The complex history of eastern Ukraine

Eastern Ukraine

One of Russian President Vladimir Putin's pretexts for invading Ukraine has been his claim to be protecting Russian speakers in the eastern part of the country, which he is now trying to annex to Russia. It is therefore useful to look at the history of the conflict in that area.

The Maidan rebellion and the response in the Donbas

In 2013, the Ukrainian government, headed by president Viktor Yanukovich, decided not to seek membership in the European Union. Instead it sought closer relations with Russia.

In response, there were protests in Kyiv’s Maidan square by supporters of joining the EU. The protesters were joined by people concerned with other issues, such as government corruption. Participants included liberals, nationalists and fascists. The fascists played an important role, particularly in the violent confrontations. Yanukovych fled in February 2014. 

Soon afterwards, parliament passed a law depriving the Russian language of recognition as an official language of Ukraine. The law was vetoed by the acting president, but its passage by parliament deepened the alienation of Russian speakers, who were the majority of the population in eastern Ukraine, and most of whom had voted for Yanukovych in the previous election. This led to a rebellion in the Donbas region.

Ukrainian socialist Taras Bilous and Russian socialist Boris Kagarlitsky have both spoken about the Donbas rebellion. I think both make a useful contribution to understanding the situation.

Bilous's analysis

Bilous says that the situation in the Donbas in 2014 was "complicated". In a March 2022 interview[1] with the Italian left website Officine Civiche, he said:

Perhaps the best framework to explain the war in the Donbas is that of the conflict between two nationalisms, in which people of different views, including the left and the far right, took part on both sides.

On the pro-Russian side, the main three actors were: the grassroots movement, which emerged as a reaction to Maidan’s victory; the regional elites who tried to use the separatist movement to maintain their power, which they saw threatened by the new post-Maidan government; and Russia, whose actions have intensified violence and deepened the gap between the warring parties. Had it not been for Russia’s actions, the conflict in the Donbas might have been limited to street clashes between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian protesters, rather than escalating into a full-fledged war.

In the first months of the war, Russia sent only a few sabotage groups to Donbas while a large-scale offensive by the Russian regular army only took place in August 2014, when the threat of a defeat of the separatists arose. But the Russian presence has been there from the very beginning. The key event was the capture of the city of Sloviansk by the Strelkov-Girkin group [well-known nationalist leader and commander of several Russian neo-fascist battalions - note by Officine Civiche]. We do not know if he acted on direct instructions from the Moscow authorities, but it is obvious that he could not have assembled his detachment in occupied Crimea and crossed the border without the permission of the Russian authorities. Moreover, the annexation of Crimea also influenced events, radicalizing sentiment.... 

Secondly, at the start of the war in the Donbas in April 2014, opinion polls showed that only a minority in the Donbas wanted to join Russia or create independent republics. At the same time, however, over 70% considered the government formed after Maidan's victory to be illegal. The separatists and Russia took advantage of the high distrust and fear of the Donbas people towards the post-Maidan government, strongly inflaming the situation.

The war cut in two, with the front line, what was a single region and gradually widened the gap between the population on both sides of the line, while before the war the sentiment was more or less the same in different parts of the Donbas. In recent years, opinion polls have shown that, in the part of the Donbas controlled by Kiev, most people consider the return of the breakaway regions to Ukraine, without autonomy, as the best option for resolving the conflict, so that everything goes back to the way it was before the war. At the same time, in the separatist part of Donbas, most of those who remained there consider annexation to Russia as the best option. Obviously, when people on both sides have been asked about possible compromises, the picture is even more complicated.

Finally, it is important to say that while Russia uses the 'protection' of the Donbas population as a justification for the invasion, its actions demonstrate how hypocritical these words are. In the last few years before the invasion, the number of casualties in Donbas had decreased significantly, but now the number of civilians killed in the invasion has reached staggering proportions. Russia has razed small towns in the Donbas, such as Shchastya and Volnovakha, and is now doing the same with Mariupol. 

Kagarlitsky's analysis

Boris Kagalitsky[2] says that there are "three sides" in the Donbas:

The Ukrainian elites and the Ukrainian government on the one hand, and the Russian government on the other hand, but there are also people in Donbas who are kind of caught between these two sides. Initially, the rebellion in Donbas was started very much as a local thing. It was a local protest against what was happening in Kyiv when there was a coup d’état or whatever. Well, maybe they call it a revolution of dignity and so on. It doesn’t matter what you call it. The problem was that there was no legitimate government in Kyiv. The people of Donbas were rising against a government which had no legitimacy, was not elected by them, and was installed after this revolt in Kyiv, no matter what you call it. They didn’t care about their interests and their rights. In that sense, initially, the rebellion in Donbas was quite justified and was a popular rebellion.

However, after the attempt of the Ukrainian military to suppress it by force, of course, the Donbas movement had to look for support in Russia. On the other hand, the Russian side, the Russian government did everything to undermine the popular democratic movement in the Donbas....

Now, these republics are being run by totally corrupt puppets installed by Moscow. In that sense, the movement was eroded, and it lost its initial meaning. Of course, now we can’t say that there is any progressive [sic] in Donbas....

Those Donbas progressives, Donbas people, Russian progressives and leftists who supported them, they lost that battle in 2014 and 2015. Quite a few people who were central to this movement, to this effort, were actually killed. They were not killed by Ukrainian troops. They were killed by security forces within Donbas. These people were killed, and we have some reasons to think they were killed by the mercenaries sent from Russia... In the current circumstances, we have to repeat that it’s not the same Donbas movement nor the same Donbas republic as it used to be eight years ago.

Changes in Ukraine

Meanwhile there were significant changes in Ukraine. According to Bilous:

In recent years, the far right’s power in Ukraine has been subject to new challenges. Since Maidan, the development of liberal civil society has changed the balance of power in street politics. Until recently, there wasn’t always a clear line between the far right and other political forces. But this is also gradually changing due to the rise of feminist and LGBT movements, which oppose right-wing radicals. Finally, thanks to the campaign against the deportation of Belarusian anarchist Aleksey Bolenkov and the protection of the Podil district from the far right in Kyiv last year, there has been a resurgence of the antifa movement on the streets.[3]

As a result, the influence of the extreme right has declined. The election of Zelensky, who ran for president as a peace candidate, was a reflection of this. He received strong support in eastern Ukraine, but also majority support in most of the country. The far right vote declined.

Zelensky failed to bring peace. He has carried out neoliberal policies. Nevertheless, there was some reduction in the influence of the ultra-nationalist extreme right. Bilous says:

2010-2018 were the most successful years for the Ukrainian far right. They have been in crisis in recent years and last year has been particularly bad for them. Notably, last summer, following the resignation of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov (who is considered a patron of the Azov battalion), numerous arrests of right-wing extremists, including members of the National Corps (created on the basis of Azov) took place.[4]

Between 2018 and 2021 there was a decline in armed conflict on the ceasefire line, according to the reports of the ceasefire monitors from the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. The number of deaths fell from 162 in 2018 to 44 in 2021.

Nevertheless, beginning in 2021 Russia built up its forces on Ukraine’s border, in preparation for the invasion. Troops were brought in from Russia’s far east, close to the Chinese border. Kagarlitsky describes how he received reports about large scale movements of troops and military equipment along the Trans-Siberian Railway.[5]

Zelensky did not carry out his promise to make peace with Donbas. But there is no evidence he was planning to invade Donbas.

The Ukrainian army strengthened its forces along the ceasefire line in response to the Russian build-up. Zelensky talked of eventually recovering lost territory. But this was in the indefinite future. He had no immediate plan to do so by military action.

In February 2022 there was an increase in bombardments across the ceasefire line. This provided a pretext for the Russian invasion. But the invasion was planned well before that - as shown by the troop movements reported by Kagarlitsky.

Putin's motives

What then were the actual motives for the Russian invasion? Kagarlitsky emphasises domestic political reasons. Facing growing discontent in Russia, Putin wanted a war to promote national unity. He expected an easy victory that would boost his prestige. It turned out that Ukraine’s resistance was much stronger than expected, but Putin can not admit he made a mistake.

Kagarlitsky downplays economic motives. But I think the desire to control Ukraine's natural resources could be a supplementary factor. I think that geopolitics is also important. Putin wants to defend and expand Russia's sphere of influence.

Of course, the Western powers have similar economic and geostrategic goals. Their military aid to Ukraine is not motivated by altruism.

What should we advocate?

We should definitely demand Russian withdrawal from all areas seized since February 24, 2022. But what about areas under control of Russian-backed separatists before February?

In 2014, people in these areas were generally hostile to the Ukrainian government. At that time many would have been sympathetic to Russia, though whether these attitudes survived the repression and war is doubtful.

Ideally, UN-supervised referendums would have been the best solution. However, massive population displacement and intimidation by the various armies and militias would make this difficult to carry out now.

Russia's proclamation of the annexation of four provinces implies rejection of any independent referendum to ascertain people's wishes. This is unlikely to change unless there is either a Russian military defeat, or the rise of a massive peace movement in Russia that could force the government to change its policy.

Even then, creating a situation where people in eastern Ukraine feel free to vote in a referendum will not be easy. Perhaps a UN peace-keeping force might help.

We should call for the cancellation of Ukraine's debts, and aid for rebuilding Ukraine when the war is over.


[1] Interview with Taras Bilous by Lorenzo Natella for Italian website Officine Civiche:

[2] Interview with Boris Kagarlitsky by Paul Jay, June 2022

[3] Taras Bilous: Self-determination and the War in Ukraine:

[4] Taras Bilous interview with Officine Civiche

[5] Kagarlitsky interview with Paul Jay, as above