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Why Ukraine’s Donbas Region Matters to Putin

Russia’s recognition of Ukraine’s separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics was the precursor to President Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion of the country, and extending its control of those areas has since become his primary goal. Parts of the two eastern provinces, known collectively as the Donbas, have been effectively under Russian control since the Kremlin fomented and supported a separatist uprising in 2014. Now they are the main battlefield for Europe’s biggest armed conflict since World War II. 

1. What’s the backdrop?

Donetsk and Luhansk came under the control of the Russian Empire in the mid-18th century, soon after the discovery of coal (the name Donbas is an abbreviation of Donetsk Coal Basin in Ukrainian). The coal attracted industry and Russian settlers from the mid-19th century, turning the region into Ukraine’s industrial heartland. With its substantial Russian-speaking population, the Donbas was a bedrock of support for Viktor Yanukovych, who became Ukraine’s president in 2010. The Donetsk-born Yanukovych was toppled in 2014 by street protests over his decision -- under pressure from Moscow -- to renege on signing a trade pact with the European Union. 

2. How did the trouble start?

Following Yanukovych’s removal, 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, in a semi-covert operation that faced minimal armed opposition. Backed by agents from Moscow, critics 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 and reputed intelligence officer who had been involved in Moscow’s operation to seize Crimea. 

3. How has the conflict unfolded?

Mariupol, the second-largest city in the Donbas, was critical to Putin’s goal of securing a land bridge from Russia to Crimea and became a major focus of the war. During a three-month siege, Russian forces laid waste to its buildings and forced much of its pre-war population of almost 500,000 to flee. As the city fell in May, Russia concentrated on securing the entire Donbas, diverting troops from a failed attempt to take the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Russian artillery pounded Ukrainian defenses before inching forward at the cost of high casualties on both sides. The tide appeared to turn in September, when Ukraine recaptured a swathe of territory east of the city of Kharkiv. The Kremlin responded by organizing sham votes to approve of its annexation of the areas still under its control. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has pledged to take back all territories occupied since 2014, including the Donbas and Crimea. 

4. Why is Russia focused on this area?

Putin has made clear since at least 2007 that he doesn’t 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 saw control of Donetsk and Luhansk as a way of ensuring Ukraine would remain within its orbit, but when that failed Putin invaded. 

5. 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 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 as a manufacturing center and export hub for steel, coal and grain. One 2020 study estimated the cost of reconstructing the occupied territories at $21.7 billion, even before the widespread destruction caused by the 2022 invasion. 

6. 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 neighboring Poland and the Baltic states -- all NATO members. They have sanctioned Belarus, given Ukraine weapons and financial aid and opened their doors to millions fleeing the war. 

• A Bloomberg story on Putin’s narrowing options following Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

• Related QuickTakes on the risks posed by fighting around Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant and why Ukrainian debt relief isn’t matching its funding needs.

• 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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