Donbas, a small region in eastern Ukraine adjoining the Russian border, is no stranger to military conflicts. After the fall of the Russian empire, the region was incorporated into the newly created Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1918. And then came the Bolsheviks, who were fighting a civil war against the remnants of the old regime. Donbas became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. During the Second World War, the Nazis took the region. Over 3,00,000 civilians were killed in Donbas alone during the Nazi occupation. In 1943, after defeating the Nazis in Stalingrad, the Red Army took Donbas back. In 1991, with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the region, which comprises the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, became part of the newly born Ukrainian nation. Now, Donetsk and Luhansk are two self-declared republics run by rebels backed by Russia. With Russia mobilising thousands of troops on its border with Ukraine, which has sparked fears of war, Donbas is once again at the centre of a looming conflict.
The current crisis started with the 2013 Euromaidan protests in Ukraine. When pro-western protesters forced President Viktor Yanukovych to resign in 2014, counter-protests broke out in the Crimean Peninsula and Donabs, where a majority of people speak Russian. Immediately after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, protests picked up in Donbas, eventually leading to an armed rebellion. In Donetsk and Luhansk, separatists declared self-ruled republics in May 2014. Ukraine and Western countries accused Russia of supplying weapons to the rebels and sending military personnel to the region to fight the Ukrainian army. Russia’s official position is that it has nothing to do with the insurgency, but President Vladimir Putin said in 2016 that Russia “was forced to defend the Russian-speaking population in the Donbas... ”. In Donbas, ethnic Ukrainians make up a majority, while ethnic Russians are the largest minority. But over 70% of the population, across the ethnic divisions, speak Russian. Moscow says the post-Yanukovych regimes in Kiev are discriminatory to the Russian-speaking people in the east.
Unable to defeat the Russian-backed rebels, Ukraine agreed to the Minsk Protocol, after holding talks with the rebels and Russia that were mediated by France and Germany, in 2014. The Protocol called for an immediate ceasefire. As the agreement collapsed, the Ukraine Trilateral Contact Group, comprising representatives from Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE, called another summit of the concerned parties in the Belarusian capital in February 2015, which is called Minsk II.
Call for ceasefire
As per Minsk II, Ukraine and rebels were required to enforce a full ceasefire in the Donbas region, pull out heavy weapons and start talks on holding local elections. Ukraine is also supposed to devolve more powers to the Donbas “republics”, introduce constitutional reforms codifying the decentralisation of power and announce an amnesty to the rebel fighters. Rebels, in turn, should allow the Ukrainian troops to restore control of the border with Russia. These terms were never implemented. A war of attrition continued on the border. Ukraine started getting enhanced military and financial aid and training from the U.S. and other western nations. Since 2014, the U.S. has committed over $2.5 billion in military assistance to Ukraine.
As the Minsk process hit a dead end and Ukraine, under President Volodymyr Zelensky, moved closer to the West, Russia changed its approach. Earlier this year, Russia had gathered thousands of troops on the border, but pulled them back after Mr. Putin’s Geneva summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in June. But as the Western aid to Ukraine continued to flow in with NATO members enhancing their activities in the Black Sea, the Russian troops were back. Mr. Putin sees Ukraine joining NATO or the latter moving advanced weaponry to Ukraine as a direct threat to Russia’s “command positions” .
He demands a commitment from the U.S. that Ukraine would not be taken into the NATO fold. The U.S. would not give any such assurance. As the stalemate continues, Donbas, a region of roughly 4 million people, has been caught in the middle of the most dangerous great power rivalry in Europe since the end of the Cold War.