Is Putin Trying To Regain Control In Eastern Ukraine?

Vostok Battalion 2.0

Vostok Battalion 2.0

It seems contradictory: on the one hand Moscow is moderating its rhetoric on Ukraine and calling for talks with newly-elected President Petro Poroshenko, on the other we have reports that a large contingent of heavily-armed Chechens, the ‘Vostok Battalion,’ is now in eastern Ukraine, something that could not have happened without Russian acquiescence–and which probably was arranged by them. However, I think that they actually fit together to suggest that the Kremlin is looking to position itself for potential talks with the new presidency in Kyiv, something that requires reversing not just the rhetorical trend towards hyperbole but also the slide towards warlordism on the ground. After all, for Moscow meaningfully to make a deal, it must be able to offer more than just a willingness not to destabilise the east any more, it must be able to deliver at least a partial peace on the ground.

Having decided to fight this non-linear conflict largely through local allies, adventurers, deserters and opportunists–albeit encouraged, armed and protected by Moscow–the Russians appear to be coming to realise that this is war on the cheap but also war off the reservation, something they cannot readily control. Indeed, the new pronouncements by “Donetsk People’s Republic” defence chief Igor Strelkov (or Igor Girkin) that lawlessness and indiscipline within the militias would be treated harshly, punctuated by the execution of two looters, also represents another sign that Moscow’s men on the ground are trying to get the situation under control.

The Vostok (‘East’) Battalion, after all, seems not to be exactly the same as the Chechen unit of that name which was raised from former guerrillas and disbanded after its participation in the 2008 Georgian War. It was not disbanded because it was not good at its job, far from it. Instead, as one of the last Chechen units not controlled by warlord-president Ramzan Kadyrov but rather his bitter rivals, the Yamadaevs, its dissolution became politically necessary. However, GRU military intelligence (which, despite its formal subordination to the MVD, had formed, funded and controlled Vostok), remained true to its own and found alternative jobs for many of its soldiers and kept in touch. Now, with the need to deploy forces into Eastern Ukraine which are deniable but at the same time more disciplined and effective than the militias, Moscow seems to have turned to the ‘Vostochniki.’ After all, this is just the kind of bandit-war at which they excel.

This is not a straightforward reconstruction of the old unit. The command structure appears different, and although ‘Vostochniki’ form the core of the battalion, it also includes non-Chechens and volunteers who were never in the old force. It appears to be a hybrid ‘patriotic mercenary’ unit of volunteers happy for a fight, for a chance to get back with their comrades, and for pay. I don’t know who pays it, but even if it is technically the self-proclaimed DPR government, their access to ready cash is pretty limited and, through one cut-out or another, I presume that the GRU is ultimately paying the piper and calling the tune.

This is the irony at work. Moscow’s strategy of chaos has worked too well, eating away not just at the cohesion of the rump Ukrainian state but also the emergent East Ukrainians, too. There appears to be increasing evidence of disputes between militias, and between the relatively professional defectors from the Ukrainian security forces, the opportunist thugs, and the “war tourists” from Russia. Thus, Moscow’s hopes to be able to cut a deal with Kyiv–regardless of whether Poroshenko can and will offer the Kremlin what it wants–depends now on bringing order to chaos. The Russians wished for chaos; now they know why so many folk tales warn of being careful what one wishes for…

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  1. andreinternational

     /  May 27, 2014

    Is a Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine completely off the cards now do you think? It will be interesting how Russia reacts if the Ukrainian army pushes the seperatists to collapse in Donetsk. With the limited support they have from the population it would surprise me if they began to dissipate after taking heavy casualties.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  May 27, 2014

      I think that an invasion is, while by no means the Kremlin’s preferred option, not entirely off the table. After all, if it looks as if Kyiv might be able to reimpose control on the east (unlikely as that currently seems) or if there seems no prospect of a deal, the Kremlin might feel that it is, like Macbeth, “in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” In other words, that rather than suffer the terrible political cost of seeming to have failed, better to wade further into the quagmire… But we’re a way from that kind of situation yet.

  2. Nice post and agree wholeheartedly that the Kremlin may not be in full control over its perceived emissaries operating in SE Ukraine. I fear that as the new leader in Kiev wants to expand his mandate into SE Ukraine, the violence will escalate, with ever louder pleas for the Kremlin’s help from the pro-Russian forces in these regions. Putin may be partially trapped into deploying regular military forces by the flag-waving patriotic monster he has helped to create.

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  May 27, 2014

      As you’ll see from my response to the previous comment, I can do nothing but agree with your last point, alas

  3. globalinfowars

     /  May 28, 2014

    Reblogged this on Global Info War and commented:
    Interesting and objective article

  4. Very good thoughtful article.

    There is however another conclusion that could be drawn from your thoughts and the deployment of the ‘Vostok Battalion’. This is to strengthen the terrorists actions where the population have overwhelmingly voted against Putin’s vision of Russian domination and Ukrainian servitude by choosing by a large margin a western orientated president. His aim now is to spread the terrorism as far and widely as possible to create a failed Ukrainian state, that the west has to continue to support financially. This would be cheaper, easier and more deniable than more direct action.

    However, this would not be without risks, where bullies like asymmetric violence, but hate it when the bullied makes it more symmetric, so they themselves get a bloody nose.

  5. For me two scenarios seem thinkable: Putin deploys Vostok-Batallion to further destabilize Ukraine as a whole. So even when the west seems calm, the flowering of new militias, self-defense groups, oligarch controlled batallions clearly shows a loss of power and control of the government. At the end a joint peacekeeping mission with NATO for the west und and Russia for the Southeast would draw new borders with Russia getting Kharkiv, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk and Odessa, securing the Black Sea, controlling the weapon-industries and connecting Transnistria and Crimea to the Mainland.
    The other option is, what you suggest, regaining control of the Separatist cities to be able to negotiate a peace deal, demanding Crimea as the price for peace in the east. The takeover of Donetsk Administration Building by Vostok makes clear, that Putin does not want to waste time with unprofessional idealists and criminals.

  6. Why is this not seen as escalation in EU / USA? Not even rhetoric from them have changed. It’s as if Putin is still spectator — while it clearly isn’t.

    EU particular seems living in denial. They made sanctions to be used during invasion, this seems to be what the invasion looks in 21st century. Crimea was from another century. What is the deal here? Not willing to risk their business ties?

  7. Does not the introduction of armoured vehicles and ground-to-air-missiles suggest that Moscow has a core of people it trusts–in sharp contrast to the US attitude to Syrian rebels? That many of the separatists are being disciplined also suggests a concerted effort to create an effective, unified force. Barring much more draconian sanctions or the introduction of significant new weapons to the Ukrainian side, is there not the danger that the outside Russian forces may reach critical mass, and take even more territory?

    • Mark Galeotti

       /  June 8, 2014

      I think that if territorial expansion were the Russian goal, they would have gone for that by now. That’s still very much Plan B, if they can’t get what they want by pressure/negotiation…

  1. Is Putin Trying to Regain Control of Eastern Ukraine?
  2. L’Ucraina nella morsa tra separatisti e oligarchi | The Fielder
  3. The ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ and Russian Non-Linear War | To Inform is to Influence
  4. Irregular Forces in Ukraine – Political Violence at a Glance

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