What happens in Luhansk doesn’t stay in Luhansk. And if you happen to be a self-proclaimed leader of the unrecognized Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) you might find yourself ejected into a different country any day.
That’s what happened to Igor Plotnitsky, the Russia-backed separatist leader in Ukraine’s occupied Luhansk region. On November 21, armed men in unmarked uniforms occupied the Luhansk city center, taking control of government buildings. Two days after the coup began, Plotnitsky fled to Moscow. Then, on November 24, he reportedly resigned.
But the situation in Luhansk is actually even more complicated than it appears on the surface, says Andriy Dikhtyarenko, a Radio Svoboda journalist and the editor-in-chief of Luhansk's Realnaya Gazeta newspaper.
“We know for sure that Plotnitsky did not want to resign and that's an important part,” he said. “[Earlier] he referred to everything that's going on in Luhansk as an attempt at a political coup.”
According to Dikhtyarenko, the coup came as the result of a conflict that started two years ago between Plotnitsky on one side and the self-proclaimed LPR “state security minister” Leonid Pasechnik and “interior minister” Igor Kornet on the other.
In 2015, Pasechnik — who has now taken over the leadership of the LPR — and Kornet arrested the LPR’s so-called “minister of the coal industry,” Dmitriy Lyamin on corruption charges. According to Dikhtyarenko, this angered Plotnitsky and the situation could have “escalated into an armed stand-off” even back then, but it didn’t. Still, it set a tone for relations between Plotnitsky’s faction and the law enforcement “ministries.”
Such tensions have significantly characterized Plotnitsky’s rule over the unrecognized “republic.”
“[During Plotnitsky’s leadership] there were constant murders, dismissals of so-called ministers, corruption and embezzlement scandals, scandals to do with looting of humanitarian aid, scandals to do with murders and unusual death circumstances of various warlords in Luhansk,” Dikhtyarenko said.
Those conflicts did serious damage to the LPR’s reputation, he added. Because of the chaos, Plotnitsky did not fit well into Russia’s “legend that [the] events in the Donbas are an attempt by local people to have a structure different from Ukraine's nationalistic ideology.”
Hromadske spoke with Luhansk journalist Andriy Dikhtyarenko to get the inside story about the Luhansk coup, its consequences, and whether Plotnitsky is likely to return to the LPR.
Let's start with the most direct question. What exactly is going on in the occupied Luhansk?
In Luhansk there was a real coup organized by security agents. The situation was quite stable for three years, but when Plotnitsky came to power, it changed quite drastically. Moreover, this military coup developed practically like any junta’s rise to power. There was a military seizure of power: people from different forces, armed with guns, came to the streets, seized the administration building and seized military installations. They kicked out their rivals, [kicked out] the leader of the so-called LPR, practically ejected him from Luhansk. [All of this] gave Moscow an easy choice between two options: either Plotnitsky leaves completely, or his power will serve solely a nominal, presentational function. As we can see, Moscow went for the first option. De-facto Plotnitsky doesn't govern the area anymore; he is only valued for the signatures he previously put under the Minsk agreements. People in Luhansk say that these signatures are practically what saved his life.
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How did the conflict between Plotnitsky and the “interior minister” Igor Kornet start?
This conflict started in 2015. It wasn't just with Kornet, but also with the so-called LPR’s “state security minister” Leonid Pasechnik. Two years ago Pasechnik and Kornet arrested the so-called “minister of the coal industry,” Dmitriy Lyamin. They accused [Lyamin] of corruption, of arranging shadow schemes with various Ukrainian oligarchs. But Plotnitsky claimed that Pasechnik and Kornet had no right to detain this minister without his permission. Pasechnik and Kornet refused to free him and even back then, two years ago, this situation could have escalated into an armed stand-off like we have now, but it didn’t. Everyone remained in their job roles: Pasechnik and Kornet retained their roles and Plotnitsky continued to be the head of LPR. But even then it became clear that the so-called leadership of LPR and DPR [“Donetsk People’s Republic”] — because DPR has the same situation — have no control over the parts of security agencies that are located in that territory. Rumors started spreading that the political system and security system of the occupied parts of the Donbas are controlled by different curators in Moscow. We then realized that [Vladislav] Surkov controls the political part mostly — that being Plotnitsky, Zakharchenko and their subordinates — and the [LPR] security services obey the relevant security agencies in the Russian Federation.
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And that’s exactly what led to the political crisis we’re currently witnessing in Luhansk, this status quo or maybe even Moscow's fear to transfer the entire power — the control over the armed groups and illegal structures — to one person who is considered the head of the DPR or LPR. Such desire to put eggs in different baskets probably played a dirty trick [on them].
Yesterday we found out that Plotnitsky resigned, now he's eager to come back to LPR as an envoy for Minsk agreements. What does this mean for Minsk and what does this mean for the future of the separatist movements in Luhansk?
First of all, we know for sure that Plotnitsky did not want to resign and that's an important part. We don't have a video address of him saying that he's resigning. Virtually two days ago, at a press conference, he said that everything that's going on in Luhansk is an attempt at a political coup. So de-facto we have coup organizers appointing themselves as the new leadership of the LPR on [Plotnitsky’s] behalf. That's the first point. It's difficult to judge whether we can trust their words when they say that Plotnitsky will come back to Luhansk as the signer of Minsk agreements and as the future envoy of this so-called LPR in Minsk. We only know this from their words.
In any case, we need to have some sort of reaction in Ukraine as the other side of the process. There also needs to be an official reaction from Russia, which also plays a role in the process, and a reaction from OSCE. I think that the Luhansk events will slow down the Minsk process for some time, to say the least. That said, it's been slowed down for quite a while now. But the normal development of the Minsk agreement, the execution of Minsk agreements will become even harder. Let me give you a simple example. For over a year we’ve had no official exchanges of prisoners between the two sides of the demarcation line. Only just recently we started hearing statements about potential exchanges in the nearest future. Putin even met up with [Viktor] Medvedchuk, who is one of Ukraine's representatives who deals with prisoner exchanges. Putin rang Zakharchenko and Plotnitsky. He asked them to hurry up with forming the lists, hurry up with the exchange process. Now we have one of the people who used to talk to Putin over the phone being no longer active, he’s been ousted. Hence, why this process is likely to stall.
The new head of LPR is now Leonid Pasechnik, the former head of the “ministry of defense.” What is he like?
He is a former officer of Ukraine's security services. He used to head the K department, which fought smuggling in Luhansk region and he was quite successful in that role. In 2006 he gained prominence across Ukraine when he stopped an attempt to smuggle a large amount of money in dollars on the border with Russia. Everyone was positively surprised to see an SBU officer who is not corrupt, who rejected this money entirely, despite being offered a big bribe. He was honored with a medal by [Ukraine's former] president Viktor Yushchenko.
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But afterward, as we heard from Pasechnik in his interviews, that moment didn't allow him to grow in his career. His rivals started tempting him to take part in different corruption schemes. He claimed that he rejected [these offers], that he has his head screwed on and didn't want to damage his reputation. As a result, he was demoted to the local level in one of the cities in Luhansk region, serving in Ukraine's security services there. So it looks like these unrealized ambitions pushed him to join the occupant's side and to head this LPR’s “state security ministry” under the control of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).
Another important thing to mention: in 2014 LPR’s “state security ministry” wasn't even based in Luhansk. Its main function was to control the state border between Russia and the uncontrolled parts of Luhansk region from Russia’s side. Pasechnik, in his conversation with one of the security agents by the name of Fominov, who used to be a commandant of Kulikovo field in Odesa and then headed Obron in Odesa, admitted to dealing with security but not the security of Luhansk, but the state security of Russian Federation on the border with the uncontrolled part of Ukraine.
So that means he’s a person close to Russia?
It means that he is directly controlled by [Russia’s] FSB. His leadership are the FSB generals. That's why, in fact, he even has the power to remove Surkov's people from office. Which is precisely what happened.
In the course of this coup there was one specific explanation of the events. That the self-proclaimed DPR are invading LPR. What's your take on that?
From the very beginning — and I gave many interviews on this matter even before the situation got clearer — I said that it's obvious to me that it’s not true. Just from the fact that when Kornet spoke negatively about Plotnitsky, he always claimed that he has many complaints and accusations about Plotnitsky's people but nothing against Plotnitsky himself because he’s one of the signers of the Minsk agreement. What does this tell us? It tells us that these coup organizers, these government invaders did everything in their power to seize the actual leadership, but retain the structures of LPR and DPR as the sides of the Minsk agreements. It was clear that there would be no unification of the republics because it would make these so-called people's republics even more illegal. If there is unification or a coup, they would fully exit the negotiation process. So it was clear that Moscow wouldn't take part in that. That's the first point.
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Secondly, some people say that Donetsk troops will arrive in Luhansk now. But there is no such thing as Donetsk troops or Luhansk troops. On the uncontrolled territory of Ukraine, there are two military corps — yes, they're called the national militia of LPR, the armed forces of DPR but de-facto they obey Russia's Ministry of Defense. So whatever happens in Donetsk or Luhansk — whether it's a coup or a starvation — the troops won't intervene unless they want to. Their job is to defend the border and fight against Ukraine. And what happens in Luhansk is outside their business, it doesn't affect the course of war or the large presence of troops controlled by Russia in that territory.
There is a school of thought that Kremlin isn't happy with Plotnitsky. Is that true? And if so, what exactly are they not happy about?
First of all, the Kremlin wasn't pleased with anyone, be it Zakharchenko or Plotnitsky. Plotnitsky was more problematic for them because of his love for conflicts. There were constant murders, dismissals of so-called ministers, corruption and embezzlement scandals, scandals to do with looting of humanitarian aid, scandals to do with murders and the unusual death circumstances of various warlords in Luhansk. Plotnitsky's inability to cement a part of the occupied Donbas as his own, despite all his efforts, was the first and foremost thing that annoyed Russia. Additionally Zakharchenko, as the one who is more well-known, was probably a better fit for this legend that the events in the Donbas are an attempt by local people to have a structure different to Ukraine's nationalistic ideology. There were different people working on his image, like writer Zakhar Prilepin. [Zakharchenko,] unlike Plotnitsky, did a better a job at making it look like things are calm and in control in Donetsk.
/Interview by Matthew Kupfer
/Text by Maria Romanenko