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…