Along with How to End the War in Ukraine reprinted here earlier, this is a great overview on how we all got to this point.
Photo: Large explosion in Donbas, Ukraine
It’s a Russian battle for resources that has been cast as a humanitarian crusade, in the view of some.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has presented his bid to control the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine as an attempt to save Russian-speaking souls trapped in a foreign and hostile land.
But the frontlines of the battle, which began Tuesday, just happen to run along the lines of untapped natural gas reserves that lie beneath the bloodstained earth.
“They are large enough to create total competition for Russian gas in Europe,” says Marko Stech, director of press and scholarly publications with the University of Alberta’s Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.
“If Ukraine starts to exploit them, it can supply the gas that Europe needs, and then Russia becomes obsolete.”
The second phase of the war, after Russia’s initial attempts to advance on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv were repelled, has been preceded by intensified airstrikes and artillery fire on key cities throughout the country, but particularly in the east and south.
On Tuesday, they were accompanied by several Russian ground attacks, which the Ukrainian military claims to have repelled while actually retaking control of a town on the outskirts of Donetsk.
“If we had access to all the weapons we need, which our partners have and which are comparable to the weapons used by the Russian Federation, we would have already ended this war,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Tuesday. “We would have already restored peace and liberated our territory from the occupiers.”
The fight to control strategic territory that runs in a sort of semi-circle from Kherson — 400 kilometres west of the port city of Mariupol in the south — to the city of Kharkiv in the north, will be brutal, deadly and, in many ways, a continuation of the fight that Ukraine and pro-Russian rebels have been engaged in for the past eight years. But there is also more than a century of complicated and often bitter history underpinning the Donbas conflict.
Putin’s version of history
Among Russia’s strategic goals is the reopening of a canal to the west of the Donbas that was built in 1975 to supply water from the Dnipro River to Crimea.
“Crimea is a wonderful, beautiful and arid peninsula with no way to really produce all those wonderful crops of citrus fruits and things if it doesn’t have water,” says Frank Sysyn, director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies’ Toronto office.
The canal was dammed by the Ukrainians when Russia illegally annexed Crimea in in 2014.
“They only place it can get water from is the Dnipro River,” Sysyn said. “That’s why they’re trying so hard to hold onto Kherson — so that they will hold onto the water supply for Crimea.”
In a pre-invasion address, Putin gave a long, angry history lesson stretching back to medieval times, that cast doubt on the legitimacy of modern Ukraine’s borders. The nub of his territorial grievance was a political gesture made by Vladimir Lenin in 1922, when his Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and sought to export their communist vision to the world.
Putin argued that the Donbas region “was actually shoved into Ukraine” as a sort of bargaining chip played by Lenin to appease Ukrainian nationalists and grow the Soviet Union.
“When it comes to the historical destiny of Russia and its peoples, Lenin’s principles of state development were not just a mistake, they were worse than a mistake,” Putin said.
In Soviet times, Donbas served as the coal basin for the communist world. There, the coalminer was king — so much so that the one certain respite from the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s, was getting a job in Donbas mines, Sysyn said.
Though people had been drawn to the region for work, Soviet education and cultural policies that encouraged “russification” helped embed Pushkin as the common tongue.
The cult of the worker and the sentiment that those in the Donbas were contributing more to their Ukrainian countrymen than they got back in return persisted until the break up of the Soviet Union.
The economy crashed and only the oligarchs rose to the surface, among them former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who was forced from power in a 2014 revolution, and Rinat Akhmetov, a billionaire businessman who runs the Azovstal steel plant, where Ukrainian civilians and soldiers are surrounded and under siege in Mariupol.
Regional stresses started to emerge in Ukraine, Sysyn said.
“The west of Ukraine is drawn much more closely to Europe. In this area, the border in Soviet times meant little between Russia and Ukraine. You had people going back and forth.”
In response to the revolution and Yanukovych’s ouster, pro-Russian fighters from Donetsk and Luhansk took up arms in an attempt to secede from Ukraine. A May 2014 referendum on the matter of succession resulted in overwhelming majorities who voted in favour of self-rule, but the vote and its results were condemned by western countries and disputed by Kyiv, which accused Russia of organizing the vote.
The conflict pitting Ukrainian forces against pro-Russian Donbas fighters claimed an estimated 14,000 people between 2014 and Russia’s February invasion.
The fight for the frontline
The frontline that runs like a jagged stitch through the Donbas now appears set to move either westward, pushing deeper into Ukraine, or eastward, if Russian forces are once again repelled.
A U.S. defence official said the Russians have brought thousands of additional troops — 11 battlegroups or about 8,000 soldiers — into position in the east and south of Ukraine for this second phase of battle.
If Russia can clear the Ukrainian soldiers holed up in the sprawling underground bunkers of a steel plant in Mariupol, it would allow them to commit about 10,000 additional troops to the fight, the official said.
Whichever side emerges from the battle with the upper hand, it’s unlikely to end the war — despite Putin’s claim that the sole objective of Russia’s military intervention is to secure the Donbas.
Sysyn said that a Russian victory in the Donbas is only possible by destroying the Ukrainian army, which has tens of thousands of its most experienced fighters braced for the Russian attacks. If they succeed in that, he said, what incentive does Putin have to stop a further westward advance?
For his part, Stech said Ukrainians will never stop fighting to regain the Russian-occupied territories, particularly after having witnessed the atrocities committed against civilians by retreating Russians in the suburbs of Kyiv.
“They are not going to let Putin just take Donbas, establish some sort of border and live there like that,” he said. “This war will not be over until Ukraine actually gains all of the territory back.”
Allan Woods is a staff reporter for the Toronto Star writing on global and national affairs.