An Introduction To The Donetsk And Lugansk Republics

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The flags of Donetsk and Lugansk Republics. Note the similarity to the Russian national flag. The only difference is the highest band, black in the case of Donetsk as it is a coal mining region, blue for Lugansk’s position on the Donets River. Both declared independence from Ukraine in 2014 with a civil war in process ever since. Russia recognized them as independent republics yesterday, has sent in military support and is keen to see the eight-year conflict finally resolved. The West disapproves and has imposed sanctions.

By Chris Devonshire-Ellis

An explanation as to the background of Russia’s moves into Donbas

Russian President Putin yesterday (Monday, February 21) signed a Presidential Decree following a resolution passed by the Russian State Duma (Parliament) last week to recognize the Donetsk and Lugansk regions of Eastern Ukraine as independent Republics. Collectively known as Donbas, both Donetsk and Lugansk declared their own independence from Ukraine in March 2014, resulting in a civil war that has been on-going now for eight years. Some 15,000 people have died including about 4,000 civilians. 730,000 refugees have fled the fighting and moved to Russia – a telling demographic statistic.

The conflict has arisen largely due to ethnic issues. Ukraine has been attempting to make a justification for it being a distinct country and culture from Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. This has meant that the predominantly pro-Russian population in the east of Ukraine have been discriminated against, with the Russian language being reduced to secondary status while much needed infrastructure developments and Central Government funding have tended to be diverted to Western Ukraine, leaving the East of Ukraine relatively impoverished.

This is a similar issue to that of Crimea, where an (illegal, but locally requested referendum) showed that 98% of Crimeans wanted to return to governance by Moscow rather than Kiev. It is significant that during the occupation by Russian armed forces of Crimea in 2014 there was no fighting and no casualties. The United Kingdom faced similar issues in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s between Catholics and Protestants in a military conflict that lasted for nearly 30 years.

The Ukrainianization of Ukraine as being distinct from Russia has manifested itself in many ways, subtle and not-so-subtle. The name of the capital city for example was changed from Kiev (rhymes with Shev) to Kyiv (rhymes with Steve) by Presidential decree in 2018 as part of the ‘CorrectUA‘ campaign designed to promote a Ukrainian nationalist agenda at the expense of the Russian population. It is one example of how the Russian Ukrainians have felt marginalized in their own country, including financial issues such as non-payment of pensions and so on. Roughly 30% of Ukraine’s total population of 44 million consider themselves ethnically Russian as opposed to Ukrainian.

This is an issue that had been politically simmering for several years prior to the Crimea incident and the succession of Donbas and has been met with military force by Ukrainian nationalists. The situation has been on a war footing ever since.

The Abkhazia Precedent

There is precedent. Shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of Georgia as a sovereign state, the Georgian military began a series of atrocities against the ethnic Abkhazians to the North-West of the country, a situation described by some as a genocide. The Abkhazian national library was razed by Georgian forces, and atrocities committed on both sides. After several UN peacekeeping missions failed, Russia invaded Abkhazia and sent troops and military deep into Georgia, briefly possessing the capital Tbilisi, where they destroyed a few buildings, then withdrew. Abkhazia was then placed under Russian control to prevent further bloodshed, a situation that remains to this day and is a source of conflict between Russia and Georgia. However, the situation has remained peaceful ever since. The West has traditionally supported Georgia’s view that Abkhazia is Georgian territory and should be returned. Moscow’s view is that should this occur, regional factionalism and a return to ethnic violence would re-emerge.

Sanctions And Alternative Free Trade

The United States has said it will impose sanctions on the new Donetsk and Lugansk Republics, a moot point as trade between them, the United States and EU is minimal to non-existent. Signs that Russia would recognize them as independent states appeared very recently, when on January 3rd this year, Moscow agreed a Free Trade deal with the two Eastern Ukrainian regions as Ukraine had cut off trade supplies, and such a move would help circumnavigate existing Russian administrative trade and tariff regulations. It remains to be seen how this can be folded into the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) free trade bloc that also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. It should also be remembered that the EAEU has Free Trade Agreements with Serbia, Singapore, and Vietnam, while negotiations are on-going with China, Egypt, and India among many others.

The fact that the US has only imposed sanctions on Donetsk and Lugansk at this stage rather than Russia as a whole, is indicative of at least partial recognition by Washington of the situation in Donbas as being distinct from that in Ukraine per se.

What Next?

Much depends on whether Putin feels the main security threat posed by NATO towards Russia has been successfully dealt with or not. This is probably unlikely as the Ukrainian Provinces of Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkiv all border Russia and are relatively close to Moscow. A key tenet made by the Kremlin has been the withdrawal of NATO weapons and troops from the entire country, together with a promise that Ukraine will not join NATO in future.

It is also telling that a proposed summit between Biden and Putin, announced just two days ago will now almost certainly not take place – Putin has effectively shunned US overtures and diplomacy as not taking Russia’s security demands seriously. He has effectively put the phone down on Biden and NATO.

The West and United States will undoubtedly be highly critical and be looking to impose additional sanctions, with certainly the Ukrainian President being extremely voiciferous in his demands. Yet by moving into Donbas, Moscow has signaled its intent to stop the region descending into additional, sustained violence. Donetsk and Lugansk will then exist as Russian-controlled territories with local governments arranging the domestic security and well-being of the population and Russia backing that up with trade and redevelopment, the resettlement of refugees while supporting this with its military and finance until the regions are able to stand on their own, although a long term Russian military presence can be expected.

Further Incursion Possibilities & The Implications

The larger question now is whether Moscow will seek to annex the additional three Ukrainian Provinces on Russia’s border or seek to move into Ukraine as a total solution and bring the entire country back into its orbit. Both these measures will see long threatened, serious sanctions imposed by the United States and EU upon Russia. In terms of trade, this will effectively see a collapse of Russia-EU trade and supplies and spell the end of EU gas supplies from Russia, a situation that will inevitably result in gas shortages and permanently higher energy supplies to the EU as it will need to source elsewhere and build and finance the infrastructure to allow it to do so. The United States would see that as a win as it will supply the EU with a large part of its energy needs instead.

For Moscow, the loss of the EU as an energy client will be absorbed, it signed off a ten year, US$80 billion oil supply contract with Beijing just last week and is not short of other clients, with major consumers throughout Asia, including India.

The loss of EU trade will be a short-term inconvenience, sanctions imposed by the EU following the annexation of Crimea had been absorbed just four years later, with numerous EU product manufacturers simply relocating production to Russia instead to resume supplies, a form of technology transfer accelerated by sanctions imposition.

Last year, Russia’s exports to new markets in Asia had reached close to parity to its exports to Europe.  The EU’s sanctions policy has also partially damaged its own interests. As I pointed out here when Brussels imposed sanctions on Belarus in 2020, Minsk, a major supplier, retaliated by banning the export of fertilizers to the EU. That has left the EU with a serious shortage of fertilizers which is now impacting on EU crop yields and food prices. Minsk has instead found alternative clients to sell too. Its exports rose 33% among fellow EAEU members and 58% among non-EAEU member countries in 2021, while the EU now has crop yield and agri-consumables inflationary problems.

It remains to be seen what will happen next.


Population: 2.3 million
Capital City: Donetsk
Head of State: Denis Pushilin
Main Exports: Coal, Minerals


Population: 1.5 million
Capital City: Luhansk
Head of State: Leonid Pasechnik
Main Exports: Agriculture

Questions however must also be asked of the current Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy who took office in 2019. Famously a popular Ukranian ex-actor and comedian, he has little political experience, and has attempted to weld Ukraine, with its geopolitical position in Eastern Europe, to Western European ideologies while downplaying responsibilities to the Ukrainian East. It is a historical fact in Europe that the East and West have long been divided by different ideologies, be they political, religious or cultural. Attempting to position Ukraine into a country that can be both is proving to be a disaster. The West has taken precedence over the East with dramatic results.

At present, this seems a conflict that Europe, the United States and NATO are not in control of and one in which they have long ignored regional tensions, discontent, and violence. While the West calls Putin mad, in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea he is seen as a peacekeeper. Matching the West with the East under such circumstances is going to be extremely difficult. It will regrettably be Ukraine and the EU who will ultimately be paying the price.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is a Visiting Professor at St. Petersburg’s Higher School of Economics, part of Moscow State University. 

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