Why Ukraine’s Donbass Region Matters to Putin: QuickTake

Russia’s recognition of the breakaway Ukrainian republics of Donetsk and Luhansk was the precursor to President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the country on February 24, and taking control of the territories has since become his primary goal. Large areas of the two eastern provinces, known collectively as Donbass, have been effectively under Russian control since the Kremlin fomented and backed a separatist uprising in 2014. They are now the main battleground of Europe’s largest armed conflict. Europe since World War II.

1. What is the backdrop?

Donetsk and Lugansk came under the control of the Russian Empire in the middle of the 18th century, soon after the discovery of coal (the name Donbass is an abbreviation of Donetsk Coal Basin in Ukrainian). Coal attracted Russian industry and settlers from the mid-19th century, making the region the industrial heartland of Ukraine. With its large Russian-speaking population, Donbas was the bedrock of support for Viktor Yanukovych, who became Ukraine’s president in 2010. Donetsk-born Yanukovych was ousted in 2014 by street protests against his decision — under pressure from Moscow — to give up signing a trade pact with the European Union.

2. How did the problem start?

After Yanukovych’s ousting, 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-secret operation that faced minimal armed opposition. Backed by Moscow operatives, critics of Kyiv’s new pro-Western government have tried to emulate this success by taking over towns in eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. But this time there was resistance. Clashes break out and an armed conflict develops in the Donbass. Russia denies allegations that it fomented the protests. Clearly many in the region wanted stronger ties with Russia, but not that they wanted to join or fight. One of the first commanders of the separatist forces, Igor Girkin, otherwise known as Strelkov, was a Russian citizen and a reputable intelligence officer who had been involved in Moscow’s operation to take over Crimea.

3. How did the conflict unfold?

Mariupol, the second largest city in the Donbass, was essential to Putin’s goal of securing a land bridge between Russia and Crimea and became a major focus of the war. During a three-month siege, Russian forces devastated its buildings and forced much of its pre-war population of nearly 500,000 to flee. When the city fell in May, Russia focused on securing the whole of Donbass, diverting troops from a failed attempt to take the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Russian artillery pounded the Ukrainian defenses before advancing at the cost of heavy casualties on both sides. By July, Russia had taken all of Luhansk, but the advance stalled in neighboring Donetsk as longer-range US-supplied HIMARS rocket launchers allowed Ukraine to reach behind the lines Russians and disrupt logistics. In September, Ukraine launched counter-offensives, recapturing a large swath of territory east of the city of Kharkiv. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has pledged to take back all territories occupied since 2014, including Donbass and Crimea.

4. Why is Russia focusing on this area?

Putin has made it clear since at least 2007 that he does not accept the post-Cold War US-dominated European security architecture. He has since attempted to carve out a sphere of influence for Moscow in the former Soviet space, fending off efforts by Russia’s neighbors to join or associate with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or, later , to the European Union. He has instead tried to build Russian-led equivalents — the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union — but without Ukraine, another Slavic nation of at least 41 million people, it could represent little. Russia saw control of Donetsk and Luhansk as a way to ensure Ukraine remained in its orbit, but when that failed, Putin invaded.

5. What is the value of provinces?

The breakaway territories are partly valuable to Russia for the disruption they cause to Ukraine, by cutting off essential transport links and supply chains. The territories produce coal and are home to major factories, but the economy has been largely destroyed, with the conflict claiming an estimated 14,000 lives between 2014 and the start of Putin’s most recent invasion. Many more have since died, particularly during the siege of Mariupol, which was important as a manufacturing center and export hub for steel, coal and grain. A 2020 study estimated the cost of rebuilding the occupied territories at $21.7 billion, even before the widespread destruction caused by the 2022 invasion.

6. Why does the West care?

Putin demands a complete restructuring of Europe’s security order and has now changed the borders that emerged from the collapse of the former Soviet Union four times – twice in Georgia and, after Crimea and Donbass, twice in Ukraine. It also forced a much closer union with beleaguered Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, with the result that a major push for the 2022 invasion of Ukraine was carried out from his territory. This is worrying for neighboring Poland and the Baltic States, all members of NATO. They sanctioned Belarus, gave arms and financial aid to Ukraine, and opened their doors to millions fleeing war.

• A Bloomberg article on Ukraine’s counter-offensive in the Donbass.

• Related QuickTakes on the risks posed by the fighting around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and why Ukraine’s debt relief doesn’t match its financing needs.

• A study by the International Crisis Group on the “conflict in the Ukrainian Donbass”.

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

• A Washington Post article on the Mariupol siege.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com

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