Written by Nikolaus von Twickel
The Russian-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine suffered their biggest upheaval since 2014 when Luhansk separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky was replaced by the local State Security chief Leonid Pasechnik after an armed intervention by Donetsk separatist forces.
Pasechnik wins the “war of the Igors”
The conflict within the leadership of the Luhansk “People’s Republic (LNR)” escalated last week, when armed men thwarted an attempt by separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky to fire Igor Kornet, his Interior “Minister”.
The mysterious soldiers, who bore no insignia and refused to say where they came from, cordoned off the ministry early on November 21 (Tuesday) and prevented Plotnitsky from taking control and install his successor. In an improvised press conference the next day, Plotnitsky accused Kornet of staging a coup.
However, on Thursday November 23 Plotnitsky apparently flew to Moscow “for consultations”. Another day later, the standoff – dubbed the War of the Igors – was seemingly decided, and Plotnitsky had lost. State Security “Minister” Leonid Pasechnik declared that Plotnitsky had resigned “for health reasons” (he claimed that he suffered from a concussion) and had appointed him as interim leader until elections would be held in autumn 2018.
Pasechnik and Kornet, who together control sizable security forces, were long believed to work against Plotnitsky. They are closely linked to a group of separatists from Kadiivka (formerly Stakhanov), where Pasechnik worked for Ukraine’s Security Service SBU before he joined the separatists in 2014. The local separatist leader here, Pavel Dryomov, a fierce critic of Plotnitsky, died when his car exploded in December 2015.
Other members of this group are Alexei Karyakin, who fled to Russia after Plotnitsky sacked him as parliamentary speaker in March 2016, and Valeri Bolotov, the first LNR leader, who died under murky circumstances in January 2017 in Moscow.
Pasechnik claimed that he would continue his predecessor’s foreign and domestic policies, but it remains to be seen, if he will keep his word. While he personally has kept a low profile, his “State Security Ministry” has become infamous for conducting interviews with prisoners confessing all sorts of crimes. On its website it already published a string of interviews with detainees confessing to plot terrorist attacks for Ukraine during last week’s armed intervention, which Pasechnik’s explained as an anti-terrorist operation.
Pasechnik and Kornet were thought to be plotting a leadership change as early as October 2015, when Pasechnik’s people arrested the then Energy “Minister” and Plotnitsky-ally Dmitry Lyamin. Plotnitsky protested, saying that the arrest was illegal, but after a brief trip to Moscow he backed down and promised to start a fresh fight against corruption. Pasechnik and Kornet are also closely associated with Karyakin (see Newsletter 15), and a return of the former “parliamentary speaker” from exile would strengthen the separatists’ ideological wing (known as ideinie separatisty in Russian).
Plotnitsky had been under heavy criticism for some time. Accusations that he was enriching himself and his entourage by controlling imports, eg of pharmaceuticals, have been carried by leading Russian pro-Kremlin outlets (see Newsletter 8).
The Lyamin affair left Plotnitsky’s authority badly damaged, and last week’s events showed that he could not (or would not) muster a force against a military intervention in his own city.
However, few had expected such a turn of events, including an armed intervention of one “people’s republic” in another.
The fact that the anonymous soldiers came from Donetsk was first confirmed by Kornet, who said on November 22 that he received help from “our friends […] the law enforcement organs of the Donetsk People’s Republic”. One day later, the Donetsk “State Security Ministry” said that it had conducted a joint security operation with the local Interior Ministry in Luhansk.
According to the OSCE monitoring mission, a military convoy of almost 30 vehicles drove from Debaltseve, a town controlled by the Donetsk separatists, to Luhansk on November 21.
The revelation that the soldiers, which reminded many of the “green men” who prepared the annexation of Crimea in 2014, were from Donetsk rather than Russia, prompted speculation that Moscow is mulling a merger of the two people’s republics.
A story in the Russian weekly Nasha Versia suggested that Moscow will form a new entity dubbed “Ukraine-2” to present a viable alternative to the (pro-western) Ukraine governed from Kiev – a bit like the German Democratic Republic being a competitor to West Germany.
Such a model is reminiscent of the Malorossiya initiative made by Donetsk separatist leader Alexander Zakharchenko in July. That proposal was quietly dropped soon after it emerged that neither Luhansk nor even Moscow seemed to know much of this (see Newsletter 23).
However, many observers argued that Russia wants to keep two entities, not least because this preserves the legal framework of the Minsk peace accords. Both Plotnitsky and Zakharchenko signed the Minsk protocol and memorandum of autumn 2014, as well as the package of measures of February 2015.
Pasechnik seemed to confirm this when he said that Plotnitsky had been appointed the “LNR’s” chief Minsk negotiator for the ongoing peace talks because “he is one of the Minsk agreements signatories.” However, he promised on November 25 that the hitherto negotiator Vladislav Deinego should continue to carry out this role.
There is little doubt that Russia has enormous financial, military and political control over both Luhansk and Donetsk. Using “DNR” forces in the conflict in Luhansk might just be a tactical ploy: Moscow can plausibly deny that they are Russian while still being in charge of operations.