Hetman of Zaporizhian Host


(c. 1639-1709), Hetman (Cossack military leader) of Left-Bank Ukraine, 1687 to 1708.

Hetman Ivan Mazepa was raised in Poland and educated in the West, returning to Ukraine in 1663 to enter the service of the Polish-sponsored hetman Peter Doroshenko during the turbulent period of Ukrainian history known as the Ruin. In 1674 he transferred his allegiance to the Moscow-appointed hetman Ivan Samoilovich, whom he replaced when the latter fell from favor during Russia’s campaign against the Crimean Tatars in 1687. He owed his promotion partly to the patronage of Prince Vasily Golitsyn.

In the 1680s to 1700s Mazepa remained loyal to Russia. In 1700 he became one of the first recipients of Peter I’s new Order of St. Andrew. But he did not regard himself as permanently bound, as he governed in princely style and conducted a semi-independent foreign policy. In 1704, during the Great Northern War against Sweden, he occupied part of right-bank (Polish) Ukraine with Peter I’s permission. However, Mazepa was under constant pressure at home to defend Cossack rights and to allay fears about Cossack regiments being reorganized on European lines. The final straw seems to have been Peter’s failure to defend Ukraine against a possible attack by the Swedish-sponsored king of Poland, Stanislas Leszczynski. Mazepa clearly believed that his obligations to the tsar were at an end: “We, having voluntarily acquiesced to the authority of his Tsarist Majesty for the sake of the unified Eastern Faith, now, being a free people, wish to withdraw, with expressions of our gratitude for the tsar’s protection and not wishing to raise our hands in the shedding of Christian blood” (Subtelny).

At some point in 1707 or 1708, Mazepa made a secret agreement to help Charles XII of Sweden invade Russia and to establish a Swedish protectorate over Ukraine. In October 1708 he fled to Charles’s side. Alexander Menshikov responded by storming and burning the hetman’s headquarters at Baturin, a drastic action which deprived both Mazepa and the Swedes of men and supplies. Mazepa brought only 3,000 to 4,000 men to aid the Swedes, who were defeated at Poltava in July 1709. Mazepa fled with Charles to Turkey and died there.

Peter I regarded the defection of his “loyal subject” as a personal insult. Mazepa was “a new Judas,” whom he (unjustly) accused of plans to hand over Orthodox monasteries and churches to the Catholics and Uniates. In his absence, Mazepa was excommunicated, and his effigy was stripped of the St. Andrew cross and hanged. He remains a controversial figure in Ukraine, while elsewhere he is best known from romanticized versions of his life in fiction and opera.


The Cossack Hetmanate, which survived under the suzerainty of the Muscovite tsars only on the Left Bank of the Dnieper, served as a construction site for a number of nation-building projects. One of them, closely associated with the name “Ukraine” and a view of the Hetmanate as a distinct Cossack polity and fatherland, became the foundation for the development of modern Ukrainian identity. Another, associated with the official Russian name of the Hetmanate, “Little Russia,” laid the basis for what would later become known as “Little Russianism,” the tradition of treating Ukraine as “Lesser Russia” and the Ukrainians as part of a larger Russian nation.

Both intellectual traditions coexisted in the Hetmanate before the last major Cossack revolt, led by Hetman Ivan Mazepa in 1708. Mazepa’s revolt targeted Muscovy and the official founder of the Russian Empire, Tsar Peter I. It ended in defeat as the Russians overcame the Swedish army, which Charles XII led into Ukraine. The Battle of Poltava in 1709 profoundly changed the fate of the Cossack Hetmanate and Ukraine as a whole. The loss for Charles was a double loss for Mazepa and his vision of Ukraine as an entity separate from Russia. In subsequent years, the Little Russian interpretation of Ukrainian history and culture as closely linked to Russia would become dominant in the official discourse of the Hetmanate. The idea of Ukraine as a separate polity, fatherland, and indeed nation did not disappear entirely but shifted out of the center of Ukrainian discourse for more than a century.

In the last decades of the seventeenth century, the Muscovites kept Left-Bank Ukraine under their control thanks not only to their superior military force but also because they turned out to be much more flexible than their competitors. While the tsars used the election of every new hetman to whittle away at the rights and privileges given to the Hetmanate under Bohdan Khmelnytsky, they also knew when to relent. In 1669, in the midst of the revolt led by Petro Doroshenko, Moscow agreed to return to conditions close to those granted to Khmelnytsky. It did so at a time when the Poles were reducing the much less substantial body of Cossack privileges in effect on their side of the river. The result was not hard to predict. The Left Bank attracted new settlers from the Cossack lands under Polish rule and kept growing economically, while the Right Bank turned into a virtual desert. The tsars allowed their Cossacks more rights, but they also got to keep them as subjects.

In relatively short order, the Left-Bank economic expansion led to the economic and cultural revival of Kyiv. Classes resumed at the Kyivan College. The professors who had fled the city in the 1650s now welcomed a new generation of students. New subjects were taught, new poetry written, and new plays performed. Ukrainian baroque literature, initiated in the early seventeenth century by Meletii Smotrytsky, reached its peak in the writings of poets such as Ivan Velychkovsky and in the prose of Lazar Baranovych, a former professor at the college who became archbishop of Chernihiv. His student Simeon Polotsky brought the Kyiv baroque literary style to Moscow, where he helped lay the foundations for the emergence of Russian secular literature. The introduction of Kyivan texts, practices, and ideas into Muscovy in the second half of the seventeenth century would cause a split in that country’s Orthodox Church. While the tsar and the patriarch backed Peter Mohyla–style reforms, conservatives rebelled and united around the leaders of the Old Belief. It was no accident that the name applied to them by the official church, raskol’niki, or schismatics, came from Ukraine.

But cultural influence flowed in both directions. While Kyivan clerics brought Western cultural models from Ukraine to Muscovy, they also borrowed from the arsenal of Muscovite political ideology. Key to that ideology was the notion of the Orthodox tsar as the linchpin of a new political and religious universe. The Orthodox intellectuals of the commonwealth, long without a king of their own, embraced the opportunity to enter an idealized Orthodox world inspired by the Byzantine vision of symphony between an autocratic ruler and the one true church. In the end, however, practical considerations outweighed idealism. As early as the 1620s, the newly consecrated Orthodox bishops, hard pressed by Warsaw, had turned to Muscovy as a source of support and a possible place of exile. The desire for the tsar’s protection only increased after the Pereiaslav agreement (1654) and reached its peak after the Truce of Andrusovo (1667), which divided Cossack Ukraine in half.

According to the conditions of the truce, Kyiv, located on the Right Bank of the Dnieper, was supposed to become a Polish possession after a two-year grace period. But the prospect of submitting once again to the rule of a Catholic king terrified the Kyivan clergy. They summoned all the powers of persuasive rhetoric they had acquired at the Kyivan College and the Jesuit schools of Europe to convince the tsar that the city of Kyiv should stay under his control. They succeeded only too well. Inokentii Gizel, the archimandrite of the Kyivan Cave Monastery and one of the leading figures in the campaign to “persuade the tsar,” wanted to keep Kyiv under tsarist rule while maintaining the independence of the Kyiv metropolitanate. Things worked out otherwise. In the 1670s, the tsar retained his control over the city, but in the next decade Muscovite officials and their supporters in Ukraine succeeded in transferring the Kyiv metropolitanate from the jurisdiction of Constantinople to that of Moscow. The transfer took place in 1685, and so the Kyivan clergy received the tsar’s protection at the cost of their independence.

The battles over the fate of Kyiv gave birth to one of the most influential texts of the premodern Russian Empire, the first printed “textbook” of Rus’ history, published at the Cave Monastery under Gizel’s supervision. The book had a long, baroque title: Synopsis, or a Brief Compendium of Various Chronicles About the Origin of the Slavo-Rossian Nation and the First Princes of the Divinely Protected City of Kyiv and the Life of the Holy, Pious Grand Prince of Kyiv and All Rus’, the First Autocrat, Volodymyr. It appeared in 1674, when Kyiv was preparing for an Ottoman attack and the Poles were demanding it back from Muscovy. In the Synopsis, Kyiv figured as the first capital of the Muscovite tsars and the birthplace of Muscovite Orthodoxy—a city that simply could not be abandoned to infidels or Catholics. References to the Slavo-Rossian nation, which, according to the authors of the Synopsis, united Muscovy and the Cossack Hetmanate in one political body, further supported this argument. This was the foundation of the myth still accepted by most Russians today about the Kyivan origins of their nation. In the seventeenth century, however, the Muscovite elites were not yet thinking in terms of national affinity. Russian empire builders would fully appreciate the innovation of the Kyivan monks, who treated the inhabitants of Muscovy and Ukraine as one nation, only in the nineteenth century.

The crisis caused by the partition of Ukraine between Muscovy and Poland forced not only the Kyivan clergy but also the Cossack officer stratum to come up with a new model of identity. The Cossack elite no longer had to defer to the clergy in that regard: the Kyivan College listed among its alumni not only priests and bishops but also Cossack officers, including a number of hetmans. If the clergy could not envision their homeland without an Orthodox tsar, the Cossack officers needed no tsar at all. They pledged their allegiance to a common Cossack “fatherland” embracing both sides of the Dnieper.

Until 1663, when the first de facto partition of Ukraine took place, the Cossack officers used the term “fatherland” to refer either to the entire commonwealth or to the Kingdom of Poland. At the time of the Union of Hadiach (1658), they were lured back to the suzerainty of the Polish king by appeals to return to their Polish fatherland. But things changed after the partition. First one hetman and then another began to argue in their circular letters or universals for the unity of their Ukrainian fatherland—the Hetmanate on both sides of the river. After the Truce of Andrusovo all of them, including Petro Doroshenko and Yurii Khmelnytsky, referred to the interests of the Ukrainian fatherland as their supreme object of loyalty, superseding any other allegiances or commitments. The Cossack fatherland was more than the Zaporozhian Host—a much more traditional object of Cossack loyalty. It included not just the Cossack Host but also the territory and inhabitants of the Hetmanate. They called that fatherland Ukraine. After 1667, the Cossacks began to refer to it as Ukraine on both sides of the Dnieper.

The last Cossack hetman who tried to unite the Left and Right Banks under his rule was Ivan Mazepa (1639–1709). The banknotes of independent Ukraine depict only two of all the Ukrainian hetmans. The first is Bohdan Khmelnytsky, whose image appears on the five-hryvnia note, and the second is Ivan Mazepa, depicted on the ten-hryvnia bill. Mazepa is arguably better known outside Ukraine, especially in the West, than Khmelnytsky: Voltaire, Lord Byron, Aleksandr Pushkin, and Victor Hugo all wrote about Mazepa’s life and exploits. He came to figure in European operas and North American theatrical shows, gaining literary and cultural fame as both a ruler and a lover under the French spelling of his name—Mazeppa. During Mazepa’s hetmancy the notions of fatherland, Ukraine, and Little Russia became contested once again. The outcome of Mazepa’s rule was the formation of a new type of Little Russian identity.

Mazepa ruled the Hetmanate longer than any of his predecessors, for more than two decades (1687–1709), and died a natural death. That was an achievement in its own right. Two of his predecessors had been either killed or executed. The two hetmans who ruled immediately before Mazepa were accused of “treason,” arrested by Muscovite voevodas, and sent to Siberia. Members of their families were also persecuted. To lose the hetman’s office, personal freedom, or life itself, one did not have to conspire against the tsar or try to join the Poles, Ottomans, or Swedes. It was enough to fall out of favor with the Moscow courtiers.

Mazepa’s life trajectory reflected the general fate of Cossackdom in the last decades of the seventeenth century. A native of Left-Bank Ukraine, the future hetman came from a noble Orthodox family. Educated at the Kyiv Mohyla College and a Jesuit school in Warsaw, he studied the craft of artillery in western Europe. After coming back, the young Mazepa began his diplomatic and military career at the court of the Polish king. He later joined Hetman Petro Doroshenko, but the Zaporozhian Cossacks allied with Muscovy captured him. According to the story first related to western European readers by Voltaire and then repeated by others, Mazepa ended up with the Zaporozhians as a result of an affair that turned catastrophic. He allegedly became the lover of the young wife of a prominent Polish official who, upon learning of this, ordered that Mazepa be stripped naked and bound to a horse that was released into the wild steppes. According to that story, Zaporozhian Cossacks found Mazepa half dead and nursed him back to health. Whatever the truth of the story, the Zaporozhians certainly gave a boost to Mazepa’s career with the Cossacks. They sent their catch to Hetman Ivan Samoilovych, who enlisted the highly educated and well-traveled officer into his service.

Mazepa was part of a large group of Cossack notables, rank-and-file Cossacks, townsfolk, and peasants who migrated from the Right Bank to the Russian-controlled Left Bank of Ukraine in the last decades of the seventeenth century. The political stability of the region, coupled with the relatively broad autonomy granted to the Hetmanate by the tsars, helped revive the economy and cultural life, which, as in the times of Peter Mohyla, centered on Kyiv, the metropolitan see, the Cave Monastery, and the Kyivan College. After assuming the hetmancy, Mazepa did his best to promote the continuing economic revival of the Hetmanate and the flourishing of its religious and cultural life.


The Battle of Poltava (8 July 1709) was the decisive victory of Peter the Great (Peter I of Russia) over the Swedish Empire forces under Field Marshal Carl Gustav Rehnskiöld, in one of the battles of the Great Northern War.

It was the beginning of the Swedish Empire’s decline as a European great power, while the Tsardom of Russia took its place as the leading nation of north-eastern Europe. The battle also bears major importance in Ukrainian national history, as Hetman of Zaporizhian Host Ivan Mazepa sided with the Swedes, seeking to create an uprising in Ukraine against the tsardom.

Hetman Mazepa commissioned the restoration of churches that had fallen into disrepair during the long Cossack wars. Among them was the St. Sophia Cathedral, first restored by Mohyla, as well as the Dormition Cathedral and the Holy Trinity Church in the Cave Monastery—all parts of the architectural legacy of the Kyivan Rus’ era. He also commissioned the construction of new churches, including the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God in the Cave Monastery and numerous churches in Kyiv and in his capital, the town of Baturyn in the northeastern corner of the Hetmanate, close to the Muscovite border. Most of the churches outside the Cave Monastery did not survive the 1930s: demolition crews destroyed them one after another as the Bolsheviks tried to turn Kyiv into a truly socialist capital. But those within the monastery built by Mazepa, as well as part of its walls, still stand and attest not only to the generosity but also to the wealth of the hetman. It was the first commissioning of new buildings in Kyiv since Mohyla. The style of the architectural monuments of that era became known as Cossack or Mazepa baroque.

Unlike any previous hetman, Mazepa was able to concentrate in his hands both economic and political power. This was due to the unprecedented support he was getting from the very top of the imperial pyramid. Tsar Peter I considered Mazepa his loyal servant. During Peter’s contest for power with his half-sister, Princess Sofia, Mazepa took the side of the future tsar. Subsequently, Peter made him the first recipient of the Order of St. Andrew, a prestigious award created by the tsar himself. When the Cossack officers complained to the tsar about their hetman and customarily accused him of treason, Peter sent the denunciations back to Mazepa, contrary to the well-established tradition of Muscovite rulers using such denunciations to undermine the Cossack hetmans. Peter showed even more trust in Mazepa by allowing him to execute his accusers among the ranks of the Cossack elite.

The Peter-Mazepa alliance came to a sudden end in the autumn of 1708, at the height of the Great Northern War (1700–1721) fought by Muscovy and Sweden, assisted by their respective allies, in the Baltics. At the start of the war, Sweden appeared to have the upper hand. After defeating Muscovy’s ally Augustus the Strong of Poland and forcing him to step down, the young and ambitious king of Sweden, Charles XII, began his march on Moscow. Peter was in retreat, using scorched-earth tactics to slow his enemy’s advance.

Such destructive measures exacerbated the old grievances of the Cossack elites, pushing them away from Peter and toward Charles. The Cossack colonels had complained for years to Mazepa about Peter’s use of Cossack regiments outside the Hetmanate, especially to dig canals in and around St. Petersburg, the future capital of the Russian Empire, which the tsar had founded in 1702. There the Cossacks died like flies from cold and disease. Moreover, Peter’s introduction of new taxes and administrative reforms threatened to turn the Hetmanate into a regular province of the Muscovite state, not its privileged enclave. All that, argued the colonels, violated the protectorate agreement concluded by Bohdan Khmelnytsky with Muscovy.

Mazepa corresponded with the Polish allies of Charles XII and explored his foreign-policy options but refused to act. Only when the Swedish king decided to make a detour to Ukraine on his way to Moscow, and the tsar refused to help with any troops—Mazepa was supposed to defend the Hetmanate on his own and burn the towns and villages in Charles’s path—did the hetman yield to the demands of the colonels and switch sides. Muscovy was not performing its primary function—the defense of the Hetmanate—under the numerous agreements with the Cossack hetmans. It was time to think of another option even in Left-Bank Ukraine. The Cossack officers began to study the conditions of the fifty-year-old Union of Hadiach. In November 1708, with a group of trusted courtiers and a small detachment of Cossacks, Mazepa left his capital of Baturyn and joined the advancing army of Charles XII.

For the sake of secrecy, Mazepa conducted no anti-Peter agitation in the Hetmanate before his sudden departure from Baturyn. That was a prudent decision with regard to Mazepa’s personal security, but it was a major problem for the revolt. Upon learning of Mazepa’s defection, Peter sent a corps to Ukraine under the command of his right-hand man, Aleksandr Menshikov, but no Cossack forces had been mobilized to stop him. The Muscovite troops were able to take the hetman’s capital of Baturyn by surprise, seizing military supplies and provisions that Mazepa had prepared for his own army and the Swedes. Even more damaging was the effect of the capture of Baturyn on Ukrainian society in general. Menshikov not only took the town but also ordered the massacre of its population. More than 10,000 defenders and citizens of Baturyn, including women and children, died at the hands of their captors. Archaeologists working there today (Baturyn is a major tourist attraction as well as an excavation site) keep finding skeletons of those who perished. Menshikov’s message was loud and clear: the tsar would not tolerate defections.

The battle for the loyalty of the Cossacks and the inhabitants of the Hetmanate had begun. It was carried on mainly through proclamations issued by Peter, to which Mazepa responded in kind. The so-called war of manifestos lasted from the fall of 1708 to the spring of 1709. The tsar accused Mazepa of treason, calling him a Judas and even ordering that a mock order of St. Judas be prepared for awarding to Mazepa once he was captured. Mazepa rejected the accusations. Like Vyhovsky before him, he regarded relations between the tsar and the hetman as contractual. As far as he was concerned, the tsar had violated the Cossack rights and freedoms guaranteed to Bohdan Khmelnytsky and his successors. His loyalty, argued the hetman, was not to the sovereign but to the Cossack Host and the Ukrainian fatherland. Mazepa also pledged his loyalty to his nation. “Moscow, that is, the Great Russian nation, has always been hateful to our Little Russian nation; in its malicious intentions it has long resolved to drive our nation to perdition,” wrote Mazepa in December 1708.

The war of manifestos, along with the decisive actions of the Muscovite troops and the election of a new hetman on Peter’s orders, caused another split in Mazepa’s ranks. Terrified by the prospect of retributions, the Cossack colonels who had earlier pressured Mazepa to rebel failed to bring their troops to him. Many joined the Muscovite side. There was little support for Mazepa on the part of rank-and-file Cossacks, townspeople, and peasants. The populace preferred the Orthodox tsar over the Catholic, Muslim, or, in this case, Protestant ruler. When the time came for a showdown between Charles and Peter, there were more Cossacks on the Muscovite side than on the Swedish one.

In early July 1709, a Swedish corps of 25,000 faced a Muscovite army twice as large in the fields near the city of Poltava. Cossacks fought on both sides as auxiliaries—a reflection not only of the fact that their loyalty was suspect but also that they were no match for regular European armies: the once formidable Cossack fighting force was a thing of the past. Between 3,000 and 7,000 Cossacks backed Mazepa and the Swedes; at least three times as many flocked to the Muscovite side. The enemy’s numerical superiority was never an issue for Charles XII, who had defeated much more numerous Russian and Polish forces in the past. But this battle was different. A winter spent in hostile territory had weakened his army. Charles XII, who usually led his troops into battle in person, had been wounded a few days earlier and delegated his duties not to one commander but to a number of officers, creating confusion in the Swedish ranks at the time of the battle.

The outcome was a decisive victory for Muscovite arms. Charles XII and Mazepa had to flee Ukraine and seek refuge in Ottoman Moldavia. Ivan Mazepa died in exile in the Moldavian town of Bender in the fall of 1709. It took Charles five years to get back to his kingdom. Historians often consider the Battle of Poltava a turning point in the Great Northern War. By a strange turn of fate, the military conflict for control of the Baltics was decided on a Ukrainian battleground, undermining Sweden’s hegemony in northern Europe and launching Russia on its career as a great European power. But the consequences of Poltava were nowhere as dramatic as in the lands where the battle was fought.

The Muscovite victory opened a new stage in relations between the Kyivan clergy and the tsarist authorities. In the fall of 1708, the tsar had forced the metropolitan of Kyiv to condemn Mazepa as a traitor and declare an anathema against him. After the battle, the rector of the Kyivan College, Teofan Prokopovych, who had earlier compared Mazepa to Prince Volodymyr, delivered a long sermon before the tsar condemning his former benefactor. What Mazepa would have considered treason was a declaration of loyalty in Peter’s eyes. Prokopovych would later become the chief ideologue of Peter’s reforms. He would support the tsar’s drive for absolute power and develop an argument for his right to pass on his throne outside the normal line of succession from father to son: Peter tried his only male heir for treason and caused his death in imprisonment. Prokopovych was the primary author of the Spiritual Regulation, which replaced patriarchal rule in the Orthodox Church with the rule of the Holy Synod, chaired by a secular official. He was also behind the idea of calling Peter the “father of the fatherland,” a new designation brought to Muscovy by Prokopovych and other Kyivan clerics. They had earlier used it to glorify Mazepa.

The spectacular imperial career of Teofan Prokopovych reflected a larger phenomenon—the recruitment into the imperial service of westernized alumni of the Kyivan College, whom Peter needed to reform Muscovite church culture and society along Western lines. Dozens and later hundreds of alumni of the Kyivan College moved to Muscovy and made their careers there. They assumed positions ranging from acting head of the Orthodox Church to bishop and military chaplain. One of the Kyivans, Metropolitan Dymytrii Tuptalo of Rostov, was even raised to sainthood for his struggle against the Old Belief. They helped Peter not only to westernize Muscovy but also to turn it into a modern polity by promoting the idea of a new Russian fatherland and, indeed, a new Russian nation, of which Ukrainians or Little Russians were considered an integral part.

If Peter’s policies intended to strengthen his authoritarian rule and centralize state institutions offered new and exciting opportunities to ecclesiastical leaders, they were nothing short of a disaster for the Cossack officers. Mazepa’s defection added urgency to the tsar’s desire to integrate the Hetmanate into the institutional and administrative structures of the empire. A Russian resident now supervised the new hetman, Ivan Skoropadsky. His capital was moved closer to the Muscovite border, from the destroyed Baturyn to the town of Hlukhiv. Muscovite troops were stationed in the Hetmanate on a permanent basis. Family members of Cossack officers who had followed Mazepa into exile were arrested and their properties confiscated. More followed once the Northern War ended with a Muscovite victory in 1721. Tsar Peter changed the name of the Tsardom of Muscovy to the Russian Empire and had himself proclaimed its first emperor. In the following year, the tsar used the death of Skoropadsky to liquidate the office of hetman altogether. He placed the Hetmanate under the jurisdiction of the so-called Little Russian College, led by an imperial officer appointed by Peter. The Cossacks protested and sent a delegation to St. Petersburg to fight for their rights—to no avail. The tsar ordered the arrest of the leader of the Cossack opposition, Colonel Pavlo Polubotok, who would die in a cell of the St. Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg.

Mazepa had gambled and lost. So did the state he tried to protect. We do not know what the fate of the Hetmanate might have been if Charles XII had not been wounded before the battle and the Cossacks had supported Mazepa in larger numbers. We can say, however, what kind of country Mazepa’s successors wanted to build and live in. Our knowledge comes from a document called Pacta et conditiones presented to Pylyp Orlyk, the hetman elected by the Cossack exiles in Moldavia after Mazepa’s death. Needless to say, they did not recognize Skoropadsky, elected on Peter’s orders, as their legitimate leader. The Pacta, known in Ukraine today as the Constitution of Pylyp Orlyk, is often regarded as the country’s first constitution, adopted, many say with pride, even before the American one. In reality, the closest parallel to the Pacta would be the conditions on which the Polish Diets elected their kings. The document tried to limit the hetman’s powers by guaranteeing the rights of the Cossack officers and the rank-and-file Cossacks, especially the Zaporozhians, many of whom had followed Mazepa into exile.

The Pacta presented a unique vision of the Hetmanate’s past, present, and future. The Cossack officers gathered around Orlyk, who had been Mazepa’s general chancellor, traced their origins not to Kyiv and Prince Volodymyr—a foundational myth already claimed by Kyivan supporters of the tsar—but to the Khazars, who were among the nomadic predecessors of Kyivan Rus’. The argument was linguistic rather than historical, and, while laughable today, it was quite solid by the standards of early modern philology: “Cossack” and “Khazar” sounded quite similar, if not identical, in Ukrainian. At stake was a claim to the existence of a Cossack nation separate and independent from that of Moscow. Orlyk and his officers described it as Cossack, Ruthenian, or Little Russian, depending on circumstances. Most of Orlyk’s ideas remained unknown or unclaimed by his compatriots. At home, in Ukraine, the Cossacks were fighting hard to preserve whatever was left of their autonomy.

The Cossacks in the Hetmanate regarded the death of Peter I in February 1725, a few weeks after the demise of the imprisoned Cossack colonel Polubotok, as divine punishment for the tsar’s mistreatment of them. They also viewed it as an opportunity to recover some of the privileges usurped by the tsar. The restoration of the office of hetman topped the Cossack agenda. In 1727 the Cossack officers achieved their goal by electing one of Peter’s early opponents, Colonel Danylo Apostol, to the newly reinstated hetmancy. They celebrated this restoration of one of the privileges given to Bohdan Khmelnytsky by rediscovering a portrait of the old hetman and reviving his cult not only as the liberator of Ukraine from Polish oppression but also as a guarantor of Cossack rights and freedoms. In his new incarnation, Khmelnytsky became the symbol of the Hetmanate elite’s Little Russian identity, which entailed the preservation of special status and particular rights in return for political loyalty.

What exactly was that new identity? It was a rough-and-ready amalgam of the pro-Russian rhetoric of the clergy and the autonomist aspirations of the Cossack officer class. The main distinguishing feature of the Little Russian idea was loyalty to the Russian tsars. At the same time, Little Russian identity stressed the rights and privileges of the Cossack nation within the empire. The Little Russia of the Cossack elite remained limited to Left-Bank Ukraine, distinct in political, social, and cultural terms from the Belarusian territories to the north and the Ukrainian lands west of the Dnieper. The DNA of the new polity and identity bore clear markers of earlier nation-building projects. The Cossack texts of the period (the early eighteenth century saw the appearance of a new literary phenomenon, Cossack historical writing) used such terms as Rus’/Ruthenia, Little Russia, and Ukraine interchangeably. There was logic in such usage, as the terms reflected closely interconnected political entities and related identities.

In defining the relationship between these terms and the phenomena they represented, the best analogy is a nesting doll. The biggest doll would be the Little Russian identity of the post-Poltava era; within it would be the doll of the Cossack Ukrainian fatherland on both banks of the Dnieper; and inside that would be the doll of the Rus’ or Ruthenian identity of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. At its core, Little Russian identity preserved the memory of the old commonwealth Rus’ and the more recent Cossack Ukraine. No one could know, in the aftermath of the Battle of Poltava, that it was only a matter of time before the Ukrainian core emerged from the shell of the Little Russian doll and reclaimed the territories once owned or coveted by the Cossacks of the past.

Soviet People’s Experience WWII

Defeating the Nazis became the animating force for everything in Soviet society for the next four years. The need to defend Mother Russia became everyone’s duty in the face of Hitler’s barbarism, and the building of socialism, so long trumpeted on the pages of the Soviet press, faded away. The result was the rapid development of a mosaic of moods among the Soviet peoples. Russian historians have recently argued that the events of June 1941 awoke in the Soviet people the ability to think about variants, to critically evaluate a situation, and not to take the existing order as immutable. The effort to repel the Nazis also meant that, at least at the local level of Soviet life, the democratic centralism of Lenin and Stalin’s party was no longer tenable. The key criterion for becoming a Soviet leader was no longer a person’s party loyalty, but rather his or her contributions to the work of the front. Out in the provinces, the Communist leaders were told to train their subordinates in the following fashion: the party is interested in having people think, and stop instructing the masses and learn from them.
That life in the Soviet Union would now be shaped by the real interests of ordinary people was a big change from the 1930s, when life had been shaped by their imaginary desires, and Stalin’s terror squads had made sure the elites worked to meet them. Meanwhile, Hitler’s armies were well on their way toward Leningrad, Moscow, and central Ukraine by July 1941. Leningrad was soon surrounded and would be under siege for the next three and a half years as 1.5 million Leningrad residents starved to death in the process. The main reason Moscow did not suffer the same fate was Hitler’s decision to concentrate his efforts on capturing Ukraine with its fertile fields, coal mines, ferrous metals resources, and strategic access to the oilfields of the Caucasus. Although the Red Army’s successful counterattacks were another major reason for tl1is diversion to the south, there can be little doubt that Ukraine was also the area that Hitler prized most as the perfect lebensraum for the German people. And such strategic and racial motivations also help explain why Hitler did not take advantage of his being greeted as a liberator by the peoples of western Ukraine, Belorussia, and the Baltic states who had suffered so much from the Nazi—Soviet Non-Aggression Pact.
Although the Nazis treated these peoples as “lesser-beings” (untermenschen) from the start and would not allow them any rights whatsoever, what really convinced the Ukrainians and others of 1·litler’s malevolent intentions toward the Soviet people was the German army’s treatment of its Red Army POWs and the occupied Jewish population. ln places such as Kiev, where 650,000 Soviet troops were surrounded in September 1941 after a spirited defense of the Ukrainian capital and the Dnieper River region, perhaps two-thirds of the Soviet POWs died of hunger in Nazi captivity. lt was amid the euphoria of such victories in fall 1941 that the Hitlerites devised their Final Solution to rid these captured areas of their “great misfortune”—the Jews. ln the end, almost half the Jews who died in the Holocaust (some 2.5 million people) were Soviet citizens. Importantly, some of these people died in ways more ghastly than the gas chambers of Poland—mass machine gunning was the most popular method used—as the Nazis, the Wehrmacht (or German army), and a still unknown number of local collaborators experimented with methods of killing to find the most efficient way to achieve genocide. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the surviving Ukrainian and Belorussian civilian populations could only hope for the return of the Stalinists and an authoritarian rule that they understood and might be able to manipulate to their advantage.
ln the face of such calamities, Stalin’s effort to maintain control over the Russian rear certainly did not show any relaxation of his coercive methods. Red Army men who surrendered, for example, were said to be traitors and were liable to court-martial. Meanwhile, Communist Party members who remained behind on occupied territory were automatically suspect, and if for some reason they crossed back into Soviet-held territory, they were subject to a rigorous check of their backgrounds. Workers who violated the 1940 labor legislation on tardiness, absenteeism, or the prohibition of movement from one job to another could be hauled before a military tribunal and the same eventually became true for those civilians who ignored compulsory labor mobilizations, responsibilities that impacted everyone but the elderly and the mothers of young children.
Stalin’s epic mistakes on the battlefield were soon overshadowed by Hitler’s own bungling, and the Soviets found themselves with a second chance. The Nazi leader’s earlier decision not to take Moscow ensured that fighting for the Russian capital would take place in the winter, only after the Soviets had had enough time to prepare their defenses. Nevertheless, it was mainly the desperate resistance and simple patriotism of rapidly enlisted men and rearguard troops that saved Moscow in winter 1941-1942 from the Wehrmacht’s ”Army Group Center”  But the GKO’s incredibly centralized, command-and-administer system also allowed for the Ural and western Siberian economies to be quickly mobilized to meet the needs of the front. This was particularly important in winter 1941-1942 because the strategic Lend-Lease aid from the Soviet Union’s new American ally would not substantively help the Soviet war effort for another year. Even so, Stalin’s refusal to let his more able generals lead the efforts at the front resulted in yet more devastating defeats in spring 1942, with the Nazis now occupying all of Ukraine and moving toward their strategic goal of taking southern Russia and the Caucasus.
Here again, though, the Soviets were saved from themselves by Hitler’s hubris. The Nazi leader’s greatest strategic mistake came with his decision to try to destroy the besieged city of Stalingrad in fall 1942 in order to deal a public relations blow to the “man of steel.” Hitler could have concentrated his efforts on occupying the Caucasus and Kuban (Russia’s own breadbasket) and exploiting their petroleum and agricultural resources in order to solidify his rule over his new eastern empire. But he went after Stalingrad in an effort to inflict a decisive blow against the Kremlin leader’s omnipotent presence in Soviet society. Stalin recognized the stakes too, and after a year of terrible retreat, he finally decided to listen to his generals and make a stand at this city lying along the Volga River The crucial point here is that the Wehrmacht was spread too thin by this time; Hitler did not have the resources necessary to continue his blitzkrieg. The Wehrmacht’s supply lines, for example, were stretched to the breaking point. Thus, the Soviets were eventually able to surround the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad and destroy it after Hitler stubbornly refused to let Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus retreat. This was the beginning of the end for the Germans—the crucial turning point in the war—where the logistics of what they were doing caught up with them. Hitler’s refusal to fully mobilize his own people and l1is murderous treatment of the untermenschen now meant the fighting initiative went over to the Soviet side.
Meanwhile, Hitler’s refusal to demand sacrifice from his own population resulted in anger and embitterment among the occupied Ukrainians and Belorussians as their sons and daughters were shipped to Germany to become slave laborers (Ostarbeitery). As the Soviets loomed on the eastern horizon, the Germans liberalized their agricultural policy by dissolving Stalin’s hated collective farms; however, at the same time, they were also stripping these areas of anything of value. Not only did the Germans seize raw materials, but they also took tools and macl1ines from factories and valuables from the republics’ museums and private apartments as well. One result of all this was a huge expansion in the forest—based anti—Nazi guerilla movement during 1943. True, many of these partisan fighters were motivated by a desire to curry favor with the advancing Red Army; but in the westernmost regions of the Soviet Union’s post—1939 borders, many partisans were there to fight sincerely for their nation’s political independence as Europe’s two totalitarian empires clashed. These “forest brothers,” many of whom were as hostile to Moscow as they were to Berlin, would eventually be crushed by the NKVD after war’s end. However, their bravery and unhappy end deepened the hostility that many subject peoples felt toward Moscow.


Just as the Crimean crisis began to ebb, attention shifted to Ukraine’s south-east. The Crimean events provoked what is sometimes called the ‘Russian spring’, an outburst of Russian self-expression in Ukraine, but just like the ‘Arab Spring’, it soon turned into the deepest midwinter. On 1 March a 7,000-strong crowd gathered in the central square in Donetsk carrying Russian flags and the flag of a hitherto unknown organisation known as the ‘Donetsk Republic’. There were further demonstrations across cities in eastern Ukraine, warning against attack by radical nationalists from Kiev but more immediately fearing that their language and other rights would be abrogated. The movement was fired by alarmist reports in the Russian and regional media, which for weeks had been condemning the radicalisation of the Maidan. The protests, with justification, were suspected of being sponsored in part by Yanukovych, especially since his network of mayors and officialdom remained in place, yet it also had deep local roots. While the degree of separatist feeling in the region is contested, the rebellion gradually turned into a full-scale war. Ukraine’s domestic contradictions have been internationalised, with Russia supporting the insurgents on the one side, while the Western powers have lined up in support of the Ukrainian authorities. Instead of snatching Crimea and withdrawing to allow the storm to pass, Russia has been sucked into a new and far more intense conflict, drawing upon it the wrath of the West.


The ‘other’ Ukraine sought to be part of the dialogue about what it means to be Ukrainian. A poll by the Pew Research Center in May 2014 found that 70 per cent of eastern Ukrainians wanted to keep the country intact, including 58 per cent of Russian-speakers, although they expressed plenty of grievances against Kiev, including the over-centralised state that took all tax revenues before redistributing them to the regions. Both Donetsk and Lugansk were heavily subsidised by Kiev, receiving far more from the budget than they contributed, to keep the loss-making mines and mills working. Nevertheless, the Donbas represented the country’s economic powerhouse, accounting for 16 per cent of GDP and 27 per cent of industrial production.

Above all, some 60 per cent of Donetsk residents feared ‘Banderovtsy’ and 50 per cent dreaded the Kiev authorities, while 71 per cent of Donetsk and 60 per cent of Lugansk residents believed that the Maidan events represented an armed coup organised by the opposition and the West. Majorities in other regions in the south-east agreed that the protests were an uprising ‘against the corruption and tyranny of the Yanukovych dictatorship’. Gessen describes how one future rebel in the east was shocked to see how

young men in masks and the insignia of old Ukrainian fascist movements attacked riot police [in the Maidan] – some of them from the Donetsk area – with Molotov cocktails. He saw governors in the western provinces pulled out of their offices and roughed up by furious crowds. It seemed that the country was descending into chaos. When he heard a rumour that some of the young men from Maidan were headed for Donetsk, he believed it.

Any simplistic division of the country into a nationalistic west, a ‘pro-Russian’ east and a patriotic centre does not begin to capture the complex pattern of responses to the breakdown of Ukrainian statehood. What is clear is that a new relationship was required with the Donbas, but it was not forthcoming. The Ukrainian parliament’s attempt to remove Russian as a second regional language was blocked, but the damage was done. As one respondent noted: ‘Is there any other country on earth where a language understood by 100% of the population is not a language of state?’

A grass-roots protest movement welled up throughout March 2014, clearly enjoying popular support. Whereas the Maidan protesters were ‘middle class and nationalistic’, the anti-Maidan movement in the Donbas was ‘lower class and anti-oligarchic (and Russian nationalist)’. When the acting minister of the interior, Avakov, visited Donetsk in mid-March, ‘he met with civic leaders, but most of all he met with the football ultras, and demanded that they arm themselves and prepare for battle against the pro-Russian forces in the city’. The ultras are hard-core football fans whose far-right views and violent hooliganism were now turned in support of the Kiev regime, as was seen in Odessa on 2 May, and their terrace chant of ‘Putin khuilo!’ (‘Putin is a dickhead!’) was repeated on 14 June by the acting foreign minister, Andriy Deshchytsia, when the Russian embassy in Kiev was besieged by an angry mob. Fighter jets flew low over the pro-Donbas protests, and it appeared that ‘from the very start, Kiev had been prepared to use force’. On 10 March the former governor of Kharkov, Mikhail Dobkin, was arrested on charges of leading a separatist movement. From 6 April insurgents occupied government buildings in Donetsk, Gorlovka and Kramatorsk. In Kharkov on 8 April some 70 anti-Maidan protesters were arrested and faced politically charged trials, and this was enough to pre-empt further action in Ukraine’s second city. In the Donbas, however, the insurgency continued to spread. These were not the professional ‘little green men’ seen earlier in Crimea, but ramshackle forces made up overwhelmingly in the first instance by local volunteers. However, on 12 April the administration, police and other buildings in Slavyansk were occupied by what appeared to be highly trained professional armed forces without insignia. As Gessen puts it: ‘At that moment, what had been a people’s uprising turned into an armed revolt, and some would say a covert invasion.’

One of the first acts of the insurgents was to take over regional television stations to restore the broadcast of Russian television, cut by order of the central authorities in many regions on 11 March. The insurgents set up checkpoints and established an armed presence in the major towns. Supporters of federalisation refused to recognise the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian authorities and called on the government to allow referendums similar to the one in Crimea. In Donetsk protesters occupied the regional administration buildings and on 7 April proclaimed the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), and next door a Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) was formed on 27 April. The ‘people’s governor’ of Lugansk, Valery Bolotov, announced the formation of the Donetsk People’s Army, whose leader soon became Igor Girkin, whose nom de guerre is Strelkov (‘the shooter’). A former colonel in the Russian army (some accounts say he served in the main intelligence directorate, the GRU, of the General Staff), he fought in Chechnya, in Transnistria and with the Serbs in Bosnia, and was one of the leaders of the takeover in Crimea. He came to the Donbas in May with around two dozen men but soon built up one of the most formidable rebel units of some 2,000 men. He later claimed to have been ‘the one who pulled the trigger on this war’. The Donbas was in revolt, and on 24 May the two entities established a de jure union known as the ‘Novorossiya Republic’. They sought to capitalise on the emotional power of the concept.

Avakov accused Moscow and the ousted president Yanukovych of ‘ordering and paying for another wave of separatist turmoil in the country’s east’. Using his characteristic form of communication, his Facebook page, he insisted that ‘a firm approach will be used against all who attack government buildings, law enforcement officers and other citizens’. The storming of government offices in the west of the country in the final months of Yanukovych’s rule was considered something entirely different – part of the revolutionary surge in support of monist nationalism – whereas now the ‘anti-Maidan’ insurgency using the same tactics in support of pluralism was called a terrorist movement. In mid-April the Ukrainian security service (SBU) took control of what was called the ‘anti-terrorist operation’ (ATO) – the constitution allows only this designation for an internal counter-insurgency operation, although that does not render the designation any less forbidding. Government forces re-established control over several major towns, including Mariupol, Kirovsk and Yampol, and the insurgency in the end was limited to parts of the Donbas.

The leadership of the insurgency was a motley crew. They included Denys Pushilin, one of the organisers of the MMM pyramid scheme in Donetsk in the 1990s, while Nikolai Solntsev, a technologist at a meat-processing plant, became the DPR’s ideology minister. Most leaders were blue-collar workers with limited outside experience. They drew on the experience of Crimea to plan their actions and were deeply imbued with Soviet values, looking to Russia to provide support for their alternative to Maidan-style Europeanism. This applied in particular to Girkin, who soon became one of the most effective rebel commanders in the Donbas. In mid-May he assumed command of all insurgent forces and called on Russia to intervene. It is far from clear how much direct control Moscow could exert over a man who described himself as a monarchist and condemned the USSR and the post-Communist Kremlin authorities. His hobby was dressing up in costume to re-enact historical battles, part of the Russian paramilitary subculture, and he now donned a real uniform and proved himself a ruthless and capable guerrilla leader until he ‘disappeared’ in August.

The OSCE had created a ‘special monitoring mission’ to the region in March, but on 25 April a group of seven foreign military monitors from the OSCE and five Ukrainian military observers were detained in Slavyansk. The ‘people’s mayor’ of the city offered to swap the observers in exchange for the release of his supporters detained by the Kiev authorities. Russia, as an OSCE member, condemned the capture, and soon after the observers were released. On 28 April the shooting of Gennady Kernes, the pro-Kiev mayor of Kharkov, Ukraine’s second city, demonstrated how far events in the east were spiralling out of control. Kernes had opposed the Maidan, but he reversed his position following Yanukovych’s ouster, and he was wounded shortly afterwards.

The conflict became a struggle between west and east Ukraine, with endless shades between. The physical and rhetorical violence of the Maidan was generalised to the rest of the country. The language of the Kiev forces is quite shocking in its brutality. Already in March, in a conversation about Putin, probably recorded by Russian intelligence, Tymoshenko declared: ‘I’m willing to take a Kalashnikov and shoot the bastard in the head.’ The Orangist demonisation of Putin soon entered the bloodstream of discourse in the Western world, poisoning sensible discussion. Tymoshenko was equally bloodthirsty in her condemnation of the insurgency in the east and no less extreme in her evaluation of the larger geopolitical situation: ‘Putin is attempting to uproot the world’s security system, established as a result of


Second World War, and turn the global[…] order into chaos. Redrawing world maps by wars, mass murders and blood is becoming his Mein Kampf.’ The new Kiev authorities were fighting for their survival, but their ‘Orange’ vision of Ukraine was rejected by the insurgents in the Donbas and, in part, by Moscow. Anger and resentment would be laid down for generations.

The ferocity of the ATO can in part be explained by the view of many in western Ukraine that the people of the Donbas were not ‘real Ukrainians’, but Russians who had come to replace those who had died in the Holodomor and to staff the industrialisation of the region from the 1930s. They were often denigrated by monists as lacking intellect and ‘national identity’, and could thus be considered a Russian incubus that needed to be cut out to ensure the healthy development of the Ukrainian nation. When asked in a famous YouTube interview ‘What should we do now with the 8 million Russians that stayed in Ukraine? They are outcasts?’ Tymoshenko responded: ‘They must be killed with nuclear weapons.’ To which the man answered: ‘I won’t argue with you here because what happened is absolutely unacceptable.’ This reflected the restitutive model of Ukrainian statehood with a vengeance, the idea that there was some Platonic ideal statehood to which the country should return. Where the actual population differed from the ideal, it was to be subject to special measures to bring it into conformity with the ideologically appropriate format.

When Putin in his Direct Line session of 17 April brought up the notion of Novorossiya, it was not clear what he had in mind. His assessment of the situation was vivid and clear:

Regarding the question of what should come first: a constitutional referendum followed by elections, or elections first to stabilise the situation and then a referendum. The essential issue is how to ensure the legitimate rights and interests of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers in the south-east of Ukraine. I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya [New Russia] back in the tsarist days – Kharkov, Lugansk, Donetsk, Kherson, Nikolaev and Odessa – were not part of Ukraine back then. These territories were given to Ukraine in the 1920s by the Soviet government. Why? Who knows. They were won by Potemkin and Catherine the Great in a series of well-known wars. The centre of that territory was Novorossiisk, so the region is called Novorossiya. Russia lost these territories for various reasons, but the people remained. Today, they live in Ukraine, and they should be full citizens of their country. That’s what this is all about.

Was this a reference to his comment to US President George W. Bush in Bucharest in 2008 that ‘Ukraine is not really a state’, and thus a call for the dismemberment of the country? Novorossiya was a special tsarist administrative arrangement for a broad swath of territory running along the Black Sea as far as Moldova, and its incorporation into the new Ukrainian SSR in 1922 was as controversial then as it has once again become now. Or was it simply an attempt to stress that Ukraine was made up of many traditions, and thus a call to give institutional form to pluralism, diversity and different identities? Either way, it galvanised those who sought to exploit Ukrainian state weakness for their own ends.

The extent of Moscow’s materiel and personnel support is far from clear. A welter of volunteers spilled across the border, drawn from the old opposition that had fought against Yeltsin in 1993, Cossack groups, Chechen militants, and a range of Russian nationalist and neo-Soviet imperialists. The danger, as with volunteer militants in Syria, is that these battle-hardened and radicalised fighters would gain experience and then ‘blow back’ into Russia, and potentially pose a threat to Putin himself if he failed to meet their expectations about supporting the rebellion in Ukraine. In his 17 April Direct Line programme he noted:

Refusing to see that something was badly wrong in the Ukrainian state and to start a dialogue, the government threatened to use military force and even sent tanks and aircraft against civilians. It was one more serious crime committed by the current Kiev rulers.

In this broadcast Putin acknowledged that the ‘green men’ in Crimea were in fact Russian forces.

Separatist aspirations were not supported by the majority of the population, and the insurgents rejected the ‘separatist’ label, while the mainstream Western view that the insurgency consisted of ‘terrorists’ backed by Moscow is equally false. A well-known survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) from 29 April to 11 May 2014 revealed that only 20–30 per cent of the population of the Donbas supported outright separatism, slightly fewer supported Kiev, while about half were in the middle. Various types of autonomy were supported by 54 per cent, but in the Donbas only 8 per cent favoured independence, 23 per cent supported joining Russia, while a further 23 per cent favoured greater autonomy within Ukraine. The majority of the insurgent leadership came from the Donbas, with some from other regions of Ukraine, including Crimea. This demonstrates that there was no overwhelming desire to leave Ukraine, but it also shows a high level of alienation. Serhiy Kudelia’s study confirms this finding, arguing that despite Western accusations that the insurgency was provoked and sponsored by Russia, it was in fact ‘primarily a homegrown phenomenon’: ‘political factors – state fragmentation, violent regime change, and the government’s low coercive capacity – combined with popular emotions specific to the region – resentment and fear – played a crucial role in launching the armed secessionist movement there’. It would take skilful political management to bring these people back into the fold of Ukrainian state-building. Instead, aspirations for federalism were considered tantamount to separatism, provoking military action and a devastating civil war.

The insurgents announced a referendum on the self-determination of the Donbas for 11 May. On 7 May Putin urged the referendums to be postponed, but they went ahead anyway with a very simple wording: ‘Do you support the creation of the Donetsk People’s Republic?’ and a similar question in Lugansk. Turnout in both regions was reported to be 75 per cent, with 89 and 96 per cent, respectively, voting for independence. Neither Kiev nor the West recognised the ballot as legitimate, with Poroshenko resolutely condemning the vote, although Firtash on 12 May argued that federalisation was the only acceptable option and that Ukraine should be a neutral state, and he personally was ready to step in to act as an intermediary between Russia and Ukraine. The vote can at best be taken as indicative of widespread ‘separatist’ sentiment at that time and should be tempered by the results of opinion surveys which, as noted, show a strong commitment to Ukrainian integrity. Nevertheless, the high level of dissatisfaction among the Blues is hardly surprising since for the second time in a decade a leadership that reflected their concerns was removed in contentious circumstances. On this occasion the interim administration formed after 22 February lacked representation from the Donbas and propounded a virulently monist ideology. This certainly does not justify armed rebellion, but helps explain the logic of developments.

The agreement between the DPR and the LPR establishing Novorossiya on 24 May was a propaganda move designed to rally support within Ukraine and volunteers from Russia proper. This was accompanied by accusations that Russia was massing a 40,000-strong army on its western border, ready for a possible invasion, and that Russian undercover operatives were fomenting the occupations and blockade. The troops were ordered back and forth to follow the various diplomatic contortions, while NATO and Western leaders repeatedly claimed that Russia had invaded or was on the verge of doing so, a crying of wolf that in the end rather discredited them. Instead, Russia trained and filtered in some genuine volunteers, as well as regular forces as ‘advisors’, a category well known from the early stages of US interventions, and only in August did Russian ‘volunteer’ paratroopers apparently take part in regular battles. The insurgents came to be dubbed ‘pro-Russian separatists’, and while this may be accurate for some of them, the rebellion reflected broader concern about the lack of constitutional and political defence for their way of life and historical economic and cultural links with Russia.

The pluralists in the Donbas and other Russophone regions seized the opportunity to institutionalise their long-term aspirations for Russian to be made a second state language and for genuine power-sharing of the regions in a more federal state. This was a quite legitimate democratic aspiration, and could have transformed the agenda of the Maidan into a genuinely national movement. The interim government in Kiev was resistant to such a broadening, given its deep roots in the monist tradition. At the same time, the pluralists in the Donbas and more widely in ‘Novorossiya’ lacked democratic and civil-society organisational capacity. The years of polarisation and corruption had deeply eroded the bases of civic activism. The PoR had become little more than a claque of the Yanukovych regime, and was deeply factionalised between the various oligarchs. It was discredited and in disarray following Yanukovych’s ouster. The CPU remained a bastion of neo-Soviet sentiment, winning some 13 per cent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary election, but was largely discredited because of its failure to condemn Yanukovych’s excesses. All that was left were a few individual politicians who could give voice to pluralist sentiments, while oligarchs like Akhmetov hedged their bets. Firtash added his voice in support of the pluralists, but, isolated in Vienna, he was unable to bolster the cause of compromise.

Although it became axiomatic in much of the West that the insurgency was financed and sponsored by Russia, evidence of this before August is far from conclusive. The provenance of the insurgents who emerged in April 2014 to take over administrative buildings in Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and Donetsk is unclear, but they were certainly not the ‘little green men’ who had operated so effectively and clinically in taking over Crimea. The story of Artur Gasparyan, an Armenian from Spitak, is a moving tale of how he volunteered to fight for the resistance in Ukraine and was given assistance and training in Russia by shadowy organisations and then transferred to the Donbas. He was part of the chaotic attempt to take over Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk on 26 May. The fighters simply did not believe that the Ukrainian military would bomb the gleaming new terminal, built for the Euro 2012 football championship, and hence left their anti-aircraft missiles back at base. In their chaotic flight one of the trucks was destroyed by ‘friendly fire’. After several weeks Gasparyan was transferred back to Russia and home. Asked why he, an Armenian, volunteered, he stated: ‘I don’t consider Russia a foreign country. I have the mentality of a Soviet person. My grandfathers fought for the Soviet Union and I am fighting for it.’

There is no more controversial issue than the extent to which Russia was implicated in inciting and supporting the insurgency. What is incontrovertible is that two elements developed in parallel: a genuine regional revolt adopting the tactics of the Maidan against the ‘Ukrainising’ and anti-Russian policies pursued by the Kiev authorities; and the strategic political considerations of Moscow, which exploited the insurgency to exercise leverage against the Kiev government to achieve defined goals – above all a degree of regional devolution, initially called federalisation – as well as to ensure that the strategic neutrality of the country was maintained. These goals, as well as the establishment of Russian as a second state language, may well have been in the best interests of Ukraine itself, but the method was catastrophic for the region and the country. Russia may well have stirred the pot at the beginning, and thereafter held regular consultations with resistance leaders, but the scale of its initial materiel support was greatly exaggerated by the Kiev government and its Western supporters. Moscow did allow a stream of volunteers to join the resistance, and some military equipment found its way across the border. But a constant refrain of the resistance movement was the lack of supplies and support; they repeatedly called on Russia to be more assertive in its backing, including direct military intervention, although this would only ever be a desperate measure. Moscow had learned the lessons of Afghanistan and the West’s own ill-advised interventions in that country, Iraq and Libya. Nevertheless, already in April NATO foreign ministers announced that they would suspend practical cooperation and military ties with Russia because of its actions in Ukraine, while once again (as in August 2008) the NATO–Russia Council proved itself to be useless.


A meeting in Geneva between Ukraine, Russia, the US and the EU on 17 April sought to start a process of ‘de-escalation’, the term used in this crisis to try to create an ‘off-ramp’ from the internationalised civil conflict. The brief joint statement by the countries involved called for ‘initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security for all citizens’, and stipulated a number of measures:

All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions. The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-semitism.

All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.

Amnesty will be granted to protestors and to those who have left buildings and other public places and surrendered weapons, with the exception of those found guilty of capital crimes.

It was agreed that the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission should play a leading role in assisting Ukrainian authorities and local communities in the immediate implementation of these de-escalation measures wherever they are needed most, beginning in the coming days. The U.S., E.U. and Russia commit to support this mission, including by providing monitors.

The announced constitutional process will be inclusive, transparent and accountable. It will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies, and allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments.

The participants underlined the importance of economic and financial stability in Ukraine and would be ready to discuss additional support as the above steps are implemented.

The onus was placed on the Ukrainians to take the initiative, with the international community to assist in the implementation of the de-escalation measures. The signatories agreed that that all armed formations should be disbanded, but it was not clear who would be able to do this, or the scope of the provision – would it include the armed battalions spawned by the Maidan? While the Western powers held Russia responsible for controlling the insurgents in the east and getting them to leave occupied buildings and installations, as we have seen they were mostly not under the direct control of a single authority. The situation was exacerbated by the lack of eastern representation at Geneva. Moscow’s attempts to get the supporters for regional autonomy invited had been blocked by Kiev, but now the eastern insurgents were held responsible for fulfilling decisions in whose adoption they were not involved.

The Geneva deal was ignored by both sides, although its principles were to be at the core of all subsequent ceasefires. On 5 May, government forces attacked checkpoints around Slavyansk, with the two sides exchanging mortar fire, and the insurgents were able to down a helicopter using a hand-held air-defence system. On 9 May government forces using tanks and heavy weaponry retook the interior ministry building in Mariupol, in which at least seven ‘separatists’ were killed and 40 wounded. In another action in Mariupol on 16 May insurgents attacked a local military base. The insurgents had taken over Prokofiev International Airport in Donetsk on 26 May, but in a ferocious counter-attack it was retaken by government forces, at great cost in lives and damage. On 28 May insurgents in Slavyansk shot down a military helicopter, killing all 14 servicemen on board, and on 14 June in Lugansk insurgents shot down a Ukrainian military aircraft, killing all 49 servicemen on board (of whom nine were crew). And so the fighting went on. Both sides were subject to international humanitarian law (the laws of war), and both sides egregiously disregarded them, above all in targeting civilian populations, using disproportionate force, not respecting the rights of journalists and abusing the rights of prisoners. Neither Ukraine nor Russia is a signatory party to the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, with the mandate to try people suspected of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes, so it would take a UN Security Council referral to activate an investigation.


Right Sector turned itself into a political party but retained its armed battalions, allied with the football ‘ultras’, and went to war in the south-east. In April the Donbas battalion was created, while the Aidar battalion was drawn from the mainstream Maidan self-defence units. The Azov battalion drew particular attention for the ferocity of its commitment, taking the Donetsk suburb of Marinka in late July and thereby opening the path for regular forces to attack the city. Azov flew the neo-Nazi Wolfsangel (Wolf’s Hook) on the background of the Schwarze Sonne (Black Sun) on their banner. The battalion was founded by Andriy Biletsky, the head of the extremist Social–National Assembly, who argued: ‘The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival […] A crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen.’ Their ideology harked back to the integral nationalism of the 1930s and 1940s, aiming to create a ‘natsiokratiya’ (ethnocracy) based on syndicates representing the different classes of the population. They appealed to Ukraine’s European identity, but their Europe was one of corporatism and traditionalism: ‘We consider the present tendency of Europe leads to the destruction of civilisation, with no control of immigration, the destruction of the family, of religious identity and of everything that made Europe Europe.’ This was accompanied by an assertive foreign policy that included the nuclear rearmament of Ukraine. On 23 July Svoboda registered a motion with the Rada’s secretariat to restore Ukraine’s status as a nuclear power. Rather surprisingly, this evoked no response from the Atlantic security community. In the end some three dozen volunteer battalions were created, with the number of fighters swelling to around 8,000. While formally subordinate to the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), they were in effect private armies. These proto-Freikorps forces attracted all sorts of malcontents and radicals from across Ukraine, and represented a substantial threat to Poroshenko’s ability to pursue an independent policy. He was constantly threatened by a ‘third Maidan’ when he suggested compromises, and these forces would take control if the government fell.

The fighting became increasingly vicious, with significant casualties on both sides, accompanied by the exodus of citizens who now became refugees if they crossed into Russia, or ‘internally displaced persons’ (IDPs) if they moved elsewhere in Ukraine. Unleashed against the insurgency was a crew no less motley than the insurgents themselves. The new National Guard absorbed most of the Maidan militants, among whom, as we have seen, right-wing nationalists figured prominently, and their indiscipline and cruelty in the Donbas became infamous. The volunteer detachments organised by ‘warlords’ such as Kolomoisky added to the volatile mix, as did the worker detachments raised by regional oligarchs such as Akhmetov. There were also volunteer units created by politicians. The most famous of these was Oleg Lyashko, who led volunteer battalions to the region. In a famous incident in mid-May he was seen humiliating a captured insurgent and the self-proclaimed defence minister of the DPR, Igor Kakidzyanov, who appeared in his underwear and with his hands bound. The trademark signature of his black-clad paramilitaries was to strip captives to their underwear, put bags on their heads, and lecture them on camera for their treacherous behaviour. His popularity soared, turning him into a serious political force and winning him over 8 per cent of the vote in the presidential election. Only later did the regular army take the initiative and lead the offensive.

The armed forces had been starved of funds for two decades, and under Yanukovych their resources had been pillaged. As Parubiy, secretary of the NSDC, put it:

Unfortunately, we now realize that our defense forces were deliberately sabotaged and weakened by the previous government in Kiev, in collaboration with Moscow, to subordinate Ukraine to Russia’s imperialist policies. We inherited a dilapidated army, a security and intelligence service awash with Russian agents, a demoralized law-enforcement system and corrupt courts and prosecutors.

The poor state of the Ukraine armed forces was soon exposed. Much of its weaponry and other materiel had been allowed to decay or been sold off, and there were not many more than 6,000 combat-ready troops in an army numbering some 80,000. The regular armed forces lacked training, intelligence equipment and geo-referencing systems. Once launched into combat, the army suffered from defections and desertions. Attempts by the Ukrainian military to dislodge the militants, including the use of air power and later Grad missile-launchers in civilian areas, did little more than harden local sentiment against Kiev. The creation of the National Guard, consisting largely of far right militants and others from the Maidan self-defence forces, had the advantage of removing these militants from the centre of Kiev and other western Ukrainian towns, but they often lacked discipline and treated south-east Ukraine as occupied territory, regularly committing atrocities against civilians and captured ‘terrorists’. In addition, the ‘third force’ of oligarch-sponsored irregular militias, notably those funded by Kolomoisky, added to the volatile mix.

In his speech at West Point on 28 May, Obama boasted of American success in isolating Russia. He dismissed those who suggest that ‘America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away – [they] are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics’, and insisted that ‘America must always lead on the world stage’. As for the current crisis:

In Ukraine, Russia’s recent actions recall the days when Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe. But this isn’t the Cold War. Our ability to shape world opinion helped isolate Russia right away. Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions. Europe and the G-7 joined with us to impose sanctions. NATO reinforced our commitment to Eastern European allies. The IMF is helping to stabilize Ukraine’s economy. OSCE monitors brought the eyes of the world to unstable parts of Ukraine. This mobilization of world opinion and institutions served as a counterweight to Russian propaganda, Russian troops on the border, and armed militias.

Soon after, Obama’s visit to Europe, including Poland, to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, was once again used as an occasion to isolate Russia. The French president, François Hollande, however, took the opportunity to engineer a meeting between Putin and the newly elected Poroshenko, establishing what was to become a pragmatic period of interaction. In all of this, the EU as an institution was redundant and could not be taken as a serious, positive independent player in European – let alone world – politics.


On coming to office, Poroshenko outlined three main challenges: the preservation of a ‘unified Ukraine’, including stability in eastern Ukraine; the European choice for closer ties to the West; and the return of Crimea. The latter goal, he stressed, would be pursued through diplomatic methods and excluded the military option. As for maintaining the unity of Ukraine, this was obviously a priority and one that had a solid basis. Numerous opinion polls in early 2014 repeatedly showed sizeable majorities in the east and the south supporting Ukrainian unity and only small minorities in favour of secession or accession to Russia. In the event, Poroshenko was unable to build on what was clearly a strong sense of membership of the Ukrainian state, although favouring a pluralist interpretation. Instead, his initial comments were far from conciliatory: ‘The first steps of our entire team at the beginning of the presidency will concentrate on ending the war, ending the chaos, ending the disorder and bringing peace to Ukrainian soil, to a united, single Ukraine.’ His promise to wrap up the ATO ‘in a matter of hours’ entrenched the hardliners on both sides, and the irreconcilable tone was repeated in his inaugural speech on 7 June.

The insurgents in the south-east were characterised as ‘terrorists’, and thus their demands and concerns were rendered null and void. The resolution of the long-standing Ukrainian identity, it appeared, would be settled on the battlefield. The ATO was intensified, with the regular army reinforced by volunteers in the National Guard. On 5 June the Verkhovna Rada adopted changes to the law on terrorism, signed into law by the president on 18 June, giving greater powers to the security forces and legalising the use of the regular army in ‘counter-terrorism’ operations. Commanders gained the power ‘to temporarily restrict the rights of local populations’ as well as to ‘shut down business entities – fully or partially’. On the other side, the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov proposed a resolution to the UN, but stressed that it would not include the introduction of Russian peacekeepers to the region, a demand repeatedly made by the rebels. A genuine peacekeeping force could only be introduced if sanctioned by the UN Security Council, otherwise it would be another term for occupation.

After several false starts, on 20 June Poroshenko announced a unilateral ceasefire to last a week, while outlining a 15-point peace plan. Building on the Geneva deal, he proposed an amnesty for rebel fighters who had not committed serious crimes, as well as safe passage for volunteers seeking to return to Russia. It also called for decentralisation that would allow a greater degree of self-rule in the east, the fundamental demand of the militants. The insurgents were to surrender and a 10-kilometre-wide security zone would be established along the border with Russia, while the decentralisation excluded federalisation or official status for the Russian language. On 23 June talks were held in Donetsk involving Poroshenko’s representative, the former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, and the militant leaders. Also in attendance was an OSCE representative, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, the pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk (on the US sanctions list for his part in the annexation of Crimea). The fact that he was trusted in Moscow rendered him suspicious to the new Ukrainian authorities. Following the meeting, the self-declared prime minister of DPR, Alexander Borodai, announced that the militants also agreed to the ceasefire. It was soon threatened when on 24 June the insurgents shot down the helicopter that was carrying equipment and specialists to monitor the ceasefire near Slavyansk, killing nine personnel.

On that day the Russian Federation Council revoked the ruling of 1 March, adopted before the annexation of Crimea, that authorised Russia to deploy troops on Ukrainian territory, ‘in order to normalise and regulate the situation in the eastern regions of Ukraine, and due to the start of the three-way talks on the issue’, as Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov put it. In 2009 the Russian president had been granted a ‘universal mandate’ allowing him to deploy troops abroad, so this act was meant to signal that Moscow was set on the path of conciliation. Throughout, Russian actions lacked consistency and even coherence. There was no response to the first wave of sanctions imposed in April, whereas retaliation in the form, for example, of stopping cooperation over Afghanistan and blocking the Northern Distribution Network, the rail route for the removal of American forces and materiel, or even withdrawal from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), would have signalled Russia’s readiness for confrontation. Instead, the repeal signalled Russia’s openness for rapprochement and that the country would not intervene militarily, but this allowed the full force of the Ukrainian armed forces to be unleashed against the Donbas militants. Despite the virulence of the anti-Western campaign, Putin clearly did not want to burn all the bridges back to a normal relationship with the EU and the US. Nevertheless, the exploitation of unrest in the south-east to exercise leverage over the rest of Ukraine to achieve desired policy outcomes – notably federalisation and neutralisation – remained.

The insurgents had earlier insisted that there could be no talks until Ukraine withdrew its forces, but, after consultations in Moscow, Borodai (who is a Russian citizen) softened his stance. His security advisor was Sergei Kavtaradze, a military historian and an expert on the conduct of civil wars. This was another example of the eclectic character of the rebel leadership. Borodai compared the fighting in the Donbas with the Spanish Civil War, as it drew in volunteers (notably from Serbia) to join the new international brigades, now united around the ideology of anti-Americanism and geopolitical pluralism. The negotiations were also attended by Alexander Khodakovsky, the commander of the Vostok battalion (no connection with the body of the same name in the Chechen wars), and Valery Bolotov, the leader of the insurgent forces in Lugansk. Notably absent was Girkin, also a Russian citizen, who commanded the insurgent forces in Slavyansk. Speaking in Vienna on 24 June, Putin warned that a ceasefire and calling on the rebels to disarm without addressing their long-term political grievances would come to nothing. He qualified his support for Poroshenko’s plan by insisting:

It is important that this ceasefire open the way to a dialogue between all of the parties to the combat, so as to find solutions that will be acceptable to all sides, in order to ensure that people in south-east Ukraine have no doubt that they are an integral part of the country.

The talks gave no immediate breakthrough, and Poroshenko’s peace plan was condemned at a four-hour extended meeting with the hawkish NSDC on 30 June. Poroshenko’s proposal to extend the ceasefire was now dropped, and on 1 July he announced the resumption of hostilities: ‘We will attack and we will liberate our land. The end of the ceasefire is our response to terrorists, rebels, looters, all those who mock civilians, who paralyze the economy of the region.’ The ceasefire was perceived to have given the insurgents a chance to rearm and regroup. There was not a word here about reaching out to his citizens in the south-east; and, indeed, in the words of one Moscow Times journalist, the lack of compassion ‘by residents of both Moscow and Kiev over the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the future of Ukraine as a whole ought to give us serious pause’. A hate-filled generation was being nurtured. Poroshenko had come under enormous pressure from the ‘war party’ in Kiev to continue the attack, with the NSDC urging him to take active measures. Lyashko reported that he had heard from the president ‘what he had wanted to hear from him’, and, satisfied, he returned to continue his vigilante activities on the eastern front.

There was also a ‘war party’ in Washington, although both US vice president Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry urged Kiev to exercise restraint. It was not clear that Kerry was able to control his subordinates. Equally, the relationship with Kiev assumed some classic Cold War features, in which the ‘client’ tail was able to wag the ‘patron’ dog. There was very little at stake for the US in renewed conflict, whereas the burden of the Ukraine crisis would be borne by Russia and its European partners. Although Poroshenko was responding to the demands for a military victory coming from radical nationalists, in the end his position was weakened by revulsion at the heavy death toll and the destruction of the Donbas. There were many cases in which Kiev’s forces refused orders to fire on their compatriots. In the end over 90 per cent of Ukrainian armed forces were deployed in the south-east, accompanied by successive waves of call-up reservists. The Ukrainian armed forces had learned to avoid infantry combat, and instead launched air strikes and long-range artillery bombardments against apartment blocks and villages. This rained down indiscriminate fire on heavily populated areas, causing numerous civilian casualties. This was justified by alleging that the rebels placed their own ordinance next to civilian objects. There are documented cases of this, although in heavily built areas almost any position would be next to a hospital or school; and, as the UN stressed during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in July and August, the laws of war state that there is no excuse for killing civilians. It looked as if the tide of war was turning to Kiev’s advantage.

Stephen Cohen notes how on 2 May at the UN Security Council the US ambassador, Samantha Power, suspended

her revered ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine, [and] gave Kiev’s leaders a US license to kill. Lauding their ‘remarkable, almost unimaginable, restraint’, as Obama himself did after Odessa, she continued, ‘Their response is reasonable, it is proportional, and frankly it is what any one of our countries would have done.’

Cohen notes that on 26 June Kerry demanded that the Russian president ‘in the next few hours […] help disarm’ the resistance in the south-east, ‘as though they are not motivated by any of Ukraine’s indigenous conflicts but are merely Putin’s private militias’. In sum:

We may honourably disagree about the causes and resolution of the Ukrainian crisis, the worst US–Russian confrontation in decades, but not about the deeds that are rising to the level of war crimes, if they have not already done so.

In early July an intensive round of diplomacy was led by the German and French foreign ministers, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Laurent Fabius respectively. A hastily convened meeting in Berlin on 2 July brought them together with Lavrov and the new Ukrainian foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin. As far as the Russians were concerned, the absence of the Americans increased the chances of the peaceful regulation of the conflict. As Lavrov put it in a television interview on 28 June: ‘Peace within the warring country [Ukraine] is more likely if negotiations were left to Russia and Europe’, and he noted: ‘Our American colleagues still favour pushing the Ukrainian leadership towards confrontation.’ The hawks in Washington warned the Europeans against ‘craven surrender’ to Russian aggression (in the words of a Washington Post editorial on 2 July), but European leaders were beginning, surprisingly, to show some independent resolve. The provisional deal of 2 July was far-reaching, and included not only a ceasefire and further talks involving the OSCE but also strengthened control over the Russo-Ukrainian border, which would stop the supply of personnel and materiel to the insurgents. The Donbas resistance movement now turned into fierce critics of Putin, accusing him of betrayal and worse. Such nuances were lost on the hawks, with the Washington Post thundering: ‘A failure by the West to act following such explicit rhetoric would be a craven surrender that would provoke only more Russian aggression’.

On 5 July the insurgent forces under Girkin retreated from Slavyansk and regrouped in Donetsk. By that time over 100,000 refugees had fled the region. Clearly, no help was officially going to come from Russia, despite Girkin’s appeals for military aid. The rebels now faced almost certain defeat as the Ukrainian army advanced on all sides. As Pavel Gubarev, the former advertising executive and extreme Russian nationalist who became one of the founders of the DPR, put it on 9 July: ‘We are surrounded – we will defend our city to the end, there is no room to move back – we have a situation where we must win or die.’ The imposition of a new round of American sanctions on 16 July further narrowed Putin’s room for manoeuvre. What could have been the quiet withdrawal of support to groups who had never entirely been controllable proxies would now look like capitulation to hostile Western powers, and that was simply politically impossible in the febrile atmosphere in Russia that the regime had done so much to provoke. Intensified sanctions at this point were entirely counterproductive.

By July 2014 the combined interior-ministry forces, including the National Guard, had swelled to 35,000, including some from abroad, reinforcing the 77,000 regular troops. On 31 July the Ukrainian parliament authorised an additional $743 million for the army, to be financed by a mandatory ‘war tax’ of 1.5 per cent on all incomes. Already Ukraine was the second-worst-performing economy in the world, with the hryvnia losing 70 per cent of its value by September, when it was trading at 14 to the dollar, a deep recession that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) expected would see a 9 per cent year-on-year fall in GDP. Prices and unemployment were rising fast. The Donbas had provided a sixth of Ukrainian GDP, but war had removed much of that. Nevertheless, money could still be found to strengthen the frontier. The head of the NSDC, Parubiy, announced on 16 June that Ukraine planned to build a wall along its border with Russia to ‘avoid any future provocations from the Russian side’. On 5 September Yatsenyuk announced the plan to build what was later called the ‘European Rampart’ (Evropeisky val) along the border with Russia. In the first instance there would be a four-metre-wide and two-metre-deep ditch equipped with electronic systems. On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, there can be no better symbol of the failure of European politics in our era.

The conflict provoked a humanitarian catastrophe. The generation whose grandparents had suffered so much during collectivisation and World War II looked forward to living in peace in a Europe, ‘whole and free’, but once again they were visited by war. By June some 250 hotels, summer camps and other sites were converted into centres housing up to 30,000 refugees, while another 70,000 escaped across the border into Russia. By late August the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported that at least 285,000 people had fled their homes because of the conflict, with some 190,000 IDPs in Ukraine and 17,000 in Crimea. In addition, 25,000 had gone to Belarus, 1,250 to Poland, and 207,000 to Russia, of whom 88,000 asked for temporary refuge and 119,000 applied either for temporary residence or citizenship. The authorities reported that over 800,000 Ukrainians had entered Russia without registering. In July Amnesty International issued a report detailing kidnapping and torture in eastern Ukraine, and in September a further report criticised the ‘non-selective’ shooting, as a result of which over 1,000 civilians died. The report condemned the lack of oversight over the volunteer units, condemning in particular the Aidar battalion for ‘abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion and possible executions’.

From the very beginning Russian policy was caught between bad and very bad options. It was clear that ‘Novorossiya’ was not Crimea, where there had long been a powerful irredentist movement calling for reunification with Russia. There was nothing of the sort in the Donbas, where the overwhelming majority sought a new settlement within Ukraine. Separatist aspirations only came later, after Yanukovych fled and the new authorities made several ill-judged moves in the absence of effective representation from the east, and then launched an all-out war against ‘terrorists’. The fragmented and questionable nature of the resistance, moreover, meant that Moscow lacked a credible interlocutor in Ukraine. The only serious politician who could have fulfilled this role was Medvedchuk, Kuchma’s former chief of staff, but he was unpopular and was associated with too many failed projects. Above all, the political programme advanced by Moscow lacked substantive popularity in Ukraine. Only 13 per cent, for example, supported the idea of federalisation. This helps explain Moscow’s more conciliatory approach, reinforced by the fear of ‘level-three’ sanctions that would be designed to blast whole sectors of the Russian economy. Russia and Europe sought to avoid moving to that stage, which would immeasurably damage both.

In his speech to diplomats on 1 July Putin adopted a regretful tone. He put the conflict in a broader context:

We need to understand clearly that the events provoked in Ukraine are the concentrated outcome of the notorious containment policy. As you know, its roots lie deep in history and it is clear that unfortunately this policy did not stop with the end of the Cold War. […] I would like to stress that what happened in Ukraine was the culmination of the negative tendencies in international affairs that had been building up for years. We have long been warning about this, and unfortunately, our predictions came true.

He outlined Russia’s main concerns:

What did our partners expect from us as the developments in Ukraine unfolded? We clearly had no right to abandon the residents of Crimea and Sevastopol to the mercy of nationalist and radical militants; we could not allow our access to the Black Sea to be significantly limited; we could not allow NATO forces to eventually come to the land of Crimea and Sevastopol, the land of Russian military glory, and cardinally change the balance of forces in the Black Sea area. This would mean giving up practically everything that Russia had fought for since the times of Peter the Great, or maybe even earlier – historians should know.

As for the latest peace attempts, he stressed the active part played by Russian diplomats, but:

Unfortunately, President Poroshenko has resolved to resume military action, and we failed – when I say ‘we’, I mean my colleagues in Europe and myself – we failed to convince him that the road to a secure, stable and inviolable peace cannot lie through war. So far, Mr Poroshenko was not directly linked to the order to begin military action, and only now did he take full responsibility, and not only military, but political as well, which is much more important.

The four-party Berlin talks had offered a genuine chance of stopping the violence, but it appeared that the hawks preferred war rather than a deal in which Russia was involved. Putin had prevented the US from launching a bombing campaign in Syria in September 2013, and Washington sought at all costs to avoid Russia once again garnering the laurels of peace. The Ukrainian offensive breached several international treaties on the conduct of war, and in due course the Kiev regime would have to answer for its actions to international war crimes tribunals.

Putin was coming under enormous pressure to offer succour to the Donbas insurgents and to stop the killing of civilians. As Putin put it in his 1 July speech, he ‘would like to make clear’ that Moscow would be compelled to protect ‘Russians and Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine […] I am referring to people who consider themselves part of the broad Russian community; they may not necessarily be ethnic Russians, but they consider themselves Russian people.’ There had been a powerful upwelling of domestic support for the resistance movement in the Donbas, to which Putin’s fate now became effectively tied – a situation of dependency that he had devoted his whole presidency to avoiding. Already insurgent leaders, such as Girkin, were loudly accusing the Kremlin of betrayal in not providing adequate support. Radicals and nationalists, such as Alexander Dugin, Sergei Kurginyan and Alexander Barkashov (head of the ultra-nationalist Russian National Unity), were raising money, recruiting volunteers and using their extensive influence in Russia’s security establishment to provide support for the Donbas rebels.

There was much talk of Russia mimicking the West and imposing a no-fly zone over the Donbas, although in the end Russia appears to have decided to remove Ukraine’s control of the air by covertly supplying anti-aircraft missiles. There was increasing pressure for some sort of ‘humanitarian’ intervention to assist the suffering population, but which would also block Kiev’s military victory. There was a full-scale war and a massive humanitarian disaster on Russia’s doorstep, but a military intervention threatened to draw Russia into a direct conflict with Ukraine and its Western backers, a conflict that Russia could not hope to win. Like the Afghanistan war in the 1980s, the outcome could in the end be the fall of the government in Moscow. Unlike the Soviet Union, however, Putin faced powerful domestic pressures.

In his study of the Ukraine crisis, the well-known Russian publicist Nikolai Starikov argued that in 2013 Russia moved from its long-term defensive posture to a more activist diplomacy. In Syria, for example, ‘Russia did not allow Syrian statehood to be destroyed by the [United] States’; in Ukraine the EU’s ‘blitzkrieg’ was repulsed, and in general Russia found itself on the frontline against the aggressive world politics of the US. Starikov is only one of a vast ‘nationalist’ civil society that long pre-dates Putin, and towards which after 2012 Putin tacked (having lost the support of the liberal intelligentsia), but which was certainly far from satisfied with his characteristic caution. Indeed, disappointed nationalists began to compare him to Slobodan Milošević, who had fuelled intense Serbian nationalism against Croats and others, only to back down under Western pressure and betray the Serbian diaspora. Although Putin presides over an all-encompassing power system, there are domestic constraints that deprive him of the total ‘agency’ powers assumed by his critics.

Zabrodskyi’s Raid: The First Major Ukrainian Counteroffensive

Zabrodskyi in 2014

Major Battles of the Russo-Ukrainian War

Despite Russian efforts to confound Ukrainian counteraction, Ukrainian forces were successful at pushing back Russian and partisan forces to the boundaries of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Ukrainian success in these early operations triggered a transition in the war- Russia became far more aggressive in response. As a result, Russia unleashed conventional warfighting capabilities, techniques, and force structures not recently seen on modern battlefields. Likewise, the Russian army became more overt in its presence and began to funnel more armored and mechanized combat systems into the Donbas, to include the venerable T-80 and T-90 main battle tanks. In response to the shifting momentum following the battle of Zelenopillya, Ukraine launched an armored raid into the Donbas, seeking to thwart Russian initiative, weaken DPR and LPR partisan forces, and assist a beleaguered Ukrainian formation isolated at the Luhansk airport. Analyst Phillip Karber called the raid the longest armored raid in history, as the Ukrainian 95th Air Assault Brigade, under command of Colonel Mykhailo Zabrodskyi, penetrated the Russian front and wreaked havoc deep within the Russian-controlled region. The raid resulted in a two hundred-mile excursion through Russian and partisan held territory in which Zabrodskyi’s 95th Brigade scored a number of tactical successes.

“Zabrodskyi’s Raid,” as the mission became known, launched from the ATO headquarters in Kramatorsk and advanced south and east along highways H21 and E50. Zumbrowskyi’s 95th Brigade fought conventional ground combat with Russian and partisan forces at Bakhmat, Debal’tseve, Saur-Mogila, and Luhansk. The 95th Brigade, being an Air Assault brigade, was significantly augmented with tanks, mechanized infantry, and self-propelled artillery to support the operation. Additionally, Zabrodskyi led the brigade through a contested river crossing on Highway 21 along the Mius River, outside Krasnyi Luch. Following the successful river crossing, the 95th Brigade fought its way through Krasnyi Luch in route to Luhansk.

The 95th Brigade’s combat at Luhansk centered largely at the airport and was conducted from July 13-24, 2014. Fighting at Luhansk, the 95th Brigade, consisting of approximately sixty to seventy tanks and infantry fighting vehicles had two objectives. First, it was to assist the encircled Ukrainian unit and prevent its destruction. Second, the 95th Brigade was to regain control of the airport from Russian and partisan forces.  On July 13, 2014, Zabrodskyi’s brigade penetrated the Russian defensive perimeter, reached the airport, and made contact with the beleaguered Ukrainian forces defending the airport. Ukrainian forces conducted joint operations, employing their air force in conjunction with the 95th Brigade to attack the Russian defenders at the airport. The unified action of the Ukrainian armed forces loosened the grip Russian forces maintained around the airport, allowing the trapped formation to extricate themselves. As part of this effort, Russian forces employed air defense missiles to deny Ukrainian forces resupply at the airport and to disrupt their ability to conduct joint operations. As a result, the Ukrainian air force lost two aircraft, an An-26 on July 14 and a Su-25 on July 16. Additionally, two more Su-25 aircraft were downed by Russian air defenses on July 23 at Saur-Mogila. However, exhausted and out of supplies, Zabrodskyi’s 95th Brigade culminated on July 23. Later that day the force withdrew from the Luhansk airport, returning to the relative safety of Kramatorsk. Zabrodskyi’s raid succeeded in arresting Russian offensive action, but only briefly. The raid also succeeded in relieving the isolated Ukrainian force at Luhansk airport, but the mission failed to wrest the facility from Russian control.



When the Soviets advanced into eastern Germany, the Nazis tried to quickly evacuate the jet factory. But by then, it was too late for the jet to have much effect on the outcome of the war.

By Uli Suckert

At the very end of World War II, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler still hoped that state-of-the-art technology could turn the tide in his favor. One of those projects, the Messerschmitt jet fighter, found a home in a remote corner of eastern Germany. But it was too late.

It took four and a half years, but finally, on March 20, 1944, World War II — and more specifically, the armaments industry — came to a remote corner of eastern Germany called the Lausitz. As the Allies flew an ever-increasing number of air raids over Germany’s industrial and urban centers, large weapons factories in Nazi Germany began an exhaustive search for suitable places to relocate — sites as inconspicuous and isolated as possible. Indeed, by 1943, Hermann Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe, had already forged plans to relocate the aviation industry to areas the Allies were unlikely to bomb.

It took a year, but then Junkers, an airplane and engine manufacturer from Dessau, moved into a factory belonging to the Moras Brothers textile company in Zittau, which today is located near Germany’s border with Poland and the Czech Republic.

Disguised as a company called Zittwerke AG, it was far from run-of-the-mill as far as armaments factories go. Zittau was to be where the world’s first production-ready jet engine would be completed, the same engine that was to power Hitler’s secret weapon, the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter.

Jürgen Ulderup from Junkers’ Dessau production site was tasked with taking over as plant manager in Zittau. He immediately set up a network of manufacturing plants throughout the region, all top secret. Key to getting the project off the ground was his demand that 18 long-established textile producers make space in their factories for armaments production. Some companies had to turn over their factories in their entirety. It proved a further blow for the region’s textile industry, already largely crippled and converted to the war economy.

Core of the Enterprise

But winning the war took priority, and the remote corner of Nazi Germany now began producing components for the clandestine jet engine. Ulderup hired over 2,500 employees and put them to work in the Zittwerke plants, under the direction of aviation industry experts. They worked in the Moras factory, the Haebler Brothers textile company in Zittau, the Rudolf Breuer mechanical weaving mill in Reichenau, the Kreutziger & Henke company in Leutersdorf, the Ebersbach spinning and weaving mill, and at 13 other factories located in regional towns and villages.

But the core of the enterprise was to be found on the grounds of a former World War I prisoner of war camp in the present-day Polish town of Porajów — a camp which had been converted for use by the German armed forces. The factory, guarded by the 17th SS “Totenkopf” battalion, simply moved into several half-finished barracks.

Deep in the heart of the compound, behind several rows of barbed wire, was the administration building where a detachment from the Gross-Rosen concentration camp was housed. Along with prisoners of war and the so-called “Eastern workers” — forced labor from countries such as the Ukraine — over 850 concentration camp prisoners did most of the work in the Zittwerke factories.

Not long after Junkers had settled in, the sound of industry filled the Neisse River Valley day and night. Rumors of a “miracle weapon” circulated among the local population, but no one knew exactly what the factory produced. It wasn’t until final assembly that the object in question could be recognized for what it was: a special turbojet engine for a new type of jet fighter.

Shiny New Me 262s

Technicians had already tested the engines. A Messerschmitt plane, the Me 262-V 1, powered with a Junkers Jumo 004A-0 jet engine, took to the air as early as March 2, 1943. The test proved successful. And before long, the Zwittau factories mastered all aspects of the jet engine’s production, from pre-assembly to shipment.

The factories were well connected to the Third Reich’s rail network, with covered freight cars lugging the completed engines — once they had passed inspection — to the south. There, in the forests surrounding the Bavarian towns of Regensburg and Augsburg, workers installed the new engines into the jets. A converted Autobahn nearby served as a runway from which the shiny new Me 262s took off for their test flights. Only then would they be loaded onto freight trains for delivery to the Luftwaffe.

The Nazis had high hopes for the new jets. By the beginning of 1945, with the Russians closing from the east and the US and Britain marching in from the west, it was clear that Germany faced a catastrophic defeat, but the Nazi leadership refused to give up hope. On February 28, 1945, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels announced to the nation that Germany’s “miracle weapon” would soon turn the tide of the war.

For Zittau, however, indications were mounting that it would be too late. The day before the Goebbels speech, the city of Görlitz just north of Zittau had been declared part of the front. Workers in the jet engine factories could already hear the thunder of enemy guns.

Hectic Evacuation

It wasn’t long before the hectic evacuation got underway. A Wehrmacht counterattack near the present-day Polish town of Luba on March 7 and 8, 1945 managed to push back the Red Army. But after heavy losses on both sides, the Soviets halted the German advance, such as it was, and the factories ceased production.

Given the importance of the jet engine project, it didn’t take long for evacuation of both workers and factory machinery to get underway. In early March, two special trains carrying the most vital elements of the production chain made their way from Zittau to the west, one on the 6th and another on the 10th. They ultimately ended up in the town of Nordhausen, located in the state of Thuringia, some 100 kilometers west of Leipzig.

Luftwaffe soldiers, who had guarded the Zittwerke’s various factory locations producing jet engines for the Me 262, also boarded the train in Zittau. Two trains with over 500 people left directly from the factory premises for Halberstadt in Saxony-Anhalt. A final train, belonging to the Wehrmacht, left on April 30, just days before the end of the war, presumably carrying the last of the military units.

Mass Grave

But the Nazis didn’t evacuate everything. Inside the remaining restricted military area, the forced laborers and concentration camp prisoners remained. Many of them died. A factory doctor issued 70 handwritten death certificates in April and the beginning of May. The causes of death listed were primarily “acute heart failure with asthenia,” “pulmonary tuberculosis,” “pneumonia,” or “scurvy.”

The role Zittwerke plant manager Jürgen Ulderup played in the deaths remains something of a mystery. According to his own reports, Ulderup fled by bicycle from Zittau to Osnabrück in western Germany in the last days of the war, with a backpack crammed full of copper bars. His driver, along with his company car, had long since disappeared, according to the former Nazi plant manager.

Today only a mass grave in Zittau’s women’s cemetery provides a reminder that the so-called “miracle weapon” was produced locally. A well-kept lawn covers the area behind the cemetery wall, where civilian victims of World War II are buried. They include the prisoners and forced laborers who sweated away in Nazi Germany’s final attempt to turn the tide of onrushing World War II destruction.


Inspection of Trawnikimänner by Karl Streibel at Trawniki. They were tasked with the liquidation of Jewish ghettos in occupied Poland.

Trawniki was a unique dual-purpose camp whose role in the Holocaust was of great significance yet its name is little known beyond academic specialists and war crimes lawyers. It was originally established in July 1941 in the grounds of an abandoned sugar factory as a detention facility for special categories of Soviet POW: those considered either especially dangerous or potential collaborators. It then became a training facility for SS auxiliaries from the territories of the USSR (primarily Ukrainians) in September. They were initially drawn from the captured Soviet conscripts but later included a substantial number of volunteers. The `Trawnikis’, known to the Germans as Hiwis (from Hilfswillige, volunteers), became notorious for their role as guards in the Aktion Reinhard camps. They were also deployed in camps such as Poniatowa and Janowska and used in ghetto clearance operations in major cities. Trawniki was thus crucial in supplying the SS with the manpower it required to implement the Holocaust.
Odilo Globocnik, SS and Police Leader in Lublin, Poland. Unable to satisfy his manpower needs out of local resources, Globocnik prevailed upon Himmler to recruit non-Polish auxiliaries from the Soviet border regions. The key person on Globocnik’s Operation Reinhard staff for this task was Karl Streibel. He and his men visited the POW camps and recruited Ukrainian, Latvian, and Lithuanian “volunteers” (Hilfswillige, or Hiwis) who were screened on the basis of their anti-Communist (and hence almost invariably anti-Semitic) sentiments, offered an escape from probable starvation, and promised that they would not be used in combat against the Soviet army. These “volunteers” were taken to the SS camp at Trawniki for training. Under German SS officers and ethnic German noncommissioned officers, they were formed into units on the basis of nationality.
Over the next two and a half years, 2,000 to 3,000 easterners (mainly Ukrainians) were trained at Trawniki. They formed the bulk of the men running the death camps. On average, only 20 to 35 German SS men were stationed at each camp. Each camp was normally commanded by an SS captain, with perhaps one lieutenant present as a deputy commandant. All of the other SS men were sergeants; there were no SS privates in the camps.
During the Holocaust the Germans were also fighting major military campaigns on which their survival depended. Their manpower was stretched very thin, but they were at first reluctant to recruit large numbers of fighting forces among the “inferior races” of Eastern Europe. They were, however, entirely prepared to make use of volunteers to assist in genocide. In the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) and the Ukraine, right-wing nationalist groups welcomed the Germans as liberators from “Jewish Bolshevism” and launched pogroms against the Jews either independently or under the benevolent gaze of the Wehrmacht. Organized variously as patriotic militias or “self-protection” units, they killed thousands of Jews and so impressed the Germans that the latter formed them into Schutzmannschaften (police) battalions under the command of German officers. These collaborators were encouraged to recruit volunteers from among their countrymen in German prisoner of war camps. The Germans called those who stepped forward Hilfswillige (volunteer helpers), Hiwis for short; eventually they came to number in the hundreds of thousands. After receiving training at SS camps such as Trawniki in eastern Poland, most of them assisted German order police in various actions against Jews, Gypsies, and partisans. The Germans found that they could usually rely on the Hiwis to perform the least pleasant tasks, such as flushing Jews out of ghetto hiding places and shooting on the spot those too frail to walk to deportation vehicles. Other volunteers became guards at camps and ghettos all over Eastern Europe. More than three quarters of the guards at Treblinka, Bekzec, and Sobibor were Hiwis. Eventually, in 1943 and 1944, Hitler authorized combat units made up of Eastern European volunteers, including two Waffen SS divisions made up of Latvians and one each of Ukrainians and Estonians.