New Policy Memo: Domestic Sources of the Donbas Insurgency

29 Sep 2014

The armed conflict in the Donbas has been widely portrayed in Western policy circles and mainstream media as a result of Russia’s covert military aggression against Ukraine with little local support. On April 13, Ambassador Samantha Power, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, compared events in the region to Russia’s intervention in Crimea, stating that there was “nothing grassroots-seeming about it. Three former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine, in a joint article in late April, accused the Kremlin of “running an insurgency in Ukraine’s east” and suggested that an order from President Vladimir Putin would compel insurgents to lay down their arms. Since then, Western media reports and analysis have increasingly focused on exposing Russia’s ties to the insurgency. Concentrating on Russia’s role in the conflict, however, overlooks the fact that the armed separatist movement emerged in direct response to the violent regime change that took place in Kyiv. It initially consisted largely of locals and had the support of at least a quarter to a third of the residents of Donbas. This memo views the Donbas insurrection as primarily a homegrown phenomenon. It argues that political factors—state fragmentation, violent regime change, and the government’s low coercive capacity—combined with popular emotions specific to the region—resentment and fear—played a crucial role in launching the armed secessionist movement there.

View the full policy memo (PDF)