Witnesses report large numbers of Russian tanks and other military hardware have been massed near the towns of Dzhankoy and Armyansk in Crimea's north, close to the administrative border with mainland Ukraine. "The occupiers are conducting manoeuvres and we should understand that at any minute, at any hour, they could start a large-scale or small-scale attack," said Andriy Lysenko, a military spokesman for Ukraine's presidential administration. The apparent build-up comes after an Aug. 6 bomb blast in the separatist-held city of Luhansk targtted an SUV carrying Igor Plotnitsky, head of the self-declared "Luhansk People's Republic" (LNR). Plotnitsky and two others injured in the attack, which LNR authorities branded a "terrorist" act.
The extent of Plotnitsky's injuries was not clear, but LNR media released what was said to be a recording he made from a hospital bed, in which he accused Kiev and the US of being behind the attack. Making clear his loyalties and even security ties to Moscow, he said, "This will be reported to the president of the Russian Federation and the FSB," a reference to the Federal Security Service, Russia's post-KGB intelligence agency formerly headed by Vladimir Putin. "Those who want [to] remove the legal authorities in LNR are provocateurs…. they want to destabilize and reduce to nothing everything that we have achieved."
The Luhansk People's Republic and the larger Donetsk People's Republic were proclaimed by Russian-backed separatists shortly after conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014. More than 9,500 people—including many civilians—have since been killed in the two regions. A ceasefire was agreed in February 2015 but both sides accuse each other of almost daily shelling across the separation line. (Irish Times, BBC News, Ukraine Today; see map)
A string of recent bomb attacks in Ukraine's breakaway east have targeted leaders of neo-Cossack formations collaborating with the separatists. When the rebellion broke out in 2014, the Luhansk region was principally controlled by Don Cossacks, who are loyal to Russia and long sought an autonomous state. With the rebellion, Cossack "republics" were declared in three towns in the Luhansk region—where traditional Cossack rule including punishment by public whipping has been established. Starting in the spring of 2015,. Plotnitsky has tried to bring them under control, demanding that the Cossack units incorporate into the "official" LNR armed forces.
Two Cossack leaders, Aleksei Mozgovoi and Pavel Dryomov, were killed in car bombings in 2015. Dryomov had posted a video on YouTube, addressed to Russian Presiodent Putin, criticizing Plotnitsky for trading coal with the enemy in government-controlled Ukraine and demanding his ouster. (NYT)
Russia is now taking a greater administrative role in the Luhansk and Donetsk separatist enclaves, for instance paying pensions after Kiev refused to pay to its unless recipients registered for them on territory still controlled by the Ukrainian state. Russian rubles have become the local currency. Sergei Nazarov, deputy minister for economic and regional development with the Russian Council of Ministers, has been given responsibility for managing affairs related to the LNR and DNR.
Moscow even seems to have quietly brokered some accommodations between Kiev and the breakaway regions. The Ukrainian coal and power company DTEK, owned by Rinat Akhmetov, has been given permission to repair the state-owned railway so that it can transport coal produced in its mines in Donbas by rail to its power stations in government-controlled Ukraine. (Ukraine Solidarity Campaign)