Donbas region in eastern Ukraine has been a hotbed of tensions between Ukraine and Russia for years, and few people truly understand what it is really about.Source: Blic
It all culminated on Monday when Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of two Moscow-backed breakaway enclaves calling themselves the Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People's Republic (LNR). Nobody knows if it will end there.
The pro-Russian separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, which Moscow recognized as independent on Monday which haven't been under Kiev's control since 2014, are located in the Donets Coal Basin (Donbas for short) in eastern Ukraine, where most Russians speak Russian.
The Donetsk and Luhansk regions are, therefore, part of the larger Donbas region. The war between separatists and the authorities in Kiev since 2014 has killed almost 15.000 people.
Each of the two separatist republics recognized by Putin occupies about a third of the region in which they are located - Donetsk and Luhansk. When Russian-backed rebels seized government buildings in cities across eastern Ukraine in 2014, clashes erupted, leaving two areas in the Donbas region in the hands of separatists.
The conflict erupted immediately after Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula, which provoked international condemnation. The international community did not recognize their independence, which was declared after the referendum.
The separatist-controlled areas of Donbas became known as the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) and the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR). The Ukrainian government claims that the two regions are actually under Russian occupation. Only Russia now recognizes the self-proclaimed republics, and the Ukrainian authorities refuse to talk directly to any of them.
The city of Donetsk (formerly called Stalin) is the largest city in Donbas and one of the main metallurgical centers of Ukraine. It has a population of two million. Luhansk (former Voroshilovgrad) is an industrial city with 1.5 million inhabitants.
In his address to the nation, Putin said that 800.000 Russians live in Donetsk and Luhansk. The Donbas basin, an area along the border with Russia on the northern Black Sea coast, hides large reserves of coal and other ores. The Donetsk People's Republic has a mixed economy.
After the large-scale privatization process of the late 1990s, most companies in the Donetsk People's Republic are now privately owned. The economy is based on a mixture of heavy industry (steel production), electricity production and textile production, which together account for about 80% of total industrial production. According to some data, Donetsk and Luhansk are considered to be the richest regions in Ukraine.
And the weapon?
The war in Ukraine has been going on for almost eight years. Clashes in the Donbas region killed more than 14.000 people during the period, and Ukraine said 1.5 million people were forced to flee their homes, most of them in areas of Donbas still under Ukrainian control.
In this nominally civil war, Russian separatists, who occupied a part of the province of Donbas in eastern Ukraine and unilaterally declared the states of Donetsk and Luhansk, were not left without modern Russian weapons at any time. Despite Russian denials, numerous pieces of evidence on the ground indicate that the Russian military actively supports them.
The Ukrainian army did not try to liberate that territory in those eight years or after the conclusion of the agreement in Minsk in 2014 and 2015. United States and other Western countries have warned several times in the last month that Russia plans to either provoke an incident in the area held by the rebels or to stage it itself in order to justify the attack.
Kiev has accused Russian separatists of armed attacks, including shelling kindergartens and schools, while separatists have accused Ukrainian forces of opening fire on their territory. Ukrainian forces claim that they are refraining from responding to Russian shelling in order not to "provoke" a counterattack by Russian forces, which Moscow seems to be counting on.
What does Russia want?
Russia wants Donetsk and Luhansk to gain autonomy that gives them an effective veto on major changes in Ukraine's orientation - that is, on EU and NATO integration, which is supported by a significant majority of the country's 41 million inhabitants.
Putin described Russians and Ukrainians as one people, writing in an essay published on the Kremlin's website in July that "Ukraine's true sovereignty is possible only in partnership with Russia."
The latest official census from 2001 showed that more than half of the population in Crimea and Donetsk identified Russian as their mother tongue. But describing eastern Ukraine as home to mostly Russian-speaking people and the Ukrainian-dominated West is greatly simplified. Many in the eastern parts speak Ukrainian or a Russian-Ukrainian mixture called Surzhyk.
However, Putin has repeatedly referred to the idea of a recognizable regional identity of Donbas as a basis for "defending" his Russian-speaking people from an allegedly intolerant Ukraine. The separatists also used this identity to incite a revolt against Kiev, Time magazine writes.