The Limits of Kudelia’s Argument: On the Sources of the Donbas "Insurgency"

31 Oct 2014

In his recent PONARS Eurasia policy memo entitled “Domestic Sources of the Donbas Insurgency” and subsequent response to Andreas Umland’s critical remarks, Serhiy Kudelia seeks to convince the readers that “the Donbas insurrection [is] primarily a homegrown phenomenon.” 

While agreeing that “structural feasibility” (state fragmentation, violent regime change, and the government's low coercive capacity) and “group emotions” (resentment and fear) are important variables in explaining the case, I oppose the claim that the armed conflict in the Donbas has domestic sources.

Moreover, I believe, this well written memo is misleading for at least two reasons. First, it is unbalanced as it selectively relies on facts and figures. Second, the language Kudelia uses establishes a problematic frame for the perception of recent events in Ukraine.       

I will start with questioning the logical consequences of Kudelia’s argument. If the admixture of the structural and agency-based variables constitutes a sufficient condition for the eruption of separatist conflict in one region, we may well expect it should have launched secessionist movements in similar regions. However, it did not happen. 

Specifically, if we accept that the Donbas insurgency is primarily of internal nature and Russia has only “sustained” it, then we have difficulties in answering at least two obvious questions:

  1. Why did the Donbas secession begin after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and not before it? If both structural and agency conditions were in place right after the power change in Kyiv (February 22, 2014), then this secession would have occurred between late February and early March. However, the Donbas secession began in April, after Russia annexed Crimea. If one assumes that the secession was a result of a “demonstration effect” (the annexation of Crimea) then we come to the second question:
  2. Why did it succeed in Donetsk and Luhansk, but not in Kharkiv or Odesa? Kharkiv, the former Soviet capital, witnessed several attempts of violent seizure of government buildings led by “Oplot” (“Stronghold” – the name of the main, local separatist organization). Similarly, Odesa went through violent clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian activists that resulted in the deaths of more than forty people. Both cities are largely Russian speaking and both were governed by the local bosses of the former ruling party (Party of Regions). The resentment to, and fear of, “fascists” from Kyiv should have brought about the same results there as they did in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Who spread the fear?

Drawing on the literature of ethnic conflict, Kudelia mentions resentment and fear as emotions instrumental for the beginning of the internal conflict. Though the Donbas conflict can hardly be categorized as ethnic, I disagree with the author's claim that "In the Donbas, fear was a direct response to the growing prominence of nationalist paramilitary groups, like the "Right Sector, which spearheaded violent clashes with the police and seized public buildings."

Relying on figures from an opinion poll (to a question on the necessity of disarming illegal radical groups) without asking where the fear came from and why there are variations in responses to this question across the South East of Ukraine is shortsighted. The poll, actually, reveals quite ambivalent attitudes of the respondents of Donetsk and Luhansk regions to the Right Sector. While 36 percent of respondents in Donetsk and 40 percent in Luhansk sees the Right Sector as one of a dozen marginal groups having little weight in the political process, 50 and 42 percent of respondents of the same regions believed that the Right Sector is a large and influential military formation that poses a threat to citizens and the country's integrity[1].

The questions on the role of Russia in the conflict reflect quite interesting opinions, which Kudelia prefers not to discuss. When asked directly “Do you agree that Russia is an organizer of the separatist meetings and seizures of governmental buildings in the South East of Ukraine,” 17 and 21 percent of respondents in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, respectively, said “yes.” Answering the control question if Russia is rightfully protecting the interests of the Russian speakers in the South East, 47 and 44 percent of respondents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions said “yes.” And finally, when asked if Russia is having no influence on the events in Ukraine, 54 and 48 percent of respondents of Donetsk and Luhansk said “no,” while only 23 and 18 said “yes.” These figures demonstrate that roughly 50 percent of respondents of these two regions agree that Russia does play a role in the conflict.    

His neglect of this kind of data suggests that the fear of those regions’ residents was a natural reaction to "the state collapse." However, the fear was intentionally created as early as January 2014 by the then-ruling Party of Regions. [2] By May 2014, the fear had become a prominent part of the discourse of numerous online discussion groups (900,000 commenters in Vkontakte).[3]

We also know that the first seeds of resentment were planted in the Ukraine’s south and east by Russian “political technologists” back in 2004.[4] Considering that Victor Yanukovych remained connected with Vladislav Surkov, a once-close advisor to Putin, and several other high ranking Russian figures over the entire period of crisis, the idea of spreading fear may well belong to Kremlin pundits.


While we all choose terms that best serve our research purposes, the word choices we make reflect not only our vision, but also the perception of the subject by the reader. This is what we have in the case of Kudelia’s memo. Such terms as “the violent regime change,” “state fragmentation,” and “capture of power” create an impression that there was a coup and resulting civil war in Ukraine, a point mentioned in Umland’s comment. Alternative terms like “revolution,” “political revolution,” “multiple sovereignty,” and “transfer of power” might have produced quite an opposite picture of the political process in Ukraine.

I am sure Kudelia is aware that part of Russia’s war in Ukraine is psychological warfare waged in the public sphere. The Russian authorities and media present the Ukrainian events exclusively in terms of illegal actions undertaken by protesters and their leaders, where “coup” is a key term.

To sum up, the lack of documented evidence of Russia’s role in initiating the crisis should not preclude us from taking into account the numerous facts that indicate who the perpetrator is.[5]

As Putin himself conceded in May, the Russian military was indeed in Crimea. The same, I am sure, will sooner or later be released about the Donbas.   


See: PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 351:"Domestic Sources of the Donbas Insurgency" (PDF) (9/15/2014). Serhiy Kudelia is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Baylor University and a member of PONARS Eurasia.

See: In Defense of Conspirology: A Rejoinder to Serhiy Kudelia’s Anti-Political Analysis of the Hybrid War in Eastern Ukraine (9/30/2014). Andreas Umland is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, Kyiv.

See: Reply to Andreas Umland: The Donbas Insurgency Began At Home (10/8/2014) by Serhiy Kudelia.


[1] Compare question 8.1 and 8.2 of the KMIS poll, April 8-16, 2014,

[2] Kateryna Handzyuk,  “Observations on a Fake Attack: Who’s Attacking Regional Headquarters in Southern Ukraine,”

[3] Маksim Yakovlev, “Antimaidan posle Evromaidana v sotsialnych setiach: obraz vraga I opasieniya zhiteley vostoka Ukrainy,” Forum Noveishei Vostochnoevropeiskoi Istorii i Kultury, 2014,

[4] These are Dmitri Kukikov, Timofei Sergeitsev and Vladimir Granovski, who worked for Andriy Kluev, the head of the shadow electoral team of Victor Yanukovych during the 2004 presidential elections. This team designed a fake Yushchenko electoral leaflet showing a map of Ukraine divided into three zones with the western part marked as “first class” Ukraine, the central as “second,” and the south- eastern part as “third.” See: Serhiy Leshchenko, “Mezhyhirskiy Syndrom. Diahnoz vladi Viktora Yanukovycha,” (Kyiv: Bright Books, 2014), 55.

[5] Here are two pieces of evidence that appeared during the last ten days. First Radek Sikorski, former Foreign Minister of Poland, who insisted that the deal brokered on January 21, 2014, between Yanukovych and the opposition was the best solution, on October 19, 2014, admitted that the [Russian] buildup to war actually began as early as 2008. He also claims that “Poland became aware the Kremlin had calculated it would be profitable to annex the Zaporozhye, Dnepropetrovsk, and Odessa regions, while assessing that the Donbass region currently controlled by Putin’s rebels would not, on its own, be profitable to incorporate into Russia.” Though later he tried to back away from some of his statements suggesting Russia was “sorting out” the Ukrainian question, he never denied the Russian objectives in Ukraine. See, Ben Judah, “Putin’s Coup,” The second piece of evidence of Russia’s role in organizing the separatist movement in the south-east of Ukraine appeared on October 27, 2014, when the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) announced that it exposed a group, allegedly created by the Russian security services, which planned to proclaim the “Odesa People’s Republic.” See: