After Slaviansk

David Marples

The loss of Slaviansk to Ukrainian government forces has placed the so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk (DNR and LNR) in a quandary. Can the war be continued from the main oblast centers and, if so, for how long? And is there realistic hope of substantial military aid from Russia? Has the balance of power changed irrevocably for the separatist forces? And how should the Ukrainian leaders proceed?

Though the separatist forces, until recently, were far from united, perhaps the clearest enunciation of the priorities of the DNR—the most prominent of the two republics—was provided on June 12 by the press center of the “South-east” movement coordinated by Oleg Tsarev. It listed several main objectives, the first of which was the creation of a union state with Russia, which would provide a common security system, contractual relations with Ukraine, and a state with full language rights for all citizens (

The action plan envisaged compensation payments by the end of August for families and victims who suffered “from the aggression of the Kiev junta,” and material assistance for those with destroyed property. It also “guaranteed” the prompt payment of wages, pensions, and social benefits, and proposed to cancel a 200% rise in tariffs for gas, electricity, and public utilities, announced by the government in Kyiv. Wages were to rise in factories owned by oligarchs (most notably those of Rinat Akhmetov) and there would be a transitional period during which Ukrainian institutions would fall under DNR control. The acquisition of Russian citizenship was also to have been permitted (

These policies fall under the heading of federalism as defined by the Russian leadership of Vladimir Putin. Notably they do not include foreign or security policy, in which respect they are not dissimilar to the sort of vision for the Donbas that Mikhail Gorbachev had devised for the former Soviet Union through his abortive Union agreement in 1991. Like Gorbachev’s Union Agreement they appear to be unworkable.

According to a pro-Russian source, the leaders of the DNR based in Donetsk, in the face of the sustained attacks from the Ukrainian army, were inclined to reach a compromise that would have signaled the end of the republic. In the view of this same author, negotiations between Akhmetov, the renegade leader of the Vostok battalion Aleksandr Khodakovsky, the pro-Putin Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, and officials such as Vladislav Surkov, the former First Deputy Chairman of the Presidential Administration in Moscow that would have sacrificed Igor Strelkov, the “defense minister” of the DNR and removed from regional decision-making Aleksey Mozgovoy (leader of the “people’s militia in Luhansk) and Pavel Gubarev (“people’s governor” of the DNR). The conciliatory position reflects in part the “substantial influence” of Akhmetov over the Donetsk-based leadership of the DNR (

Strelkov scuttled all these plans, when he arrived in Donetsk over the past weekend, declaring that he wished to put an end to the contradictions—what the first author called “grave digging” because of its defeatist attitude—and unite all forces under a single command ( Prior to that, many assumed that Strelkov would die a hero’s death in in the defense of Slaviansk. Instead, according to one source, he departed “like Kutuzov” (, a reference to the calculated retreat of the Russian general in the face of Napoleon’s Grande Armee in the war of 1812. His arrival in Donetsk and assumption of command appears akin to a coup d’etat, replacing the hitherto uncoordinated leadership of the DNR.

In an interview with, Strelkov stated that he left Slaviansk to protect the lives of peaceful residents and his militia. In order to cover his retreat, a diversionary attack was organized, but the group commander bungled it and most of the troops involved perished. Nonetheless, it allowed Strelkov to depart with 90% of his troops and most of his weapons intact. On July 7, he established the Central Military Council, which included all the main field commanders, with himself in the key position as commander of the Donetsk garrison ( Shortly afterward, Strelkov appeared in Luhansk for a meeting with Valery Bolotov, the leader of the LNR, to coordinate activities (

The loss of Slaviansk to the DNR forces can hardly be underestimated. It was, as DNR supporters acknowledge, the key point of the breakaway republic’s defensive structure, with over 60 heavy guns in place. By July 7, however, the city had no electricity or water supply, and the ATO had disabled the nearby power station at Mykolaivka with a shell ( The retreat appears to have been much less orderly than described. But it raises the question of where the DNR goes from here, and how it will be affected by the change of leadership.

Strelkov’s arrival will likely escalate the conflict. He has never made any secret of his commitment to the war, which he perceives as one for the “liberation” of Ukraine, not merely the southeast. Under his command, whatever his difficulties, compromise with Kyiv is highly unlikely. That leaves a major decision to be made by Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, namely whether to continue the attack, raising civilian casualties even further, in order to bring about a united Ukraine. What would be Putin’s response to the destruction and “occupation”—from the Russian perspective—of the DNR and LNR?

In an interview with Bloomberg on July 7, Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Foundation, maintained that Putin would not be “the loser in Ukraine.” He (Putin) wants “at the very least a federal Ukraine” with its own foreign policy—as we have noted this was not on the DNR agenda—and trade policy. For Bremmer this “federalism” constitutes a “red line” beyond which Putin will not move. It includes “Russian” retention of the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Nevertheless, in his view, the Russian president need not rush to attain his goals in southeast Ukraine because the latter is facing an economic crisis that will only get worse as winter approaches and which has been exacerbated by the high number of migrants from the conflict regions of the Donbas (

Yet the division of forces in the southeast is increasingly complex and many players remain in place, not least Akhmetov, who are looking for a way out. The size of the “Novorossiya” faction is dwindling. Other than Strelkov’s small band of forces, virtually no one now believes that Ukraine will disintegrate or that the concept of Novorossiya is viable. On the other hand, it is clear that for large swathes of the Donbas population, full control by the present Ukrainian administration is as undesirable as a Russian invasion and, Ukrainian media reports aside, the general sentiment after the arrival of the Kyiv army is likely to have been one of relief at the end to fighting rather than triumphalism and liberation.

In other words, there is significant scope for compromise, though any agreement would need to distinguish between regional autonomy and Putin-style federalism or “power sharing.” An autonomous or semi-autonomous Donbas within Ukraine is a logical alternative and moreover, it might appeal to the population at large, even to some of the pro-separatist elements that voted in the contentious referenda last May. But Ukraine could not tolerate a new Transnistria or Abkhazia in its eastern territories, which would continue to destabilize the country. The removal of Strelkov and his forces is the key prerequisite to any progress, but they are increasingly isolated.

In Western Ukraine during Euromaidan, regional governments were virtually autonomous ( A federal system has worked successfully in countries such as Germany and Canada—in the latter case with the retention of priority for the French language in Quebec ( In Ukraine, it is imperative that the Donbas region be adequately represented in the Cabinet and in parliament generally when Ukrainians go to the polls in the fall. Full language rights must be retained for Russian speakers.

This proposal makes one assumption, namely that Vladimir Putin is also looking for an exit plan, having run out of options and fallen foul of more militant hawks in Moscow. Already, the Russian president was prepared to sacrifice Strelkov, indicating limits to the expansion of “the Russian world.” Admittedly this scenario offers a very different interpretation of where Putin stands from that of Ian Bremmer. But in reality, it seems that the Russian president has lost control of his chess game. He has gambled foolhardily and now must try to extricate himself as best he can.

An earlier version of this article appeared in OPEN DEMOCRACY RUSSIA. See 

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Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

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