Written by Nikolaus von Twickel
After last year’s wide-ranging economic segregation between the “people’s republics” and the rest of Ukraine, 2018 began with another highly symbolic rift – when the last Ukrainian mobile carrier ceased to function in separatist areas.
In other news, the “DNR” Defence “Minister” blamed Ukraine for an attempt on his life and the new leader of the Luhansk separatists, Pasechnik, made his first foreign visit – to Donetsk, which had sent “little green men” to help him gain power two months earlier. And only days after the first prisoner exchange in more than a year, Ukraine and the separatists were drawing new lists of hostages kept by their opponents.
Vodafone blackout in Donetsk
In the afternoon of January 11, Vodafone Ukraine, the last Ukrainian mobile phone carrier that works in the “people’s republics”, went off the air in all areas not controlled by the government.
The outage meant that the local population was cut off not only from communications with the rest of Ukraine but from making calls in their own towns, because alternative telephone services, mainly the separatist-installed mobile networks, Lugakom (Luhansk) and Phoenix (Donetsk), offer insufficient capacity.
On January 19th, Vodafone came back into service in the Luhansk “people’s republic”, but not in Donetsk, where mobile communications remain limited until this newsletter’s press time.
Despite numerous official statements, the reasons for the ongoing outage are not entirely clear.
In their first statements, the separatists, first the Donetsk “information ministry” and then its equivalent in Luhansk, said that the Ukrainian Armed Forces had damaged a cable near Olenivka south of Donetsk, resulting in a mobile communications blackout throughout both “people’s republics”.
But Vodafone Ukraine said that the cable near Olenivka had been damaged long ago, and that there were no plans to repair it. Company executive Oleh Prozhivalskiy said in an interview published on January 23 that two other cables had been damaged recently, one at an unspecified location along a railway line on January 11, and another somewhat earlier at a “frontline location” that was later repaired.
The “LNR” Communications “Ministry” on January 13 admitted that there were damaged cables not only on Ukrainian-controlled territory (which it called “an element in Kiev’s hybrid war”), but also near Shchastia and Stanytsia Luhanska. Two days later, the “ministry” said that it was ready to carry out cable repair works outside Vesela Hora, a separatist-controlled frontline village just south of Shchastia.
The “LNR” claimed that this cable had been damaged well before January 11, without saying how. The OSCE Mission twice – on January 17 and on January 9 – observed the digging of new trenches in the very area, which suggests that the cable could have been damaged by the military.
On January 17, the “LNR” said that it was beginning cable repair works at Vesela Hora after receiving security guarantees from Ukraine. Two days later, Vodafone went back into service thanks to the OSCE-facilitated repair works – but just in the “LNR” and not in the “DNR”.
However, Vodafone Ukraine said that the repair works should have restored its network in both “people’s republics” and that the problem in the “DNR” was a lack of electricity. Prozhivalski suggested that the Donetsk separatists had demanded that Vodafone makes electricity payments directly to them after the local power supplier was seized in the wake of nationalizations last spring. He added that the company refused to do so because that was illegal under Ukrainian law.
The Donetsk separatist communications “minister” Viktor Yatsenko actually admitted this on January 22, when he said that the “DNR” cannot pay for Vodafone’s base stations’ electricity from its own budget. Yatsenko demanded from Vodafone that the company sends its technicians to the “DNR”, for which the company in turn demanded security guarantees.
The topic was discussed at the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk on January but with no result. “DNR” negotiator Denis Pushilin was quoted as saying that the lack of Vodafone coverage was part of Kiev’s “communication blockade.” And Darka Olifer, the spokeswoman for the Ukrainian delegation, reiterated demands that Vodafone technicians should be given access to the Olenivka location.
Experts have been warning for some time that mobile phone services are set to deteriorate in the separatist-held areas because the providers cannot carry out maintenance works. Vodafone’s Prozhivalskiy said that more than 30 per cent of the company’s base stations in the region have stopped working.
Both “LNR” and “DNR” have launched their own mobile networks in the past years, using base stations abandoned after Ukrainian providers Kyivstar and Life stopped servicing the areas. However, both the Lugakom and Phoenix networks suffer from capacity shortages. Nevertheless, reports from Donetsk said that there were massive lines in the city’s main Post Office, the only place where Phoenix SIM cards are issued.
The problem is likely to persist as long as no solution to the payment issue is found. Russian mobile phone carriers are unlikely to step in. The example of Crimea has shown that Russian carriers are reluctant to enter even annexed territories, because otherwise they risk falling under western sanctions.
Assassination attempt on Donetsk “Defence Minister”
On February 1, unknown attackers fired grenades at the “DNR” Defence Ministry in central Donetsk. No one was hurt but Defence “Minister” Vladimir Kononov later accused Ukraine of having sent special agents to kill him.
This is not the first time a senior “DNR” official clamed an attack on his life – in September, the “republic’s” powerful “income minister” Alexander Timofeyev said that a bomb attack had been carried out against the car he was driving in.
However, no evidence of damages became known at the time, raising suspicion that the attack had been staged (see Newsletter 24). This time, damages at the “Ministry” building were shown in video footage, although members of the OSCE Mission could not approach the site. Also, this wasn’t the first violent incident in a “DNR”-controlled city. In October 2016, prominent field commander Arsen Pavlov (“Motorola”) was killed by a bomb in central Donetsk, while in February 2017 field commander Mikhail Tolstykh (“Givi”) was killed by an attacker with a portable rocket-launcher in his office in Makiivka.
The separatists routinely blame Ukrainian agent cells (known by the Russian acronym DRG) for these attacks, while Ukrainian officials usually accuse Moscow (see Newsletter 24 for a discussion).
Pasechnik’s first foreign visit
Meanwhile, the newly minted (better: self-declared) leader of the Luhansk “People’s Republic”, Leonid Pasechnik, made his first visit to a “foreign country” – the Donetsk “People’s Republic”. In footage aired in both “republics”, Pasechnik was seen with a tiny delegation sitting opposite “DNR” leader Alexander Zakharchenko. Both leaders shook hands, signed a declaration about their intention to form a customs union and later offered a short hug in front of the cameras.
Their public comments were typical of their rather different character. While Zakharchenko said that the reason for the joint agreement was to “show our enemies that we are united and will never be defeated,” the smiling Pasechnik explained that “we are one people, one land and have a single task” to which Zakharchenko added that the republics were not divided but had a common future.
Even more striking, however, were the contrasting looks, in that Zakharchenko and his flanks (including the powerful “income minister” Alexander Timofeyev) appeared in green battle dresses, while the Luhansk leadership, Pasechnik, his Prime and trade ministers, wore black suit and tie. Obviously, the career intelligence officer from Luhansk was eager to appear smarter than his host, the always impulsive and itchy mine electrician turned separatist leader from Donetsk.
The visitors also signed agreements on cooperation in the sphere of transport and rail and after their return to Luhansk, “Prime Minister” Sergei Kozlov duly ordered his cabinet to work out a road map for closer cooperation with Donetsk.
Donetsk played a key role in Pasechnik’s rise to power by sending unmarked soldiers to Luhansk in November, who defended Pasechnik’s ally, Interior Minister Igor Kornet against then separatist leader Igor Plotnitsky, who wanted to fire Kornet. The soldiers turned out to be from the “DNR” Republican Guard and Special Forces battalions loyal to Zakharchenko (se Newsletter 25).
Plotnitsky was later seen in an undated video at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport and nothing has been seen or heard of the longtime Luhansk separatist leader since, despite Pasechnik’s initial pledge that Plotnitsky would be the “LNR”s guarantor for the Minsk agreement, which he had signed.
A Ukrainian nationalist MP, Ihor Mosiychuk, claimed on January 26 that Plotnitsky had been arrested by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), but that was never confirmed. The FSB is widely seen as the agency backing Pasechnik, while Plotnitsky was believed to have been backed by the Kremlin.
Ukraine and the separatists on December 27 finally carried out a long-awaited prisoner exchange. While Ukraine released 233 prisoners, the separatists released 73 – 57 from Donetsk and 16 from Luhansk, according to deputy Rada speaker Iryna Gerashchenko.
As in previous cases, relatively little was publicized about the prisoners released by Ukraine, while the separatists released some high-profile political prisoners. First and foremost among them was Ihor Kozlovsky, a prominent religious studies expert from Donetsk, who had been detained and held for weeks without trial or explanation in January 2016 (he was accused and sentenced for illegal weapons possession). In television interviews after his release, Kozlovsky offered rare insights in the “DNR”’s secret prison system.
Also released was Luhansk blogger Eduard Nedelyayev, who like Kozlovsky had seemingly been held for publishing critical posts on social media. Nedelyayev, who was arrested in late 2016, had been sentenced to 14 years in prison for allegedly inciting hatred against Russians and espionage in July 2017.
But while the prisoners’ release was rightly celebrated in the media, this by far wasn’t the complete prisoner exchange demanded in the Minsk agreement. The most prominent prisoner who remains in custody is journalist Stanislav Vasin (Aseev), who disappeared in Donetsk in June.
In January, the sides were already completing new prisoner lists and discussed them at the Minsk Contact Group talks. The “LNR” said that it demands 25 prisoners, who were not released by Ukraine in December. And the “DNR” said that it demands as many as 84 prisoners from Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Security Service SBU said on December 29 that 103 prisoners remain in separatist captivity. Meanwhile, Gerashchenko announced one little success, when Ukraine achieved the release of one more soldier from prison – Roman Savkov was released on January 24, after being held in “DNR”-controlled Makiivka.