The Donbas region in eastern Ukraine has been a flash point in the escalating crisis between Russia and Ukraine, which hinges on land borders and strategic influence.
The region became even more critical Monday as Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of two Moscow-backed breakaway enclaves there that call themselves the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. The action is a considerable escalation that signals an end to the seven-year peace deal known as the Minsk agreement. It’s also seen as one that could give the Russian leader a pretext to invade Ukraine.
Here is why the separatist regions are causing so much friction.
What is Donbas?
Since the fallout of Russia’s 2014 invasion and its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, the region has been divided into separate territories under different control: the Kyiv-controlled parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and the Russian-backed separatist Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” known as the DPR and LPR.
The Donetsk and Luhansk enclaves have been largely cut off from Ukraine following the outbreak of fighting in 2014 and on Monday were recognized by Putin as independent republics. They are home to 2.3 million and 1.5 million people, respectively - many of whom are among the region’s large Russian and Russian-speaking populations.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine between the separatists and the Ukrainian government has continued since 2014, claiming 14,000 lives. Violence, division and economic downturn have damaged the region. More than 2 million people have since fled.
Recently, widespread shelling in eastern Ukraine has heightened fears in the West and in Kyiv of an attack, as Russia continues building up its forces, now an estimated 150,000 strong, near Ukraine.
What is its history? What is the Minsk agreement?
Historical links between Russia and Ukraine date back as far as the 9th century - and Putin has repeatedly and strategically invoked this legacy.
In early 2014, after mass protests in Ukraine toppled a pro-Moscow president, Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula - a move Europe and the United States see as illegal. Moscow-backed separatists also took over the eastern industrial regions of Donetsk and Luhansk on Russia’s border. There, the rebels seized government buildings and proclaimed new “people’s republics.”
The crisis escalated, and pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk held a referendum to declare independence from Ukraine. Kyiv and the West have accused Russia of supporting the rebels with troops and weapons, but Russia says the fighters are volunteers. Clashes between the separatists and Kyiv-backed forces have continued.
In 2015, Russia and Ukraine agreed on the Minsk peace deal, a plan brokered by France and Germany to end the conflict between Kyiv and the Russian-backed separatists in the contested Donbas region. Under the agreement, Ukraine would give the two regions a special status and significant autonomy in return for regaining control of its border with Russia.
But the deal has stalled.
Putin has said Ukraine has no intention of implementing the agreement’s terms. Ukraine has sought amendments to the deal - which was brokered after a string of military losses - and said that an agreement on Russian terms would give Moscow power to influence Ukraine’s foreign policy and undermine its sovereignty. Kyiv officials have said the current terms, if implemented, would lead to riots and chaos.
The United States and other allies have expressed support for the deal while calling on all parties to fulfill their parts of the bargain.
Meanwhile, Moscow has issued 800,000 Russian passports in the separatist regions. Ukrainian and Western officials say Russia has armed and supported the separatists, but Russia denies this.
What does Putin want with Donbas? What do the people of Donbas want?
Putin has described Russians and Ukrainians as one people, writing in an essay shared on the Kremlin’s website in July that “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”
A 2001 census found that more than half of the population in Crimea and Donetsk identified Russian as their native language. Separatist rebels have capitalized on Donbas’s distinctive regional identity to fuel support and rebellion against Kyiv. Moscow, too, has used this identity, and further laid the groundwork for it by issuing passports, as a pretext to send in forces to “defend” people. Leaders on Monday also called for Russian military assistance.
In Kyiv-controlled Donbas, a majority wants the separatist regions to return to Ukraine. In the separatist-controlled area, over half want to join Russia, either with or without some autonomous status, per a survey published in 2021.
Last week, Russia’s State Duma passed an appeal to Putin to recognize the Russian-backed enclaves of Donetsk and Luhansk. The European Union warned Moscow against following through. On Monday, Putin went ahead with the recognition.
Moscow also sees Ukraine as a buffer zone to NATO, which was founded in 1949 to protect against Soviet aggression. Putin has long said that NATO’s eastward expansion was a red line for him.
The Washington Post’s Robyn Dixon, Isabelle Khurshudyan, David L. Stern and Ruby Mellen contributed to this report.