The self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk have been in a low-boil conflict with the Ukrainian government for nearly a decade. For most of that time, these two enclaves in Ukraine’s Donbas region were rarely mentioned in the global media, though nearly 14,000 people have been killed in the fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed militias. As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy put it in a recent speech, “Let’s be honest, the war in Donbas has been going on for eight years.”
That war has now entered a dangerous new phase. In a dramatic escalation of the Ukraine crisis on Monday night, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree formally recognizing the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, and ordered Russia’s military to enter the territories for what the Kremlin is calling “peacekeeping duties.” The move followed weeks of tension, as Russia gathered more than 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders and Russian separatists shelled a preschool and other civilian locations in Luhansk. On Tuesday morning, it appeared that Russian troops were moving into the two regions, though the long-feared, full-scale invasion had not yet begun.
While much of the global discussion around the Ukraine crisis has focused on issues of grand strategy — NATO enlargement and military deployments in Eastern Europe — it’s been clear for weeks that if a full-scale war were to break out, Donetsk and Luhansk would likely be the spark. Understanding how they came into existence, and how that low-boil war has been waged, may help in understanding the next phases and moves in the Ukraine conflict.
Flashpoints for war: How we got here
Luhansk is a city of 1.5 million; Donetsk is home to 2 million people. They are the largest cities in the Donbas, along the Russian border in eastern Ukraine, a region known as a center for mining and steel production.
Eastern Ukraine is traditionally more Russian both culturally and linguistically, an affinity reflected in the region’s politics. In Ukraine’s 2010 election, the east voted heavily for Moscow’s preferred candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, while western Ukraine went for his pro-European opponent. In 2014, Yanukovych was overthrown amid mass protests against his pro-Russian drift. In the chaos that ensued, Russia quickly and easily annexed the predominantly Russian-speaking Crimea; many Russians wanted Moscow to go further than that.
That low-boil conflict in the east was inspired by Russia’s takeover in Crimea. Soon after, pro-Russian separatists took to the streets to demonstrate against the Ukrainian government, protests that were encouraged by Moscow. Separatist militias seized government buildings in several eastern cities, including Luhansk and Donetsk. The Kremlin sent troops into eastern Ukraine and provided funding and weapons to back the separatists, all the while denying that it was providing such support. But the separatists encountered stiffer resistance than expected — in one infamous incident in May 2014, 40 were killed in clashes with pro-Ukrainian activists in Odessa. Enthusiasm in Moscow for annexing large swathes of Eastern Ukraine began to wane.
At that point, Donetsk and Luhansk became more than just two important regions in the Donbas. Russian separatists managed to hold onto parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, with a combined area of a little over 6,000 square miles and population of around 2.9 million. On May 11, 2014, both regions held referendums declaring their independence from Ukraine, proclaiming the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
Until this week, no other country — not even Russia — had recognized their independence.
A peace deal — that wasn’t
In 2014 and 2015, Ukraine signed two ceasefire deals with the Russian separatists, known collectively as the Minsk agreements. In exchange for an end to the fighting and full withdrawal of Russian forces, Ukraine agreed to pass laws granting special status and greater autonomy to the breakaway regions. While the Minsk agreements tamped down the fighting for a short time, neither side lived up to its end of the deal. The Russians never pulled their forces; Ukraine never passed laws granting the separatists greater autonomy. Many Ukrainians argued that legitimizing these regions and granting them special status would essentially give Moscow a say over Ukraine’s domestic politics.
While Ukraine refers to Luhansk and Donetsk as “temporarily occupied territories,” and they certainly depend on Russian support, it’s worth noting that the separatists and Russia have not always seen eye to eye. The original separatist leaders hoped to be formally absorbed into Russia itself, a goal the Kremlin had mostly abandoned, at least until now. Putin initially had to pressure the separatist leaders into signing the Minsk agreements; they hadn’t been enthusiastic about being reintegrated into Ukraine, even with special status. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed the idea of recognizing the territories in 2018, saying it would result in losing “the rest of Ukraine.”
In the years since Minsk, the regions have grown closer to Russia. Ukraine cut off government salaries and pensions to the region after 2014 imposed a boycott on its mines and factories, which once produced the bulk of the country’s coal and steel. This has left the local economy heavily dependent on millions of dollars of Russian aid.
The regions have ditched the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, in favor of the Russian ruble, and schools there follow the Russian curriculum. Some 720,000 residents of the regions have also received Russian passports. (This may be as much about practicality as ideology. It’s not exactly easy to travel on a Donetsk or Luhansk People’s Republic passport.)
Political participation and media freedom are pretty dismal in the two republics, so it can be hard to get a real sense of public opinion, but from what we do know, support for the separatist project is hardly universal. A 2019 poll by the Germany-based Center for East European and International Studies found that slightly more than half of residents wanted to be absorbed back into Ukraine; 45 percent wanted to become part of Russia.
Russia to the rescue
Even before Monday’s announcement, Putin had been building the case for military intervention in Ukraine as necessary to protect Russian speakers in Donetsk and Luhansk. They were at risk of attack from Ukrainian forces, Putin said; he went so far as to accuse the Ukrainian government of “genocide” in the region. It was a wild claim — even by the standards of Russian disinformation.
The Russian government appeared, at least until Monday, to be running a version of its playbook from the 2008 war in Georgia. In the run-up to that conflict, Georgian forces and Russian-backed South Ossetian separatists traded fire, the Russian military held large drills just over the border, and civilians were evacuated to Russia. Georgia responded to the rising hostilities with a major military offensive. Technically speaking, as later investigations found, Georgia shot first, which gave Russia the pretext it needed to invade the country, rout its military, then recognize its breakaway regions as independent.
The difference now is that Ukraine’s government hasn’t taken the bait. For all the Russian shelling and threatening language, Ukraine has refrained from any operation to retake the separatist regions, and Putin appears to have adjusted the playbook accordingly. Without the pretext of a Ukrainian attack, he has chosen instead to formally recognize the two regions before sending in troops.
It’s not immediately clear what Russia gains from this recognition. On the one hand, Putin can claim an informal takeover of these two territories that have been a focal point of conflict for the last eight years. On the other, it certainly won’t help accomplish Putin’s main goal of keeping Ukraine — all of Ukraine, that is — from seeking closer economic and military integration into Europe.
In some ways, Putin has done the Ukrainian president a favor. The U.S. had reportedly been urging the Ukrainian government to implement the extremely unpopular Minsk agreements, granting the regions more autonomy, as a concession to Russia that might have helped end the crisis. Now, Zelenskyy can say that it was Putin who abandoned the deal.
Meanwhile, by keeping these regions severed from Ukraine, Russia has effectively removed nearly 3 million ostensibly pro-Russian voters from Ukrainian politics. And to the extent that Putin actually cares about the rights of Russian speakers in greater Ukraine, this will not serve them well: While it’s hardly “genocide,” the Ukrainian government has received some reasonable criticism for laws that seem aimed at blocking the Russian language from the media and education. Mainstream Ukrainian politics is likely to become even more anti-Russian now.
As for the residents of the people’s republics, they get the worst of both worlds, languishing in a kind of stateless limbo, part of neither country and isolated from the world. (This could change if Russia decides to back a Crimea-style referendum on formally absorbing the regions into Russia.)
So what is Putin up to? There’s a chance that this sets up an off-ramp from the crisis. If Russia moves its troops into the Donbas, the Ukrainian military is unlikely to be able to make them leave. The Kremlin could perhaps sell this domestically as a win, without the kind of bloodshed that fighting in the rest of Ukraine would entail. While the move is being met with international condemnation and some sanctions are being put in place, some of Ukraine’s allies may be reluctant to go to the mat with Russia over areas that were essentially under Russian control already.
On the other hand, listening to Putin on Monday, the Russian leader sounded like a man with broader ambitions. He excoriated Zelenskyy and his government and questioned Ukraine’s legitimacy as a nation; it’s possible that Donetsk and Luhansk are only a first step toward wider escalation. The Russian military may try to expand the territory under the separatists’ control or use some Ukrainian action against the newly recognized republics — real or fabricated — as the pretext for launching a wider war.
It was always clear that a Russia-Ukraine war would start with Donetsk and Luhansk. It’s harder to know whether it will end with them.