Thursday, July 21, 2016

Atamanshchina in the Donbass Both an Opportunity and a Threat to Kyiv

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 21 – Three reports today – that people in the Donbass are protesting pro-Moscow forces there (, that desertions among those forces are increasing (, and that their members are even shooting at one another ( – provide fresh support for the proposition that the pro-Moscow forces there are a new version of “the atamanshchina.”

            (For a discussion of the origins of this term and its application to the situation in portions of Ukraine today not controlled by Kyiv, see “Atamanshchina Spreading among Pro-Moscow Forces in Ukraine’s Donbass,” at

            To the extent that what is occurring in the Donbass has some characteristics of the earlier atamanshchina, that offers both real opportunities and real dangers to the Ukrainian government now and in the future, opportunities and dangers that Ukrainians and those supporting them against Russian aggression need to keep in mind.

            On the one hand, Ukrainians are undoubtedly pleased to see these latest indications of problems within the pro-Moscow controlled regions of the Donbass, be encouraged that the rule of these brigands and criminals will soon collapse, and to think that this will open the way to the restoration of Ukrainian control there.

            But on the other hand, there are three reasons why Ukrainians should be worried about these developments, reasons that have their roots not only in the nature of the atamanshchina style of rule but also in the ways in which such behavior can be exploited by Moscow and will cast a shadow on Ukraine even after these areas are restored to Ukrainian control.

            First, the disintegration of the DNR and LNR authorities, something that could lead to a full-scale collapse of this Kremlin project, could become the occasion for Moscow to launch a new military campaign. Nothing would do more to restore unit cohesion and discipline in these entities than a major Russian military campaign.

            Consequently, Ukrainians and their supporters should keep in mind that what looks positive now may be the cause of a far more serious “negative” in the future.

            Second, if Russia’s goal is to spread chaos into Ukraine and thus make Kyiv less able to carry out needed reforms and less attractive as a partner for the West, chaos of the kind now in evidence in the Donbass is a useful tactic – or at least something Moscow can exploit to promote similar chaos elsewhere in Ukraine.

            During the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks often used temporary alliances with those in the atamanschina to do just that, something that disordered the situation in areas of Moscow control to be sure but that sowed dissension and confusion in the ranks of the political opponents of the Soviet state.

            And third, this kind of atamanshchina is something extremely difficult to stamp out. After the Bolsheviks defeated the main anti-Bolshevik forces by the early1920s, they had to spend many years to wipe out the attitudes and organizations that gave rise to atamanshchina earlier – and they were prepared to use far more brutal means than any contemporary state likely could.

            That means that Ukraine must be prepared to deal with the results of this phenomenon in the Donbass when it recovers that area or even if it does not.  Failure to do so and especially failure to think about this challenge as seems to be the case in Kyiv now will mean that “the rule of the atamans” will again cast a dark shadow on that country.

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