Since pro-Russian groups declared their separatism in eastern Ukraine in 2014, violating Ukrainian territorial integrity, the region has seen heavy clashes between Kiev and the separatists.
With the withdrawal of Russian forces from northern Ukraine, it’s easy to see the indelible wounds it has left on Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, which Vladimir Putin calls the mother of all Russian cities.
But the withdrawal does not mean the end of Moscow’s military engagement in Ukraine, it’s more of a pause to regroup Russian troops and switch attention to eastern Ukraine, the ultimate focus for Putin’s endgame, according to the Kremlin.
Prior to Russia's full-fledged attack on Ukraine in February, many analysts had speculated that Putin would aim to take over eastern Ukraine, where two pro-Russian separatist regions are located in violation of Kiev’s territorial integrity.
But why eastern Ukraine?
There are various reasons for Moscow’s interest, ranging from the region’s significant Russian population to its rich oil and gas fields. But the main reason is rooted in a military stalemate between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists in the region, which goes back to 2014, a crucial year for both Kiev and Moscow.
In 2014, the Revolution of Dignity or Maidan Revolution ousted a pro-Russian Ukrainian government led by Viktor Yanukovych, a native of the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, and ties between Kiev and Moscow significantly deteriorated.
Russia fiercely opposed the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, which marked the second wave of the pro-Western Orange Revolution in 2004, strengthening Kiev’s ties with both the EU and NATO. Moscow responded to it by annexing the Crimean Peninsula in a violation of international law.
While the annexation of Crimea, where a Russian majority lives, was largely peaceful after an illegal referendum, a similar scenario did not emerge in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-speaking people are a significant minority, except in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the two Russian-majority areas.
As a result, in Donetsk and Luhansk, pro-Russian separatists started an insurgency against Kiev with a degree of support from locals and took control of parts of the two regions, which are located in Ukraine’s Donbass region.
While pro-Russian rebels received substantial support from Moscow, including soldiers and arms, they could not hold most of the Donbass region against Ukraine’s intense military efforts backed by volunteers.
From 2014 to the start of the 2022 military conflict, more than 13,000 people had been killed in eastern Ukraine and some media reports show that Moscow had also lost more than 2,000 Russian soldiers. Over one million Ukrainians had fled to countries like Russia and other states, while 1.6 million Ukrainians had been internally displaced due to the ongoing conflict.
There were several ceasefires, as many as 29, as places like Mariupol changed hands between the separatists and Ukrainian forces during the ongoing conflict in the Donbass region.
There was also a serious international initiative called the Minsk agreement, initiated by France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, which helped decrease hostilities, but fighting continued regardless. According to the agreement, Ukraine should be decentralised, giving the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic “special status.” Ukraine did not implement those changes.
The stalemate created a headache for the Kremlin, which debated whether or not to intervene directly in the conflict to carve out separatist enclaves in Ukraine, as it had in Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two pro-Russian breakaway regions, in 2008.
In the end, the Russian attack began on February 24, a fateful day, which might have been purposely chosen to send a cryptic message to Kiev, whose anti-Moscow 2014 revolution had ended on February 23 eight years ago, ousting Yanukovych.
While Russians labelled the attack as “special military operations” aiming to liberate Ukraine and de-Nazify it, they faced real resistance even in eastern Ukraine from Kharkiv to Mariupol, where the cities’ largely Russian-speaking people opposed Moscow’s assault, backing Kiev’s territorial integrity.
After 48 days of fierce clashes, Russian troops could capture neither Kharkiv nor Mariupol, despite turning both locations to rubble.
What people in eastern Ukraine think
One-third of Ukraine’s total population lives in eastern Ukraine and the bulk of the country’s natural resources are located in the Donbass region, which holds 92.4 percent of Ukrainian coal reserves. Ukraine has the world’s seventh-biggest coal reserves. The 2001 census showed that the majority of the region is made up of ethnic Ukrainians.
According to different surveys, most people in eastern Ukraine prefer to stay under Kiev’s rule. A 2007 poll found that nearly 78 percent of its respondents did not want to separate from Ukraine.
Another poll from 2014, which was carried out by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, also showed that a minority, nearly 26 percent, expressed that Ukraine and Russia should join under a single state.
But a 2015 poll from the International Republican Institute (IRI) conducted in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where the military conflict between pro-Russian groups and the Ukrainian army has been fierce since 2014, produced even more interesting results.
While Russian-speaking people constitute a majority in the two regions, 75 percent of respondents expressed that the Donbass region, which covers both Donetsk and Luhansk, should stay within Ukraine. But the poll could not be conducted in areas under separatist control and as a result, it’s not clear what people living under pro-Russian rebels believed.
“Despite Russia’s continued efforts to drive a wedge between the Donbass and the rest of Ukraine and its continued violations of the Minsk Agreement, as confirmed by President Putin himself, the people of Ukraine, including those living in the Ukrainian-controlled areas of the Donbass, want to preserve the territorial integrity of their country,” said Stephen Nix, the director of Eurasia programs at IRI, an American NGO.
The same poll also found that 82 percent of Russian-speaking people felt under no pressure or threat from Kiev and 71 percent did not support a military intervention by Russia.
But 47 percent of respondents in the Donbass region said that they were against joining NATO. Also, more people in eastern Ukraine appeared to choose a customs union with Russia rather than the EU, according to the same poll.
In terms of politics, eastern Ukrainians have long supported politicians like Viktor Yanukovych, the former pro-Russian president, who defended the neutrality of Kiev. While Yanukovych, an eastern Ukrainian, received substantial support from the region, he met a lot of criticism from western Ukrainian populations during his presidency.
With the ousting of Yanukovych, a politician who had unsuccessfully tried to develop a balancing act between Russia and the West, the eastern Ukraine conflict started. His Party of Regions, which received substantial support in eastern Ukraine, collapsed after 2014. The Communist Party of Ukraine, which was banned by Kiev in 2015, was also popular in the region.
Kiev has one official language, Ukrainian, which sometimes creates problems in the daily lives of Russian-speaking people of eastern Ukraine. The language issue has been one of the points of contention in negotiations between Russia and Moscow aimed at reaching a peace deal to end the military conflict.
Russian has long been a common language across eastern Ukraine, and Kiev tried to address the language issue through a 2012 law, which allowed local languages spoken by more than 10 percent of any given area’s population to be official in that region. But the law was found unconstitutional by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court in 2018.
A 2015 survey found that 61 percent in the Donbass region believed that Russian should be a second official local language in their area and other regions where significant Russian-speaking people reside. But only 31 percent of the respondents from the Donbass region thought that Russian should be an official state language alongside Ukrainian.