According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, “the battle for Donbass” it started. In early April, Russia suddenly withdrew its troops from the Kiev region, located in northern Ukraine, and apparently wants to concentrate its army’s power in the Donbass region, in the east of the country, for a new offensive that started this week. But why is the region so crucial?
Like the Crimean peninsula, the administrative units of Luhansk and Donetsk are regions in which a particularly large number of the population declare Russian as their mother tongue and are ethnically Russian.
The situation is similar in the neighboring administrative units of Zaporijia, Kharkiv and Odessa. However, ethnic Russians constitute the majority of the population in Crimea alone.
After the “Orange Revolution” of 2004 and the protests in Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square in 2013 and 2014, it was in these regions that resistance against Ukraine’s western orientation was particularly strong. Still, Russian separatists – presumably with Moscow’s support – gained control over parts of the region.
At the same time, the Kremlin used the power vacuum in Kiev to annex the Crimean peninsula. “These are two of many examples where the Russians acted on the ‘opportunity makes the thief’ principle.” says Andreas Heinemann-Grüder, Eastern Europe specialist at the Bonn International Conversion Center (BICC). For him, there was no grand-scale plan behind it.
How can this be explained historically?
The Donbass region was sparsely populated until the mid-19th century. Afterwards, it became the most important center of Russian industrialization because of its coal deposits. “During this period, public use of the Ukrainian language was suppressed in the Russian Empire, and Russian increasingly prevailed as the language of education,” explains historian Guido Hausmann of the Leibniz Institute for Eastern and Southeastern European Studies (IOS) , from the University of Regensburg. “On the other hand, many Russian farmers also flocked to the new industrial area.”
During Ukraine’s brief independence in 1918, Donbass was not yet part of it. This changed when the Soviet Union turned the country into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. In Soviet times, more Russians settled in the region.
In this regard, a relatively large number of people actually feel a connection to Russia or even the Soviet Union, explains Hausmann. “However, the people of Donbass have always spoken Ukrainian as well, and most still today have strong ties to Ukraine,” explains.
Political scientist Heinemann-Grüder also believes that the assumption that the ethnicity or mother tongue of the Ukrainian population provides information about their national identity is completely misleading. “Even in some battalions of the Ukrainian Army that fought the separatists in 2014/2015, people spoke Russian,” says the political scientist.
However, he says this is probably no longer the case, as the use of the Russian language has declined more sharply in recent years. “If there was any contribution to the formation of the Ukrainian nation, it was the Russian aggressions in the last 8 years,” says Heinemann-Grüder. “Russian bombs have further united Ukraine.”
Are economic interests also behind Ukraine’s eastward advance?
After World War II, Siberia’s industrial regions became more important to the Soviet Union than Donbass. But for Ukraine, Donbass was the most important industrial region until 2014.
With the conflict, however, its importance diminished. Many mines – especially in breakaway areas – are abandoned or in very poor condition. With the war, other industrial plants and infrastructure were destroyed.
The region’s economic strength is not important for Russia, says historian Hausmann, but it is decisive for Ukraine and its economic independence.. “One of Russia’s decisive war goals is to make Ukraine dependent on Russia in the long run – politically, culturally and economically,” stresses.
What is the symbolic and ideological meaning of the Donbass region?
The war has been raging for eight years in Donbass: in 2014, pro-Russian separatists proclaimed the administrative regions of Luhansk and Donetsk as “popular republics” independent.
After a phase of fighting between separatists and the Ukrainian army, the Second Minsk Accord in 2015 resulted in a fragile ceasefire and a “line of contact” separating the Ukrainian-controlled parts of the separatist areas in the border region with Ukraine. Russia.
On February 21, 2022 – three days before the invasion of Ukraine – Russia officially recognized these “popular republics”. “By that, the Russian government meant the whole of Donbass”explains specialist Heinemann-Grüder.
So Russia would now have to conquer the entire area to implement the annexation they had planned from reconnaissance, says the political scientist. “Then they could declare victory in front of their home audience and possibly end the war”adds.
In addition, Ukrainian combat units are fighting in these areas, most notably the “Azov Regiment”, which already helped prevent the separatists from taking Mariupol in 2014.
“With a victory over these troops, Putin could declare the completion of the alleged denazification mission – at least in the Donbass region,” says Heinemann-Grüder. The Kremlin says that one of the things that must be fought in Ukraine is a National Socialist regime.
The capture of the industrial and port city of Mariupol, which after weeks of siege and bombing has become a symbol of Ukrainian perseverance, would also be a symbolic success.
What is the strategic importance of Donbass?
“The outcome of the war in the Donbass region will determine what remains of Ukraine,” account Heinemann-Grüder. With the annexation of Crimea, Moscow has not only conquered the former home port of the once proud Russian Black Sea fleet: for the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, Russia has a year-round ice-free port near the European part. from the country.
However, Crimea has so far been an enclave that only connects to mainland Russia via the Crimean Bridge, opened in 2018, which crosses the Kerch Strait, between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. With the conquest of the entire Donbass region, Russia would rip off another important port from Ukraine, Mariupol, which connects with Crimea and the Mediterranean.
Depending on the conditions of the armies and their supply routes, says Heimann-Grüder, Russia could pursue its next objectives, especially a land connection along the coast to Crimea.
This, in turn, could open up new military prospects. “If Putin sees an opportunity to dissolve Ukraine as an independent state, he will seize it.” opines the political scientist. In this sense, the question for the Ukrainian government arises: “Do we have to give up Donbass to save Kiev?”