Reply to Andreas Umland: The Donbas Insurgency Began At Home

08 Oct 2014

Andreas Umland has written a thoughtful and thorough review of my PONARS policy memo analyzing the domestic sources of the armed insurrection in the Donbas in March-April 2014. While raising some valid points, especially regarding the memo’s insufficient attention to Russia’s contribution to the conflict, his response fails to address my main argument about the role of state capacity and group-based emotions in making the armed insurrection feasible. In fact, he seems to agree with most of the facts and arguments I make – he just does not agree that they have a prime causal significance.

Since Umland is a well-known expert on Russia’s far-right organizations and thinkers, I understand his disappointment with the memo’s claim that political leaders and organizations played a secondary role in the rise of the secessionist movement in the Donbas. Political agents, like Aleksandr Dugin or Vladimir Zhirinovsky, have long been the objects of his intellectual pursuits, and the absence of a comparable “agency” in my analysis he interprets as a sign of its “anti- or apolitical nature.” However, the state as an independent variable has been, for decades, a staple of political science research. Many of the prominent recent theories of the causes of civil wars (including the ones based on large-N studies by James Fearon, David Laitin, Paul Collier, Anke Hoeffler, Andreas Wimmer, Lars-Erik Cederman, Brian Min, Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, Halvard Buhaug, Havard Hegre, Nicholas Sambanis), point to the centrality of state capacity, state resources, and state institutions. Similarly, the role of group-based strategies and emotional responses in triggering internal conflicts have been also at the center of analysis by many other social scientists (Ted Gurr, Donald Horowitz, Barry Posen, Roger Petersen). The focus on state structure or group motivations at the expense of elites and individual leaders does not make these theories any less “political.” State institutions and group beliefs have at least as much political significance as ideologues or party machines.

Umland’s review raises five additional questions, which I address below.

1. Were Ukraine’s “turbulent times” during Euromaidan unique?

Umland seems to agree with my points about the fragmentation of the Ukrainian state and the failure of its coercive capacity during and after Euromaidan, but he doubts it was in any way unique. He thinks Ukraine experienced similarly turbulent times and “nationalist upsurges” in the 1990s and 2000s, but they did not lead to armed conflicts. Ukraine’s formal state institutions have certainly been weak for most of its history, but this weakness has often been compensated by informal institutional structures – a point I also make in one of my earlier articles. However, in the January-February 2014 crisis, even informal rules of conflict resolution failed leading to popular challenge to central authority in numerous towns in western and central Ukraine. Its most visible symbols were the storming of local state administrations, expulsion of Kyiv-appointed governors, and assertions of regional power by “People’s Councils.” Meanwhile, locally organized “self-defense units” took on themselves law-enforcement functions that replaced regular police forces. While Umland claims these actions were directed against Yanukovych’s regime, their ultimate effect was the loss of the state’s sovereign control over large parts of its territory, which was unprecedented in Ukraine’s history. This mass-led negation of state authority had a major demonstration effect on other parts of Ukraine, particularly on the Donbas where the rejection of the Euromaidan movement was the strongest. The victory of the Euromaidan movement legitimized coercive subversion of state institutions as a tactic of popular resistance leading to its adoption by the anti-Euromaidan movement in the Donbas.

2. What was the relevance of nationalist groups?

While there is still a debate on the exact role of nationalist organizations in the development and success of Euromaidan, there is a relative consensus among scholars that: a) they figured prominently in the violent phase of the Euromaidan protests starting from confrontation with riot police on Kyiv’s Hrushevskogo street to the storming of government buildings in the regions; and b) their actions accelerated the demise of Yanukovych’s regime. Following Yanukovych’s fall, Right Sector activists gained further notoriety by harassing local state officials and trying to subordinate them with the use of force. This prominence of extreme nationalist groups and the mainstream embrace of nationalist slogans and symbols have again been unprecedented in Ukraine’s independent history. Irrespectively of the amplifying effects of the Russian (and earlier Ukrainian pro-Yanukovych) propaganda, the presence of armed extreme nationalist groups at the Maidan was real and highly visible, as was the failure of the new authorities to rein them in. In this sense, there was nothing unusual in the emotional response of many in the Donbas to the groups they have long held, based on several polls, the strongest aversions. The government’s subsequent reliance on the Right Sector and other nationalist groups in organizing paramilitary battalions to fight “counter-terrorism operations” in the Donbas was another indication for the locals of the collusion between Ukraine’s new authorities and the extreme nationalists. As a result, in a June-July poll, most respondents in the Donbas named “radical nationalist organizations” as the main culprit of the armed conflict there (see page seven of the poll's slideshow).

3. Who are local political actors?

Umland criticizes my memo for not specifying actors whose “political authority, weight, skills and resources” would translate local grievances into “sustainable political action” resulting in the creation of “two heavily armed pseudo-states.” The organizations I do mention he calls “minor,” while the individuals involved in the secessionist movement Umland describes as “farcical.” This argument is premised on the assumption that without authoritative and well-resourced leaders and organizations an armed insurrection would not be possible. In fact, the start-up costs of insurgencies largely depend on the strength of the state they intend to challenge. The weaker the state, the easier and cheaper it is to launch an insurgency campaign. Given the en masse defection of local police forces and deligitimization (and ultimate collapse) of local political institutions, the cost of starting the insurrection in the Donbas was minimal. Meanwhile, as Paul Staniland shows, the organizational structure of an insurgency comes in different shapes and does not have to be deeply embedded into local communities or based on pre-existing tightly-knit groups. Vanguard insurgencies, based on strong organizations that Umland complains were absent in the Donbas insurrection, are only one of four different organizational varieties Staniland outlines. The two alternatives more relevant for the Donbas – parochial and fragmented insurgencies – presume a much weaker horizontal linkage between the insurgency participants.

Most importantly, as Roger Petersen shows in his work, leaders often play a secondary role in instigating armed insurrection. Rather then leading the insurgency, they opportunistically follow and exploit the emotional reactions of the group to external structural changes. The new leaders at the helm of the secessionist movement in the Donbas were similarly riding the wave of public fear and resentment sparked by the Euromaidan revolution and Yanukovych’s subsequent ouster, expecting to quickly rise to the positions of power.

4. What is Russia’s role?

On multiple occasions Umland points to my omission of Russia’s role as the main drawback of the memo. The goal of my memo was to challenge the conventional view of Russia’s centrality in starting the insurgency and to outline the key role of domestic variables. Also, the word length limitations of PONARS Eurasia memos prevented me from a more detailed treatment of Russian policy in the Donbas – something I plan to address in a longer research paper.

Two preliminary points are still in order. First, Umland suggests that the Russian media had a decisive effect on the views of Donbas residents, leading to the rise of emotions I outline in the memo. This is a widely-held view among Ukrainian policy-makers and pundits, which resulted in the banning of Russian TV broadcasts in Ukraine. However, this view lacks any scientific basis. There has been no evidence presented by Umland on the exact impact of Russian news broadcasts on Donbas residents. Similarly, it is not clear what causal mechanism he envisions when he points to the impact of Russia’s annexation of Crimea – another argument he thinks suggests Russia’s primary causal significance in the Donbas conflict. Most importantly, both arguments do not account for the variation in response of the residents of Eastern and Southern Ukraine equally exposed to Russian media broadcasts and knowledge of Crimea’s annexation. Most of them either unequivocally sided with the Ukrainian authorities, as in Dnipropetrovsk or Kherson, or made only limited and ultimately failed attempts to start a secessionist movement, as in Kharkiv. There was also a variation in responses in the Donbas itself, since the insurgency failed to take root in some of the districts in the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. I would argue that it is impossible to explain this variation without looking at the internal variables. Hence, recent political history of the Donbas and the long-held views and preferences of its Russophone residents are of primary causal significance.

Secondly, it is important to separate Russia’s role in starting the insurgency from Russia’s contribution to sustaining it. I believe that without the presence of internal drivers any external meddling in the Donbas would not have led to the armed insurrection and, hence, the causal primacy lies with domestic variables. At the same time, I also think that Moscow played a decisive role in sustaining the insurgency by providing arms, allowing free movement of mercenaries, and deploying limited military contingents to stop the advance of Ukrainian forces.

5. What are other scholars saying about the Donbas conflict?

Finally, Umland complains that I have focused too much on the statements of policy-makers, but ignored a more scholarly analysis of the Donbas insurgency. Again, PONARS Eurasia memos tend to address ongoing policy debates, which is the reason I mention the views of U.S. policymakers and analysts. However, even the preliminary analysis of Westerns scholars is dominated by arguments on Russia’s principal role in starting the insurgency. Alexander Motyl, David Marples, and Taras Kuzio, among others, take a Russia-centric view of the conflict and analyze it as an event orchestrated and directed from Moscow. A recent paper by Ivan Katchanovski, by contrast, points to the significance of pro-separatist sentiments in the Donbas for the launch of the insurgency. My own analysis focused on structural changes that precipitated the insurgency and the emotional responses to them complements this approach and, hopefully, contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the causes of the Donbas war.

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: 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.