Donetsk and Luhansk

Written by Syed Haris Shah and Khushbakht Ayesha 11:47 am Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content

Examining the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics in Ukraine’s Donbas Region

In 2014, separatist groups backed by Russia declared the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine “republics.” Since then, they’ve been accused of committing war crimes and assisting Russia in its attacks on Ukraine. The authors, Syed Haris Shah and Khushbakht Ayesha, analyze the pro-Russian ideology of the leadership of these two self-proclaimed republics in Ukraine’s Donbas region and their role in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.
About the Author(s)
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Syed Haris Shah is a pupil of peace and conflict studies at National Defence University, Islamabad.

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Khushbakht Ayesha is a student at National Defence University, Islamabad. She observes the developments in intra-state conflicts and the position of insurgent/separatist organizations in global affairs.

The Two Republics

The secessionist organizations in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of eastern Ukraine, collectively known as Donbas, are responsible for committing several war crimes during 2014’s crisis in Donbas. The organizations have been ostensibly supported by Moscow to combat the Ukrainian forces resisting Russian aggression. Today, they are recognized as two states by the Russian Federation, despite being two insurgent groups that can play important role in being Russia’s diplomatic card or a strategic jetton in the contemporary gamble of invading Ukraine.

When the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) came to the front in early April 2014, their origins were murky, to say the least. Their self-appointed leaders were unknown. Prior to 2014, the organizations they represented may be regarded as politically marginal.

Nonetheless, separatist sentiment in the Donbas region began to increase. Large crowds accompanied armed militants as they took over regional government facilities in Donetsk in April 2014. Both republics are administered by separatist governments that are commonly regarded as Russian puppet entities within Ukraine.

They have been at odds with Kyiv since 2014, which refers to them as “temporarily occupied territories,” analogous to Crimea. Since declaring their existence during the Ukrainian revolution in 2014, they have received military and financial support from Moscow. Moreover, they were marginalized from getting the resources that were fixed in Ukraine’s share for the people of the region and had to set trade decrees with the Kremlin.

Pro-Russian Ideology and Novorossiya

The Russian-styled schooling systems had already been sustained in the two eastern Ukraine de facto republics, endorsed by the governing bodies there. In terms of ideology, Russian ethnic and imperialist nationalism shaped the official ideology of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics. Far-right nationalist groups have played a larger role on the pro-Russian side of the Russia-Ukraine war than on the Ukrainian side, particularly in the early stages.

Donetsk People’s Militia leaders are strongly related to the neo-Nazi party led by Alexander Barkashov—Russian National Unity (RNU)— which has recruited many fighters. Pavel Gubarev, a former RNU member, founded the Donbas People’s Militia and was the first “governor” of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Anyhow, the roots of this separatism have a major influence from neo-Stalinism, as the governments had restored the laws of the Soviet era in their controlled areas, allowing for capital punishment to be imposed for several crimes.

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The two entities had also established secret police services with assistance from Moscow and conducted severe crackdowns on the voices of dissent, political opposition, or businessmen who did not make donations for the republics’ “noble” cause. The separatists even raised pro-Russian slogans in Kharkiv, calling for Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, before the 2014 Donbas crisis.

The Russian Orthodox Army, a religious ultra-nationalist militia that became part of the Donetsk People’s Militia, was particularly tied to the RNU. For supporters of Russian imperial ideology, even a temporary peace with Ukraine was undesirable; their objective was to liberate Novorossiya (eight provinces) from the Ukrainian government, and they sought to conquer Kyiv and Lviv.

Novorossiya (New Russia) refers to a historically huge area of modern-day Ukraine ranging from Luhansk and Donetsk in the east to Odessa in the west. From the 18th century until the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991, Russia (then USSR) ruled over this territory. After its “rediscovery” in the last decade, Novorossiya now includes the provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Odessa.

If Putin can make this vision a reality, Moscow will control the whole northern coastline of the Black Sea, as well as a large band of continuous land reaching from Russia’s present western borders to the borders of Romania and Moldova. Hence, the official ideology of the DNR and LNR, which was largely influenced by Russian far-right activists, is right-wing, conservative, nationalistic, and xenophobic in nature.

The two self-declared people’s republics inside the Donbas region had controlled much of the coal-rich areas of Luhansk and Donetsk, definitely with the aim to serve the interests of Moscow. A “Line of Contact,” established as a result of the Donbas conflict, used to exist before Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine.

The line separated the separatist-controlled areas from the rest of the Kyiv-controlled areas of Ukraine. The political status of the two administrative regions is still disputed, as Russia diplomatically recognized them as two independent republics at the start of its invasion of Ukraine.

Current Status of Luhansk and Donetsk Republics

DPR and LPR were declared independent republics by the Russian government of Vladimir Putin in February 2022—eight years after their emergence in 2014. Putin stated, “I deem it necessary to make a decision that should have been made a long time ago – to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR).”

Russia’s suit has only been followed by Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, and the breakaway Russian-backed provinces of Georgia, Nicaragua, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. Politicians, journalists, and academia still doubt whether Russia had recognized the status of these two republics within the former and so-called Line of Contact, or not.

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Anyhow, according to the statement of the deputy foreign minister of Russia, Andrey Rudenko, Russia recognizes “the borders, where the leadership of the DPR and LPR are executing their authority”. There was condemnation from the side of Western powers on the international level, the United States instructed its business community to not conduct business with the de facto republics being recognized by the Kremlin.

Before the invasion of Russia against Ukraine took place, warnings were already set off in Kyiv and other capitals of the West. These warnings claimed that Russia might use false information about Ukrainian attacks on the eastern republics as an excuse to intervene on their behalf in Ukraine. Moreover, the two separatist entities in the Donbas region, collaborating with Russia in its misadventure of Ukraine, had put their claims over the remaining areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in Ukraine.

The DPR and LPR currently find themselves as two entities like the breakaway parts of Georgia backed by Russia—Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. There is no doubt that these two separatist-controlled entities became the major trigger for the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, as many political activists and leading representatives inside DPR and LPR were in favor of Russia going for an all-out war against Ukraine in 2022.

The pro-Russian population inside Donetsk and Luhansk, that keeps Russian documentation and passports was helpful for Russia to attack the territory of Ukraine, to counter the so-called motives of “genocide” conducted by Ukraine, and protect the ethnic Russians in Donbas.

When it comes to Ukraine, the motive of the pro-Russian separatists is almost similar to Russia. Both want to counter the “threat of Nazism” to ethnic Russians. Allegations were made by pro-Kremlin political activists and students inside Donetsk that the Ukrainian military was responsible for the destruction of buildings and villages inside Donbas, along with the killing of people on basis of Russophobia.

The politicians and pro-Russian intellectuals had raised this point to justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to not only combat Ukraine’s military inside the Donbas region but to also combat the far-right units of Ukraine like the “Azov Regiment”. There is no doubt that separatist-controlled de facto republics are playing a pivotal role in assisting the Russian armed forces, even when Russian forces are withdrawing from some parts of occupied Ukraine.

Donetsk’s leadership along with its militant units had already been deployed against the troops of Ukraine. The political leadership in both Luhansk and Donetsk welcomed the invasion led by Russia. It is reported that at the start of April 2022, the media groups run by LPR and DPR had mentioned that there are additional deployments of Russian troops inside the Donbas region, where the separatist militias are backing them in the war against Ukraine.

The two groups have also committed several human rights violations and war crimes during the Russian invasion and have helped the forces of Russia conduct false-flag operations within the lines of Ukrainian forces. According to a report by the Human Rights Watch, the LPR and DPR have already committed major human rights violations and violated the international law’s applicability with respect to the legal point of “occupied lands.”

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Along with the Ukrainian and Russian armed forces, the self-proclaimed republics’ militants are also being denounced for the violation of the Geneva Conventions. The main leaders of these two self-proclaimed republics evacuated their citizens to Russia at the start of the war.

Future of Separatist Groups in Donbas

The conflict that emerged due to the Russian-led invasion is still continuing although diplomatic efforts through talks are also going on in Istanbul, hosted by the Turkish government to mediate a way forward between Kyiv and Moscow. There are reports from the developments being made in Turkey that both parties are closer to the point of ending the war than ever before.

These developments were raised after Russia received a number of setbacks and was involved in war crimes during the conflict. Now, what will be the stakes of those separatist entities which are operating as self-proclaimed republics inside the region of Donbas, Ukraine?

When the discussion of recognition of these two so-called republics was going on in the Duma of the Russian Federation, President Putin was of the view that they can be used as bargaining chips. There is no doubt that these two entities were also used as bargaining chips after the crisis in Ukraine in 2014 by the Kremlin, but there were some clauses that favored Ukraine with respect to the Minsk Agreement, that has already been violated.

Even after recognizing the two republics, Russia has the potential to use the two entities as leverage over the sanctions instigated against it, which put a lot of financial pressure on Moscow. These two republics can also be used for restricting Ukraine from joining NATO, for which Zelensky is already making a diplomatic strategy by only looking forward to Euro-Atlantic alliances like the European Union (EU). The voices of the leadership inside Luhansk and Donetsk will also be heard to justify their stances, as Turkey is also trying to bring the two separatist entities to the table.

Conclusion

As per personal observation, the two self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk will be given the same status as the political entities existing inside the state of Georgia, being backed by Moscow—South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The existence of these two entities will be a guarantee for Moscow to oversee the developments inside Ukraine as well as to counter any chances of Ukraine having a position in NATO, for which, Russia is now denying to take part in the ongoing peace process in Istanbul.


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