Why are Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine’s Donbas region a flash point for Putin?
The Donbas region of eastern Ukraine is a flashpoint for the escalating crisis between Moscow and Kyiv. The area hosts two separatist enclaves whose leaders are backed by Russia — and whose independence Russian President Vladimir Putin formally recognized earlier this week.
On Thursday, Putin announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine, vowing to “end the nightmare” of war in the Donbas region, where conflict between the separatists and Ukrainian government forces has simmered for years.
Putin’s formal recognition of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic signaled an end to a seven-year-old peace deal known as the Minsk agreement. Now, the fate of the region remains unclear.
What is happening in Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region?
The Donbas region in eastern Ukraine before the war was known as an industrial powerhouse, with heavy mining and steel-producing capacity, as well as large coal reserves.
Since Russia’s invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the Donbas has been divided into separate territories: the Kyiv-controlled parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and the Russian-backed separatist Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” known as the DPR and LPR.
Separatists claim all of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions as their territory, but they control about one-third of the region — about 6,500 square miles, per some estimates — along the border with Russia. Moscow has recognized the separatists’ territorial claims, which extend to three times the size of the area they occupy. This includes areas under Ukrainian government control, such as the crucial Mariupol port on the Sea of Azov.
The Donetsk and Luhansk enclaves have been largely cut off from Ukraine following the outbreak of fighting in 2014 and on Monday were recognized by Putin as independent republics. Their precise population is hard to determine, but some estimate they are home to around 2.3 million and 1.5 million people, respectively — many of whom are among the region’s large Russian and Russian-speaking populations.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine between the separatists and the Ukrainian government has continued since 2014, claiming 14,000 lives. Violence, division and economic downturn have damaged the region. More than 2 million people have since fled.
What is the region’s history, and what is the Minsk agreement?
Historical links between Russia and Ukraine date back as far as the 9th century — and Putin has repeatedly and strategically invoked this legacy.
In early 2014, after mass protests in Ukraine toppled a pro-Moscow president, Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula — a move Europe and the United States see as illegal. Moscow-backed separatists also took over the eastern industrial regions of Donetsk and Luhansk on Russia’s border. There, the rebels seized government buildings and proclaimed new “people’s republics.”
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The crisis escalated, and pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk held a referendum to declare independence from Ukraine. Kyiv and the West have accused Russia of supporting the rebels with troops and weapons, but Russia says the fighters are volunteers. Clashes between the separatists and Kyiv-backed forces have continued.
In 2015, Russia and Ukraine agreed on the Minsk peace deal, a plan brokered by France and Germany to end the conflict between Kyiv and the Russian-backed separatists in the contested Donbas region. Under the agreement, Ukraine would give the two regions a special status and significant autonomy in return for regaining control of its border with Russia. But negotiations stalled.
Putin has said Ukraine has no intention of implementing the agreement’s terms. Ukraine has sought amendments to the deal — which was brokered after a string of military losses — and said that an agreement on Russian terms would give Moscow power to influence Ukraine’s foreign policy and undermine its sovereignty. Kyiv officials have said the current terms, if implemented, would lead to riots and chaos.
The United States and other allies have expressed support for the deal while calling on all parties to fulfill their parts of the bargain.
Meanwhile, Moscow has issued 800,000 Russian passports in the separatist regions. Ukrainian and Western officials say Russia has armed and supported the separatists, but Russia denies this.
What does Putin want with Donbas? What do the people of Donbas want?
Putin has described Russians and Ukrainians as one people, writing in an essay shared on the Kremlin’s website in July that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”
“Ukraine has never had its own authentic statehood,” Putin said during a seething speech Monday that delved into Soviet history to undermine the idea of Ukraine as an independent nation.
The most recent official census, in 2001, found that more than half of the population in Crimea and Donetsk identified Russian as their native language. But pinning eastern Ukraine as all largely Russian speaking, and the West dominated by Ukrainian, can be seen as an oversimplification. Many in the eastern countryside speak Ukrainian or a Russian-Ukrainian mix called Surzhyk.
Still, Putin has repeatedly invoked the idea of Donbas’s distinctive regional identity as a basis to “defend” its Russian-speaking people from a supposedly intolerant Ukraine. Separatists have also capitalized on this identity to fuel support and rebellion against Kyiv.
In Kyiv-controlled Donbas, a majority wants the separatist regions to return to Ukraine. In the separatist-controlled area, over half want to join Russia, either with or without some autonomous status, per a survey published in 2021.
Moscow also sees Ukraine as a buffer zone to NATO, which was founded in 1949 to protect against Soviet aggression. Putin has long said NATO’s eastward expansion was a red line for him. In remarks Tuesday, Putin called on Ukraine to forget joining NATO and to accept that Crimea belongs to Russia.