The Ukrainian conflict has been characterized by propaganda on both sides. Perhaps that is unsurprising in a military situation. But what is of note is that observers and analysts who would not appear obliged to take on partisan positions have sometimes done so. This article focuses on one such journalist whose name is instantly recognizable such is his reputation for outspokenness and prodigious activity in eastern Ukraine in particular.
In a recent interview, the leader of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” Aleksandr Zaharchenko declared his desire to add the remaining parts of Donetsk oblast—a larger area than the current DNR—to the republic. The comment clearly undermines the Minsk Protocol, which foresaw complete Ukrainian control over the original Ukraine-Russian border by the end of the year.
The comment portrays the transparent ambitions of one of the main separatist leaders in Ukraine that, if fulfilled, would fundamentally undermine the peace process. The territories sought could only be captured by violent assault since they lie outside the DNR territory. The DNR, like the leadership of the “Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR),” maintains that it is Ukraine that is intent on further aggression and violating the Minsk Protocol. But Zaharchenko’s naked ambition suggests otherwise and indicates a goal to expand his area of control and enhance his own power. Other motives are hard to perceive.
Yet one journalist from Western Europe identifies almost totally with such views, and specifically with the now outdated and historically flawed concept of ‘Novorossiya’ and has for all intents and purposes “gone native.” This is Graham (‘Grisha’) Phillips, a Scottish-born English patriot from Nottingham, who produces You Tube reports from Donbas and edits an on-line magazine called The Truth Speaker. He has incensed many Ukrainians by his wholesale advocacy of the Russian perspective, as well as his collusion with the separatists, even to the extent of taking part in battles (he was featured, for example, in the victory celebrations after the Battle of Ilovaisk in August 2014) and his zealous interviews of wounded POWs.
To cite just one example of a Phillips posting: on November 12, and not for the first time, Phillips made reference in his Twitter account to “Ukrainian-occupied Mariupol.” There were no qualifying or explanatory remarks. The comment surely leads directly to a question: when did this occupation begin? The city has recently been at the forefront of the DNR’s attention, and the Ukrainian leaders recognize its vulnerability. But some background is useful if we are to explain its place or lack of it, in the “Russkiy Mir.”
Since 1997 in its Treaty of Friendship with Ukraine, the Russian Federation has formally recognized Mariupol as an integral part of the latter country. How is it possible to occupy a city that is part of one’s territory and moreover has been so since the declaration of independence? Even prior to 1991, Mariupol was part of the Ukrainian Soviet republic. Earlier, before 1774, the area was under the control of the Crimean Khanate for over three centuries (during part of that period, the Khanate was under the rule of Ottoman Turkey).
Russian annexation was thus a relatively recent phenomenon in historical terms, and came about largely as a result of a series of wars with the crumbling Ottoman Empire. For most of the Soviet period the city was called Zhdanov, after the dour Leningrad party boss who imposed cultural uniformity under Stalin in the early postwar years. It has a long and chequered history though it was largely destroyed during the German-Soviet war. To claim that it is part of “Novorossiya,” i.e. an area that “belongs” to Russia historically, is a gross simplification of past events—though that is not unusual in the polemics over the Ukrainian conflict.
Alongside Phlllips’ Twitter reference were some photographs of damaged buildings, which he contrasted with “peaceful” Donetsk. The reader is asked to stretch credibility even further by the implicit conclusion that the destruction was caused by Ukrainian shelling. So from where did the shells emanate? Was the Ukrainian army bombing its own citizens in a city over which it allegedly occupies? What would be the point? Why not acknowledge that in the case of Mariupol the shelling came from separatists armed and supported by Russia?
I dwell on these postings because they are patent examples of distortion, as well as indicating an unquestioning acceptance of the version of events propagated by the Russian media and separatist leaders. They present a picture of a Donbas population striving for change, to be part of Russia, a country to which they are connected by ethnic origin and language. Phillips, as an analyst with access both to Russian and Western media, should know better. It is one thing to criticize Ukraine; quite another to swallow wholesale all information emanating from Moscow, particularly when there are numerous surveys evident from reliable sources demonstrating that even in Donetsk oblast, over 60% of the population prefers to reside in a unified Ukraine.
If there are true believers in Novorossiya today, they are few in number. Most separatists are motivated by other factors. Some cling to the view that without this industrial power base, Ukraine cannot survive. Yet the Donbas generally has been in decline since the 1980s when Soviet leaders opted to reduce investment into a coalfield beset by accidents, methane gas explosions, and reckless exploitation and transfer resources to the Siberian coalfield of the Kuzbass. The steel industry also is in need of reconstruction and modernization.
Around this same time incidentally (1984-85), Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister, was closing similar coalfields in Phillips’ home area of Nottinghamshire, as well as in neighboring counties. The mines were no longer considered profitable. The Donbas in more recent years been exploited ruthlessly by local oligarchs for its steel and coal, and the civilian population depleted by the war. Today the famous economic heartland of the former Russian Empire, founded on Western investment, needs help.
Where Phillips, and some others, err is in thinking (perhaps hoping) that the Russian leadership has embarked on some sort of ideological or messianic mission to free Ukraine from tyranny. In reality, the Russian motives are much more straightforward: to keep Ukraine in the Russian orbit, to prevent it joining the EU or NATO, and to ensure that its government is friendly toward Moscow. True, that is not the reason why Igor Girkin/Strelkov initially entered eastern Ukraine to lead the rebels, espousing rhetoric that would have made Aleksandr Dugin proud, but his faith in the Russian government dissipated once it failed to support his mission, something already evident by August 2014.
For DNR leader Zaharchenko admittedly, the position is complex. He is backed neither by Russia nor much of Donetsk. He struggles to rule a region that is not self-sufficient, has been abandoned by Ukraine in terms of supplies and investment, and lately neglected by Vladimir Putin. The speed with which Putin transferred Russian interests from Donbas to Syria demonstrates the transience of Russian foreign policy, which essentially is a series of gambits, some of which succeed, and many of which have failed. There is no room here for esoteric and meaningless concepts like Novorossiya, especially not when oil prices continue to fall and Western sanctions remain in place.
Graham Phillips’ comments about Mariupol illustrate the folly of only examining one side of a conflict and reducing motives to visionary concepts and ideology rather than Kremlin realpolitik. In turn, such opinions necessitate a perception of the Ukrainian post-Euromaidan leadership as a pro-Nazi cartel. That is not to say that there are no extremists within the ruling circles in Kyiv, but the vast majority are outside them and increasingly resentful.
While Putin’s policies are often cynical, the leaders Phillips is ostensibly following—Zaharchenko, Mikhail Tolstykh (Givi), Arseniy Pavlov (Motorola), and others—have little to offer other than violence and demands for more territory. The DNR is less a government than a band of armed gunmen. Its survival depends on more violence but it lacks the power to go far without either external support or, more critically, the backing of the local population it claims to represent. It is to date not recognized, even by the Russian Federation. Only South Ossetia has offered formal recognition, and that region itself is an artificial creation.
The Minsk Protocol represents its potential death knell, which is why it will soon be broken, but the future of the DNR looks very limited, as does the future of Graham Phillips if he has truly abandoned his profession to become an activist in this flawed yet ruthless enterprise.