Why is Donbas so important to Russia?

The Russian Army has regrouped and is concentrating its attacks on eastern Ukraine. This is not a real surprise. But why is Vladimir Putin particularly interested in Lugansk and Donetsk?

According to Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky, “the battle for Donbas” has begun. In early April, Russia suddenly withdrew its troops from the capital region in northern Ukraine, apparently to concentrate its army force in Donbas in the country’s east. The new offensive there had been expected for days. But why the Donbas?

The Lugansk and Donetsk regions, known as the Donbas region or basin, belong – like the Crimean peninsula – to the Ukrainian territories in which a particularly high number of people declare Russian as their mother tongue. The proportion of ethnic Russians is also comparatively high there. The same goes for the neighboring provinces of Zaporizhia, Kharkiv and Odessa. However, ethnic Russians alone make up the majority of Crimea’s population.

After the Orange Revolution, which followed the presidential elections in 2004, and Euromaidan, in 2014, resistance to a western orientation of Ukraine was especially strong in Donbas, but it was not shared by the majority of the country. However, Russian separatist militants – presumably with the support of Moscow – fought for control of parts of that region. At the same time, the Kremlin took advantage of the power vacuum in kyiv to annex the Crimean peninsula in 2014.

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“These are two of many examples where the Russians acted on the ‘opportunity makes thieves’ principle,” says Andreas Heinemann-Grüder, Eastern Europe specialist at the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC). There was no large-scale plan behind it, the expert told DW.

The Donbas was barely populated until the middle of the 19th century. Then it became the most important center of Russian industrialization for its coal deposits. “During that time, the public use of the Ukrainian language was suppressed in the Russian Empire, and the Russian language was increasingly imposed in education,” historian Guido Hausmann, of the Leibniz Institute for Eastern European Studies, tells DW. and Southeast (IOS), from the University of Regensburg. “On the other hand, many Russian peasants also came to the new industrial zone,” he adds.

During the brief independence of Ukraine, in 1918, Donbas was not yet part of that country. This changed when the USSR made it the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. During Soviet times more Russians settled in the region. For this reason, relatively many people there feel linked to Russia or, rather, still to the Soviet Union, Hausmann recalls. “However, the people of Donbas have also always spoken Ukrainian, and most still have a strong link with Ukraine today,” says the expert from the Leibniz Institute.

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The political scientist Heinemann-Grüder also thinks that assuming that the Ukrainian population’s ethnicity or mother tongue influences national identity is completely misleading: “Even in some battalions of the Ukrainian Army that fought against the separatists in 2014 and 2015 Russian was spoken. “. Now, that’s probably not the case anymore. The use of the Russian language has also declined more drastically in recent years: “If there has been any contribution to the formation of the Ukrainian nation, it is the Russian aggressions of the last eight years. The Russian bombs have united Ukraine even more”, says Heinemann-Grüder.

For the Soviet Union, the Siberian industrial regions were more important than Donbas after World War II, but for Ukraine, Donbas was the most important industrial region until 2014. However, with the ongoing conflict there, its importance has decreased. Many mines – especially in separatist areas – have been abandoned or are in very poor condition. With the war, more industrial plants and infrastructure have been destroyed.

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For Russia, the economic power of the region is not decisive, according to historian Hausmann, but it is for Ukraine and its economic independence. “One of Russia’s decisive war goals is to make Ukraine permanently dependent on Russia, politically, culturally, and also economically,” Hausmann says.

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