After the murder of “DPR Head” Alexander Zakharchenko Russia stepped up a preparation for elections on the occupied territories in contravention of the Minsk agreements. By means of these “elections”, Russia seeks to legitimize new leaders of “DPR” and “LPR” who are not associated in the Ukrainian popular consciousness with war crimes. The conduct of illegal elections in ORDLO is likely to block the Minsk process at least till the Ukrainian parliamentary election in October 2019. However, the Kremlin hopes that more pro-Russian forces will be represented in a new Ukrainian parliament which may ensure reintegration of ORDLO on Russia’s terms.
The murder of Alexander Zakharchenko has prompted “DPR”, “LPR” and Russia to conduct illegal elections in ORDLO. In early September 2018 the self-proclaimed set “elections” of “Heads” and “People’s Soviets” of “DPR” and “LPR” on November 11, 2018.
According to media, Russian supervisors has been nourishing an idea to conduct “elections” since late 2017. By means of “elections”, the Kremlin seeks to achieve several objectives.
First, these “elections” enable Russia to confirm the power of persons in self-proclaimed republics who are not associated in the Ukrainian popular consciousness with mass atrocities in wartime. According to the most common version, the liquidation of Alexander Zakharchenko and other warlords was carried out in order to remove odious personalities who impede the implementation of political package of the Minsk agreements (local elections, amnesty etc.). Consequently, these “elections” have to complete the purge of “DPR” and “LPR” from such personalities.
Second, Russia tries to create an illusion that “DPR” and “LPR” have a democratically elected legitimate power. Conducting these “elections”, the Kremlin wants to show in the international arena that new leadership of “DPR” and “LPR” which belongs to a “party of peace” reflect local public moods at the moment. According to this logic, Ukraine has to take into account a position of new representatives of ORDLO in negotiations on reintegration of these territories. As a result, Kyiv’s unwillingness to hold direct talks with new leaders in ORDLO will give the Kremlin a cause to accuse Ukraine of ignoring an opinion of own citizens and breaking down the Minsk process.
Third, the Kremlin shapes proactive policy to strengthen positions of new leaders of “DPR” and “LPR” in the run-up to the Ukrainian elections. Soon after the “elections, a new vertical of power will be formed in the self-proclaimed republics while Ukraine will enter a period of electoral uncertainty. This will enable Russia and pro-Russian militants to use conflict-related issues in order to influence on electoral sympathies with various political forces.
Fourth, Russia fixes new spheres of influence on the occupied territories. In particular, this is meant to legitimize a redivision of financial benefits between Russian supervisors (the GRU, the FSB) and local criminal and militant groups.
Fifth, Russia wants to maintain loyalty of local population to the quasi-state entities. According to an opinion of Vladislav Surkov’s close associates, the current situation when both “DPR” and “LPR” are headed by persons with a word “acting” creates uncertainties for local residents. There may be fears on the occupied territories that Russia is preparing to give up the “people’s republics”.
In the run-up to the “elections” in ORDLO, Russian supervisors carefully infiltrated potential candidates. Russia was interested that candidates should meet the following criteria: 1) Donbas descent; 2) non-involvement in mass atrocities in wartime; 3) loyalty to the Kremlin; 4) financial responsibility.
At the moment, “acting Heads” of “DPR” and “LPR” – Denis Pushilin and Leonid Pasechnik – are considered to be indisputable frontrunners in local “elections”. In addition to Surkov- and GRU-backed Pushilin, four other candidates run for “DPR Head”. In this context, three prominent personalities who had stood at the origins of the Donbas conflict were removed from “electoral process”: former “People’s Governor” Pavel Gubarev, ex-commander of the Vostok Battalion and first “Minister of State Security” Alexander Khodakovsky and first “Minister of Defense” Igor Khakimzianov. In neighbouring “LPR”, FSB-backed Pasechnik nominally competes with three underdog candidates.
The conduct of elections in ORDLO which contradict the Minsk agreements will be a major blow to the Minsk process. Having extended the law on a special order of local self-governance in ORDLO in October 2018, Ukraine is unlikely to make more concessions against the backdrop of regular violations of ceasefire and deadlock in exchange of hostages. In response, Russia will continue blaming Ukraine for breaking down the Minsk agreements.
Generally, the freeze of the Minsk process is likely to continue at least till the Ukrainian parliamentary election in October 2019 which Russia bets on. New deals on ceasefire or exchange of hostages may be exceptions which will give Moscow an opportunity to promote Viktor Medvedchuk or other pro-Russian players during the election campaign. The Kremlin relies on an increased representation of pro-Russian forces in the Ukrainian Parliament of the next convocation which may ensure reintegration of ORDLO on Russia’s terms. The Ukrainian parliamentary election gives Russia a chance to be simultaneously released from financial and reputational losses caused by the Donbas conflict and to restore a partial control over Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policy by “crystallizing” ORDLO in the political system.