Ukraine and the problem of local warlords

Kimberly Marten
The Washington Post | May 5, 2014

The following is a guest post from Barnard College and Columbia University political scientist Kimberly Marten.

A photographer takes a picture of an armed man in military fatigues standing guard outside the security service (SBU) regional building seized by the separatists in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/ AFP-Getty Images)

Amidst all the talk of whether the Russian or Ukrainian government bears greater responsibility for the violence in eastern Ukraine and Odessa, we may be losing sight of a crucial dynamic that is happening on the ground.  Local armed men in Donetsk, Luhansk, Odessa and elsewhere have started down the slippery slope to warlordism — and Moscow may be encouraging this trend.

Warlords, as I discuss in my 2012 book of that same name, are individuals who control small slices of territory using a combination of force and patronage.  They are distinct from rebels, because their goal is not really to overthrow a government.  Instead they often cooperate and collude with weak, corrupt, or frightened state employees (including bureaucrats and security forces) to maintain their local control.  While they may have ideologies and passions, warlords are fundamentally self-interested: What they want more than anything else is to stay in a position of power, so they can coerce and blackmail their opponents while controlling payouts to their allies and clients.

Warlords are not just machine-boss politicians, because they are backed by private militias that are willing to go to war to keep them in control.  And while they are sometimes popular, and good at distributing the wealth to their communities, warlords rely on illegal activities like smuggling and informal financial links with outside players—not local taxes—for their resources. This latter point is crucial, because as Margaret Levi points out in her classic book, “Of Rule and Revenue,” taxation over the long-term works only when it is matched by accountability to the people.  Otherwise tax collectors face constant rebellion (as we know from the history of the American Revolution).  A warlord doesn’t have to worry about accountability — just about keeping down local challengers.

Warlords rise up any time states become too weak to control their own territories.  All nations and all cultures produce people who are willing and able to use force for their own purposes; strong states prosecute those people and put them in prison.  Organized criminals all over the world run “protection” rackets that feed off tacit collusion by corrupt state officials.

At the moment, we do not know much about the individuals who have seized power in eastern and southern Ukraine.  There is good evidence, though, that at least some of them truly are locals and that they do not really constitute rebel forces.  For example, C. J. Chivers and Noah Sneider of the New York Times have profiled a commander named Yuri, who is able to control a militia of 119 fighters in Slovyansk because of his past work as a Soviet Army unit commander in Afghanistan.  Yuri and his men do not seem to have any clear goals — not of leaving Ukraine, joining Russia, or declaring their own independence.  They are not united by ideology, just by their military training and by anger at Ukrainian leaders they consider illegitimate.  It appears that at least some of the local population values the protection they provide, but it is not clear exactly from whom they are protecting that population.  Ukrainian-appointed local police officers apparently cooperate with Yuri’s unofficial militia even as they go about their paid duties, and Yuri’s men claim to have bought at least one anti-tank grenade-launcher from corrupt Ukrainian soldiers.

Kiev has been announcing ever since April 13 that it is launching a major military operation to take back “rebel” held territory in Slovyansk and elsewhere, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has rumbled ominously about his right to intervene to protect the population in what he calls “Novorossiya.”  But the longer that Kiev and Moscow practice what amounts to a military stalemate, the more opportunity local armed actors have to change the actual power balance on the ground.  They can ensure that either the Russian or the Ukrainian state that eventually triumphs will have to bargain with them in the future.

Once ensconced in positions of local power, warlords and their threats of violence are hard to dislodge.  States that want to regain control over their territories have to overcome the corruption that encourages their own employees to collude with the warlords.  They also need fine-grained local intelligence to successfully coerce or buy off warlord support networks.

Buying off a network becomes much harder when it extends to a neighboring capital, and indeed that might be just what Moscow has in mind in this case.  Putin has used local warlords in the past to gain political influence in neighboring Georgia, and continues to cooperate with the warlord Ramzan Kadyrov and his militia to control insurgents in the Russian republic of Chechnya.  (I detail both of these cases in my Warlords book.)  Getting local warlords to do his bidding would be a relatively cheap way for Putin to exercise indirect rule over eastern and southern Ukraine without bearing the costs of military invasion.

Yuri may not be a warlord (at least not yet).  But conditions are ripe for Putin to find willing local strong-men to entice into his own informal patronage network.



Long live the Donetsk People’s Republic!
David Marples
openDemocracy | 8 July 2014

What will ‘Defence Minister’ Strelkov do, now that Slovyansk has been lost? And can he rely on Vladimir Putin?

The loss of Slovyansk to Ukrainian government forces has placed the so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk (DNR) and Luhansk (LNR) in a quandary. Can the war be continued from the main regional centres, and, if so, for how long? Is there a realistic hope of substantial military aid from Russia? Has the balance of power changed irrevocably for the separatist forces? And how should the Ukrainian leaders proceed?

Though the separatist forces, until recently, were far from united, perhaps the clearest enunciation of the priorities of the DNR – the most prominent of the two republics – was provided on June 12 by the press centre of the ‘South-East’ movement, coordinated by Oleg Tsarev. It listed several main objectives, the first of which was the creation of a union state with Russia, which would provide a common security system, contractual relations with Ukraine, and a state with full language rights for all citizens.

The action plan

The action plan envisaged compensation payments by the end of August for families and victims who had suffered ‘from the aggression of the Kiev junta,’ and material assistance for those with destroyed property. It also ‘guaranteed’ the prompt payment of wages, pensions, and social benefits, and proposed to cancel a 200% rise in tariffs for gas, electricity, and public utilities, announced by the government in Kyiv. Wages were to rise in factories owned by oligarchs (most notably those of Rinat Akhmetov), and there would be a transitional period during which Ukrainian institutions would fall under DNR control. The acquisition of Russian citizenship was also to have been permitted.

These policies fall under the heading of federalism as defined by the Russian leadership of Vladimir Putin. Notably they do not include foreign or security policy, in which respect they are not dissimilar to the sort of vision for the Donbas that Mikhail Gorbachev had devised for the former Soviet Union through his abortive Union agreement in 1991. Like Gorbachev’s Union Agreement, they appear to be unworkable.

According to a pro-Russian source, the leaders of the DNR, based in Donetsk, in the face of the sustained attacks from the Ukrainian army, were inclined to reach a compromise that would have signalled the end of the republic. In the view of this same author, the negotiations that took place between the aforementioned Rinat Akhmetov, the renegade leader of the Vostok battalion Aleksandr Khodakovsky, the pro-Putin Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, and Russian officials such as Vladislav Surkov, the former First Deputy Chairman of the Presidential Administration in Moscow, would have led to the sacrificing of Igor Strelkov, the ‘Defence Minister’ of the DNR; and removed from regional decision-making Aleksey Mozgovoy (leader of the ‘People’s militia’ in Luhansk), and also Pavel Gubarev (‘People’s Governor’ of the DNR). The conciliatory position reflects in part the ‘substantial influence’ of Akhmetov over the Donetsk-based leadership of the DNR.


Strelkov, however, scuttled all these plans, when he arrived in Donetsk over the past weekend, declaring that he wished to put an end to the contradictions – what the above mentioned pro-Russian author called ‘grave digging’ because of its defeatist attitude – and unite all forces under a single command. Prior to that, many assumed that Strelkov would die a hero’s death in the defence of Slovyansk. Instead, according to one source, he departed ‘like Kutuzov,’ a reference to the calculated retreat of the Russian general in the face of Napoleon’s Grande Armée in the war of 1812. His arrival in Donetsk, and assumption of command appears akin to a coup d’état, replacing the hitherto uncoordinated leadership of the DNR.

In an interview with, Strelkov stated that he left Slovyansk to protect the lives of peaceful residents and his militia. In order to cover his retreat, a diversionary attack was organised, but the group commander bungled it, and most of the troops involved perished. Nonetheless, it allowed Strelkov to depart with 90% of his troops and most of his weapons intact. On July 7, he established the Central Military Council, which included all the main field commanders, with himself in the key position as commander of the Donetsk garrison. Shortly afterward, Strelkov appeared in Luhansk for a meeting with Valery Bolotov, the leader of the LNR, to coordinate activities.


The loss of Slovyansk to the DNR forces can hardly be underestimated. It was, as DNR supporters acknowledge, the key point of the breakaway republic’s defensive structure, with over 60 heavy guns in place. By July 7, however, the city had no electricity or water supply, and the ATO (Anti-Terrorist Operation) had disabled the nearby power station at Mykolaivka, with a shell. The retreat appears to have been much less orderly than described. This raises the question of where the DNR goes from here, and how it will be affected by the change of leadership.

Strelkov’s arrival will likely escalate the conflict. He has never made any secret of his commitment to the war, which he perceives as one for the ‘liberation’ of Ukraine, not merely the southeast. Under his command, whatever his difficulties, compromise with Kyiv is highly unlikely. That leaves a major decision to be made by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, namely, whether to continue the attack, thereby raising civilian casualties even further, in order to bring about a united Ukraine. Moreover, what would be Putin’s response to the destruction and ‘occupation’ – from the Russian perspective – of the DNR and LNR?

In an interview with Bloomberg on July 7, Ian Bremmer, head of the Eurasia Foundation, maintained that Putin would not be ‘the loser in Ukraine.’ He (Putin) wants ‘at the very least a federal Ukraine’ with its own foreign and economic policy (as we have noted, this was not on the DNR agenda). For Bremmer, this ‘federalism’ constitutes a ‘red line’ beyond which Putin will not move. It includes ‘Russian’ retention of the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Nevertheless, in his view, the Russian President need not rush to attain his goals in southeast Ukraine because the latter is facing an economic crisis that will only get worse as winter approaches, and which has been exacerbated by the high number of migrants coming from the conflict regions of the Donbas.

Strelkov returns to the Russian Civil War as a White Army officer in a military re-enactment. Photo via


Yet the division of forces in the southeast is looking increasingly complex, and many players remain in place, not least Akhmetov, who are looking for a way out. The size of the ‘Novorossiya’ faction, which favours union with Russia, is dwindling. Other than Strelkov’s small band of forces, virtually no one now believes that Ukraine will disintegrate or that the concept of Novorossiya is viable. On the other hand, it is clear that for large swathes of the Donbas population, full control by the present Ukrainian administration is as undesirable as a Russian invasion and, Ukrainian media reports aside, the general sentiment after the arrival of the Kyiv army is likely to have been one of relief at the end to fighting rather than triumphalism and liberation.

In other words, there is significant scope for compromise, though any agreement would need to distinguish between regional autonomy and Putin-style federalism or ‘power sharing.’ An autonomous or semi-autonomous Donbas within Ukraine is a logical alternative and, moreover, it might appeal to the population at large, even to some of the pro-separatist elements that voted in the contentious referenda last May. But Ukraine could not tolerate a new Transnistria or Abkhazia in its eastern territories, which would continue to destabilize the country. The removal of Strelkov and his forces is, therefore, the key prerequisite to any progress; and they are increasingly isolated.

‘Rights are earned in battle’. The Russian tricolour flies over the Donbas. Photo:

Some degree of autonomy, then, might be the way forward. In Western Ukraine during the Euromaidan protests, regional governments were functioning as virtually autonomous structures. A federal system has worked successfully in countries such as Germany and Canada – in the latter case with the retention of priority for the French language in Quebec. In Ukraine, it is imperative that the Donbas region be adequately represented in the Cabinet and in parliament generally, when Ukrainians go to the polls in the fall; and full language rights must be retained for Russian speakers.

This proposal makes one assumption, namely that Vladimir Putin is also looking for an exit plan, having apparently run out of options, and fallen foul of more militant hawks in Moscow. Already, as we have seen above, the Russian President was prepared to sacrifice Strelkov, indicating limits to the expansion of ‘the Russian world.’ This scenario, of course, offers a very different interpretation of where Putin stands, from that of Ian Bremmer. But, as things stand, it does seem that the Russian President might have lost this particular chess game.


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