The Russian army is concentrating its attacks on the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Why exactly is Russia interested in Luhansk and Donetsk?

Photo: “We are Russian Donbass” reads this poster but not everybody agrees with the sentiment

21 April 2022 | Jan D. Walter | DW | With additional maps, videos and information added

At the beginning of April, Russia suddenly withdrew its troops from the region around the capital Kyiv in northern Ukraine. It apparently wanted to concentrate its forces on the Donbas in eastern Ukraine for a fresh offensive that began this week. Why is the region so crucial? 

Special ties with Russia?

Like the Crimean peninsula, the administrative regions (oblasts) of Luhansk and Donetsk are regions where a particularly large proportion of the population speaks Russian as its mother tongue and is ethnically Russian. The situation is similar in Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv, and also Odesa.

But only in Crimea do ethnic Russians make up the majority of the population.

The Donbass War: Every Day (2014 – 2017)

After the Orange Revolution of 2004, and the Maidan protests of 2013 and 2014, it was in these parts of Ukraine where the opposition to Ukraine turning more towards the West was strongest. Militant Russian separatists — presumably with support from Moscow — began fighting for control of the region while at the same time, Russia made the most of the power vacuum in Kyiv and annexed Crimea.

A map showing the present-day definition of the Donbas in Ukraine

“These are two of the many examples where the Russians acted according to the idea that ‘opportunity makes the thief,'” said Andreas Heinemann-Grüder, eastern Europe specialist at the Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies. He doesn’t think there was a large-scale plan behind this.

What’s the historical context?

Until the mid-19th century, the Donbas was scarcely populated but it became one of the most important hubs of Russian industrialization because of its coal reserves.

“During this period, public use of Ukrainian was suppressed in the Russian Empire, and Russian established itself as the language of education,” explained historian Guido Hausmann from the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in the southern German city of Regensburg. “Many Russian peasants also flocked to the new industrial region.”

The Donbas was not part of Ukraine during its brief spell of independence in 1918 but it was incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic after the Russian Civil War. More and more Russians came into the region during the Soviet period.

Numerous definitions of the Donbas region’s extent exist. The most common definition in use today refers to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine

Hausmann explained that there were indeed a lot of people with ties to Russia or rather the Soviet Union. “However, the people in Donbas always also spoke Ukrainian and the majority still had a strong connection to Ukraine too,” he said.

Heinemann-Grüder said that it was wrong to assume that ethnicity or mother tongue could give clues as to national identity among the Ukrainian population. “Russian was even spoken by some of the Ukrainian army battalions that fought against the separatists in 2014/15,” he said. 

This map shows the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.GETTY/ISTOCKPHOTO

He added that this was probably no longer the case because the use of Russian had declined everywhere: “If there has been any contribution to forming a Ukrainian nation then it has been the Russian aggressions of the past eight years,” he said. “Russian bombs have united Ukraine all the more.”

Is eastern Ukraine economically important?

After World War II, the industrial regions of Siberia gained more importance than the Donbas for the Soviet Union as a whole. But for Ukraine, it remained the most significant industrial zone up until 2014.

It has suffered considerably though, with many mines — particularly in separatist areas — now derelict or in a very poor state. Even more industrial facilities and infrastructure have been destroyed in the past weeks.

Hausman said that the region’s economic importance mattered less to Russia than to Ukraine if it wanted to be economically independent. “A crucial war aim for Russia is to make Ukraine permanently dependent on Russia — politically, culturally and economically.”

What does the ‘Battle for Donbas’ mean for the Ukraine war? | Inside Story

Symbolic importance

War has raged in Donbas for eight years: In 2014, pro-Russian separatists proclaimed the oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent “people’s republics.” In 2015, after a period of open battles between the separatists and the Ukrainian army, a fragile ceasefire and a “line of contact” separating Ukrainian-controlled parts from separatist areas in the region bordering Russia were agreed as part of the Minsk II agreement.”

Ukrainian soldiers have been fighting to keep Donbas for years

On February 21, 2022 — three days before its invasion of Ukraine — Russia officially recognized the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. “By this, the Russian government meant all of Donbas,” according to Heinemann-Grüder, who explained that Russia would have to conquer the entire territory in order to implement the annexation that it prepared with this recognition. “Then it could declare a victory at home and possibly declare an end to the war.”

Successful ‘denazification’?

Furthermore, Ukrainian combat units with far-right, nationalist tendencies, for example the Azov Battalion that helped prevent pro-Russian separatists take Mariupol in 2014, are also fighting in the region. This has been used by the Kremlin to fuel its claims the Ukrainian government has been infiltrated by “nazis.”

At a pro-Russian rally in Donetsk in 2014, a flag with Josef Stalin’s portrait is raised [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]
How Ukraine’s Donbas has ‘evolved’ under pro-Russia separatists

“If he were to win against these troops, Putin could declare that the so-called ‘denazification’ mission had been achieved, at least in Donbas,” said Heinemann-Grüder.

It would also be a symbolic victory if Russia were able to capture the industrial port city of Mariupol, which has come to represent Ukrainian perseverance during weeks of siege and shelling. 

“The outcome of the war in Donbas will decide what remains of Ukraine,” Heinemann-Grüder said. By annexing Crimea, Russia had not only conquered the former home port of Russia’s once-proud Black Sea fleet but also gained a port that is ice-free all year round near its European part for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

However, for now, Crimea is still an exclave. It is only connected to the Russian mainland via a bridge over the Kerch Strait that opened in 2018. By conquering all of Donbas, Russia would gain Mariupol as another important port with links to Crimea and the Mediterranean.

Heimann-Grüder thinks that Russia might well be setting its sights on its next targets, especially the land connection along the coast with Crimea, though this would depend on the state of its army and access to supplies.

He said that there might well be new military prospects on the cards: “If Putin sees an opportunity to dissolve Ukraine as an independent state, he will take it,” he said. For the Ukrainian government, the question would then be: “In order to save Kyiv, do we have to give up Donbas?”

This article was originally written in German.