January 10, 2015

Armed Formations in the Secessionist ‘Luhansk Republic’

Reuters/Scanpix
Unmarked armored personnel carriers (APC) are seen on the road from Luhansk to Donetsk in the territory controlled by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine, December 1, 2014. Picture taken through a car window.
Unmarked armored personnel carriers (APC) are seen on the road from Luhansk to Donetsk in the territory controlled by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine, December 1, 2014. Picture taken through a car window.

The armistice in Ukraine’s east affords Russia a breathing pause to institutionalize the secessionist Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics.” The “Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR)” is even less institutionalized and more chaotic than the nearby Donetsk republic (“DPR”). Various armed formations in the “LPR” are operating, as a rule, uncoordinated with Luhansk authorities or with each other; and sometimes in rivalry with each other (see accompanying article).

The armistice in Ukraine’s east affords Russia a breathing pause to institutionalize the secessionist Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics.” The “Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR)” is even less institutionalized and more chaotic than the nearby Donetsk republic (“DPR”). Various armed formations in the “LPR” are operating, as a rule, uncoordinated with Luhansk authorities or with each other; and sometimes in rivalry with each other (see accompanying article).

Field commanders must, to a certain extent, take orders from their Russian sponsors and from Luhansk military authorities; but they tend to be recalcitrant and insubordinate toward the “LPR’s” political leadership. Moreover, the field commanders rule portions of the “LPR’s” territory de facto, in nominal and conditional allegiance to the center. This pattern is reminiscent in some ways of the feudal fragmentation of yore. More closely in time and place, the commanders’ modus operandi recalls the Makhnovshchina of almost one hundred years ago in this same territory (in the first several years after World War I, the highly decentralized Revolutionary Insurrectionist Anarchist Army militia controlled and operated in this area).
Turf protection is a salient characteristic of these armed formations. Based in the countryside, each of them clings to a well-defined territory, rarely venturing out from its locality or to Luhansk City. As a result, the “LPR’s” territory is divided into de facto bailiwicks, each with its own field commander and garrison. This pattern is not observed in the “DPR,” where political and military authority is more centralized and the territory more urbanized, compared with the “LPR.”
The territorial fragmentation and strong turf-orientation of these armed formations have significant consequences on the military level. Each “brigade” or “battalion” tends to fight mostly within in its own bailiwick against Ukrainian forces, whether on the defensive or by using long-range artillery offensively. These formations seldom conduct joint operations against Ukrainian forces. Nor do the field commanders bargain jointly with Luhansk political authorities.
In each of those bailiwicks, the field commander acts de facto as a local ruler, coexisting with the “LPR’s” local administrations and elected mayors, but overriding them in practice. The field commander can informally function as local judge, police chief (with self-arrogated powers to arrest), tax collector and requisition authority (“for war needs”), humanitarian aid distributor, and otherwise fill the vacuum of state power. These local rulers with their retinues can generate significant income by selling protection services to local industrial enterprises, marketing Luhansk coal, and skimming and reselling humanitarian aid consignments (Novosti DNR, January 2, 2015; Novorossiya News Agency, January 3, 5, 2015).
Most of these field commanders style themselves as Atamans, and their retinues as (Russian) Don Cossacks; but the claimed Cossack descent and status seems seldom authentic. In their telling, the Don Cossack Host (centered in Russia’s Rostov region) has historic land claims on the Luhansk area.
Russia delivers the arms and equipment to the Luhansk authorities, which redistribute some of that materiel to formations in the field. “LPR” authorities can leverage this redistribution mechanism to bring those freewheeling groups into Luhansk’s subordination, then to transfer them into the newly created Corps of People’s Militia (see accompanying article). The “LPR” authorities would like to reduce and ultimately break the field commanders’ power. The authorities’ preferred option is to enlist those fighters individually, rather than on a group basis. The “president,” Igor Plotnitsky, has recently offered enlistments through individual transfer, under threats of compulsory disarmament (Luganskyi Informatsionnyi Tsentr, December 24, 2014).
Plotnitsky’s interactions with these formations are tense and marked by mutual distrust. These detachments and their members generally felt disappointed by the September 2014 armistice agreements and the near-cessation of combat that took effect from December 9. The prevailing sentiment since then, as seen abundantly in Internet media, seems to be an impatient wish to continue hostilities against Ukraine. A few of those holding command ranks are apt to cite political motivations for engaging in this war. The rank-and-file’s motivations range from lack of prospects in civilian life to Russian nationalist or imperial indoctrination (of the neo-Tsarist, Soviet, and Putinist varieties) to sheer adventure-seeking and war comradeship.
Members of these formations sometimes claim to have been joined by volunteer fighters from European countries. The evidence of international participation, however, is confined to a small number of individual cases. The pretense is merely self-flattering. It makes these primitive local groups look somehow in tune with the outside world. Moscow also speaks of participation by international volunteers, so as to relativize Russia’s culpability for itself organizing the proxy war in Ukraine.
There is a powerful Russian social phenomenon behind the flow of volunteers to fight in Ukraine, potentially repeatable elsewhere. Russia, uniquely, is home to many hundreds of thousands of military veterans of fighting age, with combat experience from several wars, with unrewarding, often marginal civilian lives, easily mobile due to weak societal attachments, energized by the official propaganda, and disposed (as they have been over generations in Russia) for some liberation war abroad. This social phenomenon sets Russia starkly apart from European societies. It provides Russia’s leadership with a large manpower reservoir to tap into, and literally to inflict on potential target countries across the border. Of these, Ukraine has become the first actual target country, in the age of hybrid war that Russia has opened in Europe.
Part two
Russia is building secessionist proto-states on parts of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces (collectively known as the Donbas region). This effort is advancing with relative ease in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) but is faltering in the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LPR) thus far.
The authorities claiming to represent the “LPR” actually control only Luhansk City and its vicinity. Autonomous armed formations, self-styled as Russian Cossacks, have divided up most of the “republic’s” territory, defying the “central” leadership. Each one of those formations is entrenched in a specific territory and loyal to its own “ataman” (leader). They rarely cooperate with Luhansk or even among themselves.
Estimates of those formations’ manpower range from 8,000 to 17,000. Their combat tactics have nothing in common with the Cossack cavalry traditions. Instead, they use long-range artillery, tanks and armored vehicles, received (along with instructors) from Russia’s military during the active phase of hostilities against Ukraine.
Most of these self-styled Cossacks are (or were until very recently) affiliated with the “Cossack National Guard,” an offshoot of the All-Mighty (Vsevelikoye) Don Cossack Host, based across the border in Russia’s Rostov oblast. Led by Ataman Nikolai Kozitsyn, this National Guard was meant all along to receive non-registered Russian Cossacks as members—i.e., those not descended from the registered Cossacks of the Tsarist era, and not entitled to state service in today’s Russia. Unregistered Cossacks is a dubious status, often accessible to all comers. Most Cossacks in the “LPR,” therefore, are probably less than authentic or not authentic at all.
Their chieftains and some sympathizing journalists express political views in Internet publications and on Novorossiya-dedicated websites. Those pronouncements combine elements of Russian imperial nostalgia, Soviet-era clichés, and anti-capitalism in the updated form of denouncing “oligarchs.”
The underlying attitudes seem equally disdainful of Ukraine and of the “LPR.” Cossack revivalists resented the Ukrainian state, including the “oligarchic” Party of Regions, for having prevented a revival of the Don Cossack movement (or any form of Russian organization) in this part of Ukraine. Cossack revivalists, therefore, hailed the collapse of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime in its own stronghold in Ukraine’s east. They then rose up against Ukraine’s post-Maidan government as “fascist” and pro-Western. But they also regard the “LPR” as a “usurper” on the purported land of (Russian) Don Cossacks in Luhansk. These atamans claim to operate “Cossack self-administration”—in effect, their own personalized rule—in their respective portions of “LPR’s” territory. And they aspire to merge that territory informally with the Don Cossacks’ heartland in Russia’s Rostov oblast (Segodnya.ru, December 14, 27, 2014).
The “Cossack self-administration” has the upper hand over the incumbent authorities in “LPR’s” districts and towns. The incumbent mayors, district chief executives, and police chiefs (town commandants) variously include those elected under Ukrainian law prior to 2014 as well as those appointed unlawfully by “LPR” authorities. The atamans tolerate the presence of incumbents in most places, resulting in a semblance of dual power. In practice, however, ataman-led forces are far stronger locally, and rule their respective fiefs unchecked. They hold de facto police powers; apply informal criminal justice through detention, corporal punishment or community labor; levy taxes on business for “people’s needs” or the “self-defense forces’ needs”; administer food-rationing in their localities; and redistribute humanitarian assistance goods received unofficially from Russia.
The cessation of combat since December 9, 2014, has exacerbated the pre-existing tensions between “LPR’s” “central” authorities and the autonomous armed formations. The relative calm at the front has allowed political differences and business conflicts to erupt with full force. The main issues in contention are: first, the conduct of war against Ukraine and the political future of the “LPR”; second, “LPR’s” military organization; third, control over the distribution of Russian humanitarian aid; and fourth, the trade in anthracite coal, Luhansk’s high-value strategic resource. Leaders and even half-way articulate members of these formations state their political positions via Internet outlets and in videotaped public appearances.
First, the atamans do not recognize the validity of the September armistice agreements, since they deem the “LPR” leaders who signed those agreements as illegitimate leaders. Instead, the autonomous armed formations are in a mood to continue military operations against Ukraine. The atamans do not fully recognize the “LPR” as such; instead, they declare allegiance to the “people of the Luhansk territory [Luganshchina].” They call for seizing the remaining parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces from Ukraine and for the completion of the Novorossiya project (Novosti DNR, December 31, 2014; January 2, 2015; Informator.lg.ua, January 2, 4, 2015; Novosti Novorossii, January 5, 2015).
Second, the autonomous chieftains resist Luhansk’s attempts to unify all formations under “LPR’s” central command. “LPR” leader (glava) Igor Plotnitsky proposes to re-enlist members of the autonomous formations into regular military units that are currently being mustered in Luhansk. The atamans, however, insist on preserving their armed formations as they currently exist, including their local rule; and they would cooperate with (rather than subordinate to) a central “LPR” command (Luhansk Information Center, December 20, 24, 2014; Novosti Novorossii, December 29, 2014; January 3, 10, 2015).
Third, Cossack leaders denounce Plotnitsky and other Luhansk authorities as “thieves” who misappropriate Russian relief goods and even resell some of those goods for profit. Russian governmental truck convoys actually deliver the goods to “LPR’s” “central” authorities for further distribution in the territory. Apparently, however, Luhansk authorities bypass the Cossack-controlled towns in distributing the foodstuffs and other relief goods. The atamans decry this procedure as intended to subdue them through blackmail. They receive lesser amounts of relief goods from private donors in Russia (Lenta.ru, December 31; OstroV, December 25, 30, 2014; January 8, 2015; Novosti Novorossii, December 29, 2014; January 2, 2015).
Fourth, the Cossack atamans accuse Plotnitsky’s team of selling anthracite coal to enterprises in Ukrainian-controlled territory. Condemning such sales as treason to the “people of LPR,” they challenge the Luhansk authorities to account for that income and use it for humanitarian assistance to the population. While such sales, if real, must proceed surreptitiously, Luhansk’s “central” authorities sell coal across the border to Russia quite openly. Russian and proxy forces occupy what is legally the Ukrainian side of that border along a 300-kilometer section. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Observer Mission is registering substantial exports of Luhansk coal to Russia by truck convoys across that border. This must be a mere fraction of the total cross-border coal shipments, as Russia allows the OSCE to observe only a minuscule part of that long border (Novosti Novorossii, December 9, 29, 2014; OSCE Observer Mission weekly updates, December 3, 2014–January 14, 2015).
Part Three
Outside Luhansk City and its environs, the “Luhansk People’s Republic’s” (LPR) territory is splintered into de facto fiefdoms and portions of no man’s land. Each fiefdom has its own ataman (leader) and armed formation claiming Cossack status. They are headquartered in medium-sized towns (average population size 100,000) that serve as district-level administrative centers. These towns are home to massive but ailing metallurgical and chemical plants and coal mines.
Pavel Dryomov (Dremov) in Stakhanov:
This traditional coalmining town with the surrounding district is ruled by Pavel Dryomov (Dremov), whose 1,300-strong, heavily armed force has demonstrated its capacity to disrupt the armistice. According to Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) telephone intercepts, Dryomov reports directly to the command of the operational group of Russian forces stationed in the “LPR” (Kyiv Post, January 6, 2015).
Dryomov purports to be an ataman and a major-general, and calls his force the First Cossack Regiment of a purported 31st District (Okrug) of Russia’s Don Cossack Host. All these claims to rank and status are more than dubious. Dryomov sounds equally colorful when recounting his own biography as a former bricklayer, factory worker, volunteer against Moldova in Transnistria, “and I was even a gangster” in Russia, before going to war against Ukraine in April 2014 (Novosti DNR, December 31, 2014). Dryomov’s unit split off last September from Nikolai Kozitsyn’s Cossack National Guard (see below).
A flamboyant populist orator, Dryomov denounces “LPR’s” leadership as corrupt and pro-“oligarchic.” Flanked by a full retinue, Dryomov has videotaped an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin to remove “LPR’s president” Igor Plotnitsky from that post. Dryomov proposes replacing Plotnitsky with a collegial leadership composed of the main leaders of military formations. He vows that his Cossacks would protect industrial enterprises from being robbed under the guise of being privatized by LPR authorities. Dryomov and his men insist on continuing the war to seize the remainder of the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces from Ukraine and onward for Novorossiya (Luhansk Information Center, December 24, 2014; Novosti Novorossii, December 29, 2014; January 2, 2015; Lenta.ru, December 31, 2014; Informator.lg.ua, January 2, 4, 2015).
Nikolai Kozitsyn in Antratsyt:
From May through November 2014, the purported General Nikolai Kozitsyn was the most senior Russian Cossack ataman fighting against Ukraine. His 4,000-strong force, equipped with armor and artillery, operated as a Cossack National Guard, ostensibly an offshoot from Russia’s Don Cossack Host, but in fact a proxy for Russia’s armed forces. The Cossack National Guard enrolled nonregistered Cossacks, a dubious status that often accommodates pseudo-Cossacks. Kozitsyn’s units controlled long sections of what is legally the Ukrainian side of the Russia-Ukraine border and the access routes into “LPR’s” interior.
The ataman established his headquarters in the town of Antratsyt, later expanding his de facto rule to Krasnyi Luch (major coal-mining towns and administrative centers of the eponymous districts), insubordinate to “LPR’s” authorities. Kozitsyn, however, could hardly be taken seriously as an individual. Despite his purported general’s rank, he had no military record other than a stint as a volunteer in Transnistria against Moldova. Trained as a corrections officer, Kozitsyn had worked in the Soviet penitentiary system, but was dismissed and embarked on the career of a folkloric Cossack. Perhaps he was fronting for some other Russian authority from his base in Antratsyt.
During his de facto rule there, Kozitsyn bragged of Russian military personnel in his units, and of his own connections with the Kremlin. Yet he disavowed the Minsk armistice agreements. He deprecated the “LPR” as a “fiction,” merely a land of Don Cossacks and a part of the Russian Empire, Vladimir Putin being “our Tsar” presently. A rival group of Russian nationalists published documents showing Kozitsyn’s involvement in sales of coal to Ukrainian enterprises (Ukraina.ru, November 26, 2014). In late November, another Cossack unit (believed to be undercover Spetsnaz) raided Kozitsyn’s headquarters, killed his two closest aides and other retainers in a shootout, and removed the ataman forcibly to Russia (Lugansk Information Center, November 29, 2014).
Kozitsyn’s troops, meanwhile, remain in control of Antratsyt. The new commander of the Cossack National Guard in town has been identified as Rashid Shakirzanov (ethnicity not stated). He is also quoted as rejecting “LPR’s” legitimacy and claiming parts of Ukraine’s southeast for Russian Cossacks, implicitly for Russia (Informator.lg.ua, January 4, 5, 2015; OstroV, January 8, 2015).
Part Four
Local ataman (historically, a Cossack leader) rule proliferates in the power vacuum of the “Luhansk People’s republic” (LPR). Russian forces seized this area from Ukraine but have failed to contain the ensuing anarchy.
Yevgeny Ishchenko in Pervomaysk:
The “ataman” in charge at Pervomaysk, Yevgeny Ishchenko, arrived there in April from Russia (where he was wanted on manslaughter charges, according to Ukrainian Luhansk province governor Hennady Moskal, re-based in Sieverodonetsk). Ishchenko echoes the other Atamans’ views about the Minsk armistice agreements as invalid, and the “LPR” and its leader, Igor Plotnitsky, as illegitimate. While determined to continue fighting against Ukraine, he has also threatened to “turn the weapons in the opposite direction” (Novosti Novorossii, December 10, 2014; January 3, 2015).
Ishchenko is a junior ally of the Stakhanov-based Ataman Dryomov. They make joint public appearances from time to time and give interviews together for Internet media occasionally. “LPR” authorities in Luhansk have endorsed Ishchenko as acting mayor and town commandant in Pervomaysk (thus “legalizing” him in Luhansk’s eyes), evidently hoping to conciliate him. However, Ishchenko has complained to a rare foreign visitor that Luhansk is systematically withholding food supplies, so as to starve out Pervomaysk and other “self-governing” (i.e. ataman-controlled) towns (The Guardian, January 7, 2015).
Aleksei Mozgovoy in Alchevsk:
Aleksei Mozgovoy’s brigade Prizrak (Ghost), based in Alchevsk and the surrounding district, with an estimated strength of 2,000, does not emphasize a Cossack identity, and keeps aloof both from the Luhansk authorities and from the other autonomous armed formations. During the fighting last summer, Mozgovoy’s brigade was the only force in the “LPR” to cooperate with Igor Girkin/Strelkov’s forces in the Donetsk “people’s republic.” Ousted from the industrial centers of Sieverodonetsk and Lysychansk by Ukrainian forces last August, the Prizrak brigade withdrew to Alchevsk, site of the metallurgical and coke-chemical plants of the Industrial Union of Donbas. The “LPR” police and town commandant retain a symbolic presence in Alchevsk, but Mozgovoy’s formation is fully in control there.
Mozgovoy, a Luhansk native, was a non-commissioned officer in the Ukrainian army, then a guest worker in Russia, joined the pro-Russia rebellion in Luhansk from the outset in April 2014, and built up the Prizrak unit from the platoon to the “brigade” level. Politically, however, he has opposed the “LPR” leadership under both “presidents,” Valery Bolotov and Igor Plotnitsky.
Mozgovoy is considerably more articulate than the other field commanders (or the Luhansk leaders for that matter) and is also the most radical politically. He can hold his own in dialogues with Russian ultranationalist intellectuals on their websites. At one level, Mozgovoy shares the other Luhansk field commanders’ views: disavowing the Minsk armistice agreements, contesting the “LPR’s” legitimacy and that of Luhansk leaders, insisting on the preservation of autonomous armed formations, continuing the fight for Novorossiya. He is the prime advocate of creating a council of field commanders to either replace or duplicate the Luhansk-based authorities.
Beyond war-related issues, Mozgovoy seems to position himself as a social radical of a nationalist-expansionist bent. He calls for removing the “political-financial-oligarchic corrupt authorities” and replacing those with “real people’s power,” nationalization of privately-owned industries, and abolishing elections for the duration of the ongoing war—all of this in the spirit of “Russianness” (Russkost’, not further explained). On that basis Mozgovoy would “liberate the people” of the Luhansk and Donetsk “republics,” of Novorossiya, of Kyiv and Ukraine as a whole, apparently in that order and not necessarily ending there (Novaya Gazeta, November 21, 2014; Luhansk Information Center, December 20, 24, 2014; Novosti Novorossii, December 29, 2014; January 3, 10, 11, 2015).
The Atamanchiks:
Lesser fiefdoms, controlled by smaller but still autonomous armed formations, have sprung up in the towns of Krasnyi Luch and Sverdlovsk (administrative centers of eponymous districts).
Ataman Kozitsyn (see above) had removed the “LPR” authorities from Krasnyi Luch, the foremost anthracite-mining center in nominally “LPR” territory. The commander currently in charge there is identified as Major-General S. Yu. Kosogor, an elected ataman of the Russian Cossack Don Host in that district (presumably the 31st, in Kozitsyn’s telling). The Cossacks have reportedly taken away the lucrative coal trade from the pro-Luhansk authorities in Krasnyi Luch (Novosti Novorossii, January 8, 2015).
In Sverdlovsk, the Cossack chieftain Aleksandr Gaidey apparently broke away from Kozitsyn’s organization. Gaydey’s armed detachment, the “Gaydeevtsy,” headquartered in the captured Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) building, reportedly controls what is legally the Ukrainian side of the Russia-Ukraine border (OstroV, January 8, 2015). Ukrainian Luhansk province governor Moskal (see above) refers to the lesser Cossack or pseudo-Cossack chieftains pejoratively as Atamanchiki.

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