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Why Ukraine’s Donbas Region Matters to Putin

The two eastern provinces of Ukraine known collectively as the Donbas have emerged as the main battlefield for Europe’s biggest armed conflict since World War II. The region was already central to Russia’s strategy for asserting influence over its neighbor since 2014, when Moscow fomented an armed insurgency there. In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the provinces independent, making the “liberation” of the Donbas a primary justification for his invasion of Ukraine. In late September, he took things further, announcing Russia’s annexation of both provinces, together with two others, despite lacking full control of any of them. 

1. Why is Putin so focused on Ukraine?

Since at least 2007, Putin has repeatedly lamented Moscow’s diminished role in the world following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which had included Ukraine. He has since tried to carve out a sphere of influence for Moscow in the former Soviet space, pushing back against efforts by Ukraine and Russia’s other neighbors to join or associate with institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. He tried to build Russian-led equivalents — the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union — but without Ukraine, a fellow Slavic nation of 44 million people, their potential was limited.

2. What’s Russia’s history with the Donbas?

The areas of Ukraine now covered by Donetsk and Luhansk provinces came under the control of the Russian Empire in the mid-18th century, soon after the discovery of coal there. The coal turned the region into Ukraine’s industrial heartland and attracted Russian settlers. With ties to Russia still stronger than in most other parts of Ukraine, the Donbas more recently was a bedrock of support for the Donetsk-born Viktor Yanukovych, who became Ukraine’s president in 2010. Yanukovych was toppled in 2014 by street protests over his decision — made under pressure from Moscow — to renege on signing a trade pact with the EU.

3. What led up to the war?

Following Yanukovych’s removal, which Russia portrayed as a Western-backed coup, Putin sent troops wearing no insignia to seize Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, where a majority of the population identified as ethnic Russian in the last census in 2001. The operation faced minimal armed opposition. Elsewhere in Ukraine’s east and south, where 14% to 39% identified as ethnic Russian, critics of the new pro-Western government tried to emulate that success with the backing of Russian agents, taking control of some cities and declaring breakaway republics in Donetsk and Luhansk. But this time there was resistance. Clashes broke out and an armed conflict developed in the Donbas that dragged on for eight years, despite the signing of two peace agreements. Russia saw the terms of the accords as federalizing Ukraine, creating wide autonomy for the Donbas so as to make it impossible for the country to join NATO or the EU. When the agreements weren’t implemented in that way, Russian officials grew frustrated.

4. How did the war unfold?

Originally, Russia launched a multifront assault on Ukraine, moving on major cities including the capital, Kyiv. But after a month of fighting, Moscow appeared to redefine its war aims in the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance. It pulled forces from the north to concentrate on securing all of the Donbas while retaining its hold on territory in two southern provinces, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, which had been seized in the early days of the invasion. With the fall of Mariupol, the Donbas’s second-largest city, on May 20, those gains achieved Putin’s goal of securing a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, annexed in 2014. Yet the campaign to drive Ukrainian forces from the Donbas ground to a halt by midsummer. After a string of humiliating military reversals, Russia organized sham status referendums across the areas it still controlled, and on Sept. 30 declared that Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia were now part of Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has pledged to take back all of the country’s territory, including Crimea.

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

• Related QuickTakes on the roots of Russia’s war in Ukraine, the Minsk peace accords, and the risks posed by fighting around Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant.

• 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.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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