the Ukrainian forces. There is a non-zero chance of a false flag operation against either the “observers” or people at “polling stations”. Some of them may be killed by the (pro-)Russian extremists dressed in uniforms of Ukrainian forces to discredit Ukraine and/or divert the international attention from the illegitimate “elections” to the killing(s) of “election observers” or “voters”. The chances are low, but such a development cannot be ruled out.

[hr] Cover photo: The press conference of the international “observers” in Donbas, 1 November 2014. Third from the right is Ewald Stadler. Credit: Alec Luhn

Volunteers dedicated to serving Ukrainian troops

DEBALTSEVE, Ukraine — The familiar thump! thump! thump! of shelling a few kilometers away is suddenly broken by the staccato rat-a-tat-tat-tat! of automatic gunfire. We all stop, crouch a little, and look around.

“That is a new sound,” says Arkady Nesterenko, our TV/radio journalist companion from Belarus.

We all laugh. He’s right, the gunfire is a new sound, and a troubling one. It means our 700-kilometre journey from Kyiv to this area has taken us deeper toward the fighting most of us have only seen on TV or the internet.

The five of us — two volunteers bringing supplies to Ukrainian troops, two journalists and a journalist/interpreter — are just outside this town of Debaltseve in Donetsk oblast, near the border with the region of Luhansk. Dusk is descending like a comforting quilt, obscuring the nearby tank, concrete barriers, sandbagged bunker and armed Ukrainian soldiers as they check our papers on this rural road. We have been through this many times before. But the checkpoints now are closer together, the inspections tougher, to control the movement of people and materials.

Volunteer Sergey unloads some potatoes for Ukrainian troops on Saturday.
Volunteer Sergey unloads some potatoes for Ukrainian troops on Saturday.

Our driver and co-leader is Sergey Golub, a 45-year-old former staff sergeant in the Soviet army. Tall, lanky and likeable, he looks like a movie star and drives like Mario Andretti. Serious about helping the soldiers, he nevertheless likes a joke. After inviting me to drive the van for a while, he quips: “We have a saying in Ukraine: the driver pays for the gas.”

Sergey and his friend Valerii, who shares the driving and owns this 2010 Opel Vivaro CDTI van, are veterans of the EuroMaidan Revoluton in Kyiv last winter, when hundreds of thousands of people demanded democracy and rule of law in Ukraine and closer ties to the European Union. A man was shot and killed beside Sergey Feb. 20, when numerous protesters fell from gunfire, believed to be from either state security personnel or Russian snipers in high-rise apartments.

The demonstrations by all ages and sectors of Ukrainian society (they were started by students) prompted former president Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia, and Sergey was pleased. Like many here, he reviles the man for his corruption (padding his own pockets and those of friends and wasting public money) and for turning away from an association agreement with the European Union, seen as the lynchpin for progress in this debt-ridden state. Yanukovych was taking Ukraine closer into Moscow’s prickly embrace when the people said no.

Sergey and Valerii’s joy at his departure was short-lived, for the separatist unrest in this region began shortly after the president fled, and it soon became an armed conflict with the army. But the army here is not like Canada’s, where the government supplies most of the things a soldier needs. Here, the many volunteer battalions, and even to a degree the conscripted ones, must provide much of their own food, weapons, and clothing.

This is where Sergey, Valerii and hundreds of other brave people found a new raison d’etre: collecting, packaging and delivering tonnes of materials monthly for the soldiers at the front. These include vital medical supplies such as painkillers for local hospitals flush with the injured.

Some volunteers, like Sergey and Valerii, work on their own, establishing personal military and civilian contacts to keep the flow of supplies moving. This trip is their 14th journey east.

Others serve through established groups such as Narodnye Tyl (which roughly translated means “People’s Support”). Co-founders Roman Siuieyu and Georgi Tuka found space in Kyiv and set up an office and supply depot. It delivers three to four van or truck loads of clothing, army gear (such as five bullet-proof Kevlar helmets from a Ukrainian ex-pat in the U.S.) and medical supplies to the troops each week. About 30 volunteers serve here. Donations of money and materials come in from all over the world but mainly Europe and North America, and chiefly via Facebook. “I cannot imagine not doing this,” says Julia Goncharova, who manages the group’s medical donations and works 12-hour days. “The soldiers call us angels; they say they wouldn’t survive without us.”

"This tank will no longer do any damage."
“This tank will no longer do any damage.”

Back at the checkpoint, Sergey makes his case to the soldier. “We are volunteers,” he tells the armed young man inspecting his papers as another round of thump! thump! thump! reverberates in the distance.

“Do you have any warm clothes?”

“Yes,” Sergey says, “we will get you some.”

He and Valerii go to the back of the van and dispense gloves, toques, socks – and a large warm coat. The soldier, who looks about 19, smiles in gratitude and soon three others mill about and inspect the precious winter attire. It is cold even now, in mid-October, near freezing.

The soldier says thanks, returns our papers and passports, and moves us along.

Valerii also sits up front, with little Arkady, 31, between them. He works for Belsat TV, which operates from Poland but is run by people from Belarus. In the back are myself, a Canadian freelance reporter, and my invaluable Ukrainian interpreter/fixer, Ievgenii Sinielnikov, 27, a businessman and former medical researcher and PhD student who studied in Finland before the EU cut his funding. Ievgenii got a big break there when asked to interview Finland’s foreign minister.

Valerii, a salesman and solid type who likes to smoke, cracks a joke and chuckles with the rest of them. It is too much for Ievgenii to translate every exchange, and I don’t ask for this one. Besides, the meaning is clear in any language: relief that we passed another barricade without incident and helped a few more men.

This scenario is often repeated. Only the faces change, and the circumstances.

Twenty minutes earlier we had come across a heavily damaged bridge over a railway. Somehow Sergey maneuvered the van across it, and I opened the side door and took two photos as we passed, not knowing there was a checkpoint ahead. The soldiers there were curt and suspicious, ordering us out of the van and giving Sergey a hard time over a multi-tool he carries. “It is a handy tool!” he says. “Look, we are volunteers, and these men are journalists. You can see the PRESS sign in our window.”

“This photo of a bomb-damaged bridge made things difficult at the next checkpoint.”

After some delay and hassle in the cold we are finally permitted to proceed. Valerii turns in his seat and looks at me over his left shoulder. “It is because you took pictures from the moving van,” he says.

“That is my job,” I reply. “That is why I am here.”

As darkness becomes complete, the high-beam lights of our red Opel reveal pothole after pothole. The van bounces and careers as Sergey speeds over the broken pavement. Sleep is impossible because of the rough ride.

“I know why the rebels are fighting,” I tell Ievgenii. “They want better roads.”

He smiles at the attempt at a joke. But it is only partly a joke. One of the separatists’ complaints is that the people in this region pay taxes but don’t see the benefits they desire. Bad roads, failing infrastructure, lack of other amenities – these are the things that hit home when people don’t feel part of a national fabric. When Ukraine became independent in 1991 it retained the centralized authority of the Soviet era in an effort to build a strong new state. But the cost has been dissatisfaction in some of the outlying regions, just as certain parts of Canada still complain about insufficient federal funding.

It doesn’t help that many of the people here have friends and family living across the border in nearby Russia. Propaganda from Russia says their lives would be better if they rejoined the motherland. Ukraine was once an important part of the Soviet Union, rich in coal and agricultural products, so the ties of culture, ethnicity, language and history are strong.

At 9:30 p.m. we roll into the city of Artemivsk, population 78,000. We are just north of the city of Donetsk, where fighting over control of the airport makes regular headlines.

Artemivsk is a beautiful old city, a cultural centre, I learn later on the internet. But now all I see are darkened streets, modest brick houses, bleak metal roofing glinting in the moon light. We don’t know where we will sleep, and Sergey has an idea. The hospital. It has beds and we will use five of them, in exchange for some medical supplies.

Julia Goncharova with the volunteer group in Kyiv.
Julia Goncharova with the volunteer group in Kyiv.

After a 30-minute wait in the regional hospital’s parking lot we are ushered inside. The four-storey building is decades old but warm. Ievgenii and I are placed in one room, with four Ukrainian soldiers, bandaged and forlorn looking. Our colleagues bunk elsewhere.

I grab the only bed with a multi-colored comforter and place my bags upon it as the soldiers, dressed in camouflage green garb, look on. Then Sergey walks in with three bottles of beer! I had joked earlier about needing a beer, as “Canadians like their beer,” I said, and Ukrainian brews are tasty and cheap.

Ievgenii declines his bottle and I pass it to the nearest soldier, who is blond and 25. He smiles as he opens it. His friends are on antibiotics and cannot drink at the moment, he says. Then he makes a toast as our bottles clink.

“To the war ending soon,” he says.


Mr. Bird is a Canadian journalist and former staff writer with the Winnipeg Free Press.

Exclusive: An interview with a Chechen commander fighting for Ukraine

DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine – The leader of the Chechen volunteer battalion here says Canada, the United States and other western nations can help to stop Russian aggression now in the “open war” against Ukraine, or face it later elsewhere.

“If we don’t stop Russia, it will go further,” said Cmdr. Isa Munajev, a veteran of the Chechen wars of the 1990s who now serves in the Ukrainian army. He suggested Estonia and Latvia will be the next countries Russia will attack. About 3,000 to 4,000 Russian soldiers are among those fighting with separatist rebels in the east of Ukraine, the United Nations has reported.

Munajev was interviewed recently 50 kilometres behind the lines at the headquarters of his group, called the International Peacekeepers Battalion. About 10 tents house the group’s soldiers here, and it has people in two other locations as well.

Cmdr. Isa Munajev with reporter Bird.
Cmdr. Isa Munajev with reporter Bird.

The commander said he is motivated partly by revenge, after the Russians killed some family members in earlier wars, but he also wants to help the Ukrainian people stop Russian-backed separatist aggression.

He said he would like Canada and the United States to enter the fray in eastern Ukraine. “It would be wonderful. It would be unity of the civilized world against the barbarian (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.”

But another officer at a checkpoint in Ukrainian-held territory said this is a local fight that should be fought by local soldiers, though he would welcome material aid from the West. So there is a variety of viewpoints about what should be done going forward.

Despite the Sept. 5 ceasefire agreement, which promises autonomy for the two self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, shelling and skirmishes continue.

Since Ukraine does not belong to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, western countries are not obliged to help it repel aggression. But NATO is concerned about the violence in eastern Ukraine and is seeing an increasing number of flights of Russian military aircraft over the Baltic states, which are NATO members.

An Oct. 8 report from the UN’s Human Rights Office outlines rape, beatings, mock-murders and murders of Ukrainian civilians by “armed groups” in the war-torn areas.

“It is true,” said Munajev, who blamed the rebels and Russians for the atrocities, though the report says elements on both sides are culpable. “I have been here for two months and the same things happened in Chechnya (when Russian troops invaded in the 1990s). I hope the world community will stand up to this devil, Putin. We can defeat him only together.”

Tents used by the Chechen battalion.
Tents used by the Chechen battalion.

Munajev said seven of his men have been injured in recent fighting; he would not reveal the number of dead.

Timur, 21, is an ethnic Chechen who recently graduated with a degree in economics and was living in Germany. “I have seen what the Russians have done to the Chechen people,” Timur said, explaining why he volunteered. “Many of my family have died.”

All of those interviewed spoke through an interpreter.

Another soldier, Valentine, 35, is from Russia. “No other battalion would accept me, and my father was Ukrainian,” he explains. He was trained by the Russian army.

The commander said Russian forces are three kilometers closer to this base than they were last week. “The Russians are coming here, step by step,” he said. The HQ is in a field near a line of trees used for firewood to cook and heat the tents.

“I hope the world will find out the truth. It’s a war, an open war against the Ukrainian nation and state,” said Munajev.

The Russian president’s image is used for target practice.
The Russian president’s image is used for target practice.

[hr] Mr. Bird is a Canadian freelance reporter.