President Volodymyr Zelensky has announced that the “battle for Donbas” has begun. In early April, Russia abruptly withdrew its troops from the Kyiv region of northern Ukraine.
Its purpose was apparently to concentrate the army in the Donbas region, located in the eastern part of the country. But why right there? And why is Donbas so important for the Russians?
What distinguishes this region from the rest of Ukraine?
The administrative districts of Luhansk and Donetsk, as well as the Crimean peninsula, belong to the Ukrainian territories, where a very large number of people recognize Russian as their mother tongue. The share of ethnic Russians here is also relatively high. The situation is similar in the neighboring districts of Zaporizhzhia and Kharkiv, as well as in Odesa. But only in Crimea are ethnic Russians in the majority.
After the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the Euromaidan in 2014, opposition to Ukraine’s Western orientation was particularly strong here, but the majority rather did not support it. Armed Russian separatists – probably with Moscow’s help – have begun fighting for control of parts of the region.
At the same time, the Kremlin is using the power vacuum in Kyiv to annex the Crimean peninsula. “These are two of the many examples in which the Russians took advantage of the situation,” said Andreas Heinemann-Gruder of the International Conversion Center in Bonn.
The use of Ukrainian has been suppressed for decades
As a border region of Tsarist Russia and later the Soviet Union, southern Ukraine is more heavily influenced by Russia than other regions. Until the middle of the 19th century, Donbas was almost uninhabited. It then became the most important center of Russian industrialization due to coal deposits.
“At that time, the open use of the Ukrainian language in the Russian Empire was suppressed, and Russian was increasingly the predominant language of education,” said historian Guido Hausmann of the Leibniz Institute for Eastern and Southeastern European Studies in Regensburg.
During the short period of Ukraine’s independence in 1918, Donbas was not part of the country. Then, in Soviet times, more and more Russians settled here, Hausman explains. As a result, a relatively large number of people there actually feel connected to Russia and even the Soviet Union. “However, the people of Donbas have always spoken Ukrainian, and most of them still have a strong connection with Ukraine,” Hausman said.
Heinemann-Gruder, a political scientist, considers it misleading to link ethnicity and mother tongue to national identity. “Even in some battalions of the Ukrainian army that fought against the separatists in 2014 and 2015, Russian was spoken.”
However, the use of the Russian language has decreased in recent years. “If we can say that something has contributed to the formation of the Ukrainian nation, it is Russian aggression in the last eight years,” Heinemann-Gruder said. “Russian bombs have united Ukraine,” he added.
Are economic interests behind the appetites for Eastern Ukraine?
After World War II, the Siberian industrial regions became more important to the Soviet Union than the Donbas. But for Ukraine, this is its most important industrial region until 2014. As the conflict began, its importance diminished. Many mines – especially in separatist areas – have been abandoned or in poor condition. During the war, even more, industrial enterprises and infrastructure were destroyed.
For Russia, the economic power of the region is not crucial, says historian Hausman, but for Ukraine and its independence, it is. also economically. ”
What is the symbolic and ideological significance of Donbas?
A war has been going on in Donbas for eight years now. In 2014, pro-Russian separatists declared the Luhansk and Donetsk regions independent “people’s republics.” Following open fighting between separatists and the Ukrainian army, a fragile ceasefire and a “contact line” were agreed upon in the Second Minsk Agreement in 2015. It divided Ukraine-controlled parts of separatist areas in the border region.
On February 21, 2022, just three days before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia officially recognized the so-called people’s republics. “By this, the Russian government meant the entire Donbas,” said Heinemann-Gruder. So now Russia will have to conquer the whole territory to carry out the annexation that it has prepared, along with their recognition, says the political scientist. “With this, they will be able to declare victory in front of a native audience and a possible end to the war.”
Additionally, Ukrainian militants with right-wing nationalist views are fighting in these areas. For example, the Azov Battalion has already helped prevent separatists from seizing Mariupol in 2014. “With a victory over these troops, Putin can announce the end of the so-called denazification mission – at least in Donbas,” Heinemann-Gruder said.
The Kremlin says one of the things Ukraine needs to fight is the Nazi regime. The takeover of the industrial and port city of Mariupol, which has become a symbol of Ukrainian resilience after weeks of siege and shelling, would also be a symbolic success.
What is the strategic importance of the region?
“The outcome of the war in Donbas will determine what will be left of Ukraine,” Heinemann-Gruder said. With the annexation of Crimea, Russia has not only taken control of its main port in the past. For the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, it also has a year-round non-freezing seaport overlooking European territory.
However, Crimea is still an exclave. It is connected to the Russian land only through the Crimean bridge across the Kerch Strait between the Azov and Black Seas, which was opened in 2018. With the conquest of the entire Donbas, Russia would take away another important port from Ukraine – the one in Mariupol, which provides connections to Crimea and the Mediterranean.
Depending on the state of the army, Russia could focus on further targets, especially the land connection along the coast to Crimea, Hyman-Gruder said. “If Putin sees an opportunity to end Ukraine as an independent state, he will benefit from it,” he said. Therefore, according to him, the question facing the Ukrainian government now is: “Should we give up Donbas to save Kyiv?”
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