News of the assassination attempt on Igor Plotnitsky, the head of the breakaway Lugansk People’s Republic, will come as no surprise to close observers of the Ukrainian conflict.
Whilst there is a strong possibility that the assassination attempt was the work of the Ukrainian secret service the SBU, it is by no means impossible that it is the result of factional infighting within the Lugansk People’s Republic.
Whereas the political situation in the neighbouring Donetsk People’s Republic has stabilised with its leader Alexander Zakharchenko apparently both effective and popular, the same has not been true of the Lugansk People’s Republic where Igor Plotnitsky is a controversial figure and where there has been a string of unsolved murders going back to the early part of last year.
The most notorious of these murders was the one in May last year when the popular militia leader Alexey Mozgovoy was killed in a roadside ambush. Mozgovoy was a known critic of Plotnitsky’s and was opposed to the Minsk II peace process, which Plotnitsky, Zakharchenko and Russia have all backed. Inevitably Plotnitsky was accused by some of Mozgovoy’s murder, though evidence for that is slight. Others blame the Ukrainian SBU. The Ukrainians for their part predictably blame Mozgovoy’s murder on Russia’s military intelligence agency the GRU.
The continued instability in the Lugansk People’s Republic must be causing the Russian authorities serious concern. Whatever their long term aims for Ukraine the Russians need the two People’s Republics to be politically stable if the Minsk II process to which they are committed is to have any chance of success. Almost certainly in the aftermath of the assassination attempt there will be concerned discussions underway in Moscow about what can be done to stabilise the situation in the Lugansk People’s Republic. It is not impossible that the Russian authorities will take a hand in the investigation of the assassination attempt.
As for Plotnitsky, he was apparently seriously wounded though his aides say his life is not in danger. Given his failure to stabilise the situation in the Lugansk People’s Republic the Russians must be wondering however whether he is the right man to be its leader. There will be others in the Lugansk People’s Republic who will be asking the same question.
Compounding these worries will be fears in Lugansk and Moscow about a possible Ukrainian offensive this summer. So far, though fighting and shelling along the contact line has been going on continuously for weeks, no actual offensive has taken place. That may be a sign that Russian warnings are being heeded. However it is unfortunately fully possible that the attempted assassination of Plotnitsky is part of a Ukrainian attempt to destabilise the Lugansk People’s Republic before such an offensive is launched.
A particular reason to worry that that might indeed be the Ukrainian plan is the start of the Olympic Games in Rio. If there is a Ukrainian plan to launch an offensive as world attention is focused on the Olympic Games in Rio, then it would not be the first time that Russia’s regional enemies have used the Olympic Games to give themselves cover for an action they are taking. In 2008 Georgia timed its ill-starred invasion of South Ossetia to take place during the Beijing Olympics, whilst the Maidan coup in February 2014 happened during the winter Olympics in Sochi.
If that is the Ukrainian calculation then it is certainly wrong. It is very doubtful that the death or wounding of such a controversial figure as Plotnitsky would seriously impact on the East Ukrainian militia’s effectiveness. As for Russia, Putin has made it clear that Russia will not allow the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics to be overrun by the Ukrainian army, and any idea Russia would be put off from acting decisively because the Olympics Games in Rio are underway is fanciful.