Donbass | At the heart of the Ukrainian crisis

Donbass, a small region in eastern Ukraine bordering the Russian border, is no stranger to military conflicts. After the fall of the Russian Empire, the region was incorporated into the newly established Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1918. Then came the Bolsheviks, who waged a civil war against the remnants of the old regime. The Donbass became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. During World War II, the Nazis took the area. Over 3,000,000 civilians were killed in Donbas alone during the Nazi occupation. In 1943, after defeating the Nazis in Stalingrad, the Red Army took over the Donbass. In 1991, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the region, which includes the Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts, became part of the newly born Ukrainian nation. Now Donetsk and Luhansk are two self-proclaimed republics ruled by Russian-backed rebels. As Russia mobilizes thousands of troops on its border with Ukraine, raising fears of war, Donbass is once again at the center of impending conflict.

The current crisis started with the Euromaidan protests in 2013 in Ukraine. When pro-Western protesters forced President Viktor Yanukovych to resign in 2014, counter-protests erupted in the Crimean Peninsula and Donabs, where a majority of people speak Russian. Immediately after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, protests escalated in Donbass, ultimately culminating in an armed rebellion. In Donetsk and Luhansk, separatists declared autonomous republics in May 2014. Ukraine and Western countries accused Russia of supplying rebels with arms and sending military personnel to the region to fight the Ukrainian army . Russia’s official position is that it has nothing to do with the insurgency, but President Vladimir Putin said in 2016 that Russia “was forced to defend the Russian-speaking population of Donbass …”. In Donbass, ethnic Ukrainians constitute the majority, while ethnic Russians are the largest minority. But more than 70% of the population, all ethnic divisions combined, speak Russian. Moscow claims that the post-Yanukovych regimes in Kiev discriminate against Russian speakers in the East.

Unable to defeat Russian-backed rebels, Ukraine accepted the Minsk Protocol, after holding talks with the rebels and Russia mediated by France and Germany in 2014. The Protocol called for an immediate ceasefire. As the deal crumbled, the Ukraine Trilateral Contact Group, made up of representatives from Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE, convened another summit of the parties concerned in the Belarusian capital in February 2015, called Minsk II.

Call for a ceasefire

According to Minsk II, Ukraine and the rebels were required to impose a comprehensive ceasefire in the Donbass region, withdraw heavy weapons and start talks on holding local elections. Ukraine is also supposed to delegate more power to the “Donbass republics”, introduce constitutional reforms codifying the decentralization of power and announce an amnesty to rebel fighters. The rebels, in turn, are expected to allow Ukrainian troops to regain control of the border with Russia. These conditions have never been applied. A war of attrition continues at the border. Ukraine has started to receive enhanced military and financial assistance and training from the United States and other Western countries. Since 2014, the United States has committed more than $ 2.5 billion in military aid to Ukraine.

As the Minsk process stalled and Ukraine, led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, moved closer to the West, Russia changed its approach. Earlier this year, Russia rounded up thousands of troops at the border, but withdrew them after Mr Putin’s Geneva summit with US President Joe Biden in June. But as Western aid to Ukraine continued to flow and NATO members stepped up their activities in the Black Sea, Russian troops were back. Mr Putin sees Ukraine joining NATO or NATO moving advanced weapons to Ukraine as a direct threat to Russia’s “command positions”.

It demands a commitment from the United States that Ukraine is not caught up in NATO. The United States would not give such assurance. As the stalemate continues, Donbass, a region of around 4 million people, is caught in the midst of Europe’s most dangerous great-power rivalry since the end of the Cold War.

Christi C. Elwood