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.
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.