Ukraine's Pro-Russian Separatists Are Bad News For Russia
The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, located on the Moldovan border with Ukraine, has relied on Russia for the past two decades. A perfect example of potential new burdens for Moscow.
KIEV — At the end of last week a recording emerged of Vladimir Antyufeyev, the vice-premier of the would-be separatist Donetsk Republic speaking with Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a right-wing Russian politician.
It was a rare glimpse at the troubles the pro-Russian forces are facing in eastern Ukraine. “We’re in a tough situation. There is fighting in Donetsk, we’re expecting a full-on attack," Antyufeyev said. "We can’t hang on. We need serious assistance, we’re talking about a matter of hours.”
Zhiriniovsky promised to do what he could — but it doesn’t look like it’s been enough.
In his past, Antyufeyev was one of the founders of the unrecognized Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic (PMR) — also known a Transnistria — located along the Dniester River on the Moldovan border with Ukraine.
The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic was founded as the Soviet Union dissolved and people in the region did not want to become part of Moldova. The tensions escalated to an armed conflict in 1992, but Moldova, Russia and the PMR quickly reached a ceasefire agreement.
The PMR, which has around 400,000 residents, regularly expresses a desire to become part of Russia, but has been functioning as an independent state since 1992. Antyufeyev was a part of creating the PMR’s military and police structure, and had recently landed in eastern Ukraine to help the separatists do the same.
More importantly, the recorded conversation seems to confirm that things in eastern Ukraine are not going terribly well. It’s not hard to guess that the help Antyufeyev wants is military, just as Russia’s army intervened in Moldova to ensure independence in the PMR.
In that case, the Russian military made it clear that they would attack unless a ceasefire was signed immediately. The ceasefire then allowed the separatists to consolidate their power locally and to create institutions like an army and secret service. Which then made it more difficult for the Moldovan government to fight them.
In Kiev, the government seems to understand perfectly well that any lull could become an advantage for the eastern separatists, and they are rejecting all calls for ceasefires or negotiations. The Ukrainian government says that Russia is helping the rebels with weapons and doing nothing to prevent Russian volunteers from swelling the rebels’ ranks. But in contrast to the Pridnestrovian conflict, Russia does not seem willing to send its army to fight on Ukrainian territory.
Whether or not eastern Ukraine will turn into something like the PMR depends largely on what the Russian government is trying to do. Moscow talks about federalization, but for Ukraine that just means disintegration. "The Kremlin keeps saying that Ukraine isn’t a country, but a patchwork quilt," explained one Ukrainian diplomat. "Everything depends on what Kiev does — if they agree to negotiations, it could end up being PMR-2.”
Vadim Karasev, the head of the Kiev Institute of Global Strategy, also doesn’t believe that eastern Ukraine will follow the PMR route. “The tragedy with the airplane killed any chances for a PMR-2," says Karasev. "The Ukrainian army is putting more and more pressure on the separatists. After the Boeing was shot down, it also became clear that the West is not going to allow a second PMR in Donbas.”
The lack of military cover from Russia is only one of the problems facing the separatists in Ukraine. And in contrast to the situation in Pridnestrovia in the 1990s, the Ukrainian separatists lack popular backing.
“They have started to seriously lose support," said Karasev. "People want someone to win so that they can go back to a peaceful life. They don’t care who — Ukraine, Russia — they’ll accept whoever wins. And Ukraine is winning.”
According to political scientist Oleg Voloshin, most people in eastern Ukraine are neutral. “If they were promoting Slavic unity, it would be a different story. But instead, they are talking about creating a unified Russia. They don’t have social slogans, they are not suggesting that Ukraine enter into a partnership with Russian. They are saying: "we are Russians." That’s a dead-end.”
Indeed, in some of the contested areas there are actually very few ethnic Russians. As a result, the rebel territory shrinks.
In addition to the military and social issues, there are also economic concerns. In Pridnestrovia, the leadership is absolutely loyal to Russia and constantly announces its desire to be part of Russia — but 40% of its exports go to the European Union, while only 14% go to Russia. If the area were to actually become part of Russia, it would be disastrous to the local economy.
If eastern Ukraine were to leave Ukraine, it could easily lead to a situation where Russia is the only export market available. But none of the region's export products — mostly coal, metals and chemicals — are needed in Russia, where the same products are mined or produced far cheaper.
Even with the exports to the European Union, Pridnestrovia is heavily subsidized by the Russian government. It gets free gas from Gazprom, and uses the fees paid by utility ratepayers to close the holes in the government budget. There are deficits every year: In 2014, it is expected to be 38%.
Then there is the sheer scale. There are just 400,000 people living in Pridnestrovia, while the Luhansk and Donetsk regions have a population of around 6 million. If they were to establish pro-Russian republics — even if just a portion of the territory — they would require monetary assistance several times larger than that provided to Pridnestrovia.
If we want to know what that might mean, we can take a look at the Crimean example: Financial pressure has already led to cuts in infrastructure projects within Russia and to a freeze in government funding for pensions.
Up until now, Moscow hasn’t shown any desire to assume responsibility for the military and economic security in the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. And without Russia’s participation, those entities have no real ability to survive on their own.