What In The World Is Going On In The Russia-Backed Separatist Luhansk 'Republic'?

KYIV -- Residents of separatist-controlled Luhansk awoke on November 21 to an all-too-familiar and distressing scene: masked, heavily armed men on armored vehicles patrolling the streets of the war-wracked eastern Ukrainian city.

It captured the attention of those not only on the ground but in Kyiv and Moscow and beyond. And for good reason: There was something different about it all this time. This was a separatist-against-separatist affair.

So what is going on?

Is It A Coup?

In a nutshell: A power struggle between leaders of the so-called Luhansk "people's republic" is playing out on the city's streets. Some would call it a coup, and it certainly appears to be an attempt at a takeover by Ihor Kornet, the "republic's" top cop, who was dismissed on November 20 by his nemesis, Ihor Plotnitsky, the "republic's" official leader. Both men are native Ukrainians.

The beef between Plotnitsky and Kornet goes way back. Part of it stems from Plotnitsky’s seizure of a large home from Kornet that he had taken for himself in 2014.

The former is said to be the Kremlin's choice for leader, while the latter is believed to be the favorite of Russia's Federal Security Service, the FSB.

Kornet's revolt began on November 21 when men in green believed to be loyal to him seized control of Luhansk's key administrative buildings, patrolled the city center, and reportedly forced Plotnitsky to flee across the border to Russia.

Accounts of Plotnitsky's whereabouts, however, vary. While Ukrainian Interior Ministry spokesman Artem Shevchenko claimed that Plotnitsky had, indeed, escaped to Russia, the separatists' television channel in Luhansk reported on November 22 that Plotnitsky remained in the city. The channel published a video showing Plotnitsky holding a meeting with other de facto authority figures in which he accuses Kornet of "attempting to overthrow the government." It is not clear whether the video was shot in Luhansk.

In both videos, gunmen are seen standing guard in the Luhansk city center, which appears to be blocked off by armored vehicles. The scene looks remarkably similar to Russia's takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, right down to the "little green men."

As the operation developed, local television and radio stations were shut down, leading to somewhat of an information black hole for the region's residents. But social media filled some of the void. Local users, including military personnel, tweeted developments, shared short reports on their Telegram channels, or posted information to pages on the Russian network VK.

The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) for the Ukraine conflict said it had observed a convoy of military vehicles and masked, armed men in central Luhansk. It shared photos on Twitter showing dozens of them massing in Luhansk:

Adding a new level of intrigue, a video surfaced that appeared to show a large, snaking convoy of military vehicles heading eastward from Donetsk, another separatist-held city, toward Luhansk. Open-source investigator Aric Toler geolocated the video to a highway in Luhansk.

It seemed like an invasion of Luhansk by its fellow Russia-backed separatist neighbor was under way. Or were they sent in as reinforcements?

The answer appeared to come on November 22, with militants loyal to Kornet, alongside special forces from neighboring Donetsk, storming the Luhansk prosecutor's office and arresting the Luhansk "prosecutor-general" and "military prosecutor," both of whom are loyal to Plotnitsky, reported the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

A video shared on Facebook by the pro-separatist NewsFront agency showed several gunmen with sights trained on the building as civilians exited and were guided down the street.

What Is The Kremlin's Stance?

A report on November 23 by Russia's RBC news agency cited a source close to Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's hand-picked handler for the Ukrainian separatists, as saying Moscow had sided with Kornet in the spat. However, the source said that Plotnitsky would likely be given a "last chance" and allowed to remain as a figurehead.

Plotnitsky is a signatory to the Minsk peace agreements of February 2015 that are meant to be a road map to ending the conflict. That is likely why, despite being the cause of numerous internal conflicts, the Kremlin has not yet removed him from power, Oleg Bondarenko, director of the Russian Foundation for Progressive Politics, told Russia's RBC news agency.

Officially, the Kremlin hasn't taken a stance, but spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on November 23 that Moscow is closely following the situation in Luhansk. In a cryptic response to a reporter's question, Peskov said "there is an understanding" in the Kremlin about who may be behind the tensions, but he did not elaborate further.

Russia has repeatedly denied wielding control over and supporting the two separatist "republics" of eastern Ukraine with manpower, money, and weapons, contrary to overwhelming evidence it does so.

What Does Kyiv Make Of This?

The uncertain and military nature of the events unfolding in Luhansk was enough for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to call an extraordinary meeting with his top brass in Kyiv on November 21.

They informed him of an illegal crossing of the Ukrainian border in the far-eastern Krasnodon district of the Luhansk region by Russian tanks, as well as the increasing frequency of provocations by militants, according to a statement published on the presidential website. That information has not been independently verified, though similar information has appeared in unverified local reports.

"Given the increasing number of Russian servicemen and intensification of the mercenaries' activities, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are ready for any developments to guarantee the security of civilians," Poroshenko said at the meeting.

On November 22, as tensions escalated in Luhansk, the Ukrainian armed forces were put on high alert, said Defense Ministry spokesman Andriy Lysenko.

"Due to the military activity of the invaders…our units are in a state of constant combat readiness," Lysenko said.

According to one report that cited a Ukrainian military volunteer, government forces took advantage of the separatists’ spat to retake “a few square kilometers” of territory and “several villages” near the separatist-held city of Debaltseve.

How Do We Know For Sure What Is Really Happening?

The truth is, it's hard to know exactly what is unfolding in Luhansk. The eastern Ukrainian city has been under the control of Russia-backed separatists since spring 2014. Very few outsiders and journalists have been allowed access since autumn 2015. No independent, objective media exists within the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk areas. And while Russian reporters are granted access more frequently, they often come from Russia's state-run or pro-Kremlin media and provide a limited -- if not completely propagandized -- view of things.

However, reports from trustworthy media have suggested for some time that the Kremlin was tiring of Plotnitsky. On his watch, the Luhansk "people's republic" has been a lawless (even for an unrecognized breakaway territory) and often times brutal place, where assassinating misbehaving warlords seemed to be the rule, not the exception.

The outcome of the power struggle remained unclear late on November 22, and it may be impossible to predict what the night will bring.

The uncertainty has even pro-Russia separatist commanders concerned.

"What's happening in Luhansk could lead to unexpected consequences," Aleksandr Khodakovsky, an outspoken commander in Donetsk who's picked his fair share of fights for power within that "republic," wrote on Facebook.

In the end, reasoned Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer for European Studies at King's College London and a close observer of the Ukraine conflict, "whoever comes out on top will be integrated into any current or future negotiation process that will be steered by Moscow anyway."