Geopolitics

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.

Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk
Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk
Vladimir Solovev and Nikolai Pakholnitskz

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.

Dangerous lull

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.”

Neutrality spreads

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.

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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