20 years under Putin: a timeline

The crisis in eastern Ukraine is still developing. The results of the referenda that took place on May 11 show that the majority of residents of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions support secession from Ukraine. According to political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya, unlike the Crimean referendum, the voting in Donetsk and Luhansk is a risky game, the outcome of which is still hard to predict.



In order to fully understand the May 11 referenda in Donetsk and Luhansk, one must contrast them with the preparation for the referendum in Crimea and the actual situation in Ukraine’s eastern regions.

The Kremlin’s campaign to annex Crimea was reminiscent of a structured and well-coordinated special operation, the outcome of which was never in doubt. The Kremlin had two very important advantages in that situation, the first one being the presence in Crimea of the Black Sea Fleet, roughly 11,000 soldiers strong, which could provide “military support” of the voting process. Military forces also guaranteed order in polling places and the safety of the new pro-Russian government that had seized Crimea’s administrative buildings (although Russia has never admitted its direct interference in Crimea). Moreover, this military advantage helped to avoid clashes with Ukrainian military forces, the National Guard of Ukraine, and the Right Sector party.

The Kremlin’s second advantage consisted in the domination of pro-Russian attitudes among the local population. Until February 2014, only 44 percent of Crimeans supported the idea of joining Russia. However, this changed drastically following the February revolution in Kiev, due in no small part to Russian propaganda: in the run-up to the referendum, all Ukrainian TV channels were disabled and the campaign was for all intents and purposes one-sided.

It is important to mention that Crimeans voted only on Crimea’s accession to Russia—the question of independence was resolved by the Supreme Council of Crimea. The lightning speed with which the operation was carried out is also worth noting: the Kremlin made the political decision to annex Crimea in early March, and two weeks later, all formal procedures concerning the preparation for the referendum were already completed.

The situation in Donetsk and Luhansk is fundamentally different, the main difference being that Moscow has no clear plan for how to annex these regions, let alone how to incorporate them into Russia. In the case of Crimea, the peninsula’s strategic location and the opportunity to block Ukraine’s intention to join NATO (which does not accept as members countries with ongoing territorial disputes) played an important role. Any attempt by Russia to annex the Donetsk and Luhansk regions carries much greater risks and lower chances of success.

First, the annexation will inevitably result in military clashes between pro-Russians activists (because Russia will have to bring in troops) and Ukrainian forces. Second, the public mood in both regions is more ambiguous than it was in Crimea: pro-federalization forces, pro-independence forces, and supporters of the Russian annexation all have support within the local population. Third, pro-Russian forces do not entirely control the territory of these regions. In Donetsk, for instance, a power vacuum has emerged: both governor Sergei Taruta and Donetsk mayor Alexander Lukyanchenko lack popular support and are essentially powerless. Opponents of the Kiev government are scattered supporters of different ways to settle the crisis, and there is no consensus among them on the question of accession to Russia.

Nor is there unity within pro-Russian forces. According to the so-called “people’s governor of the Donetsk region,” Pavel Gubarev, a number of pro-Russian activists are getting paid by Ukraine’s richest businessman, Rinat Akhmetov. He openly affirmed this in an interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the Russian government’s official newspaper. The very fact that Rossiyskaya Gazeta published such an interview means that the Kremlin sees no need to limit its informational support to those forces in favor of the regions’ accession to Russia.

The situation in Donetsk and Luhansk is fundamentally different from Crimea, the main difference being that Moscow has no clear plan for how to annex these regions, let alone how to incorporate them into Russia.

The ongoing conflict between the Donetsk Oblast cities of Slavyansk and Donetsk is also worth mentioning. As Russian journalist Oleg Kashin pointed out in an investigative article published by Internet media outlet Slon.ru, leaders of the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), who, according to Gubarev, are on Akhmetov’s payroll, “are the team of Denis Pushilin, the self-declared leader of the republic...These are the same people who have already been sitting for a month in the building they had seized in downtown Donetsk; they do not shoot at anybody (they are either lightly armed or not armed at all), they put up banners, organize rallies, and in general do not threaten anyone with anything, but create a convincing picture of Donetsk separatism.”

According to Kashin, unlike in Donetsk, in Slavyansk there is real fighting resulting in real casualties. The military commander of pro-Russian forces in Slavyansk, Igor Strelkov (also known as Igor Girkin), and Russian political technologist Alexander Borodai, the new prime minister of the DPR, are both close to Konstantin Malofeev, Russian businessman and founder of private equity firm Marshall Capital Partners (the largest minority shareholder of the state corporation Rostelekom). Kashin thus draws the conclusion that there is no doubt that the Kremlin in fact supports DPR separatists.

Unlike in Crimea, Russian president Vladimir Putin has never declared his direct and unequivocal support for the referenda on independence in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Moreover, after meeting with the Swiss president and current Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe chairperson-in-office Didier Burkhalter, Putin called for postponement of referenda in Eastern Ukraine. Separatists refused to follow the Kremlin’s advice, though. The Kremlin initially saw both regions as a bargaining chip to use during negotiations with the West on Ukraine’s future. The more marginal DPR and LPR (the Lugansk People’s Republic) separatists are, the easier it will be for the Kremlin to disclaim all responsibility for any developments.

The majority of those who took part in the referenda voted in support of the establishment of the “People’s Republics.” On the evening of May 11, Roman Lyagin, chairman of the Central Election Commission of the DPR, declared that 89.07 percent of voters had cast ballots in favor of self-rule. However, according to the Ukrainian media, not more than 10 percent of the regions’ populations participated in the referenda. Also, according to an opinion poll conducted in April by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), 27.5 percent of Donetsk residents and 30.5 percent of Luhansk residents more or less support the idea of joining Russia. The majority of observers noted multiple violations during the voting.

After the May 25 presidential elections in Ukraine, the big question now is whether the new Ukrainian authorities will be able to settle the crisis in eastern Ukraine. By flirting with pro-Russian minorities in Donetsk and Luhansk, the Kremlin, instead of gaining another advantage in negotiations, might just end up with a yoke around its neck, especially if forces in eastern Ukraine choose to play their own game.