The territory of Ukraine has been occupied many times by the Russian Federation, in its various forms and the currently frozen conflict in the Donbass is another example of Russia’s occupation of Ukraine. The Donbass is in Eastern Ukraine close to Ukraine’s border with Russia. The Donbass is comprised of several oblasts (regions) within Ukraine, called Donetsk and Luhansk, and in Russia, called Rostov. The Donbass is a poorly demarcated region, as is the case for most frozen conflicts, due to the fact that the area is highly contested between Russia and the Ukraine. Additionally, the Donbass is a term used to describe the area’s geographic qualities, i.e. that it is the Donets Basin, which is where the name Donbass comes from. In general, the conflict is between pro-Russian, Ukrainian separatists, Ukrainian armed forces, and Russian armed forces and is particularly sensitive given the Russian annexation of another Ukrainian region close to the Black Sea in the south of Ukraine.
The annexation of Crimea and the subsequent conflict that arose in the Donbass region shortly after the former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, fled Ukraine after the Euromaidan protests erupted in Ukraine. The cause of the Euromaidan protests largely came from Yanukovych’s decision not to ratify a partnership deal between Ukraine and the European Union, which would have moved Ukraine more decisively out of Russia’s sphere of influence and more into the European neighborhood. The complexity of the Donbass region is directly reflective of Ukraine’s perpetual status of existing between a rock (Russia) and a hard place (the European Union), where moves in any direction run the risk of either becoming more firmly placed under the sway of Russia’s, or invoking the ire of the Kremlin, neither being particularly advantageous. Thus, the frozen conflict in the Donbass is a result of a geopolitical tussle between many actors in the region and is made more complicated by the fact that the Donbass is also very energy rich and has significant coal and hydrocarbon deposits.
After Yanukovych fled Ukraine in February of 2014, hostilities began between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces, and the conflict increased in intensity when Russian reinforcements entered the Donbass. In order to stem the violence, the first Minsk agreement was signed with the aim to create a ceasefire on September 5th, 2015, however, it did not last very long, and conflict erupted again. The conflict between Russian forces and pro-Russian separatists continued against Ukrainian forces, and resulted in the creation of a second ceasefire agreement, known commonly as Minsk II. This agreement is a 13 point-plan which is meant to detail the withdrawal of heavy weapons with the aim of ending the conflict. The withdrawal of weapons is being overseen by a neutral, security organization called the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Minsk II was meant to resolve the conflict in the area by causing an immediate end to violence in the area which would be then followed by a supervised arms withdrawal by a third-party organization, an increase in decentralized powers to the disputed oblasts, as well as economic reintegration of the Donbass for Ukraine. However, as with many ceasefire agreements that have occurred in post-Soviet spaces, like in Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia, the agreements have not had much staying power.
To put it simply, the Minsk II agreement was destined to fail. The ceasefire agreement was hastily thrown together in order to given an appearance of progress towards ending the conflict. The expectation that something as complicated as the conflict in the Donbass region, which is tied to the regions’ plethora of ethnic identities, could be dealt with quickly was very unrealistic. Due to the fact that the Donbass is essentially the economic engine of Ukraine, it was unrealistic that Ukraine’s central government would want to cede control in favor of the separatist, People’s Republic party when Ukraine’s economy was already in shambles. (Ukraine’s weak economy can also be partially attributed to Russia’s energy policy towards Ukraine.) Moreover, it was unrealistic to expect that the pro-Russian sentiment in the Donbass would also be sated by a decentralized control when many in the Donbass area consider themselves to be ethnically Russian and predominantly speak Russian, ergo: it is in their interest to join Russia. Pro-Russian sentiments are also continually fanned by Russia when it does things like recognizing People’s Republics passports which occurred this past February. Additionally, while the Donbass remains disinterested in becoming a part of the European Union, the same is not true of the rest of Ukraine which, as previously mentioned, was seen during the Euromaidan protests. However, Ukraine’s accession to the EU would not even begin to be possible until territorial disputes are resolved within its borders; this fact remains to be in Russia’s interest. Thus, it was inevitable that low-grade violence would continue to occur in Ukraine. According to the Washington Post, there have been over 9,800 people killed as a result of the conflict in the Donbass region since April 2014.
This frozen conflict is politically convenient for the major actors directly involved, like Russia, Ukraine, the EU, and the separatists in the Donbass, as well as for the actors that are indirectly implicated in the region, like the United States as it could most realistically match Russia’s foreign offensive power. However, the largest issue remains to be the fact that individuals from all sides continue to suffer from the threat of bodily harm because of the violence in the Donbass. Moreover, this conflict has also caused serious disruptions to the local economy where production and distribution of energy-related products have virtually ceased.
The damage to local production is also aided by the recent blockades from both sides of the conflict. According to The Washington Post, the new ban implemented by the Ukrainian central government was done in response to a rebel transport blockade and is a more all-encompassing trade ban to the separatist region. The rebel blockade and the Ukrainian government’s ban serves to intensify the economic instability of the Donbass. The sum of the effects of the violence and lack of economic opportunity in the Donbass has likely aided in the prolongation of the conflict, but also contributed to the emigration of individuals, particularly youth, from the Donbass. If little political progress can be made by either side of the conflict, at the very minimum a de-escalation of trade conflict must occur in order to provide for greater stability in the region which desperately needs economic growth. Finally, it is absolutely necessary for Ukraine to support different ethnic and linguistic identities in the Donbass region. Commensurately, this should be accompanied by a de-escalation of soft-power influence on the behalf of Russia – although, this remains unlikely.