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Separatism in Ukraine's Donetsk & Luhansk, & Why Russia Deemed Them Independent

Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced on 18 April that Russia had begun its offensive in the eastern region of Donbas.

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Explainers
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Separatism in Ukraine's Donetsk & Luhansk, & Why Russia Deemed Them Independent
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(This article was originally published on 22 February 2022 and has been republished from The Quint's archives in light of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announcing on Monday, 18 April, that Russia had begun its offensive in the eastern region of Donbas.)

Two of the latest decisions made by Russian President Vladimir Putin have greatly increased the odds of war between Russia and Ukraine, the latter being backed by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the US.

The first one was his decision to officially recognise the breakaway "people's republics" of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

Following the recognition, Putin ordered the Russian military to enter these two "republics" to perform "peacekeeping duties."

What is the current status of these two regions and why are they so important to Putin?

We have to go back to 2014.

Separatism in Ukraine's Donetsk & Luhansk, & Why Russia Deemed Them Independent

  1. 1. What Exactly Are Donetsk and Luhansk?

    Until yesterday, the Donetsk oblast and the Luhansk oblast were recognised by all countries to be a part of Ukraine, even by Russia.

    An "oblast" is to Ukraine what a "state" is to India, that is, an administrative unit.

    The Revolution of Dignity in February 2014, also known as the Maidan Revolution, ousted the pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych over his refusal to sign the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement (something that would bring Ukraine closer to Western European countries).

    Putin, however, worried about losing influence in Ukraine, had ordered the annexation of Crimea that was carried out in February and March 2014.

    As the annexation occurred, fighting erupted in eastern Ukraine in the Donbas region, a term used for the territory that currently consists of the Donetsk oblast and the Luhansk oblast.

    Donetsk has 2.3 million people, while Luhansk has around 1.5 million people.

    Many of these people, however, are part of the two oblasts' large Russian and Russian-speaking populations, who function as Moscow-backed separatists.

    These people have also received large amounts of humanitarian and military aid from Moscow.

    Expand
  2. 2. The Declaration of Independence

    A month after Crimea's annexation and its declaration of being independent from Ukraine, government buildings and key infrastructure in Donetsk and Luhansk started being seized by pro-Russia separatist groups.

    Composed of locals angry with Kyiv and supported militarily by unofficial Russian soldiers, Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence in May 2014.

    A referendum was held on 11 May 2014 to declare freedom from Ukraine.

    They then became the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic and regarded themselves as "Novorossiya" (New Russia).

    Russia did not recognise these as independent at the time, even thought it was accused of supporting the rebels with both troops and military equipment.

    In the more recent past, it has even supplied COVID-19 vaccines to the people of Donbas.

    Expand
  3. 3. The Fighting in Donbas & the Minsk Agreements

    Ukrainian forces went on the offensive to reclaim the separatist-held territories.

    The rebels, aided by Russian reinforcements (not wearing uniform) from across the border, pushed the Ukrainian military back.

    More than 14,000 people were killed in the fighting.

    A full-blown war seemed quite likely, which led to diplomatic interventions by France and Germany.

    The peace deals, knowns as Minsk I (September 2014) and Minsk II (February 2015) led to a ceasefire that ended with the separatists having de facto control of around one-third of Donetsk and Luhansk.

    A line of control separated them from Ukrainian troops.

    The Minsk agreements say that they will be returned to Kyiv and will function with a special status and with significant political autonomy.

    Expand
  4. 4. Russia's Increasing Influence in Donbas

    In the years following Minsk II, Moscow began to strengthen its influence in Donetsk and Luhansk.

    It has handed over Russian passports and citizenship to around 8,00,000 residents.

    Putin has already tried to paint a picture in Donbas that depicts a tyrannical Ukrainian state.

    "What is happening in the Donbas today is genocide," Putin said earlier this month, referring to Ukraine's military actions in the region.

    Putin has, for the past few years, repeatedly used Donbas’ Russian and Russian-speaking people as a justification to expand Moscow's role as a saviour.

    A 2021 survey, however, showed that a majority of people in Kyiv-controlled Donbas want Donetsk and Luhansk to be returned to Ukraine, while more than half in the rebel territories want to join Russia, The Washington Post reported.

    Despite all the information, Russia's parliament has been urging Putin in the past few days to recognise Donetsk and Luhansk as independent from Ukraine.

    He has now gone ahead and done that.

    Expand
  5. 5. The Implications of Russian Recognition

    Putin's announcement on 21 February means that for the first time in the last seven-and-a-half years of fighting and tensions, Russia is saying on record that it does not consider Donetsk and Luhansk as part of Ukraine.

    This implies that Moscow can now send its troops to the separatist regions without any hesitation, justifying the deployments by stating that it is doing so to protect the Russian population.

    It also gives Moscow more favourable circumstances to initiate a false-flag attack and use it as a pretext for sending troops beyond Donbas into the heart of Ukraine, something that Washington as already warned about.

    Equally important is that Minsk II has been violated by Russia. A diplomatic solution to the crisis just got infinitely harder to achieve.

    What we have now, therefore, is two countries – Ukraine and Russia – having almost polar opposite claims on the same region.

    While Ukraine considers Donbas to part of its sovereign territory, Russia recognises them as independent from Ukraine and as relying on Russia for help from Ukrainian aggression.

    (With inputs from The Washington Post and The Economist)

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What Exactly Are Donetsk and Luhansk?

Until yesterday, the Donetsk oblast and the Luhansk oblast were recognised by all countries to be a part of Ukraine, even by Russia.

An "oblast" is to Ukraine what a "state" is to India, that is, an administrative unit.

The Revolution of Dignity in February 2014, also known as the Maidan Revolution, ousted the pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych over his refusal to sign the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement (something that would bring Ukraine closer to Western European countries).

Putin, however, worried about losing influence in Ukraine, had ordered the annexation of Crimea that was carried out in February and March 2014.

As the annexation occurred, fighting erupted in eastern Ukraine in the Donbas region, a term used for the territory that currently consists of the Donetsk oblast and the Luhansk oblast.

Donetsk has 2.3 million people, while Luhansk has around 1.5 million people.

Many of these people, however, are part of the two oblasts' large Russian and Russian-speaking populations, who function as Moscow-backed separatists.

These people have also received large amounts of humanitarian and military aid from Moscow.

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The Declaration of Independence

A month after Crimea's annexation and its declaration of being independent from Ukraine, government buildings and key infrastructure in Donetsk and Luhansk started being seized by pro-Russia separatist groups.

Composed of locals angry with Kyiv and supported militarily by unofficial Russian soldiers, Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence in May 2014.

A referendum was held on 11 May 2014 to declare freedom from Ukraine.

They then became the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic and regarded themselves as "Novorossiya" (New Russia).

Russia did not recognise these as independent at the time, even thought it was accused of supporting the rebels with both troops and military equipment.

In the more recent past, it has even supplied COVID-19 vaccines to the people of Donbas.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Fighting in Donbas & the Minsk Agreements

Ukrainian forces went on the offensive to reclaim the separatist-held territories.

The rebels, aided by Russian reinforcements (not wearing uniform) from across the border, pushed the Ukrainian military back.

More than 14,000 people were killed in the fighting.

A full-blown war seemed quite likely, which led to diplomatic interventions by France and Germany.

The peace deals, knowns as Minsk I (September 2014) and Minsk II (February 2015) led to a ceasefire that ended with the separatists having de facto control of around one-third of Donetsk and Luhansk.

A line of control separated them from Ukrainian troops.

The Minsk agreements say that they will be returned to Kyiv and will function with a special status and with significant political autonomy.

ADVERTISEMENT

Russia's Increasing Influence in Donbas

In the years following Minsk II, Moscow began to strengthen its influence in Donetsk and Luhansk.

It has handed over Russian passports and citizenship to around 8,00,000 residents.

Putin has already tried to paint a picture in Donbas that depicts a tyrannical Ukrainian state.

"What is happening in the Donbas today is genocide," Putin said earlier this month, referring to Ukraine's military actions in the region.

Putin has, for the past few years, repeatedly used Donbas’ Russian and Russian-speaking people as a justification to expand Moscow's role as a saviour.

A 2021 survey, however, showed that a majority of people in Kyiv-controlled Donbas want Donetsk and Luhansk to be returned to Ukraine, while more than half in the rebel territories want to join Russia, The Washington Post reported.

Despite all the information, Russia's parliament has been urging Putin in the past few days to recognise Donetsk and Luhansk as independent from Ukraine.

He has now gone ahead and done that.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Implications of Russian Recognition

Putin's announcement on 21 February means that for the first time in the last seven-and-a-half years of fighting and tensions, Russia is saying on record that it does not consider Donetsk and Luhansk as part of Ukraine.

This implies that Moscow can now send its troops to the separatist regions without any hesitation, justifying the deployments by stating that it is doing so to protect the Russian population.

It also gives Moscow more favourable circumstances to initiate a false-flag attack and use it as a pretext for sending troops beyond Donbas into the heart of Ukraine, something that Washington as already warned about.

Equally important is that Minsk II has been violated by Russia. A diplomatic solution to the crisis just got infinitely harder to achieve.

What we have now, therefore, is two countries – Ukraine and Russia – having almost polar opposite claims on the same region.

While Ukraine considers Donbas to part of its sovereign territory, Russia recognises them as independent from Ukraine and as relying on Russia for help from Ukrainian aggression.

(With inputs from The Washington Post and The Economist)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Edited By :Saundarya Talwar
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