Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images
Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images

The weakness of eastern Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists

Failed coup in the Donbass region demonstrates lack of popular support

April 10, 2014 8:00AM ET

On Sunday, April 6, pro-Russian separatists captured government buildings in Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine’s mineral-rich eastern regions.In the siege of Luhansk’s security services headquarters, the radicals took some 60 hostages. The next day, pro-Russian activists in Donetsk seized another security services building and declared the creation of an independent Donetsk Republic. Their comrades in Kharkiv followed suit by creating a Kharkiv People’s Republic.

The latest turn of events in Ukraine’s five-month-long turmoil testifies to Russia’s continued determination to stoke unrest as well as Kyiv’s continued vulnerability to Russian subversion. At the same time, Ukrainian authorities are not quite as weak, and the separatists are not quite as strong, as they are believed to be. Following the seizures, Ukrainian authorities successfully pushed back, retaking the security services building in Donetsk on April 7 and the state administration building in Kharkiv on April 8 (during the latter operation, they arrested 70 extremists). On April 9, the Luhansk radicals released 56 hostages after the authorities engaged them in negotiations and called on them to surrender.

The plotters expected mass outpourings of support, but those never came. They probably also expected some local elites to defect to their side, but that, too, never happened. Instead, and contrary to popular belief, a significant number of eastern Ukrainian political elites — including those generally affiliated with former President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions — support the country’s independence and territorial integrity. Even Ukraine’s richest oligarch, the Donetsk-based Rinat Akhmetov, who financed the Yanukovych regime, called on the Donetsk separatists to come to their senses.

In a word, the coup attempt failed. Four days after the seizures of provincial administration buildings, the separatists in both Luhansk and Donetsk remain completely isolated and reduced to the status of violent extremists. At this point, the choice they face is to surrender peacefully or be ousted forcefully.

The unsuccessful coup has shown just how weak radical separatist sentiment is in eastern and southern Ukraine. A public opinion survey conducted by Baltic Surveys and Gallup last month showed that only 4 percent of residents in Ukraine’s east and 2 percent in the south favor Ukraine’s division “into several countries.” Fifty-three percent of easterners want it to remain a “unitary country,” while 26 percent favor a federal arrangement. In the south, the numbers are 69 percent for unitary status and 22 percent for federal. A similar poll by the Institute of Social Research and Political Analysis, meanwhile, showed that 65.7 percent of Donetsk residents favor living in Ukraine, while only 18.2 percent desire unification with Russia. 

A popular uprising on behalf of separatism appears to have no future in the Donbass – at least for the time being.

Donetsk Gov. Serhii Taruta claims that separatists in the region, the Donbass, make up about 0.01 percent of the total population and lack a “broad platform that could inspire the broad masses.” Taruta says that the radical separatists number about 200 and that their supporters are paid to “play their roles.” The total number of pro-Russian extremists in Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk provinces may not exceed three times the Donetsk number.

The upside of these seizures for Kyiv is twofold. First, the separatists are far weaker than they, and Moscow, imagined. And second, the pursuit by central and local authorities of both negotiation and targeted coercion has, thus far, worked.

The downside for Kyiv is, of course, that the coup attempts took place — which testifies, above all, to the fact that the local militia units have been far too desultory in their defense of the government. Some critics accuse the militia of lacking loyalty, a not implausible interpretation in light of the fact that many were recruited during the Yanukovych years.

Taruta is more generous, recognizing that there were “problems with the effectiveness” and “adequacy” of the militia response, while attributing these shortcomings to a “post-Maidan syndrome.” During the popular protests that led to Yanukovych’s ouster, the militia was accused of “going against the people.” In the aftermath of the uprising, the militia has failed to distinguish between those who oppose them and those who support them — and largely remained inactive. 

Putin’s options

So what’s next for Ukraine’s eastern provinces?

A popular uprising on behalf of separatism appears to have no future — at least for the time being. If Russia continues to foment instability and hopes to annex all or parts of the Ukrainian southeast, Vladimir Putin now has two options.

The first is to instruct the pro-Russian separatists to engage in what frustrated radicals the world over do: terrorism. Now that they know just how deeply isolated they are, the separatists have only one course of action open to them — to sow unrest by means of targeted bombings and killings, possibly of government officials or even average citizens. Many of the separatists appear to be armed, and, if need be, Russian intelligence can always smuggle armaments and explosives to them. Terrorism would not endear the separatists, or Russia, to the average eastern Ukrainian, but it could deflect Kyiv from reform and disrupt the May 25 presidential election. While those might well be Moscow’s targets, terrorism will ultimately fail. Kyiv is likely to crack down hard, and the people of the Donbass would rally around the forces of law and order.

Putin’s second option is to invade. But that, too, is risky. On the one hand, even he realizes that an out-and-out invasion, without even the appearance of some local popular support as in Crimea, might put a strain on his credibility among die-hard supporters who want to believe that their “brethren” in Ukraine desperately need their assistance. On the other hand, an invasion would force the West to impose ruinous sanctions on Russia and produce significant popular resistance among the population in the Donbass, which Putin would be claiming to liberate. Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine would therefore require a very large commitment of forces and a prolonged period of pacification, with the attendant casualties for the occupying Russian troops.

Still, just because terrorism will be of limited utility and intervention will be costly does not, alas, mean that Putin will not try them. In the past few weeks he has shown that he is willing to take chances and buck international opinion. But he is not reckless, either. While Ukraine’s southeast will long remain the target of Russian attempts at subversion, time is on Kyiv’s side — and Putin’s chances of successfully undermining Ukraine diminish with every passing day.

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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