The article is a study of anti-government mobilization in the cities of southern and eastern Ukraine in spring 2014. By closely examining the developments that preceded the outbreak of the armed insurrection in the Donbas, the study seeks to elucidate the various factors that precipitated the veritable collapse of the Ukrainian state in parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and its stabilization elsewhere. The article argues that the armed conflict in the Donbas was hardly a predetermined outcome of the Russian government strategy—which was employed also outside the Donbas—but rather a product of a synergetic confluence of several structural and conjunctural factors that were absent or present to a much smaller degree elsewhere. These included the peculiar political and ethno-cultural profile of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts; a higher degree of the legitimacy crisis of the interim government; the destabilizing effects of the status quo created by the victory of the Euromaidan—not only in terms of the change of Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation and Russia’s apparently compromised interests, but also in terms of the perceived change of status of different ethno-political communities; the proximity of the Russian border, trans-border ethnic politics, and the activities of nationalist groups from Russia; the residual influence of the once-powerful networks associated with clients of the former president Viktor Yanukovych; the relative weakness of organized pro-Ukrainian groups; and last but not least, the incremental collapse of the law enforcement apparatus, which drastically reduced the capacity of Ukrainian authorities.
The author proposes a new perspective on the political mobilization of ethnic Russians in the Crimea as reactive settler nationalism. After the Russian imperial conquest of the peninsula and the gradual displacement of the Crimean Tatars, the 1917 Revolution galvanized the Tatar national movement, which entered into an alliance with the Ukrainian one. A similar situation developed in the late 1980s, when the peninsula’s Russian ethnic majority found itself threatened by the loss of status and land in what could become a Tatar autonomy within Ukraine. Based on the implicit approval of Stalin’s genocidal deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944, the political mobilization of ethnic Russians in the 1990s made the Crimea an easy target for Russian annexation, which, however, took place twenty years later because of Russia’s internal reasons and the Euromaidan Revolution being perceived as a threat to the Putin regime.
The choices made by oligarchs and citizens in Dnipropetrovsk during and after the Euromaidan rebellion of 2013–14 were not just event-driven manifestations in response to domestic and internal pressures. They were responses shaped by historically-composed social structures and interrelationships forged over decades within the region, across southeastern Ukraine, and in relation to competing centers of power—in Kyiv, Moscow, Washington, Brussels and beyond. This paper argues that Dnipropetrovsk—and its leaders—played a crucial intermediary role in not only deescalating tensions in southeastern Ukraine more broadly, but also by buttressing the Ukrainian state in a time of existential crisis. In this analysis, oligarchic self-interest is taken as a given and one factor among many, including the signaling of interventionist intent from an external patron and also deeper, regionally specific, economic and structural forces. This piece brings into the analysis a historian’s understanding of contingency, arguing that analyses of developments in southeastern Ukraine (in the past and present) should strive to better situate regional actors not only in space but also time, so as to better understand the complex set of forces and heterogenous social temporalities shaping their choices.
Why was Kharkiv assigned the role of an alternative political capital of Ukraine during the Euromaidan revolution of 2014? Why did this plan fail? In this article the author tries to answer these questions by exploring Kharkiv’s role and place in the regional context of ongoing Ukrainian nation-state building in the historical perspective, focusing on the period after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Issues of regional geopolitics on the Ukrainian-Russian border as well as the changing symbolic landscape of the city are explored. The proactive role of the central authorities as well as specific local traditions and identity played their roles in keeping Kharkiv on the sidelines of the “hybrid war” that engulfed the Donbas. The modernization matrix that promoted Kharkiv’s growth from a provincial town into a regional leader prevailed over the rhetoric of Russian nationalism employed by Putin’s regime during the annexation of the Crimea. At the same time, social apathy and national ambivalence, so typical of a borderland zone, also prevented the local population from falling into political extremes. Kharkiv’s cultural space continues to be a battlefield of competing discourses, each of which has been projected into the past and the future.
The first Red Army soldiers who liberated Smolensk in September, 1943 entered a broken world. The ruined city stood empty and the countryside resembled a vast wasteland. Amidst the destruction, Party officials began picking up the pieces and rebuilding Soviet power in the region. The main concern of this study is to understand how this process unfolded by examining reports of local war crime and treason investigations carried out by the Extraordinary State Commission of Smolensk Oblast (Chrezvychainaia gosudarstvennaia komissiia, ChGK). These yet untapped archival materials show that while Soviet investigative and punitive practices affirmed the state’s renewed political authority in Smolensk, their efforts were often constrained by the regime’s postwar reconstruction goals.
The author argues against the widespread Western stereotype of Ukraine as a nation divided into two parts: the pro-Western, nationalistic west and the pro-Russian east. He emphasizes the importance of studying Ukraine’s individual regions because their reaction during the 2014 war was determined as much by their diverse historical traditions and cultural identities as by the decisions of the local elites and grassroots political activism on both sides. Even before the conflict, the notion of a united Ukrainian “Southeast” served as a tool of Russian propaganda rather than objective analysis; once the conflict started, it was no longer possible to ignore the profound differences among the provinces usually included in it.
When the events known as the “Russian Spring” began in the aftermath of Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution in February 2014, Odessa oblast seemed like it would be particularly vulnerable to separatist activity. This paper offers a tentative explanation for why Odessa oblast escaped war in the 2014–15 phase of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. To do so, it chronicles events in Odessa oblast between fall 2013 and spring 2015 drawing on secondary sources such as news articles, blogs, social media posts, YouTube footage, official statements, and reports. Odessa-based elites’ decision to support Ukrainian sovereignty was an important factor hindering the realization of a Donetsk or Luhansk scenario. However, the weak Oblast Administration in the spring of 2014 and the upcoming mayoral elections created a volatile environment that various individuals (oligarchs, politicians, criminal networks) exploited to maintain or enhance their influence in the region. The internationalization of the conflict in the spring of 2014 presented Odessans with stark existential choices which undermined the city’s violence-avoiding dispute resolution techniques and culminated in the violence on May 2.
Does the Donbas represent the stronghold of Russian separatism? Since Russia’s military intervention in the Donbas (following its occupation of the Crimea), this view of the Donbas as un-Ukrainian or anti-Ukrainian has gained wide circulation in and outside Ukraine. Yet it is patently wrong. In the Donbas, there have never been ethnic, linguistic, or religious (sectarian) conflicts to speak of, nor did its population consistently manifest strong pro-Russian or pro-Union sentiments. True, such sentiments existed in the Donbas, like elsewhere in much of Dnieper Ukraine, but they never dominated the political scene of the Donbas. Instead, until the twenty-first century this region always tended to be anti-imperialist and anti-metropolitan. What is remarkable is that in 1991 the Donbas overwhelmingly supported the independence of Ukraine. What followed in the wake of Ukraine’s independence was an attempt by the Donbas power holders, in particular Viktor Yanukovych, to take over all of Ukraine. Moscow helped this attempt, which failed ultimately. The “free steppe” of the Donbas undeniably attracted, among others, radical Russian nationalists from outside and provided them with space for action. It is this historical characteristic of the Donbas as the “free steppe” that has colored the popular view of this region as a stronghold of Russian separatism. In the rest of Ukraine, a strong prejudice against the Donbas as a culturally dark region has only helped to boost this popular misconception.