Who is Waging the War in the Luhansk People’s Republic

26 December 2014, 17:53

Compared to the overpowering Donetsk, Luhansk and the oblast looked like a provincial backyard. Donetsk was the display window, polished and glammed up, while Luhansk remained an all-time loser friend. Donetsk had discipline and order; Luhansk had a never-ending mess, squabbles, intrigues and corruption so clumsy that it was hard to hide.  

The tragic developments of the past year hardly changed this. The “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) has some stability because it is under total control of Oplot, a group officially promoting itself as a no-rules fight club and an active participant of the anti-Maidan in Kharkiv in spring 2014, as well as in the latest developments in Eastern Ukraine. The occupied part of Luhansk Oblast is by contrast tormented by the usual chaos. Its territory has turned into an arena for the squabbles of the rival criminal groups that have been interested in fighting with each other more than in resisting the Ukrainian army. They do not care about civilians, which makes the havoc and hunger in the insurgency-covered part of Luhansk Oblast worse than in Donetsk.

The occupied part of Luhansk Oblast is split between the groups of Oleksandr Yefremov, Head of Luhansk Oblast State Administration in 1998-2005, elected Party of Regions MP in 2006 and head of the Party of Regions faction in the Verkhovna Rada in 2010, and the “Don Cossacks” under the leadership of Nikolai Kozitsyn, a Russian citizen. Yefremov’s people are in Luhansk and present themselves as the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR). Kozitsyn’s group makes up the “Great Don Cossack National Guard”, a paramilitary organization established in early May 2014 to participate in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The group controls almost all of the rest of the occupied territory in Luhansk Oblast. The two groups have been in a flaccid conflict with each other, seeing the Ukrainian army as the primary opponent so far. However, as soon as some sort of a truce gains ground, they will most likely rush into their final battle against each other.

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The influence of the Yefremov group in Luhansk Oblast has been fading lately, quite in contrast to the clout of the “Cossacks”. This is hardly surprising. Yefremov and his team have long ago repelled Luhansk residents. The unrests that took place there in spring were both against the new government in Kyiv, and the brazen corrupt officials in Luhansk. Supporters of the unrest believed that the “Luhansk People’s Republic” would bring about new people to replace the old officials and the rotten system. That never happened. Very soon, Yefremov’s role behind the LNR project became obvious.  The information war between the two groups has raged for quite a while now. They made several attempts to unite against Ukraine but squabbles soon resumed every time.  

At first, an unknown Valeriy Bolotov was appointed the LNR leader. People soon recognized him as Yefremov’s supervisor of kopanky, illegal coal mines in the Donbas. He was then replaced by Ihor Plotnitskiy, an unknown civil servant who was a better candidate for the new face in the “government”.  

Then, Yefremov ran out of “new faces” so Plotnitskiy was forced to hire trustworthy people who had been solidifying the clout of Yefremov’s clan in Luhansk Oblast for many years. On December 2, Ihor Plotnitskiy appointed 12 city “mayors”, all of them ex-Party of Regions members and long-time loyal men of Yefremov.  

Manolis Pilavov, ex-deputy mayor of Luhansk, became the current city mayor, while the neighbouring Stakhanov, Brianka and Rovenky got ex-Party of Regions Serhiy Zhevlakov, Mykola Morhunov and Serhiy Kniazhev, former legitimate mayors of these cities. Party of Regions’ Vitaliy Mykhailov, Head of Perevalsk County State Administration, became the mayor of Perevalsk. Pervomaisk and Sverdlovsk are the only cities with Yevheniy Onyshchenko and Andriy Sukhachov, members of the Cossack militant groups, as mayors.

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In addition to the loyal mayors appointed by Plotnitskiy, Yefremov’s people are in the top echelons of the LNR. One is Oleh Akimov, the “head of the LNR trade unions”, a Party of Regions man known for a corruption scandal. Before the war, he was director of Sports for All, a public institution receiving millions of hryvnias from the budget to set up sports grounds in town that never actually appeared. Known in Luhansk as Yefremov’s creature, Akimov switched to work for the separatists after the LNR was proclaimed.

The Party of Regions’ Rodion Miroshnyk is another of Yefremov’s seasoned men and a long-time director of Luhansk Oblats Television (LOT). He personally hosted pro-Russian rallies in Luhansk this spring asking people to rise for insurgency. After the war began, he left Luhansk but returned recently to join the separatists.

Yefremov’s people never boasted brilliant managerial skills. Thanks to them, Luhansk Oblast always dragged behind all others in Ukraine in various ratings. This explains why the new “LNR government” outraged many ideological separatists who were very well aware of the moral qualities and corruption appetites of Yefremov’s people. The “Cossack” field commanders soon began to accuse Plotnitskiy’s team of treason and embezzlement. Cossack leader Kozitsyn insisted that Plotnitskiy paid the Ukrainian military for a corridor to escape to Russia.

The local branch of Natalia Vitrenko’s Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine is another ardent critic of Plotnitskiy. Branch head Liubov Korsakova known for pleas to ban people with Lviv registration from entering Luhansk Oblast made in 2009 wears a Cossack hat today and openly speaks of Ihor Plotnitskiy as a traitor.  

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Vostok (East), the newspaper she edits, says that Plotnitskiy’s team has “traded coal from Antratsyt and pocketed the revenues, causing an armed clash between the local Cossacks and Plotnitskiy’s raider group”. Ksenia Shkoda, a journalist now working for the separatists, described the conflict that took between the LNR militants and Kozitsyn’s Cossack National Guard in Antratsyt in detail to The Free Press, a Russian website. The Cossack commander of the city was killed in the stand-off. “That day, the Cossack National Guard headquarters got a radio message from its checkpoints of a military convoy heading to Antratsyt from the LNR-controlled Lutuhino. When asked ‘where and why are you going?’ they replied ‘it’s none of your business’,” she said in the comment. “The day before groups in civilian clothes arrived in Antratsyt claiming that they were visiting relatives. They stayed at private apartments… Next day, prior to the expected arrival of the military convoy, these groups began to storm the building where the Cossack National Guard headquarters were located. A shootout began. Commander of a special unit of the Antratsyt garrison Shakhtar (Miner) and a guard were shot. Three more Cossacks were wounded. Prapor, the commandant of Antratsyt, was shot in the heart. His heart stopped beating 15 minutes later… The Cossack National Guard rapid response team arrived 10 minutes later and purged the headquarters building from the LNR fighters. One assaulter was shot. Four were taken captive, others escaped. When the apartments where they stayed were searched, Dragunov sniper rifles, Shmel portable rocket launchers, grenades and rifles were found. War prisoners with LNR IDs are being interrogated. Disarmed by a diversionist group, the military convoy turned around and headed towards Luhansk. Several minutes later, news popped up on the official LNR website of the “LNR police force and a Cossack unit that neutralized an armed gang,” Oksana Shkoda said.

The latest episode in the standoff of the Cossack groups with the Yefremov-Plotnitskiy gang was a hysterical accusation of the “LNR authorities” of stealing humanitarian aid by Yevhen Ishchenko, the separatist-appointed mayor of Pervomaisk. He pledged to return to Luhansk with arms unless the “LNR authorities” provided better supplies of food and necessary items to the city.

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Frustration over the leaders of the self-proclaimed republic will obviously grow, especially given the fact that Luhansk gets far better supplies compared to the rest of the oblast. Local princelings blame the humanitarian disaster and massive unemployment on Plotnitskiy and his people, persuading the locals that the LNR is headed by traitors and crooks.

At the same time, Yefremov’s people are probably more convenient partners both for the LNR supervisors in Russia and for the Ukrainian side than the incontrollable criminals in Cossack attire. This means that the squabbles amongst the militants will continue, so suggestions of ceasing the war and resuming peaceful life in Luhansk Oblast are pre-term. The region will most likely face a slew of violent criminal scandals and redistribution of the stolen property. It is next to impossible to guess who will win the standoff.

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