Ukraine: The ramifications of November’s Luhansk ‘coup’

Date first published: 05/12/2017

Key risks: internal conflict; political violence; political instability

Key sectors: energy; mining; transportation

On 21 November armed men took control of key government buildings in Ukraine’s rebel-held city of Luhansk in what was to become the start of a ‘coup’ in the Russian proxy separatist administration, known as the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). The coup pitted LNR leader Igor Plotnitsky against ‘interior minister’ Igor Kornet and ‘state security minister’ Leonid Pasechnik. Tensions amongst the LNR leadership date back to 2015 and an incident in which Pasechnik and Kornet arrested then ‘energy minister’ Dmitry Lyamin, a Plotnitsky associate, on corruption charges. Tensions have only continued to mount since, with a wave of kidnappings and assassinations taking place across LNR-held territory

The events began when Plotnitsky moved to dismiss Kornet and in response, armed men were seen to take over key government building in the city of Luhansk in a so called ‘anti-diversion’ mission. By 23 November, Plotnitsky had fled to Russia and by the next day resigned, with RBC reporting this was under direct pressure from the Kremlin, leaving Igor Pasechnik as interim leader of the LNR. The incident signifies several things about Russian involvement in the region and the possibilities for the implementation of the Minsk Agreement.

Such a forced and unforeseen change in leadership seemingly demonstrates the limits of Moscow’s control over the republics. With Kornet and Pasechnik’s loyalist following, the Kremlin was forced to choose between propping up defunct leader Plotnitsky who retains little local support, and backing a change of leadership. Propping up Plotnitsky would effectively undermine Moscow’s efforts to establish legitimacy for the LNR administration as an alternative to the Ukrainian government in the region.

Secondly, it seems to demonstrate Moscow’s weakening ability to maintain a cohesive and effective policy towards the republics. Plotnitsky was seen as the favoured actor of Presidential advisor Vladislav Surkov while Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has long propped up Pasechnik and Kornet. The change of power from Plotnitksy to FSB-aligned Pasechnik suggests a waning cohesiveness in Moscow’s policies in eastern Ukraine.

Early reports of the incident, and observations of troops from the neighbouring Russian-backed breakaway state, the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), crossing into Luhansk to support the coup, spurred on suggestions of an imminent union of the LNR and DNR. However, this is unlikely as it would effectively annul the Minsk process and undermine Russian efforts at stabilising the republics. The cooperation of LNR and DNR troops however does imply the increasing influence of the republics’ law enforcement and security apparatuses in their day to day operations.

Finally, the incident is likely to provoke issues surrounding the validity of the 2015 Minsk agreement which bears Plotnitsky’s signature. Acting leader Pasechnik was quick to announce that the change in leadership does not void the peace plan, suggesting future talks on its basis will likely go ahead. Plotnitsky was also named a ‘special representative’ to the talks, although this could cause its own headaches. In any case the pace of talks and activities on the Minsk agreement’s implementation have been slow over the past year or so and the change in leadership will likely add to this sluggish pace.

The coup’s direct security impacts are twofold. Ukraine managed to make some minor gains near Svitlodarsk during the confusion that could prompt a response from Russian and separatist forces, while some Ukrainian actors already appear emboldened to take further such steps, as witnessed by claims Ukrainian militias retook Verkhnotoretske north of Doentsk on 10 November.  Additionally, it will complicate efforts pushed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to move ahead with long-delayed prisoner swaps, seen as an essential step in resuming serious talks in Minsk.