85 Days in Slavyansk was first published in Russian in 2018, that is to say four years after the events it describes, but it has only now received international attention following its translation into English by Peter Nimitz and release in mid-spring 2022.
Today the city of Slavyansk appears regularly in news from the front. Slavyansk, together with its surrounding villages, and nearby strategic town of Kramatorsk is being reclaimed by Russia in its ‘special military operation.’ Indeed, as we write, the Russian army is within 20 miles of Slavyansk, which it will surely retake in the months ahead as it frees the entire Donbas from Ukrainian misrule.
This book was written as a tribute to a small band numbering initially 52 separatist fighters who crossed over from Russia into the Ukraine in April 2014 and ‘liberated’ Slavyansk, population 100,000 from its Ukrainian administration, virtually without firing a shot, by acts of shear daring. They were headed by a certain Igor Strelkov, who, like some of his fellow volunteers had participated in the takeover of the Crimea from Ukrainian forces a month before. They all believed passionately in the Russian Spring and in a national revival that would reunite Russian-speaking lands of the former Soviet Union with the Russian heartland.. They hoped and expected that the Kremlin would step in and support them as it had done in Crimea.
Their fight attracted local and Russian Federation volunteers, swelling their numbers to 2,500 of whom half were combatants and half logistics and medical support personnel. They confronted Ukrainian forces that were ten times as numerous. Ultimately they retreated, leaving what remained of the city to its fate under Ukrainian occupation.
And yet, judged on its own terms at the time it was written, the book was a lot more than an oddity, or footnote to history. As the author tells us, their retreat was not a defeat in the grand order of things. They turned what had been only street demonstrations in Donbas into a full-blown military challenge to the Ukrainian army. By instilling fear in the Ukrainian forces that they enjoyed military support of Russia, which was not in fact the case, they were treated more cautiously than was warranted. For two and a half months, they tied down Ukrainian troops which otherwise could have overwhelmed the entire Donbas separatist movement. Battle hardened by their own war experience, they formed the backbone of what became the Donbas militias in the months that followed their retreat from Slavyansk.
The author is a professional journalist who participated in the defense of Slavyansk on the front lines. His first hand knowledge of the people and events he is writing about endows the book with great value both for the general reader and for future historians. His book was skillfully organized and written to be an easy read even for those, like myself, who are strangers to accounts of artillery duels, sniper attacks and other armed skirmishes. He intermixes this material with biographical sketches of some of his fellow combatants and leaders, who are all extraordinary people. From interviews with them, he offers their appraisals of what was achieved as a counterpoint to his own thoughts.
The leading figure in the story, Igor Strelkov, was in 2014 and later highly critical of Russia’s early decision not to extend to Donbas the lifeline it provided to Crimea. His open criticism of the Kremlin resulted in his being shunted aside once Russia took charge.
The question ‘why Moscow held back’ hangs over the book from beginning to end. After all, in the summer of 2014 the Ukrainian army was weak, poorly armed, badly led and demoralized following the shameful loss of Crimea. Taking the Donbas militarily would have required a very small effort by the Kremlin and referenda over unification with Russia which would have followed would likely have given massive support to that initiative.
To be sure, the Russian Federation did in fact enter the conflict in the summer of 2014, but only three weeks after the loss of Slavyansk, and then with relatively modest assistance. Moreover, the Kremlin sought simultaneously to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis, and prodded the Donbas republics to accept the Minsk Accords which established the principle of their eventually returning to the fold of the Ukrainian state in return for its federalization, meaning the granting of considerable autonomy to the Donbas regions, including with respect to Russian as a language of state.
This question of why Russia did not pursue the Crimean scenario in Donbas in 2014 assumes special importance today, in 2022, when ensuring the security of the Donbas through the ‘special military operation’ is taking enormous efforts from Russia, including significant loss of life among its soldiers and massive expenditure of military equipment and munitions over a very lengthy period of time. Indeed Ukrainian capitulation may yet take many months to achieve.
The challenges to Russia’s move to subdue Ukraine today come from the eight years of work on its own and with the help of allies that Kiev has used to prepare militarily for this very conflict, in particular, by building vast fortifications just to the west of the demarcation line with the Donbas republics. Their concrete reinforced trenches and bunkers are resistant to most artillery fire and they are positioned in the proximity of residential communities, meaning that carpet bombing or other drastic methods would result in enormous civilian casualties, which the Russians cannot tolerate amidst a population they hope to acquire. In this same period of time, Ukraine has received both modern military equipment and extensive training under NATO country programs. The results serve them well.
The question of Russian restraint in 2014 came up in the 17 August edition of Evening with Vladimir Solovyov. The moderator himself answered the question: the Russian Army was then only partly on its way to the thorough reorganization that has produced the modern and well-equipped professional Army of today. Moreover, in 2014 Russia did not possess the cutting edge strategic weapons systems, both conventional and nuclear, that it has today to put fear into the United States and other international foes and moderate their direct involvement in a Russia-Ukraine war. Even if Ukraine’s military was weak and poorly led in 2014, behind it stood NATO, which surely would have stepped in to reverse any Russian victory.
But there is also an economic side to the calculations. In 2014 Russia was totally unprepared for the ‘sanctions from hell’ that would surely have been applied then had it taken the Donbas by force. It had nothing to counter any cut-off from SWIFT and its economy would have plummeted. It also had still far more dollar assets than it did this year given that it has sold off Treasury notes in the meantime. Russia has used the past eight years to devise new payment systems bypassing SWIFT, to agree on settlements of foreign trade in their national currency with friendly countries like India and China, and to otherwise insulate itself from US-dominated financial infrastructure. In addition, the sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 over Crimea already set the country on course to import substitution and ‘economic sovereignty’ in a number of domains, in particular in agriculture, so that today the country is largely self-sufficient in food supplies and a major exporter of grains, poultry and other agricultural products.
For all of these reasons, it is appropriate to credit the Kremlin with realism and common sense in its dealings with Donbas and Ukraine in 2014, however disappointing its decisions then may have been for the Russian Spring movement.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022