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Explained: Ukraine’s breakaway areas

Russia has formally recognised the Luhansk and Donetsk ‘People’s Republics’ in Ukraine’s Donbass. A look at the history of the troubled region, its connections with Russia, and what the recognition signals to the West.

A militant stands at a platform in Donetsk, as evacuees board a train on Wednesday. (Reuters Photo)

On Monday, Russian President Valdimir Putin formally recognised the Luhansk “People’s Republic” and Donetsk “People’s Republic”, two breakaway areas of the Donbass region of Ukraine. Putin has ordered Russian troops into these areas for “peacekeeping”. The deployment is viewed as bringing Russia and the US-European alliance closer to war, even though the international community has not yet pronounced it an invasion of Ukraine. Efforts continue to find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.

The two areas

Luhansk and Donetsk are areas in south-eastern Ukraine, both major industrial centres in an area collectively known as the Donbass that borders Russia. They had declared themselves independent of Ukraine in 2014, encouraged by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but had remained unrecognised by Moscow and the international community. Western intelligence reports have spoken about the presence of Russian troops in these two areas since then, but this was denied by Russia.

Donbass has the largest coal reserves in Ukraine. Donetsk, with a population of about 2 million, is the fifth largest city in Ukraine, and is known for a wide range of metallurgical industries. Luhansk, also an industrial city centred on metal industries, has a population of 1.5 million.

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Almost 40% of the people in these two areas are ethnic Russians, forming the largest minority in the Donbass region. While ethnic Russians were present in large numbers in the region even in the pre-war years as part of the industrial workforce, it was after the war, when Stalin undertook a reconstruction of the Donbass, that waves of Russians arrived in the region. Ukraine’s role in the war – some sections collaborated with Nazi Germany – may also have spurred the Russian settlement.

The Russian language is today spoken by a majority of the people in the both Donetsk and Luhansk, as even non-native Russians identify themselves as Russian speakers. The affinity with Russia is pronounced both in culture and in politics.

Rebellion against Kyiv

After Ukraine’s independence from Russia in 1991 through a referendum following the break-up of the Soviet Union, Donbass became the centre of rebellion against Ukrainian centralisation.

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The Kyiv government ignored demands for devolution of powers and recognition of the Russian language. The 1990s were also a time of economic collapse across the former Soviet Union, and Donbass was badly hit. As Ukraine struggled to get on its feet, it undertook economic reforms under the supervision of the World Bank. As with the rest of the former Soviet Union, state assets were sold, creating a new class of power elites who were politically connected, extremely corrupt, and took control of industries and businesses. A great number of these oligarchs rose up in Donbass.

Ukraine, one of the 15 republics in the Soviet Union, had chafed under Soviet rule and produced one of the earliest dissident movements against Moscow’s control. It had opposed Stalin’s Russification project of the 1930s. Stalin is accused of genocide against Ukrainians after a famine killed a massive number of people,

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, it was the turn of the government in Kyiv to face accusations of excessive centralisation. The oligarchs of Donbass, with their Russian leanings, became the spearhead of the dissidence against Kyiv.

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In 2004, one of these oligarchs, Viktor Yanukovych, who would go on to become President of Ukraine from 2010-2014, raised autonomy demands in southern and eastern Ukraine after his presidential win that year was cancelled following widespread protests – known as the Orange Revolution — against electoral fraud. When he became President in 2010, Yanukovych became an advocate of closer economic and military ties with Russia. In 2013, his decision to cancel the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement, and lean closer to Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union, led to a massive uprising in Ukraine called the Euromaidan, and his ouster.

Putin’s annexation of Crimea came soon after, in a period in which Crimeans also voted in a controversial referendum to accede to Russia. The referendum was not accepted by Ukraine.

Military trucks move down a street outside Donetsk, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine, late Tuesday, February 22, 2022. (AP)

In the civil war situation that prevailed at the time, Donetsk and Luhansk too held their own referendums and proclaimed themselves independent republics. But Moscow did not recognise these two “republics” then, even though the actions were believed to have had Putin’s full backing. The two areas have remained in the grip of violence since then between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia groups backed by Russian combatants.

Minsk Protocol

European powers led by France and Germany took the initiative for peace talks, giving rise to what is now known as the “Normandy format”, under which Ukraine, Russia, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, also called the Trilateral Contact group, began a dialogue. On September 4, 2014 they signed an agreement in the Belorussian capital Minsk. Also signatories to this were the leaders of the unrecognised Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic. The agreement included a ceasefire and devolution of powers by Ukraine to these areas. But it failed to end the fighting, and collapsed as separatists took control of the Donetsk airport.

A second round of negotiations led to Minsk 2, an agreement signed in February 2015 by the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany, more elaborate than the first on ceasefire, and the holding of elections for local governance. This agreement could not be implemented either. However, the international community believed — at least until February 21 when Putin put his signature on the official decree of recognition of the two “republics” — that the Minsk agreement remains the best way forward.

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Putin’s formal recognition has paved the way for Russian troops to officially occupy both areas that they have been accused of helping for over seven years. Late on Tuesday, Russian troops were said to be marching into these two areas for “peacekeeping”. Concerns have grown over the day that they will not stop at the borders of these two Russian-recognised “republics”.

A woman pushes a wheelchair carrying an elderly woman holding a dog from pro-Russian separatists’ controlled territory to Ukrainian government controlled areas in Stanytsia Luhanska, the only crossing point open daily, in the Luhansk region, eastern Ukraine, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. (AP)

The US had until late on Tuesday not described the situation as an “invasion”, announcing only a set of limited financial sanctions against Russia, and continuing to maintain that a diplomatic resolution will continue to be pursued. Germany, the most reluctant of the European Union and NATO members on a military resolution of the crisis, has taken the step that it was seen as loathe to consider — suspending the process for certifying Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline project that would double its supply from Russia.

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Even after all this, Putin may be still hopeful of pulling off a diplomatic victory and getting western powers to address his demands for the restructuring of the European security framework. After all, Europe and the US have continued to engage with Russia diplomatically even after Crimea. Talks between US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were scheduled for this Thursday. French President Emmanuel Macron has suggested another Biden-Putin summit. The world is hanging to the hope that war, whose consequences will be felt across the globe, can yet be averted.

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First published on: 23-02-2022 at 03:56:03 am
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