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Why Mariupol and the Donbas Region Matter to Putin

Russia’s recognition of Ukraine’s separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in the east of the country was the precursor to President Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and, increasingly, its primary territorial goal and justification. That has dramatically raised the stakes in a region stretching north from the war-ravaged port city of Mariupol, scene of some of the fiercest fighting and that from 2014 was already riven by a Russia-backed insurgency. Western officials have responded by hitting Moscow with some of the heaviest sanctions in modern history, putting eastern Ukraine at the heart of one of Europe’s biggest security crises since the Cold War. 

1. Where are Donetsk and Luhansk?

Long the home of Cossacks, the region came under control of the Russian Empire in the mid-18th century, soon after the discovery of the coal basin that would provide its nickname – the Donbas. The coal attracted industry and Russian settlers from the mid-19th century, turning Donetsk and Luhansk into Ukraine’s industrial heartland. With its substantial Russian-speaking population, the Donbas became a bedrock of support for Viktor Yanukovych, the Donetsk-born former president toppled in 2014 by street protests over his decision -- under pressure from Moscow -- to renege on signing a trade association pact with the European Union. The siege of Mariupol, the Donetsk region’s second-largest city on the coast between Russia and Crimea, became a major focus of the war in Ukraine, with Russian forces laying waste to its buildings and forcing much of its population of almost 500,000 to flee.

2. How did the trouble start?

Following Yanukovych’s removal in 2014, which Russia saw as a Western-backed coup, Putin sent unbadged troops to annex Crimea, a peninsula jutting into the Black Sea from the Ukrainian mainland, without a shot being fired. Opponents of the new pro-Western government in Kyiv tried to emulate that success by taking control in cities across the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. But this time there was resistance. Clashes broke out and an armed conflict developed in the Donbas. Russia denies allegations that it fomented the protests. It’s clear many in the region wanted stronger ties with Russia, though not that they wanted to join it or fight. One of the first commanders of the separatist forces, Igor Girkin, otherwise known as Strelkov, was a Russian citizen who had been involved in Moscow’s operation to secure Crimea. 

3. Why is Russia focused on this area?

Putin has made clear since at least 2007 that he does not accept Europe’s post-Cold War, U.S.-dominated security architecture. He since tried to carve out a sphere of influence for Moscow in the former Soviet space, pushing back against efforts by Russia’s neighbors to join or associate with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or, later, the European Union. He tried instead to build Russian-led equivalents -- the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union -- but without Ukraine, a fellow Slav nation of at least 41 million, they could amount to little. Russia’s focus now appears to be to take those parts of Donetsk and Luhansk not already under its control and secure a land corridor to Crimea. 

4. How valuable are the provinces?

The separatist territories are partly of value to Russia for the disruption they cause Ukraine, cutting key transport links and supply chains. The territories produce coal and are home to some substantial factories, but the economy has been largely destroyed, with the conflict leaving about 14,000 people dead just in the period between 2014 and the start of Putin’s more recent invasion. Many more have died since, in particular during the siege of Mariupol, which was important economically because of its steel industry and port facilities, making it an export hub for steel, coal and corn. Large numbers fled the fighting and lack of rule of law in the territories, heading either for other parts of Ukraine or Russia. One 2020 study already estimated the cost of reconstruction at $21.7 billion, even before the widespread destruction caused by the 2022 invasion, a bill that now falls to the Kremlin.

5. Why does the West care?

Putin is demanding a wholesale restructuring of Europe’s security order and has now altered the borders that emerged from the collapse of the former Soviet Union four times -- twice in Georgia and, after Crimea and the Donbas, twice in Ukraine. He has also forced a much closer union on the embattled leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, with the result that a major thrust of the 2022 invasion of Ukraine was conducted from his territory. That’s worrying for the neighboring Baltic states and Poland -- all NATO members -- which have sanctioned Belarus and participated in the response in the region.  

• An International Crisis Group study on “Conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas.”

• A report by the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies on the economic challenges and costs in the Donbas.

• A Washington Post article on the siege of Mariupol.

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