The battle for Donbass: why is the region so important for this war?

Donbass is an abbreviation of the word “Donets Basin”: the region bordering Russia and named after the Donets River is home to one of the largest coal basins in the world. Until the 18th century it was a steppe landscape inhabited by Cossack and Tatar nomads, known in Ukrainian as Dyke Pole, ‘the wild fields’. However, after the discovery of coal, its character changed fundamentally: it became one of the most important industrial regions in Russia.

Today, the Donbass is an abbreviation for two Ukrainian oblasts (provinces), Donetsk and Luhansk, based on two cities, both founded by British industrialists. Charles Gascoigne, an Englishman, built an ironworks in present-day Luhansk in 1795; and the Welshman John Hughes established a steel mill and coal mine in Donetsk in 1869. The latter town was named after him (“Hughesovka” or “Yuzovka”) until Soviet times.

Why does it have such strong Russian connections?

During the 18th century, the Donbass and the Black Sea coast were taken over by the Russian Empire from the Tatars and the Turks and became known as Novorossiya (New Russia). European colonists – Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Serbs, Greeks – were encouraged to settle there. But after the Industrial Revolution at the end of the 19th century, the Donbass was largely settled by Russian workers. By 1913 it produced almost 90% of Russia’s coal.

The Soviet Union absorbed most of what is now Ukraine in 1922, and the Donbass became one of the USSR’s most important coal and steel producing areas. In Soviet propaganda it was referred to as “the heart of Russia”. After World War II, about two million Russians moved to Donbass to work in its factories.

What are the demographics of the region?

In Soviet and post-Soviet times, the cities were mostly Russian ethnically and linguistically, while the villages remained Ukrainian. The 2001 Ukrainian census (the most recent) revealed that ethnic Ukrainians make up 58% of the population of Luhansk Oblast and 56.9% of Donetsk Oblast; ethnic Russians accounted for 39% and 38.2%, respectively. With the exception of Crimea, it was the most ethnically Russian region in Ukraine.

In Donetsk, Russian was the main language of 74.9% of residents; in Luhansk it was 68.8%. Voting patterns in the region have long suggested stronger support for closer ties with Russia than elsewhere in Ukraine: in the 2004 and 2010 elections, pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych (a Donetsk native) performed strongly in Donbass ; He was elected president from 2010 until the Euromaidan crisis of 2014.

What happened in 2014?

In February, President Yanukovych fled Kyiv after months of street protests during the “Maidan Revolution” sparked by his rejection of Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU. In most of Ukraine and the West, this was seen as a pro-European democratic uprising.

In the Donbass and other ethnically Russian areas, it was seen by many as a Ukrainian nationalist movement (with fascist elements) that threatened its identity: for example, in 2014 laws protecting the use of the Russian language in schools and government institutions were scrapped.

Russia responded to the crisis by annexed Crimea in March of the same year; Hostilities erupted a month later in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed militias seized government buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk. In May, the groups declared their independence as the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (known as DNR and LNR, respectively) and revived the term Novorossiya to designate the Donbass.

How did the conflict end?

Initially, Russia waged a “hybrid” war with local fighters backed by Russian special forces and mercenaries, and extensive military support. But when Ukrainian forces went on the offensive, threatening to retake almost all of the separatist-held territory — including the prized port city of Mariupol — Russia launched a conventional invasion in response.

In February 2015, a Armistice brokered by France and Germany — known as Minsk II — froze the conflict, leaving about a third of Luhansk and Donetsk under Separatist control. A 500km “line of contact” riddled with trenches and land mines divided the region in two. Between 2014 and 2021, more than 14,000 people were killed in Donbass. The United Nations said in 2018 that 1.6 million people had been displaced in the region, which had a population of 6.5 million before the war.

Is the Separatist cause justified?

no Donbass certainly has a different political culture than much of Ukraine; The language problem has fueled resentment, and some right-wing Ukrainian nationalist parties are explicitly Russophobic. But prior to 2014 there was no evidence of widespread mistreatment of Russian Ukrainians, and pro-Russian separatism was a minority position among them.

In Ukraine’s independence referendum in 1991, 84% of the people of Donetsk and Luhansk voted for independence from the USSR. However, the Kremlin has armed ethnic grievances and is using them as a pretext to install brutal puppet governments that owe their power to Moscow.

How is life in the breakaway republics?

In the eight years of their existence, the republics of DNR and LNR have developed into “North Korea-like small states,” says Mansur Mirovalev on Al Jazeera. Both restored the Soviet constitutions adopted by Stalin; In Donetsk, a 13.5 m high statue of Lenin dominates the main square. The death penalty is prescribed for various crimes, an anomaly in Europe today.

Conversations, phone calls and text messages are monitored by the secret police; Arbitrary arrests are common and many reports indicate that interrogators used torture to extract confessions. There is no freedom of the press; Voter fraud is rampant; Corruption is widespread.

Both republics are “completely dependent on Moscow for financial and military support,” according to a report by the NGO Freedom House earlier this year. Border crossings into Ukrainian-controlled territory are severely restricted, and schools, universities, public services and businesses are dominated by people loyal to the Separatist leadership.

As part of the small states’ “Russification” campaigns, Ukrainian was abolished as an official language and schools have stopped teaching Ukrainian language and history. As of 2019, the Russian government has distributed more than 600,000 Russian passports to residents.

Why is the region so important to Putin?

The “liberation” of those living in Donbass under “neo-Nazi” rule is Putin’s casus belli, and before that Start of the invasion in February he recognized the separatist republics. It is widely believed that if he manages to capture Donbass, he will annex it, as he did with Crimea in 2014. He wants them for their own sake and also as a “land bridge” from Russia to Crimea and possibly other Russian-speaking cities like Kherson and even Odessa in the south-west.

Yet even Ukraine’s pro-Russian parties have opposed the invasion, and the devastation of Russian-speaking cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv has severely alienated Russian Ukrainians from Putin’s war goals. The battle for Donbass: why is the region so important for this war?

Fry Electronics Team

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