Written by Nikolaus von Twickel


The separatists said little about the implementation of the disengagement agreement and the subsequent scheduling of a “Normandy” summit. Instead, official media focused on a dubious report that Ukraine is planning to “cleanse” dissenters from Donbass. In Luhansk, a possible rival of separatist leader Pasechnik was quietly installed at the helm of the government. Meanwhile, Russian aid convoys kept arriving in Donetsk and Luhansk on a weekly basis and both “republics” continued to announce long sentences for people arrested for espionage.

Little attention for disengagement agreement, Normandy summit

Separatist media hardly reported about the recent negotiation successes. The Donetsk “DAN” news site wrote about the disengagement agreement’s implementation in the Petrivske area only once, on 14 November, one day after the OSCE confirmed it.

Petrivske is the last of three locations earmarked in the disengagement agreement of 2016 for a mutual troop withdrawal of 2 kilometres each. Disengagement was previously implemented on 2 November in Zolote and in Stanytsia Luhanska back in June. Moscow had demanded the agreement’s implementation as condition for a Normandy Format summit of the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, which has not been held since 2016.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office announced on 15 November that the summit will be held in Paris on 9 December. Ukraine’s spokeswoman at the Trilateral Contact Group talks in Minsk, Daria Olifer, suggested that the four leaders’ meeting “will speed up the solution of all current issues regarding a settlement of the conflict”.

However, Moscow political scientist Alexei Chesnakov, a close confidant of Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin aide in charge of the “People’s Republics”, warned on 12 November that a summit won’t bring a breakthrough because Moscow’s and Kyiv’s positions were too far apart from each other.

Separatist media were largely silent about the summit, which was confirmed by the Kremlin only on 18 November. Instead they focused on accusations that Kyiv was violating the ceasefire inside the disengagement zones and on a highly dubious story about an apparent letter from Ukrainian Security Council Secretary Oleksiy Danilov suggesting to resettle people with pro-Russian views from Donbass to central and western Ukraine. A scan of Danilov’s purported letter to President Zelenskiy’s administration was first published by an anonymous Telegram channel called “Ze! INSIDER” on 12 November and its authenticity has not been confirmed.

Nevertheless, the separatist news outlets DAN (Donetsk) and LITs (Luhansk) used them to whip up fears that Ukraine was planning to deport or “annihilate” insubordinate elements of society. On 18 November, “DNR” leader Denis Pushilin joined the chorus, saying that his “republic” would concentrate on integration with Russia because of Ukraine’s destructive tactics.

Doubts about Donbass survey

The extent of pro-Russian sentiment in Donbass was, however, widely discussed in Ukraine after a survey released on 9 November in the Dzerkalo Tyzhnia weekly suggested that 64 per cent of respondents inside the “Peoples Republics” want their native region to become part of Russia. Only 18.5 per cent said they wanted to remain in Ukraine and 16 per cent said that they wanted independence.

The survey was criticized by Ukrainian experts, journalists and officials, who suggested that the results were biased because locals were afraid to make any pro-Ukrainian statements to strangers. They also pointed out that the authors’ claim to have conducted 1,606 face-to-face interviews in non-government-held areas – 806 in the “DNR” and 800 in the “LNR” – was not credible because they would have been caught by the security services sooner or later.

Alexander Kazakov, a former adviser to slain separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko, said in September 2018 that in the “DNR” conducting surveys was banned and that people caught polling would be detained.

Oleh Synayuk, whose Kharkiv-based New Image Marketing Group conducted the survey, said in an interview that polling was conducted by 20 experts who travelled individually to the areas, and didn’t face significant fears from respondents. Only some 22 per cent of those contacted refused to partake, he said.

Most experts believe that telephone surveys are the only reliable method to study public opinion in the “People’s Republics”. Such a poll, released by the Berlin-based ZOiS research centre in August, found that a majority of almost 55 per cent wants the “People’s Republics” to be part of Ukraine, while 45.5 per cent opted for Russia.

Potential Pasechnik rival silently promoted to senior government office in Luhansk

Meanwhile, there were signs of a new intra-separatist power struggle brewing in the “LNR”. Yury Govtvin, a longtime ally of Interior Minister Igor Kornet, was quietly promoted from Industry and Trade “Minister” to the top of the government in late October. His new position as First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers was mentioned without any explanation in a 26 October report on the official LITs news site, in which Govtvin claimed that the “Republic” had purchased 19 vehicles for communal services. (The tractors and trucks most likely came into Ukraine from Russia as part of a convoy of 26 new vehicles on 25 October).

It was unclear when exactly Govtvin took his new job – there is no decree about his promotion on “LNR” leader Leonid Pasechnik’s website and LITs mentioned him the last time on 20 October as Industry “Minister”.

However, Govtvin’s rise did not stop here. On 7 November, LITs suddenly called him the “temporarily acting chairman” of the government. Govtvin was mentioned as reading out a statement from Government Chairman Sergei Kozlov. The Prosecutor General’s site carried the same report with Govtvin’s new position, as did a 12 November notice about the day’s government schedule.

Actually, the “LNR” government website’s decree section shows that Govtvin began signing decrees as temporary chairman on 29 October (8 decrees numbered 663 to 670) and continued on 5 November (6 decrees numbered 672 to 678, without 676) and 8 November (3 decrees). However, Kozlov began signing the decrees again on 12 November (3 decrees, 687, 688) and 15 November (4 decrees). On 10 November, Kozlov appeared for a ceremony marking Militia (Policeman) Day and the fifth anniversary of the Interior Ministry’s founding.

The fact that Govtvin had been a longtime deputy interior “Minister” before being appointed Industry and Trade “Minister” in April led to speculation that Interior “Minister” Kornet or his backers in Moscow seek to weaken Kozlov and Pasechnik by installing an ally high up in the “LNR” government. A power struggle between Kornet and Pasechnik has been brewing at least since September, when unconfirmed reports claimed that Kornet had been arrested and the Interior Minister subsequently led the investigation into a mysterious explosion at a Luhansk bridge (see Newsletter 64). The two have not appeared in public together in a long time, and the “LNR” leader was notably absent when Kornet oversaw official “Militia Day” celebrations on 12 November.

The level of secrecy surrounding Govtvin’s position is unusual, even for the “LNR”, which under Pasechnik, a professional intelligence officer, has become much less transparent than the neighbouring “DNR”.

Weekly aid convoys keep coming from Russia

Lack of transparency also surrounded the Russian aid convoys, that have been coming to Donetsk and Luhansk weekly on Thursdays since 17 October. On 14 November the fifth convoy in a row delivered more than 600 tons of aid, mainly child food, according to Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry. The 14 November convoy was only the seventh this year because the convoys, which had been coming monthly in the past years, stopped coming without explanation in January.

The convoys have long been a controversial issue because Russian authorities do not allow independent observers to inspect them. An OSCE observer mission stationed at the Russian border checkpoints Donetsk and Gukovo can only watch from a distance, while Ukrainian border guards are regularly shown the inside of the lorries but not the actual content. The Foreign Ministry in Kyiv filed a formal complaint with Moscow after each convoy for entering Ukrainian territory illegally via the non-government-controlled sections of its border with Russia.

Earlier, the “DNR” held an “International Investment Forum” where separatist leaders pledged to improve laws and introduce a tax-free offshore zone for foreign investors. While the organizers of the 29-30 October forum boasted that international visitors signed agreements worth 135.6 billion Russian roubles (1.9 billion euros), foreign attendants were either little-known or unwilling to appear in public. Among them was Frenchman Didier Chaudesaygues, who heads the little-known Russo-French Economic Chamber, which resembles but is distinct from the official Franco-Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Attempts to speed up the issuing of Russian passports

The handing out of passports to inhabitants of the “People’s Republics” continued unabatedly. The “DNR” said on 31 October that 33,000 passports had been issued and another 55,000 applications were being processed. The “LNR” said on 13 November that some 40,000 people had received Russian passports and that more than 60,000 had applied for one. The separatists in both Luhansk and Donetsk said that they were opening new offices to reduce waiting times.

When the governor of the neighbouring Russian region of Rostov was quoted as saying on 13 November that more than 170,000 passport had been issued, he was most likely referring to the combined number of issued passports and those being processed.

The “People’s Republics” began accepting applications for Russian citizenship in May, after President Vladimir Putin decreed that their inhabitants are eligible for fast-track citizenship. The higher number of Russian passports in the smaller “LNR” may be explained by the fact that the Luhansk separatists began issuing their own passports in May 2015, while the “DNR” began only in March 2016. Possession of a separatist-issued passport is a binding condition for getting fast-track Russian citizenship.

In new wave of arrests, “DNR” sentences bus drivers for “terrorism”

While the Trilateral Contact Group’s talks about a new prisoner exchange stalled, both “People’s Republics” were busy sending more people to long jail terms.

The Donetsk “Prosecutor General” released statements about new sentences almost every day. On 13 November it said that a minibus driver had been jailed for 5.3 years for “taking part in a terrorist organization”. On 14 November it said that another driver was sent to 14 years in prison for enabling weapons shipments from government-controlled areas to the “DNR”. And on 15 November it said that a man identified by his last name Nazarenko was sentenced to 11 years for “espionage”. In Luhansk, the State Security “Ministry” said on 13 November that a man identified by his last name Korotkikh was sentenced to 12 years for espionage.

Both “republics” handed down numerous long prison sentences already in October, including 15 years for Stanislav Aseyev, a freelance journalist and blogger, who was abducted and arrested in 2017 for reporting negatively about the “DNR” (see Newsletter 66).

The Ukrainian Security Service SBU said in early November that the number of prisoners in both “People’s Republics” currently stands at 244, the Novosti Donbassa news outlet reported.

No reaction to fresh MH17 revelations

Separatist leaders also did not comment about the latest publication by the Dutch-based international investigators about the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in 2014. The Joint Investigation Team on 14 November released a new appeal to witnesses following the decryption of intercepted phone calls by separatist field commanders, which clearly reveal that a number of separatist leaders at the time, among them Alexander Borodai and Pavel Gubarev, had secure mobile phones issued by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).

Russian operative Igor Girkin, then “DNR” defence “minister” and a key figure in fomenting the war in the spring of 2014, confirmed in an post on his vk page that the calls between himself and Borodai where authentic. However, he reiterated that his people did not shoot down the Boeing 777 and added that even if Russia extradited him for a trial in The Hague, he would not recognize an “enemy court”.