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

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

Protestants persecuted in rebel-held Luhansk

LVIV, Ukraine — Protestants and pro-Ukraine residents in the war-torn areas of eastern Ukraine are being persecuted by separatist rebels and forced to flee, says a man from the Luhansk area.

“The separatists say all Protestant churches are American spies, so there is religious oppression,” said Yurii Radchenko, 46, from the town of Zymohiria. Radchenko, a Protestant, said he was shot at twice in separate incidents but emerged unscathed.

“All the religious communities have been threatened except the Russian Orthodox. My property was taken and we have nothing,” he said. Others, including a recent report from the United Nations Human Rights Office, confirm that looting is being done by rebels and their supporters.

“That is the problem. I have lost everything in eastern Ukraine,” said Radchenko. “Those who remain undergo threats, oppression and are beaten up. That is the tragedy. If the separatists learn that people are pro-Ukraine they suffer a lot. It is like cleansing. Either you leave or you suffer.”

Yurii Radchenko says he has been shot at, his houses stolen.
Yurii Radchenko says he has been shot at, his houses stolen.

Radchenko and other Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) spoke to a reporter recently through an interpreter at a former military compound in the town of Vynnyky, east of Lviv. About 200 men, women and children are being sheltered and fed there by The Good Samaritan Protestant Church, said a Canadian, Roman Yereniuk, who is helping to fund the effort.

“Many Protestants are not tolerated by the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine,” he said. “The other two Orthodox churches have good ecumenical relations with the Protestants. Many have escaped from the east to the west.”

Some 375,000 IDPs have fled from the violence in the east and are living largely off their savings and the largesse of friends and family across Ukraine, the United Nations Human Rights Office reported Oct. 8. The report confirms that persecution is taking place.

Some of them near Lviv arrived four months ago, others more recently, said one of their leaders, Elena Pavlenko. All had similar stories of fearing for their lives as a result of either direct threats or concerns about being caught in the crossfire between Ukrainian and separatist forces.

In a recent article in Ukraine’s The Day newspaper, Mykola Siry, a senior researcher at the Koretsky Institute of State and Law, said “we are talking about systemic torture of people in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, intentional murders. It is a form of intimidation of the whole population.”

In the Middle East, ISIS is attacking and killing civilian populations because of their beliefs, and the international community is taking military action. But violence is also happening to civilians in eastern Ukraine, where the West is avoiding engagement.

For Pavlenko, fears arose when the separatists placed missile launchers beside her house. The noise was deafening, she said, and they feared being bombed by their own side. Her husband arranges the refugees’ humanitarian aid, and they have a small child. The rebels, a mix of local men resenting the centralized control of Kyiv and foreigners she said are from Russia, are shelling the airport about eight kilometers away in a bid to force out the Ukrainian forces in control.

Elena Pavlenko, a leader of the group, talks to a reporter.
Elena Pavlenko, a leader of the group, talks to a reporter.

Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatist fighters recently marked one month since the signing of a Kremlin-backed truce with one the most heated battles of the six-month war in Donetsk. Ukraine said 75 soldiers and civilians have been killed since the Sept. 5 cease-fire. President Petro Poroshenko is hoping the shaky truce, signed as part of a peace plan, will hold together for parliamentary elections Oct. 26.

Pavlenko said many soldiers have died in the fighting, noting a “massive burial site” near the airport. About 400 civilians have also died from Luhansk, to her knowledge. Most people have fled, she said, and those who remain stay inside. Thousands of IDPs have also gone to Russia.

Protestants make up about 2.4 per cent of the Ukrainian population, but Ukraine has been called the “Bible belt” of Eastern Europe and a hub of evangelical church life and missions. Most people are Ukrainian Orthodox (40 per cent), Russian Orthodox (30 per cent), or Ukrainian Greek Catholic (14 per cent). Roman Catholics account for 1.7 per cent of the population, Moslems 0.6 per cent and Jews, 0.2.

While the loss of Crimea in March appeared to reduce tensions between the Orthodox churches – one pro-Moscow prelate even denounced Putin as a “bandit” – bitter divisions remain.

Mr. Radchenko, who worked for a non-profit organization that helped drug addicts and former prison inmates, said pastors have been tortured. He gave the example of one who was injured and taken to a hospital, where separatists were also being treated. When they heard him proselytize they informed their leaders, who hauled the man from the hospital, beat him up, and left him for dead in a forest. Parishoners found him and he is recovering, Radchenko said.

That’s when he asked friends to find a place for him and his family – wife, four children and mother in law. His wife and kids arrived here four months ago, but he stayed home until mid-September.

It all began with widespread protests in Ukraine last November when former President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of a deal with Russia. He was forced from office in February, as most Ukrainian people support ties with the EU as essential to cleaning up a corrupt system. Ukraine is also deeply in debt, and Yanukovych was despised for lining his own pockets and those of his family and friends. But his departure displeased the Kremlin and led to armed rebellion by pro-Russian rebels in the east and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

As a 17-year-old student, Valentine, said at the monument on Maidan or Independence Square, “Russia wanted to control us, hence the fighting in the east.”

Another man who fled from the east, Vasiliy Klimov, 40, who has four daughters and a wife, said things got quickly out of hand at his home of Krasnodon.

“When the war began, local people who formed the bandit groups took weapons, from I don’t know where, and captured the police station, and it surrendered and joined them. Next these separatists blew up the customs building on the border with Russia.”

Klimov said it was frightening to go into town because the armed rebels without uniforms were openly stopping cars and people. “It was scary to say something that would provoke them. Some friends heard people scream from the cars, they heard someone shoot. That’s why we packed up and left for Crimea in June.”

But the family left Crimea Sept. 22 because “there is uncertainty in the air and some people expect the war also in Crimea,” on the Black Sea peninsula. It has Russia’s only warm-water port (which it had been leasing) and is home to its Black Sea fleet. “Crimea is wanted back by local authorities,” Klimov said, “and local Tatars (who are Moslem and more than 10 per cent of the population) are against the annexation of Crimea.”

Vasiliy Klimov with three of his daughters; they fled twice.
Vasiliy Klimov with three of his daughters; they fled twice.

Annexation happened after the March 16 referendum showed 97 per cent support for joining Russia. Even if the voting was rigged, some people say most Crimeans wanted change; others say a majority liked the status-quo. Some Ukrainian people from the Soviet era believe that under Russia their old ways would be better protected.

Like many here, Pavlenko believes the war is rooted partly in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire for a land route to Crimea.

Putin has said his concern is to protect ethnic Russians. He has accused Ukrainian troops of acting “like Nazis” in the conflict by targeting residential areas of towns and cities like German troops did in the former Soviet Union during the Second World War.

Propaganda comes from both sides, but much of it is from Russia. Russian military leaders have claimed on TV that only Ukrainian can be spoken in the region, when in fact Russian is freely and legally used. The UN report says propaganda and incitement to hatred are causing tensions in eastern Ukraine that could lead to the region breaking away like Crimea.

Language is a sore point. Ukrainian is the only officially recognized tongue, which tends to hamper rather than build national unity. Many people speak Russian, especially in the cities, while Ukrainian is more common in the country. The interpreter, Ievgenii Sinielnikov, a 27-year-old businessman and former PhD student from a town near Kyiv, said many use a blended Russian-Ukrainian language called “Surzhyk,” after a mix of grain.

Another problem is corruption in the legal system: bribery of judges is common.

But the key reason for regional discontent in Sinielnikov’s view is the lack of local control over taxation, spending, and other matters. While countries like Canada have empowered their regions and largely removed the grievances of those in outlying areas, many in the east resent Kyiv’s control of their lives. For them, it smacks of the Soviet Union at its worst.

The month-old ceasefire agreement addresses this concern, as greater autonomy will be granted to the rebel-held areas. But the separatist genie is out of the bottle and will be difficult to stuff back in.


Mr. Bird is touring Ukraine and area. For more about the refugee camp see teenagerfund.org.ua

Cover photo: Orthodox church overlooks a smoke filled Luhansk