Lessons for the Donbas from two wars

16 January 2019, 07:28

The theme of national unity has always occupied a prominent place in the history of Ukrainian statist thought, and in 2014 it unexpectedly entered the category of purely practical and, moreover, urgent problems. After the annexation of the Crimea and the occupation of part of the Donbas, the Ukrainian political elite learned how dangerous the mess created by the negligence or deliberate actions of their predecessors could really be. As time passed, Kyiv's willingness to strengthen national unity decreased at the same rate as the intensity of hostilities in the Donbas. Meanwhile, the matter of Ukraine's integrity has not been put to rest. The secret distribution of Hungarian passports in Transcarpathia, the persecution and murder of pro-Ukrainian activists in the south-eastern regions and the revival of the supposedly defeated pro-Russian camp all signalise that Kyiv is still faced with considerable problems. What happened in the Donbas in 2014 is great material for learning from past mistakes. However, it is also useful to recall what happened in this area during the First Liberation Movement: for all the differences in historical circumstances, the Ukrainian elite committed very similar errors 100 years later.

Could the First Liberation Movement have ended in another way? There is a lot of room for discussion. In the Donbas, Ukrainian authorities only lasted for a few months and fell as quickly as they sprang up. Although it is tempting to attribute everything to the strength of the empire and unfavourable geopolitical circumstances, Ukraine's own weakness partially contributed to this result. Above all, the lack of a stable state centre around which Ukrainian lands could be gathered was a great hindrance. Before the Bolshevik occupation of Kyiv, power in the capital had changed hands three times: the Hetmanate replaced the newly-minted Central Council and then the Directorate took its place. But even in the intervals between coups, no government could feel sure of itself and they were constantly distracted by internal squabbling. The elites of the time also lacked confidence in the fact that the Donbas should be part of Ukraine. For example, while the Central Council insisted on this in negotiations with Russia, pointing to 1897 census data, the Hetmanate administration concluded an agreement with the Don Host Cossacks on the joint exploitation of Donetsk basin resources. It is noteworthy that such an idea was supported, in particular, by Dmytro Dontsov, the future patriarch of Ukrainian integral nationalism. Of course, it is hard to condemn the Ukrainian nation-builders of the time – for many of them, the Donbas was a completely unknown land. For example, Mykola Mikhnovskyi, after visiting Luhansk in 1899, wrote that he "got to know parts of our land that I had no idea about".

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Because of the political mess in Kyiv and the chronic shortage of forces in the Donbas, it was not possible to deploy Ukrainian administrative structures, although after the revolution a more or less obvious power vacuum existed for a rather long time. For a while, Ukrainian People's Republic bodies operated in the Donbas alongside their Russian Provisional Government equivalents, although neither could ensure basic order in the region. The local authorities, seeking any kind of forceful support, could only grasp at thin air, and socio-economic chaos rapidly followed the disruption of industry. The Bolsheviks, contrary to Soviet mythology, were not the dominant force either. "The only thing we have to fight Petliura is Red Guard detachments from Petrograd and Moscow," Artyom Sergeyev complained at the emergency Bolshevik Party congress in 1918. However, they accelerated the onset of disorder as much they could, which encouraged pro-German sentiments among the population. The Hetmanate, with the support of the Allies, who had reached Rostov in May 1918, was able to bring the Donbas under control for a short time. However, in a historical perspective, this rather hurt Ukraine in its struggle for the East: the Allies, perceiving the Donbas as their own colony, quickly set the local population against themselves, and thus against the Hetmanate.

The Central Council and the Directorate, imbued with socialism, had good chances of winning sympathy from the local peasantry and the workers. Moreover, nothing extraordinary was required of them. The peasants wanted to be able to freely cultivate the land and dispose of the fruits of their labour without landlords or "communes". The workers sought to restart the factories with certain concessions on conditions and wages. All this was promised by the Bolsheviks, but the Donbas was not overly fond of them. The Central Council and the Directorate, on the other hand, simply did not have enough power to pursue any sort of policy at all. Therefore, it is not surprising that Nestor Makhno, who had power and more or less consistently fulfilled his promises, was the most popular leader in the area. In essence, the Makhnovists – "ordinary good guys from Katerynoslavets", as described by Yuri Horlis-Gorskyi – were natural allies of an independent Ukraine, but their utopian platform made a union impossible. Therefore, the Ukrainian state was never able to find support from Donbas society.

Therefore, the tripod of Ukrainian national unity was always unstable in the Donbas during the First Liberation Movement. The Bolsheviks also had considerable problems, but in the end circumstances worked out in their favour and the Donbas, like all of Ukraine, became part of the "united and indivisible" Russian Empire in its Soviet guise. With the collapse of the USSR, the situation seemed to change radically. The Donbas became a part of a sovereign Ukrainian state, with 84% of local residents supporting independence in a referendum. However, in 2014, it turned out that the national unity tripod has been rather fragile for all this time. And the reasons for this were not so different from 100 years ago. First, Kyiv, despite the country's unitary system of government, was never a strong centre, at least to the point of being able to carry out state policy without adjustments to account for the interests of oligarchs or local elites. This is pointedly demonstrated by the history of Donbas separatism, which began two months after the proclamation of independence. It was then, in October 1991, that the first congress of South-Eastern deputies from all levels of government took place in Donetsk, where delegates demanded federalisation. The 2004 Congress of Regions, which threatened the creation of a "South-East Ukrainian Autonomous Republic", was also held without consequence for its organisers and participants. Unsurprisingly, they decided to make use of the separatist card again in 2014, and Russia decided to make use of them. It was only necessary to find a convenient opportunity, as the capabilities of the central government of the time were minimal.

The state structures that ostensibly had a strong hold on the Donbas also turned out to be extremely vulnerable at the critical moment. Unlike the Crimea, where the Russian Federation conducted a large-scale military operation, key government bodies in Luhansk and Donetsk were paralysed and then captured by relatively small forces of local collaborators and Russian "tourists" in spring 2014. Nevertheless, the post-revolutionary authorities in Kyiv did not feel confident enough to take decisive steps, and had very limited resources to work with (although the experience of Kharkiv showed this did not have to be the case). In over two decades of independence, the Ukrainian state had not built sufficiently effective institutions to ensure order and cohesion. However, this does not only apply to the situation in 2014: a concealed statelessness (the omnipotence of local power brokers, to be more precise) emerged in the Donbas much earlier, but manifested itself in different forms. It is well-known how destructive the role played by local elites in destroying the region's economy was: dozens of industrial enterprises in the Luhansk and Donetsk Regions were appropriated and plundered by Party of Regions business structures or with the blessing of the local authorities they controlled. The central government could have gained the sympathy of the local population, who had to shoulder the grave consequences of this "management", by preventing the plundering. However, for various reasons, Kyiv turned a blind eye to all of this.

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As a result, the third leg of the national unity tripod – civil society – collapsed. Deindustrialisation and the almost uncontrolled restructuring of the coal industry led to severe social and economic consequences in the Donbas. With the shutdown of the factories, whole towns turned into depressed areas with inadequate living conditions – they would become the most significant hotbeds of dissatisfaction and pro-Russian sentiment in 2014. Skilfully manipulating public opinion, the local elite converted disappointment into secessionist and anti-Ukrainian sentiment. Of course, like the Bolsheviks a century earlier, the Donbas on the whole did not sympathise with the separatists even in spring 2014, although the same thing could be said for the local patriotic forces. However, while the separatists were initially supported by the local elite and then Russia, local patriotic forces did not feel the backing of the Ukrainian state and therefore had no chance of turning the tide. Therefore, it was not possible for Kyiv to shift the burden onto civil society when state bodies failed. The result is well-known: the Donbas almost entirely slipped out of Ukrainian rule again.

A lot of time has passed since then and the situation in the liberated part of the Donbas seems rather stable, although this is largely due to the presence of Ukrainian troops and the military-civilian administrations that act as local authorities in the region. The international community, whose reaction forced Russia to stop large-scale military actions against Ukraine, has made a contribution too. Meanwhile, the tripod of Ukrainian national unity is still unsteady. Kyiv still has to reckon with local elites, bringing former Party of Regions members and those not without reason suspected of collaboration into the power vertical. The wave of attacks against pro-Ukrainian public activists that has swept the south-eastern regions suggests that under certain conditions the revenge of anti-state forces could become a reality, at least in some strategically important regions. Considering current public opinion polls, a pro-Russian comeback will not occur in 2019, but the new government set-up will be even more fragile than today's. This, coupled with low support from the population, threatens Ukraine with not only a number of socio-political crises, but also further weakening of the power vertical and state institutions, i.e. the very tripod on which the integrity of the state stands. It is an open question whether Russia or any other external forces will be able to take advantage of this.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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