Amid escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), Denis Pushilin, announced the separatist region’s first-ever programme of military conscription on Thursday, April 1st. Citizens born between 1994 and 2003 will be eligible for the draft, which is currently legislated to last until July 15th, 2021. Initially, 200 conscripts will be sent to the People’s Militia for six months. However, reports of Russian troop mobilization on Ukraine’s borders and significant increases in the number of ceasefire violations in the separatist regions provide an ominous context. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine’s Daily Report for April 3rd recorded 1,424 ceasefire violations in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, nearly 10 times greater than the previous 30 days’ average. Meanwhile, on April 6th, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced a comprehensive combat readiness check. The timing of Donetsk’s plans for mass mobilization, therefore, further fuel fears of renewed large-scale conflict.
Ukraine’s western allies have been quick to reassure Ukrainian President Zelensky of their full support. Joe Biden “affirmed the United States’ unwavering support for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of ongoing Russian aggression” in a phone call, according to a statement from the White House. Boris Johnson also insisted that Britain’s support is “rock-solid,” while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted that he had called President Zelensky and expressed “serious concern” about Russia’s military activities. In foreign policy circles, analysts appear unsure of the extent of Russian intentions. Nigel Gould-Davies, Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the IISS, warns of a false distinction between Russia’s military build-up as intimidation or as preparation for conflict; the potential for escalation may depend on the forcefulness of the west’s response. Michael Kofman, a Senior Fellow at CNAS, has argued, however, that Russia’s military intentions will be guided by how necessary force is to achieve its policy objectives. One thing that is agreed on, though, is that the military build-up does not resemble 2014 and thus, the annexation of Crimea is not a blueprint for 2021.
It may be more possible to discern the strategy of the Russian separatists currently fighting in the Donbas than the broader geopolitical strategy of the Kremlin. Conscription has its historical roots in the development of the nation state and emancipation of societies. Ideologically, mass mobilization stems from the American and French revolutions first as a form of citizen participation and later as an outlet for nationalism. In many ways, it transformed feudal societies into modern states by engaging citizens in their own defence, and thus, legitimizing them as part of the international project once executed solely by elites. By transforming a factional cause into a societal struggle, the DPR can similarly both ensure and exploit Russian nationalism within its territory, in turn delegitimizing the case for its reintegration into Ukraine. Given their number and lack of skill or experience, the conscripts will contribute little to the daily skirmishes at present. However, if every citizen had a son, brother, or husband fighting Ukrainian soldiers, a peaceful resolution that respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity would appear impossible.
The current state of public opinion on Russian nationalism in the DPR is difficult to assess. The anti-western censorship of DPR media and social media usage and hostility to foreign academic research projects forces a reliance on limited data. However, the studies that do exist suggest a complicated picture. A survey conducted in May 2017 by German researcher Gwendolyn Sasse concluded that “mixed Russian-Ukrainian identities, whether rooted in ethnicity, native language, language use, or a combination of ethnic and civic criteria, remain present across the whole Donbas region.” Therefore, “for Kyiv it would be premature to effectively give up on occupied territories; while Moscow could not count on the unwavering loyalty of the population of the DPR.”
Conscription has historically been deployed by revolutionary states with parallels to the DPR’s current situation. If the Russian mobilization or intensifying clashes have any intention of resolving the region’s limbo, the conscription law may provide both the societal means and will. Even if the intent is not so ambitious, the effects may still preclude a peaceful settlement which respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity. By removing the choice to abstain from military engagement, the DPR has reversed the relationship between society and the military; the people must now provide for the militia, being committed to its success.