Written by Nikolaus von Twickel


The Donetsk separatists waged a monthlong disinformation campaign about an apparent Ukrainian plan to launch a chemical attack against the “People’s Republic”. While tensions following the Kerch Strait incident fueled the campaign, the motivation behind may be linked to a fertilizer plant. Meanwhile, arrests and sackings of people close to slain separatist leader Zakharchenko continued in Donetsk.

A chemical disinformation campaign

On November 21, Donetsk military spokesman Daniil Bezsonov claimed that a group of British special forces had arrived in Bakhmut (formerly Artyomovsk), a government-controlled town in the Donetsk region, to take part in a chemical weapons attack on the “People’s Republic”. While the separatists regularly make outlandish claims about their military opponent, this campaign stood out because it lasted for more than a month, most probably fueled by the Azov Sea crisis. It might also point to troubles with the chemical industry inside non-government-controlled areas.

Bezsonov explicitly mentioned the Stirol factory in Horlivka, claiming that the Ukrainians would try to cover up an attack on the chemical plant by provoking a contamination along the nearby frontline. Over the coming weeks, the Donetsk separatists claimed that NATO instructors were training Ukrainian armed forces to fight under chemical weapons’ exposure and that a large number of attack-drones were delivered to government forces close to Horlivka. Separatist Foreign “Minister” Natalya Nikonorova also raised the issue at the Minsk Trilateral Contact group talks.

On December 10, senior separatist commander Eduard Basurin claimed to have intelligence that a 12,000-strong Ukrainian force would attack the “Republic” on December 14, just not from Horlivka but from the southern, government-controlled port city of Mariupol. To justify the attack, he claimed, Ukraine would blow up a chemicals storage site in the city’s Ilich steel works. Basurin even presented a detailed military map of the operation.

Three days later, Bezsonov appealed to the people of Mariupol to stay clear from the city’s canning plant, which he claimed had received a big party of ammonia. He said that “people’s militia” was asking the United Nations and other international organizations not to allow a Ukrainian chemical attack from Mariupol.

By that time, much international media attention focused on the Sea of Azov because of the November 25 Kerch Strait incident, in which Russian coast guard ships opened fire against Ukrainian navy vessels on their way to Mariupol and arrested 24 crew members. In response, Ukraine imposed Martial Law in parts of the country on November 26. President Petro Poroshenko warned about another Russian attack on Ukraine.

However, when no attack had occurred, Basurin said simply on December 17 that the Ukrainian attack plan had been moved to December 24 and 25. One day later, separatist leader Denis Pushilin warned of a “massive provocation from Ukraine and her western overlords”. The chemical weapons story finally made international headlines on December 24, when Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova warned that Ukraine was ready to “organize provocations with the use of weapons of mass destruction”. One day later, Basurin made a last attempt to keep the story alive when he claimed that chemicals were being unloaded in Krasnohoryvka just west of Donetsk – in the presence of US and British specialists.

The campaign fizzled after December 26, when President Poroshenko lifted martial law after one month. While Poroshenko said that he based his decision on an analysis of the security situation in the country, Pushilin claimed that the separatists’ “timely information” for the local population about Ukraine’s attack plans made Kiev drop them.

But what was the real reason for the chemical story? US military expert Michael Kofman has suggested that Russia – believed to closely control the separatists’ military and propaganda efforts – pushed the narrative in order to pressure the US and the West to restrain Ukraine (which Moscow perceives as a provocateur).

While the Sea of Azov sabre rattling certainly played a role, the fact that the campaign began on November 21, four days before the Kerch Strait incident, points to another story. Ukraine’s Minister for the Temporarily Occupied Territories, Vadym Chernysh, suggested that the disinformation efforts were meant to divert attention from conservation works occurring at the largest chemical factory in the areas outside government control.

The “Stirol” fertilizer plant in Horlivka with 4,500 workers has not been operating since 2014 and was seized by the separatists along with other enterprises in 2017 (see Newsletter 39). Chernysh said on 11 January that large amounts of dangerous substances are stored in the factory, among them sulphuric acid and up to 80 tons of ammonia.

In a sign that dangerous substances are being moved, monitors for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said that on December 27 that they saw six tank railcars, five of which had “Caution! Sulphuric acid” written on their sides, at a separatist-controlled railway station close to the border with Russia in the neighbouring Luhansk region. When the OSCE observers returned to the station on December 31, they recorded no tank cars.

It is unclear whether Sulphuric acid or any other substances were moved to Russia. Chernysh warned that signs point to the factory’s conservation and that this means that dangerous substances will continue to be stored there. Any careless handling of them could threaten the entire population of Horlivka – up to 250,000 people, he said. In 2013, five people were killed at the plant when ammonia was released into the air during repair works.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian military intelligence seized the opportunity and claimed on December 29 that “Russia is plotting a terrorist act with .. chemically hazardous toxic substances” and that a group of Russian chemical warfare specialists had arrived in Donbas in mid-December.

Donetsk businessman arrested

In the Donetsk “People’s Republic”, purges against people linked to slain separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko continued. On January 6 reports said that prominent businessman Dmitry Avtonomov had been arrested in late December. The Donetsk24 news site quoted an unnamed law enforcement source as saying that some ten managers of firms linked to the businessman and close relatives were arrested together with Avtonomov. Another pro-separatist site, politnavigator.net, reported that the motive of the arrest was to take away Avtonomov’s businesses. “It looks like they are demanding a handover of his assets,” the site quoted an unnamed company source.

Avtonomov has been linked to both Zakharchenko and his powerful deputy Alexander Timofeyev, who fled to Russia after suffering injuries in the explosion that killed his boss on August 31. In 2014 he set up a charity organization called “Donbass reborn” (Vozrozhdenie Donbassa), which partners with Zakharchenko’s Russian nationalist organization Oplot.

Official separatist media did not report Avtonomov’s arrest.

Pushilin keeps appointing new staff

Meanwhile, Zakharchenko’s successor Denis Pushilin sacked more Zakharchenko-era officials. On December 31 he appointed Alexei Nikonorov to head his new administration. Nikonorov is the brother of Foreign “Minister” Natalya Nikonorova, a key Pushilin loyalist who became his successor as chief Minsk negotiator. Nikonorov replaced Maxim Leshchenko, who had been closely linked with Zakharchenko.

On January 16, Pushilin appointed Roman Deushev, a former lawmaker from his native Makiivka, as Nikonorov’s deputy. Later the same day, he sacked and replaced four mayors and two district heads, thus renewing the leadership of six out 20 district heads in the “DNR”.

No prisoner swap but convicts’ transfer

The separatists and Ukraine in December agreed to transfer 55 convicts from the “People’s Republics” who had received jail terms under Ukrainian law before 2014 to government-controlled prisons.

On December 12, the “LNR” handed over 42 convicts to Ukrainian authorities, while the “DNR” handed over 13 on the next day, according to Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine’s human rights ombudswoman. It was unclear why the Donetsk separatists handed over so few convicts. According to Ukraine, the transfer of more than 500 convicts is still pending: Denisova said in October that her office has received applications from more than 900 prisoners in non-government-controlled areas, but that only 300 of them had been transferred during the four years since 2014.

Despite hopes, no prisoner swap occurred during the New Year period. Among other things, the Trilateral Contact Group’s negotiations were complicated by Russia’s refusal to releases political prisoners like Crimean film director Oleg Sentsov. Ukrainian chief negotiator Irina Gerashchenko said on December 29 that the separatists are holding more than 70 detainees but offered to release just 23.

Separatists say their internet backbone is Russian

Donetsk Telecoms “Minister” Viktor Yatsenko said in an interview with the Russian tech portal cnews.ru that both “People’s Republic” have fully rerouted their internet connection through Russia. That step was taken in autumn 2017, after Ukraine cut off internet lines to Donetsk and Luhansk, Yatsenko was quoted as saying. He added that the backbone via Russia currently has data rates of 230 GBit per second for Donetsk and 200 Gbit per second for Luhansk. Yatsenko would not say which Russian provider made the re-routing possible.

Both Russia and Ukraine have blocked access to a number of popular sites from each other. When Ukraine banned access to leading Russian state news outlets in May 2018, Yatsenko stressed that users in the “DNR” would not be affected because the local internet was “protected from Ukrainian influence”.