Over the past two years, some have viewed Russia’s aggressive foreign policy as a victory for President Vladimir Putin. To be clear, Russia’s policy of hybrid warfare and support for separatism in Eastern Ukraine was a huge failure. For the past several months, the borders of rebel-controlled territory in Eastern Ukraine have remained more or less static. Roughly speaking, only half of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts remain outside of Kyiv’s control. If the conflict had been a result of deep ethnic tension between Ukrainians and Russians in the Donbas region, as the Kremlin’s narrative has it, why did rebellion remain contained to such a small geographic territory?
This past fall, University of Michigan professor Yuri Zhukov set out to explain the scope of rebellion in Eastern Ukraine using new data on violence and economic activity in the Donbas region. The paper, published in the Journal of Comparative Economics, addresses local variation in rebellion. The questions it aims to answers: Why might two municipalities in the same region experience different levels of separatist activity? Why do some towns remain under government control while others slip away? Why might residents of one municipality be more receptive to foreign fighters and support than another?
Zhukov evaluates two explanations: ‘identity-based’ and ‘economic’. Under the former, ethnicity and language indicate how likely an area would experience rebel activity. In the context of Eastern Ukraine, this means that rebellion would be expected in cities and towns where there was a high concentration of ethnic Russians or Russian-speaking Ukrainians. In the ‘economic’ explanation, the idea holds that areas most vulnerable to negative economic shocks from trade openness with the EU, austerity, and trade barriers with Russia would be most likely to experience rebellion and violence.
The results supported the ‘economic’ explanation — holding that pre-war employment was the strongest predictor for rebel activity. For many workers in Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region, the Association Agreement with the European Union posed a serious threat to job security. Towns which expected negative trade shocks with Russia — such as those built around a machine-building economy, dependent on Russian buyers — witnessed a higher frequency and intensity of rebel activity. In towns with more competitive industries which could rely on trade within the European marketplace — such as Ukraine’s metals industry — support from the local population was less common and rebellion was less successful.
The results from Zhukov’s research might help explain why only 61% of municipalities in Donetsk and Luhansk fell under rebel control during the first year of conflict. When the separatist movement launched in mid-2014, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) combined efforts to establish a pseudo-state — Novorossiya — encompassing half of Ukraine’s territory. The envisioned project included the regions of Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhya, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Odessa, and even Transnistria, a separatist region in Moldova, all under the governance of one singular body. In August 2014, the movement received formal backing from the Kremlin when they published a letter from President Vladimir Putin addressing the militia of Novorossiya.
Dream big, fall hard. By March 2015, the Kremlin had entirely abandoned their revanchist language (and policy) with regards to Ukraine’s south east region. At the time Oleg Tsaryov, former Ukrainian parliamentarian and leader of the Novorossiya movement, claimed that Novorossiya had suspended operations as a concession for the ceasefire agreement brokered by Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia under the Minsk II agreement. More likely, the Kremlin and various Russian nationalist movements greatly overestimated local support for separatism in Eastern Ukraine. A survey from the University of Oxford reported fewer than 5 percent of respondents, in southern and eastern regions of Ukraine outside of rebel territories, favoring the breakup of Ukraine, either through independence or annexation by Russia in 2014.
Despite the seemingly endless supply of heavy machinery, military leadership and logistical support, Russia’s hybrid warfare failed because it could not mobilize the population. The narrative of superficial ethnic conflict did not hold. Without actual grievances to tip the scale of cost-benefit rationale towards rebellion, most locals preferred the status quo and Kyiv’s government over war and destruction. Nevertheless, locals who supported or actively engaged in rebellion acted in economic self-interest as a means to protect their livelihood. For policy purposes, let this be a lesson for the Baltics, Georgia and Kazakhstan.
After nearly two years of conflict in Eastern Ukraine, more than 9,000 people have died and nearly 21,000 have been injured. The remaining civilian population has been left amidst a humanitarian and human rights crisis. Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts remain war torn, isolated from Ukraine, and neglected by Russia. The rest of Ukraine, more than ever, wants to remain united, independent, and free. In closing, Zhukov reflects, “If local machinists and miners had only known the scale of the destruction to come, the economic rationale for rebellion would surely have appeared less compelling.”
This article was originally published in February 2016.