Updated: Sep 13, 2019
The Donbass: Donetsk and Luhansk
By: Kirsten King
Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic
“The Donbass” (also spelled Donbas from the Ukrainian word Донба́с) is a contested region in eastern Ukraine consisting of the two oblasts (former Soviet regions) of Luhansk and Donetsk. The name comes from an amalgamation of the word Donets Basin, the name for the coal rich area south of the Donets River.
At the end of the 19th century, the Donbass consisted of a Ukrainian majority living in rural areas with the minority Russian-speaking population concentrated in the industrial urban centers.
However, the Soviet era after WWII saw a sharp intake in Russian workers shifting the cultural balance. In the aftermath of Russia’s annexation of Crimea following the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution (also called the Euromaidan Revolution), conflict broke out in the region between Ukrainian forces and Russian separatist groups aided and abetted by Vladimir Putin.
Despite a 2015 ceasefire agreement granting some degree of autonomy to rebel-held areas, both sides have repeatedly violated or failed to enact the terms thereby continuing the conflict.
History of the Donbass
The Donbass lies in the heart of an area of the Pontic steppe of Ukraine historically known as Wild Fields, in other words, the wilderness.
It remained sparsely populated until it was settled partly by Don Cossacks (free people of the Don River) in the 17th century largely maneuvering to counter the influence of the Crimean Khanate, the Turkic descendants of the Mongol Golden Horde. In the 18th century the region was conquered by the Russian Empire and became a part of “New Russia.”
It wasn’t until the discovery of vast coal reserves in 1721 that heavy industry began in the Donbass leading to a population boom, in particular an influx of Russian industrial workers. Donetsk, the biggest city was founded first as Yuzovka and would later come to be called Stalino during the Soviet Period.
In the lead up to the Russian Civil War in 1917, large swathes of the area were taken over briefly by the short-lived Ukrainian State but eventually the Donbass became a part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
During the Soviet period, the region was subjected to a policy of decossackization as part of the Soviet regimes social engineering strategy where nearly a quarter of the Cossack population was deported or killed. Joseph Stalin’s “Russification” further depleted the population and the Holodomor Famine (1932-1933) killed close to a quarter of the populations of Donetsk Oblast and Luhansk Oblast.
The Donbass was later occupied by the Nazi’s from 1941-1942 and served as a pivotal resource in their invasion of the Soviet Union.
Despite nearly half of the population of the Donbass by 1989 identifying themselves as Russian, the region voted to secede from the Soviet Union in 1991.
By 1993 as a part of Independent Ukraine, the economy of Donbass had crashed with the average wage dropping by 80% causing coal miners to go on strike. Contrary to widespread support for proposed measures in 1994 to grant more autonomy from the central government in Kiev and the acceptance of Russian as an enshrined language of the Donbass, the area remained a part of the Ukraine with Ukrainian as the official language.
During the early 2000’s, the Donbass fell victim to corruption and came under control of an increasingly powerful oligarchy as state-run industries became privatized. Additionally, the heavy influence of organized crime and illegal, unregulated mines threatened the safety of industrial workers and led to the Donbass’s reputation as a “Mafia State.”
Current Conflict with Ukraine
On November 21, 2013 demonstrators gathered in Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnos) in Kiev to protest Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s failure to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU), instead favoring closer ties with Russia.
A violent suppression of a peaceful protest several days later escalated tensions and began a series of violent conflicts between protestors and police, eventually forcing Yanukovych to flee the country and leading to the establishment of a new pro-western government in what would come to be called the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution.
Named Euromaidan (literally “Euro-square”) in reference to the city squares in Kiev used to stage protests, the violent upheaval of the regime gave rise to counter agitation—the annexation of Crimea and pro-Russian protests across Eastern Ukraine.
In April 2014, Pro-Russian insurgents quickly took control of government buildings in Donetsk and other major cities in the Donbass and established two separatist states, the DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic) and LPR (Luhansk People’s Republic).
Fighting escalated in the following months with several battles fought over the Donetsk International Airport which was initially captured by rebel forces on May 22nd and fighting at Russian border crossing points and key cities.
On July 17, a passenger carrier, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, was shot down over Hrabove by a Russian Buk surface-to-air-missile believed by Dutch investigators to have been fired from rebel held territory killing all 298 people on board.
In September 2014 a ceasefire was enacted following peace talks in Minsk but was violated repeatedly by both sides. A second summit took place in February 2015 (Minsk II) but also failed to stop the violence until fighting diminished during 2016 amidst anti-war protests.
However, hostilities renewed in January 2017 centered in the Ukrainian controlled city of Akdiivka. Since then, armed skirmishes have continued punctuated by a series of failed ceasefires, the latest of which was enacted on March 10. However, fighting continues still today.
The War in Donbass has claimed the lives of an estimated 10,000 people, 3,000 of which were reported to be civilians and has displaced some 1.7 million people.
Today, Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic exercise a degree of autonomy as outlined in the peace agreement at Minsk II but remain a part of Ukraine. Checkpoints with queues reported at up to 6 hours long prevent the free movement of civilians and strict Ukrainian policies regarding the flow of commercial goods to rebel held areas also limit the distribution of medicine and other necessary supplies.
Due to the heavy influence of Russian supplied weapons and undeclared supporting troops, a debate continues as to whether the conflict is internal (i.e. a Ukrainian civil war) or an external, international conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
The Donbass has suffered the tragic and destructive consequences of war for hundreds of years and, as long as external forces continue to influence local politics, it appears that it will continue for the foreseeable future.
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