• The trend of escalating political and economic confrontation continues in the occupied part of the Donetsk oblast of Ukraine. Factors include: an almost twofold drop in production over the past year; reduction of the "DNR"-"LNR" "budgets"; the autumn elections of heads of the "republics"; contest for influence over "nationalized" Ukrainian enterprises, and; the possible prospect of a return to Ukraine as a result of implementation of the Minsk agreements.
• Despite the continuing partial mobilization in the occupied territories of Donbas staff shortages within the "army corps" of the "republics" remain problematic.
• The region near the closed mine in Yenakiieve is facing a possible ecological disaster as drainage where an experimental nuclear explosion was set off in 1979, has been stopped. The threat is posed by the looming erosion of the capsule with radiation products caused by ground waters .
• Rinat Akhmetov is directing the efforts of patronized non-governmental organizations and work with local youth in preparation of his return to the role of the boss of Donbass (with an autonomous status).
• Ukraine tasks the military with liberating the occupied territories of Donbass.
• The likelihood of Petro Poroshenko tightening his policy towards the Donbass, i.e. a military campaign and introduction of martial law before the 2019 elections grows amidst falling electoral ratings.
• The coup d'etat plot and planned murder of Ukraine’s leaders, orchestrated by deputy Nadiya Savchenko together with "DNR" leaders and Moscow’s approval, dispels any illusions Petro Poroshenko may have held regarding the possibility of peaceful compromises with Moscow. Inadvertently, the plot has freed him of any moral obligations towards Putin, and the West, regarding the implementation of the political aspects of the Minsk agreements.
Situation in the Donbass
Despite statements made by "DNR" leaders regarding economic growth in the territories under their control, a comparison of (even the "official republican") 2017 statistics on the production of key products with similar indicators from 2016 shows an almost twofold drop in production. Furthermore, the leaders of the “DNR”-“LNR” ordered the tax exemption of Vneshtorgservis; a closely-held stock company to which the management of all the major, budget revenue generating, enterprises of the metallurgical and coal industry of the occupied territories were transferred. This move caused an increase of the budget deficit of the "republics" thereby worsening the socioeconomic situation, consequently creating grounds for political competition just before the upcoming autumn “elections” of "heads of the republics" and "deputies of the People's Councils".
Alexander Khodakovsky, a potential rival of the "DNR" leader and founder of the Vostok Battalion illegal armed formation is increasingly using social networks to hint at the possibility of a coup, if elections do not change the leadership. Khodakovsky claims continued control over more than two thousand militants who, after the "battalion" was disbanded, were transferred to the 1st Army Corps (the "DNR Army"). It should be noted that these units are the most battle- ready and closest to the most vulnerable sectors of the front. They provide Khodakovsky a certain security guarantee: in case he is “eliminated”, they may resign their positions. In light of the already considerably undermanned status of the illegally armed formations, the current “DNR” leadership must avoid such a move . The same Khodavkovsky writes in social networks: "Do you know the conditions accompanying our partial mobilization? Do you know that in order to equip reservists, the operating units have to return the uniforms they obtained in 2015, which has long since decayed on the frontline? Do you know that in order to feed reservists, the operating units deduct ten percent of their daily allowances? Do you know that there is a drastic deficiency in the units on the frontline, it is trying to be closed by reservists, but it is not working?"
Another possible factor of economic and, consequently, political destabilization is Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development transfer of the monopoly on the export of coal from the occupied Donbass to structures connected to former Ukrainian oligarch Serhiy Kurchenko, currently living in Moscow.
Other coal traders, dissatisfied with the new supply scheme, prepared an appeal addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the heads of the Russian law enforcement agencies. The document notes that the decision of Russia’s the Ministry of Economic Development banning all companies, with the exception of Kurchenko-related Gas Alliance, from exporting coal from the occupied part of Donbass provoked a sharp negative reaction from business groups who have been controlling this market. The said decision was made known on March 14, 2018 by a telegram sent by the Ministry to RZD Logistics. This information has also been confirmed by sources within occupied Donbass.
The worsening socio-economic situation and escalating internal political struggles in the "DNR- LNR" may provoke a military escalation. Kyiv and the "authorities" of the "republics" may become interested in such developments.
For militants who now control the "power" structures of the occupied territories, the escalation of the military situation may be an excuse for abolishing the elections and opportunity to drag Russia into an open military conflict with Kyiv.
For the Ukrainian leadership, the deterioration of socioeconomic situation in the occupied territories and consequently, the growth of social unrest is a favorable background for the military liberation of the territory. Representatives of the Ukrainian government are speaking about this with ever increasing frequency.
The renewed political activity of the main Donetsk oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, whose structures were previously demonstratively expelled from the occupied territories, can also facilitate increased tension in the region. According to our sources, Western grant money is funding nongovernmental organizations that used to work with Akhmetov, and were previously engaged in providing humanitarian aid to the population. They are currently working with youth and entrepreneurs on the government-controlled territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Thus, Akhmetov expects to regain his influence in the region after his return to Ukraine - through the influence on community-minded youth. The potential danger of this activity lies in the fact that the leaders of these, Western-funded organizations, relay Akhmetov's political sentiments and speak of a "civil conflict in Ukraine" and the need of a special status for Donbass (de facto autonomy). Akhmetov is interested in gaining such preferences for the region under his control, but this will provoke a response from other regions throughout Ukraine as well as from far right and nationalist organizations. Moreover, the oligarch's intentions lay the ground for a future conflict between the “elite” of the current "occupation” and the old one, represented by Akhmetov and the Party of Regions.
However, the reluctance of the leadership of the occupied territories to return to Ukraine's control (under the current Ukrainian government) blocks the implementation of Ahmetov's plans and the political part of the Minsk agreements. Notably, the leader of the "DNR", Zakharchenko, and his deputy Timofieyev not only expressed unwillingness to end the conflict, they participated in the conspiracy of the attempted coup d'etat, prepared by the Verkhovna Rada deputy Nadiya Savchenko. They provided weapons for terrorist acts planned for Kyiv as well as the killing of Ukraine’s entire leadership.
"They understand that Russia will still give them back to Ukraine, what does not geopolitically come together, and they will remain practically independent or under Russia's control. But they do not want Petro (Poroshenko) anyway. That is, their request is to change the authorities. They are ready to do everything needed for their part", - Savchenko said on operational footage provided by the SBU.
A serious and potential factor of serious destabilization in the region is the looming ecological catastrophe caused by the planned April 14 cessation of water pumping from the decommisioned mine, Yunkom, in Yenakiieve. In 1979 it was the site of experimental nuclear explosion testing. The termination of the mine drainage was "officially" confirmed by the "DNR" "authorities".
The decision to flood the mine containing radiation products was taken, as they write, "solely within the recommendations of the People's Council of the Donetsk People's Republic". That is, it was purely political and conditioned by the lack of funds for mine drainage.
In the event that radiation products crop out through groundwater, the territory may be freed to eliminate the consequences of catastrophe for Ukraine, as well as for the introduction of the "peacekeeping contingent" by Russia, the territory of which is also in the potential risk zone.
Internal political factors in Ukraine affecting the situation in the Donbass
The most striking indicator of official Kyiv's trends regarding the development of situation in Donbass was the phrase of commander of the Joint Forces Serhiy Nayev. "I clearly realize that it is a very big responsibility. I have to fulfill the main task assigned to the commander of the Joint Forces, namely, the liberation of the occupied territories of Donbass from the invaders, who came to us from the Russian Federation. They have seized, and are currently holding, the territory in the east of our state under the occupation".
In previous reports, we identified the sharp drop in the rating of the authorities as a possible cause of the recent increase in the number of statements made by the top leadership of Ukraine regarding a possible military liberation of the occupied territories.. According to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) poll results, if the presidential election had been held in the end of February, Y.Tymoshenko would have received more votes than any other candidate presented to the respondents with 24.6% followed by O. Liashko (15.5%), A. Hrytsenko (9.8%), and P. Poroshenko (9.7%). Had parliamentary elections been held, the all-Ukrainian Union Batkivshchyna would have received the most support (22.5%) followed by the Radical party of Oleh Liashko (13.7%), the Oppositional Bloc (12.4%), party Za Zhyttia (10.3%) and the Petro Poroshenko Bloc (6.6%).
Thus, a year before the official election campaign, Poroshenko and his entourage have started to realize that extraordinary steps must be taken in order to preserve their power and avoid possible criminal liability. The most likely measure may be the beginning of a military campaign to liberate the Donbass with the possible introduction of martial law.
The Savchenko case showed the President that he can no longer count on Moscow's support. Apparently, the Kremlin considers Y.Tymoshenko's high rating more promising for resolving the "Ukrainian problem".
We are inclined to consider the Savchenko-Ruban attempt to carry out a coup d'etat not so much from Ukraine's internal policy point of view, but in the context of Russian-Ukrainian relations.
In many ways, using Savchenko (possibly without her knowledge), Russia tried to conduct a real military operation in Ukraine, the objective of which was, most likely, Kyiv and large sections of the rest of Ukraine.
The "DNR" is under Russia’s strict control. Particularly, the control of the military intelligence of the General Staff of the Russian Federation. It is simply impossible to assert that Zakharchenko handed over weapons to Savchenko in order to kill the leaders of the Ukrainian state without the approval of Moscow.
Had Savchenko-Ruban succeeded, all three branches of Ukraine's government (the president, the head of the parliament and the prime minister with the ministers) would have been destroyed. This would not only paralyze the life of the state, it would block any effective actions of Ukraine in the event of a new stage of external aggression.
After the execution of the head of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, tens of thousands of ready-made Russian troops would most likely have reached Kyiv without serious resistance (we wrote about the large-scale military exercises on the perimeter of Ukraine and Patrushev's visit to Belarus in the previous report). Perhaps it is in connection with this, that Vladimir Putin recently signed a decree on the actual mobilization in the Russian Federation - the call-in of reservists. Russia was clearly preparing for a serious military operation in the territory of Ukraine.
Realizing the degree of threat to himself, the Ukrainian president no longer trusts Viktor Medvedchuk - the godfather of Putin's child, exercising influence on Poroshenko. Moreover, the Prosecutor General of Ukraine Yuriy Lutsenko’s frank hint of Medvedchuk's involvement in the plot signals a change in the tactics of the Ukrainian leadership in implementation of the "Minsk agreements" and "international peacekeepers issue". According to the Ukrainian Choice social movement (headed by Medvedchuk), "the manipulative attempt of the authorities to link the Ukrainian Choice social movement and the "Savchenko-Ruban" case testifies that the scenario of the "war party " is being implemented in Ukraine".
Geopolitical influence on the development of the conflict
The Russian Federation, in fact, began preparations for a large-scale war without even trying to hide it. Putin's internet adviser, German Klimenko, said that Russia was "ready to turn off the Internet". The head of Russia’s Sberbank is preparing the Russian banking system for the disabling of the Swift payment system, blocking international bank transfer systems, cards and transactions. The Ministry of Industry and Trade is preparing for Russia's withdrawal from the WTO. The Supreme Court is preparing for Russia's withdrawal from the European Court of Human Rights.
It may be that the Kremlin would prefer to achieve its geopolitical and territorial ambitions "peacefully", without war. Therefore, it threatens and demonstrates force in every possible way. In parallel, the Russian mass media are introducing the idea that "Ukraine can and needs to be returned: Ukrainians are one of the branches of the Russian nation... Ukraine is a historical part of Russia. We have every right to fight for the reunification with Ukraine".
The Russian media, recapping Putin, who declared in his address to the Federal Assembly that the former republics of the Soviet Union are “the lost territories of Russia”, portray Ukraine not only as a "sacral" territory (from the point of view of the invented origin of hundreds of peoples of the Russian Federation from the territory of Kievan Rus), but also as human, territorial, industrial and agrarian potential, necessary for the following wars in conditions of international isolation.
The Russian leadership continues to drive anti-Western sentiments, presenting the war, which they unleashed in Ukraine, as part of Russia's holy war against the whole Western world. Its population, is being prepared for the possibility of a real war in the near future, possibly before the World Cup in Russia.
It is obvious that both parties to the conflict are preparing for real escalation - politically, information-wise, as well as in military form.
Centre for research of Donbass social perspectives
The review was prepared with the support of GPD Charitable Trust