The conflict in Donbass is not only widely seen as underreported. Experts from different fields also have trouble finding accurate information about it. The event was co-organized by DRA eV, the German non-profit group focused on fostering civil society and peace-building in Ukraine and Russia.

The seminar’s fist speaker, journalist Andriy Dikhtarenko, explained the peculiar developments that led to the creation of the People’s Republics, especially in his native city of Luhansk.

According to Dikhtarenko, who addressed the seminar via video link, overtly pro-Russian political forces were at best marginal in Donbass before 2014. In April of that year, the Luhansk regional parliament did announce the creation of a pro-Russian faction headed by Sergei Zakharov, the leader of the Russkoe Nasledie Russian nationalist movement. However, this turned out to be an insignificant step as the deputies – and indeed the Ukrainian state – were about to lose control of much of the region.

In Luhansk and many other cities power was soon in the hands of more radical activists who proclaimed a “People’s Republic” and set up an “Army South-East” – whose initial commanders Alexey Relke, Valery Bolotov and Alexei Karayakin were all from Stakhanov, a city “with an interesting criminal history”, according to Dikhtarenko.

In both Donetsk and Luhansk, the local elites of the hitherto ruling Party of Regions were unwilling to take the radical step and start an armed rebellion. “They were not ready to become Russian puppets”, Dikhtarenko said.

Instead, Russia recruited its agents on the ground through Cossacks and Afghanistan war veterans’ organizations. In the Luhansk region, Cossacks played an important role in the early stages of the war. Nikolai Kozitsyn, a prominent ataman from the neighbouring Russian region of Rostov-on-Don, moved to Antratsyt in 2014, where he set up a quasi-state that long resisted the separatist leadership in Luhansk. According to Dikhtarenko, Kozitsyn was probably tasked (by Russia) to control the strategically important highway between Rostov and Debaltseve.

One reason why the separatists in the Luhansk region were so territorially divided initially is that they were overlooked by Moscow. Russian emissaries, political technologists and Generals tended to go to Donetsk, where they succeeded to build a more centralized leadership.

“Luhansk was more in the shadows”, Dikhtarenko said. Much of the separatist-held territory was initially controlled by Cossacks and other field commanders. Their cleansing began with the killing of Alexander Bednov (nicknamed “Batman”) on 1 January 2015.

The role of informal actors was also the theme of Nikolai Mitrokhin of Germany’s Bremen University.  Mitrokhin argued that civic activists like early Donetsk separatist leader Pavel Gubarev proved to be of little use for Moscow in 2014. Instead, the Kremlin’s curators preferred to recruit their agents from veterans’ groups and/or criminal structures.

Prominent among them were security firm workers and/or participants of the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, but also Chechnya. Mitrohkin argued that the Russia-sponsored insurgency in Donbass created opportunities for a range of seemingly marginal groups: “You could be a biker, a pagan, a bandit or all at the same time,” he said. Put together, these numerous little-known organizations, each with only a few members, formed an influential network.

Both Dikhtarenko and Mitrokhin said that Russia gradually sidelined regional power-brokers like Oleksandr Yefremov in Luhansk and Rinat Akhmetov in Donetsk. While Akhmetov managed to retain his influence and his wealth after moving to Kiev, Yefremov was less fortunate: he has been in detention since 2016 and is currently on trial for “separatism”.

Wilfried Jilge, a prominent German Ukraine expert, talked about the concept of Russky Mir, which he explained as a Russian soft power tool which spreads a special identity that undermines the legitimacy of other sovereign states. “Russia is using a multilayered toolbox of myths in its campaign against Ukraine,” Jilge said.

First promulgated by President Vladimir Putin in his Crimea speech in 2014, Russky Mir does not rule out the existence of a Ukrainian state but helped to create a climate which legitimated various pro-Russian forces in Donbass since 2014, Jilge explained.

He argued that while the Party of Regions lost much of its political power in 2014, there are numerous and enduring links between the party and Russian-sponsored agents in Donbass, like the nationalist Rusich movement. “There is a grey zone between the Party and proxy groups which we should study better and more,” he said, adding that some local representatives of the old elite managed to hold on to power and might stage a comeback.

However, research about and especially inside the “People’s Republics” is extremely difficult. Most independent experts and journalists have been refused entry, especially if their published work is critical of the separatists and/or Russia. Those few who do get access face severe risks if caught conducting research among the population.

Oksana Mikheeva, a Lviv-based sociologist originally from Donetsk, explained that researchers can only speak to those people who visit government-controlled areas. As the ideological and political divide between the “People’s Republics” and the rest of Ukraine widens, the results of this work get more challenging. “Some people ask, why does one part of society have the right to study another part of society,” she explained.

Research about the “People’s Republics” economy is also difficult, but the available figures tell a relatively clear story, according to German journalist Nikolaus von Twickel. The trade blockade that was imposed in 2017 first by activists and then by the Ukrainian state, hit the “People’s Republics” much harder than the rest of Ukraine. National GDP was reduced by 0.9 per centage points, significantly less than 1.3 per cent as was initially expected, he explained.

Figures by the Donetsk Industry and Trade “Ministry” show that industrial output in the metals sector was reduced by about half between 2016 and 2017. The fact that the separatists, and by extension, Russia, who is their main sponsor, are hit disproportionately much more than Ukraine reduces the incentive for the current and future governments to lift the blockade, von Twickel argued.

Kiev-based expert Vyacheslav Likhachev of the Vostok SOS pressure group began his talk about human rights by lamenting the lack of reliable sources from inside the “People’s Republics”. “It sometimes feels like a western political scientist wanting to know about human rights in the Soviet Union by reading Pravda and Izvestia,” he said.

According to Likhachev, the number of political prisoners in Donetsk and Luhansk is no longer in the hundreds like in the early years of the conflict, but the separatists are still holding dozens of people, some of them just for violating the curfew.

“There is no rule of law, and death can happen anytime,” Likhachev said.

He added that it was frustrating to monitor human rights remotely in a place where there is no law and no protection, but that activists must not endanger their sources in the non-government controlled-territories.

Likhachev argued that much of the seemingly irrational violence with government troops along the Contact Line serves to legitimize power in the “People’s Republics” and mobilize the local population. “Clearly they need this and the Kremlin needs this to promote its Ukraine policy,” he said.

He added that the violence also tends to be a self-prolonging lifestyle. “What do these 10,000 people under arms do?” he asked, adding that ceasefires break down because fighters have nothing else to do.

German scholar Andreas Umland then gave a talk about seemingly pro-Russian scientists in the West. Umland argued that arriving at positions that are in line with the Kremlin is not necessarily unscientific. Some prominent political scientists and international relations experts just have different scientific classifications, he said.