Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Donetsk Putsch Nipped in Bud, but Could Odessa or Kharkiv Be Next as Russia Eyes Ukrainian Mainland?

The Donetsk Republic is no more—at least for the time being.  Last week in this blog, I reported on the pro-Russian rebellion in Donetsk, in eastern Ukraine, whose leaders took over the regional government on March 3rd and by March 5th had declared a “Donetsk Republic” and were preparing to invite President Vladimir Putin to send Russian troops to support them.  The uprising enacted the worst fears that a parallel to the takeover of Crimea could happen in the Ukrainian mainland.

A map of how Ukraine’s oblasts voted in the 2010 election (with red being pro-Russian)
shows Donetsk in the far east, bordering Russia.
The following day, the local coup’s leader, Pavel Gubarev (pictured, center, at the top of this article), was arrested by Ukrainian federal police while he was holding a press conference (he was later sentenced to two months in prison) and the Ukrainian flag was raised again over the offices of Donetsk oblast’s regional government.  This did not end the conflict.  Supporters of Gubarev’s group, the People’s Militia of Donbas (Donbas being the larger region around Donetsk, on the Don River), staged street confrontations with police that night.  On March 8th, 3,000 people rallied in Donetsk’s Lenin Square to support the idea of the Russian Federation annexing this part of eastern Ukraine—as it is already gearing up to do in Crimea.  The crowds chanted, “Russia!” and “Referendum!” and surrounded the government building where the oblast’s new governor, Sirhiy Taruta, was holed up, challenging him to emerge.  Taruta, a multi-millionaire oligarch, was appointed by the new interim Ukrainian government in Kyiv (Kiev) partly in an attempt to mollify the long-corrupt national economy’s powerful tycoons and get them on the side of the anti-Kremlin opposition that returned to power late last month.  Donetsk is also, no one fails to note, the home oblast of Ukraine’s deposed pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovych.

Pro-Gubarev activists confront police in the streets of Donetsk.
Little is known about Gubarev, described as a 30-year-old advertising executive or entrepreneur from the Donbas region.  In the 1990s, he was a member of the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, a post-Soviet but communistic and pan-Slavic political party which is stridently anti-Western and anti-globalization.  He has also, oddly enough, been a member of Russian National Unity, an extremist right-wing party often described as neo-Nazi.  If those seem like opposite ends of the political spectrum for one person to travel before the age of 30 (it is not clear in which order he belonged to these groups, or to which of the two, if either, he still belongs), then that possibly says as much about Gubarev’s peripatetic nature as it does about the topsy-turvy world of the Ukrainian political fringe.  As Marlon Brando said, in The Wild One, when asked what he was rebelling against, “What’ve you got?”  All Gubarev seems sure he’s for is seeing his home region swallowed up by an omnivorous Russia.

Supporters of the current Ukrainian government celebrate the snuffing out
of the Donetsk Republic uprising—but for how long?
The phenomenon of Gubarev also points up the absurdity of the Kremlin’s official line that the anti-Yanukovych, anti-Kremlin forces in Ukraine are in essence fascists and neo-Nazis—as opposed to Russia’s home-grown nationalists, who, in this view, are the moral heirs to the Soviet Union’s heroic defeat of the Nazis in what is still called “the Great Patriotic War.”  Here, as a bit of an antidote to that line of thinking, is Gubarev in the uniform of Russian National Unity:

Nice armband, huh?  As with many far-right groups in Europe, one wonders if they think people won’t notice that they are wearing modified swastikas, or if they are rubbing our noses in it.  Compare, for example, the insignia of Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn organization: ...

... or Hungary’s far-right ultranationalist party Jobbik: ...

... or the radical, neo-fascist Free Wales Army, in the United Kingdom: ...

... or, alas, Ukraine’s own extremist Rightist Sector party, which has revived the Nazi S.S.’s “Wolfsangel” (wolf’s hook) insignia (as has Ukraine’s more mainstream right-wing Svoboda, or Freedom, party) ...

... and then there’s Russia’s Movement against Illegal Immigration (D.P.N.I.): ...

... or the group Russian Deed (Russkoye Delo): ...

... and here is how members of Gubarev’s own Russian National Unity party like to greet one another at their little meetings ...

... including some fellows having a bit of fun, Busby Berkley style, via Mel Brooks ...

... and here is Russia’s National Bolshevik Party: ...

Phew.  Well, at least their emblem doesn’t look like a swastika.  What a relief!

If Putin does decide to pull a Crimean-annexation maneuver in the Ukrainian mainland, Donetsk oblast, which borders Russia, is an obvious place to start.  And, ironically, ethnic-Russian neo-Nazis like Gubarev will be his local confederates making it all possible.

... but “ethnicity” is a more malleable, and shifting, phenomenon than native language.
A point needs to be made here about the little matter of ethnicity.  I myself, in this blog, at times have been guilty of being insufficiently careful with defining what it means when one says something like “the 30% of Ukraine that is ethnically Russian.”  Those who follow the news will wonder at references to eastern Ukrainian regions where Russians are in the majority while some maps in news sources show Crimea as the only area where “Russians” exceed 50%.  The problem is that there are two concepts in use here: Russian-speakers and ethnic Russians.  Censuses and other data on what languages Ukrainian citizens speak is one thing, and here we do find Russian-speakers a majority in most of the eastern oblasts: Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk, as well as Odessa and Crimea.  But that is not the same thing as being ethnically Russian.  Many Russian-speakers in Ukraine have identified themselves as of Ukrainian nationality without further specification.  This is certainly the case with Yanukovych himself, who is of mixed Belarussian, Polish, and Russian ethnic background but, as president of Ukrainian, usually defined himself through his political career as simply Ukrainian.  But while data on language spoken at home might not shift much from one census to the next, ethnicity is very malleable.  Many Ukrainian speakers of Russian who have ethnically Russian ancestors have felt lucky to have landed in Ukraine, which emerged from the Soviet rubble in 1991 as the most prosperous of the Soviet successor states, and have defined themselves accordingly.  Crimea, which was part of the Russian republic until Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954, seems to have been the one part of Ukraine where the great majority of Russian-speakers felt, and feel, far more Russian than Ukrainian.  But it has yet to be seen how much the feelings of Russian-speakers on the Ukrainian mainland will change their sense of identity.  Many Russian-speakers are anti-Yanukovych, but how many, and for how long?

Pro-Kremlin rioters in Kharkiv last week tried to take over government buildings.
In other ethnic-Russian-dominated parts of Ukraine, tensions are high.  In Kharkiv (Kharkov), pro-Russian activists rioted as the Crimea crisis unfolded earlier this month, demanding the Yanukovych government be returned to power.  Kharkiv, sometimes called Ukraine’s most Russian city, is a charged symbol: it was the capital of the fledgling Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic during the Russian Civil War between Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and others following the Communist revolution in 1917 as it fought anti-Bolshevik Ukrainian statelets formed in the west, mostly based in Kiev.  Kharkiv was the first place Yanukovych fled to when he lost power, and last month ethnic-Russian activists in Crimea laid out plans (as reported earlier in this blog) for a Federated States of Malorossiya, embracing Odessa, the Donbas, and Crimea, with a capital at Kharkiv.  Ukrainian police have been stepping up security around Kharkiv’s public buildings, fearing that a “Kharkiv Republic” might be next.

Some Russian nationalists envision a separate “Malorossiya” that includes Crimea, Donetsk, and Odessa.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin revealed February 7th that Vladimir Putin’s recent phone-call with President Barack Obama included Putin informing Obama something that might or might not be true: that ethnic Russians in Odessa have asked the Kremlin to intervene to help them.  This is all supposedly to protect them from persecution by ethnic Ukrainians—something that international media and human-rights organizations have found no evidence for.

Is Vlad the Impaler preparing to ride onto the western Steppes?
Odessa, although it is the westernmost of the Russian-speaker-dominated oblasts of Ukraine, is in one sense far more Central European than Russian.  Closer to Vienna or Istanbul than to Moscow, the area around Odessa was part of the Ottoman Empire, and it was only in the late 18th century that Catherine the Great won it from the Ottomans and erected its capital city as a Russian city.  In the 2001 census, 62.8% of the oblast’s residents identified themselves as Ukrainians, while 20.7% chose “Russian.”  It is likely that all of the “Russians” were Russian-speakers, while many of the slight majority that were “Ukrainians” were possibly Russian-speakers as well—and these may now be feeling divided loyalties as never before.  (In addition, Odessa oblast in 2001 was 6.1% Bulgarian, 5% Moldovan (i.e., ethnic Romanian), and 1.1% Gagauz (a Turkic people of Moldova).  Going for Odessa next—as Putin seems to have hinted to Obama he might (but why would he reveal his motives?)—would have the advantage of completely cutting off nearly all of Ukraine’s remaining access to the Black Sea (assuming the annexation of Crimea) and putting Russia on a border with Romania, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  It would also allow Russia to complete its sort of de facto incorporation of the eastern sliver of Moldova, which seceded after the Soviet collapse as the puppet state of Transnistria.  This would prevent not just Ukraine, but Moldova, from ever joining NATO.  And Odessa oblast would now be Russia’s westernmost point of land, not counting the exclave of Kaliningrad Oblast, wedged between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea.

“Odessa = Ukraine,” reads a sign (left).  Not all in Odessa agree.
Mir” (peace), reads another (right).  Not everyone agrees with that one either.
Already, there have been street confrontations between pro- and anti-Russian elements in Odessa, and ethnic-Russian rebels—or, perhaps, as in Donetsk, imported provocateurs from Russia itself—have managed several times to break in and raise the Russian flag over Odessa’s government buildings.  On March 6th, a speaker told a large crowd of cheering ethnic-Russian demonstrators and ad hoc militiamen, “Our duty is to demonstrate against Kiev’s junta, whom America has paid $5 billion to take over political power; otherwise their armed fascist militia will force us to elect their oligarchs and turn our country into a NATO member!”  Etc. etc.

Pro-Russian demonstrators in Odessa on March 6th
What will Putin do if the Russians of Odessa get around to “asking” him to “rescue” them from Ukrainian “fascists” and invade?  Do you think he wouldn’t dare?  That’s what we used to say about Crimea.

Members of the Ukrainian feminist political collective Femen
brought a pre-Giuliani feel to Times Square in New York this week with an anti-Putin protest.

[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  (That is shorter than the previous working title.)  The book, which contains dozens of maps and over 500 flags, is nearly ready for the printer and should be on shelves, and available on Amazon, by February 2015.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even though you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this special announcement for more information on the book.]

(Once again, thanks are due to Olga Buchel for directing me to some of the information used in this article.)


  1. I'm Welsh and I wouldn't say the Welsh FWA was a fascist organisation.

    It's more in the national liberation side of politics. It doesn, or rather didn't, draw ispiratin from any known fascist organisations, it didn't hold any racial theory or that Welsh people were 'better than others. Its inspiration was movements like the IRA, PLO, ETA etc.

    People may not like IRA etc but I think most would recognise that they came from a different political tradition to fascists.

    However, the FWA doesn't exist at all today. A couple of people (and we really are talking of a hand full) showing up once a year at a rally with a flag does't really make it a movement.

  2. hi there, I love reading this stuff, but I need to let you know nicely that the Gagauz people are not Muslim, they actually are Christian Turks, the vast majority of them being Orthodox. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gagauz_people

  3. FWA were apolitical although some leaned towards the direction of the great Saunders Lawis, being proto-fascist/rightist. The White Eagle of Snowden logo has been used by the National Front in Wales since the early 1980s, notably in the masthead of its now defunct 'White Eagle' magazine and by its kindred 'Welsh Distributist Movement'. The band 'Violent Storm' used the same logo.


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