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Active Measures: Separatism and Self-Determination in Russia’s Near Abroad

1 Comment 🕔24.Apr 2014

This article is part of our All Eyes on Ukraine briefing.

by Michael S. Bobick

A spy, like a writer, lives outside the mainstream population. He steals his experience through bribes and reconstructs it.

– John le Carré

My notion of the KGB came from romantic spy stories. I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education.

– Vladimir Putin

On April 6th, pro-Russian protestors stormed and occupied the Donetsk Oblast Regional Administrative building, along with the local SBU (Ukrainians security services) headquarters. Overnight, barricades of tires, barbed wire, and professionally produced banners were hoisted over this building; the Ukrainian flag was replaced with a Russian one. On April 7th, the People’s Republic of Donetsk declared its independence and immediately appealed to President Putin to send Russian ‘peacekeepers’. A referendum on whether Donetsk ‘should join the Russian Federation’ was to occur sometime before May 11th, 2014. Similar events have occurred in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine, in Lugansk, Kharkiv, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Odessa, regions referred to both in Western and Russian media as Russian or Russian-speaking. Though this conflation of language, identity, and ethnicity is far removed from the reality of everyday life in Ukraine, it remains an essential concept for understanding how separatism occurs in the former Soviet Union. Each can become a pretext for discrimination, marginalization, and threat at the hands of the de jure state that can only be remedied by Russian intervention.

In this article, I seek to answer three questions: Who are the separatist forces currently operating in Ukraine, and what is their goal? Secondly, what can Transnistria, a de facto state in Moldova that has existed for more than two decades, offer to an understanding of events in Ukraine? Finally, I am interested in how the new political technologies and practices deployed by Russia in Ukraine are changing the nature of war and humanitarian intervention in the twenty-first century.


Who are Ukrainian separatists, and what do they want?

On April 14th Ukraine began an anti-terrorist operation to retake government buildings and strategic infrastructure from separatists in the Donetsk oblast. There, and across Ukraine, separatists are a haphazard group consisting of local men, police who have defected to the separatists, mysterious armed ‘little green men’, gopniki (a Russian slang term for street thugs), titushki (hired thugs), and an assortment of pensioners who serve as the first line of defense. Locals and Ukrainian bloggers call these foreigners with obvious Russian accents ‘colorados’, a term derived from the Colorado potato beetle, a pest whose back contains black and yellow stripes, the same as the St. George ribbons worn by pro-Russian forces. Armed with weapons looted from or provided by Russian security forces, these separatists occupy a tenuous position vis-à-vis Ukraine and Russia. To the Ukrainian government, they are anti-government forces serving Russian interests who mask themselves as critics of the central government in Kyiv. To the Russian state, these separatists are ethnic compatriots, Russian speakers whose rights are under threat – any actions against them could result in the intervention of Russian armed forces.

Given their often contradictory demands – which include calls for a referendum to be held on the federalization of Ukraine, a referendum on joining Russia, and proclamations of independence and sovereignty (similar proclamations have occurred in Odessa, and will likely occur elsewhere) – separatists are essentially seeing which of their demands will be embraced by their respective local and foreign (Russian) constituencies. Though pro-Russian forces have been successful in seizing government buildings, locals appear to be less enthusiastic about their actions. If political changes such as federalization occur, they can claim to have delivered something to those they purport to be representing. If their self-proclaimed republic lasts and is able to hold a referendum, they will have successfully thwarted the ability of Kyiv authorities to hold elections in May, which will in turn prolong Ukraine’s uncertainty. What is important is that military operations – the seizure of buildings, mobilizing a population for war and later arming them – are occurring under the guise of claims to self-determination by armed individuals without formal military ties. Whether or not their actions are centrally coordinated remains to be determined.

Separatism in eastern Ukraine builds upon longstanding grievances against the central government sharpened by the dramatic overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, a democratically elected president from Donetsk. These grievances run the gamut from linguistic discrimination (the ill-timed passage of a law on the establishment of Ukrainian as the sole official language, later changed) to political goals (the direct election of governors and more local control over tax receipts), and to simple calls for Kyiv to acknowledge the region’s many social and economic ills. These goals are in fact remarkably similar to those of the Euromaidan movement. Just as the Euromaidan movement began after Yanukovych refused to sign a European Union (EU) association agreement but later came to include a wide array of demands against not just Yanukovych himself, but the status quo in Ukraine, separatist forces have become the focal point for longstanding local complaints that sharpened after the sudden shift in political power from eastern Ukraine to the west. The current government has only 10 percent of its ministers from the south and east, whereas under Yanukovych individuals from the south and east held 75 percent of ministerial-level positions. This reversal of political power from eastern Ukraine to western Ukraine has accentuated the otherwise artificial division of Ukrainian territory into Russian-speaking and Ukrainian-speaking regions.

Similar divisions caused by political uncertainty also appeared in Moldova as Soviet power faltered. In the early 1990s, a similarly ad hoc group of separatists seized upon the uncertainty wrought by an integral Moldovan nationalist movement. Those who fought for the establishment of a Transnistrian state had no single ethnic origin – Moldovans, Ukrainians, and Russians fought and died, as did volunteers such as Cossacks and non-resident Russians. As their initial concerns and requests were ignored or rebuffed, they sharpened their demands. Initially, the separatists sought to create a new Soviet republic. After the Soviet Union’s demise, they sought local autonomy from Moldova as a means to preserve the Russian language and the Soviet internationalism that permeated the region’s industrial, Russophone population.

Transnistria and Ukraine illustrate the elasticity of separatism as a political technology and illustrate its shifting conceptual base. The idea of separatism as a vehicle for discontent is ignored in the Western media, where separatists are inevitably a homogenous ‘pro-Russian’ mass. Russian media see these same protesters as embracing the foundation of the democratic order: self-determination. By resisting the illegitimate fascist regime in Kyiv that came to power by a Western-led coup, they become heirs to anti-fascist victory in the Great Patriotic War. As a political technology, post-Soviet separatism takes a disaffected group of individuals (active participants, passive residents) and channels their dissatisfaction into a vehicle of use not locally, but also to outsiders. Their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs is not unique among the former Soviet space, an area that has experienced an unprecedented social, political, and economic upheaval that continues to this day.

What separatism does well is channel this dissatisfaction into a charged language in which compromise is increasingly difficult as two incommensurable worldviews take form. In response to this seeming incommensurability, individuals and groups stake new positions, with new concepts emerging to reflect these opposing viewpoints. The adaptation and usage of these terms increasingly determine the contours of an everyday reality that is now more different than similar. In Moldova and Ukraine, the idea of Slavic-Orthodox civilization is a key concept to those who support these separatist entities. This term objectifies a difference that for all practical purposes exists solely to oppose a chimerical ‘West’. The Dniester River, an otherwise unremarkable boundary between Ukraine and Moldova, now signifies a civilizational divide. This is the official story told in textbooks, in lectures, and in the media. As Moldova seeks closer ties with the EU, it becomes more European and less Orthodox, while Transnistria becomes increasingly ‘Russian’ as the Transnistrian state adopts Russian ‘standards’ in education, the economy, and in law. This past December, the Transnistrian parliament passed a law approving the use of Russian law on their territory, ostensibly to accommodate its eventual Russian annexation and accession to the Eurasian Customs Union. From this perspective, a state, and by extension, a people, can thus be either Slavic-Orthodox or European, not because these designations reflect any objective difference, but simply because these are now the dominant terms for engaging the social world. Such terms offer no shared vocabulary or shared understanding about each other’s positionality. It is precisely this commonality of recognition also makes political abstractions and coexistence impossible. If you feel that the nation has no recognized place for you, you seek alternative means to secure your future. The bodies that inevitably emerge in these conflicts only reinforce these polarizing beliefs.


The Transnistrian template

It remains to be determined specifically how and in what ways these loosely affiliated separatist groups in Ukraine are related to the Russian state and Russian security forces. Their actions in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea are remarkably similar to events that occurred at a much earlier date in Transnistria. Though Transnistria was, until recently, a largely forgotten, peripheral territory in an otherwise forgotten country, its emergence as a de facto state offers an earlier, less refined version of Russia’s ‘active measures’ in Ukraine.

Beginning in 1990, the template for post-Soviet separatism was created in Transnistria, located in eastern Moldova. What began as an attempt to preserve Soviet internationalism in the face of a rising tide of nationalism ended in armed conflict during the summer of 1992. Today, Transnistria exists as a separate state, complete with its own state institutions and military, and home Russian peacekeepers who guarantee its existence.

Transnistrian residents – a population of nearly 500,000 equally divided into Russians, Ukrainians, and Moldovans – saw the establishment of Romanian as the sole official state language a threat to the region’s multi-ethnic, Russophone population. In Moldova, sporadic violence against Russian speakers became the impetus for a strike campaign that crippled Moldova, which emboldened separatist forces to overtake police stations and other administrative buildings in eastern Moldova. These strongholds eventually formed the basis for the Transnistrian state.

In this blueprint for separation, cultural, and linguistic threats become the basis for self-determination claims that challenge the de jure state claims to govern these peoples. These often exaggerated threats provide a pretext for eventual Russian intervention, which in Transnistria happened in the midst of armed conflict with Moldova in 1992, when the 14th Russian Army based in the region decisively intervened to repel Moldovan forces. A Russian-brokered peace guaranteed the presence of 1,500 Russian peacekeepers who would remain until a final settlement is reached. The Russian Federation provides Transnistria with diplomatic, economic, and social aid, and provides Russian passports to residents. Despite this support, Russia refuses to recognize Transnistria despite a 2006 referendum approved by more than 90 percent of the population that explicitly supported joining the Russian Federation. When asked about Transnistria’s recent request for recognition during a question-and-answer session on April 17th, Putin demurred, stating that he supported dialogue, negotiations, and a de-escalation of tensions on all sides.

As a de facto state, Transnistria’s existence and its Russian ‘peacekeepers’ undermine Moldova’s territorial integrity; Russia obstructs any attempt to resolve the conflict. Transnistria’s international liminality has been devastating to the region’s population and to its export-dependent economy. Its population has shrunk from a high of 750,000 in the early 1990s to less than 500,000 today. Most of the population loss can be attributed to economic out-migration; those who remain are disproportionally old, with pensioners comprising nearly 40 percent of the population.[1] Pensioners stay because pensions are significantly higher than in neighboring Moldova and Ukraine, given that Russia provides a 15-dollar monthly supplement. These supplements, disbursed by the Transnistria state, offer stability and generate loyalty to the Transnistrian state, as any change in the status quo would threaten these and other perquisites (discounted natural gas and communal fees).


Remaking Eurasia: Empire, strategy, and active measures 

Recent events in Ukraine illustrate the extent to which new political technologies and informational warfare tactics are being deployed on both sides. With the Euromaidan movement, one of the most striking examples of the changing nature of conflict was not the use of medieval catapults or barricades by protestors, but the use of cell phones and digital cameras as shields with which to protect and disseminate information. In a reversal of these methods and technologies that ostensibly clarify and inform, the Russian media has presented the central government in Kyiv and its supporters as fascists who have led Ukraine down the path to civil war. Despite repeated pronouncements made by observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights that threats to Russian speakers are exaggerated, Russian state media have ceaselessly reported on the ‘Ukrainian crisis’ and on the powerless, illegal government in Kyiv. In this narrative, the World War II-era symbols of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army are deployed in opposition to the symbols of the Russian and Soviet states, the St. George ribbon. Russia’s one-sided coverage is mirrored by much Western coverage of the events, in which separatists are seen as under the control of Russian forces. Similarly, the Ukrainian government’s recent successes in their anti-terrorism operation have not been as successful as Ukrainian officials have proclaimed. YouTube videos of separatists using captured tanks and armored personnel carriers as drifting vehicles and hungry Ukrainian soldiers accepting food from the same protestors (‘terrorists’, according to the central government in Kyiv) they were sent to pacify reveal the extent to which informational warfare still remains dependent upon reflecting some degree of reality.

Another unique aspect of recent events is the political technology of non-occupation, a uniquely post-Soviet phenomenon in which cynicism invades the terms of warfare and of humanitarian intervention.[2] By justifying Russia’s ‘Occupation without Occupation’ on humanitarian grounds, Putin satirizes the moral terms of humanitarian intervention and renders its moral claims null and void. By creating distance between the effects of war – violence, social disruption, and economic disruption – from the term itself, the inevitable Russian-brokered peace will in essence be a continuation of Russian dominance and intimidation masked as peace: war becomes peace, and humanitarian intervention becomes a means of waging war without formally declaring war.

What Ukraine shows is both how little perception matters to outsiders. This is similar to the question of the state vis-à-vis international law, where the question of state is a matter of fact; the effects of recognition by other states are purely declaratory.[3] Vladimir Putin has made the re-establishment of Russia as a world power a hallmark of his tenure. Given how little Putin cares for any accepted, objective truth – he joked that the elite Russian soldiers who appeared in Crimea were ‘little green men’ – Ukraine and the rest of the world are left trying to discern motive where the lack of motive may in fact be the plan, a means of biding time and prolonging disorder and a further weakening of the Ukrainian state.

In a hyper-mediated, informational drive era in which there are no rules and any everyday reality can be invented, overstated, effaced, or redefined at will, the Russian state’s historical repository of ‘active measures’ are redeployed in the twenty-first century. While conducting research in Moldova in 2009, one of my informants – a seasoned Moldovan diplomat – told me of an off-the-record conversation he had in 1994 with Anatoly Sobchak, Putin’s mentor. Transnistria, Sobchak said, was an idea developed in the KGB as a means of maintaining Soviet and, later, Russian influence in the region. While astonishing, the truth of this claim is irrelevant. Transnistria exists, and by the fact of its existence it becomes a potential front in the information war, capable of influencing events indirectly through its potential to further destabilize the region or directly as a base for special operations of the type seen in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine. Active measures are particularly successful in today’s world, where the life cycle of any given news story directly relates to its ability to command attention. Russia’s annexation of Crimea has long-since been forgotten by the international community. Tellingly, the proposals agreed to in Geneva on April 17th, 2014, by Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and the EU do not mention Russian aggression or the annexation of Crimea.

In his novel The Sacred Book of the Werewolf, Viktor Pelevin explores the ideas of liminality and shape-shifting that permeate post-Soviet Russia. The novel’s protagonist, A Hu-Li, is a 2,000-year-old werefox who plies her trade as an underage prostitute in contemporary Moscow. Having experienced the passing of empire and millennia, she has deftly adapted to the philosophical demands of subsequent historical epochs by refusing to engage them as such.

Foxes have a fundamental answer to the fundamental question of philosophy, which is to forget this fundamental question. There are no philosophical problems, there is only a suite of interconnected cul de sacs created by language’s inability to reflect truth.[4]

In this sense, the United States Secretary of State John Kerry’s quip that “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext” could not be further from the truth. The twenty-first century offers infinitely more ways to mask nineteenth-century strategy in the warm, morally infused terms of the post-World War II era. Russia’s imperial ambitions may be nineteenth century in nature, but what matters in the twenty-first century is the audience, and most importantly, the performance. In this twenty-first century, the media provides the term of discussion, and stage-managed performances are more effective than a single, elusive truth. Russian success in the information war illustrates how concepts such as war, occupation, and intervention can be dislodged from their previous points of reference. Reality adapts to these, and Russia’s active measures to change the facts on the ground take on a life of their own. In a very real sense we can look at Ukraine’s dismemberment at the hands of Russia, a benevolent supporter of human rights and self-determination, as a wider reflection of the crisis of representation, the linguistic turn, and the longstanding influence of post-structuralist thought.  These academic languages have come full circle, and any objective narrative – historical or otherwise – becomes contingent, shifting, and paradoxical. Unable to reach any agreed-upon course of events, we are left grasping at signs, symbols, and concepts those referents have been dissolving since the end of the Cold War. In the absence of the Cold War as a structuring metanarrative, we are left to seek order amidst liminality.


Michael S. Bobick is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Russian and East European Studies, University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He earned his PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology from Cornell University in 2012 and has worked most recently on an ethnographic project focusing on the legitimate and illegitimate forms of political and legal authority that emerged during the transition to capitalism in the former USSR.


This article is part of our All Eyes on Ukraine briefing.

[1] Mitchell Orenstein and Kalman Mizsei, “Moldova in the Middle: The Newest Front in the Battle Between Russia and the West,” Foreign Affairs, <>, accessed April 22, 2014.

[2] For more on the political technology of non-occupation, see Bobick and Dunn, “The Empire Strikes Back: War Without War and Occupation Without Occupation in the Russian Sphere of Influence,” forthcoming in American Ethnologist (2014), and Alexei Yurchak, “Little Green Men: Russia, Ukraine, and Post-Soviet Sovereignty,”  Anthropolitea (2014), <>, accessed March 31, 2014.

[3] Alain Pellet, “The Opinions of the Badinter Arbitration Committee,” European Journal of International Law 3 (1992): 178–85.

[4] Viktor Pelevin, The Sacred Book of the Werewolf (New York: Penguin Books, 2009).




  1. 🕔 9:02, 17.May 2016


    Modern Ukraine is failed state, a product of separatism backed by US and EU, it has no history and no future.

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