What is the Donbas and why is it so important in the current conflict?

Tamara Qiblawi, Nathan Hodge, Tim Lister and Ivana Kottasová

Russia’s recent actions suggest an apparent shift to redirect its military efforts to the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

But what is the Donbas and how significant is its role in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine?

The events of 2014 are pivotal to the situation today. Back then Russian-backed rebels seized government buildings in towns and cities across eastern Ukraine. Intense fighting left portions of Luhansk and Donetsk, in the Donbas region, in the hands of Russian-backed separatists.

Russia also annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 in a move that sparked global condemnation.

The separatist-controlled areas in Donbas became known as the Luhansk and the Donetsk People’s Republic, but the Ukrainian government in Kyiv asserts that the two regions are, in effect, Russian-occupied. The self-declared republics are not recognized by any governments, other than Russia and its close ally Syria. The Ukrainian government refuses to talk directly with either separatist republic.

Language around the conflict is heavily politicized. The Ukrainian government calls separatist forces “invaders” and “occupiers.” Russian media calls separatist forces “militias” and maintains that they are locals defending themselves against the Kyiv government.

More than 14,000 people had died in the conflict in Donbas between 2014, prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February. Ukraine said 1.5 million people were forced to flee their homes during that period, with most staying in the areas of Donbas that were still under Ukrainian control and about 200,000 resettling in the wider Kyiv region.

The separatists in Donbas have had substantial backing from Moscow, with the US, NATO and Ukrainian officials saying the Russian government supplies the separatists, provides them with advisory support and intelligence, and embeds its own officers in their ranks.

Moscow has also distributed hundreds of thousands of Russian passports to people in Donbas in recent years. Prior to the invasion, Western officials and observers had accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of attempting to establish facts on the ground by naturalizing Ukrainians as Russian citizens, a de facto way of recognizing the breakaway states.

Putin has long accused Ukraine of violating the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Ukraine, and in the weeks before the invasion he alleged that  “genocide” was being committed in Donbas.

As in 2014, the region once again sits at the center of both the military and geopolitical conflict.

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