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What is happening in the Donbas? An overview of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict

sarah.moore.198 March 2022

Given the worrying escalation of tensions between Russia and Ukraine, Slovo feels that the time is right to create a blog post discussing the conflict so that our readers can learn more about the events taking place there currently. Qianrui Hu is one of our General Editors and a first-year PhD student researching the dynamics of identities in the context of the ongoing war in the Donbas, so he was perfect to sit down for a chat with our Online Editor, Sarah Moore, to discuss all things related to the conflict, from its origins to the potential implications for the wider international community.

Please note that this interview took place before the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, and was originally intended to be an overview of the conflict in the Donbas. However, Slovo feels it is important that this blog post should be amended as much as possible to include recent developments. All information is accurate at the time of writing, but we recognise that certain elements may be outdated at the time of posting due to the escalation of conflict.

Q: What is currently happening in the Donbas?

A: Since the war broke out in 2014, Donbas has undergone fierce battles between Ukrainian government armies and separatists backed by Russia. There are also numerous evidence indicating Russia’s direct involvement in the war. To date, there have been two peace agreements; Minsk agreement I and II. Since the September of 2015, the situation in Donbas is relatively calm, although sporadic shootings happen frequently. As a result of the war, the Donbas region is split into two parts: Ukrainian government-controlled areas and two self-proclaimed republics, namely DNR and LNR, whose sovereignty is not recognized even by Russia. Russia has been continuously framing the war in Donbas as a civil war between local armed groups and Kyiv, but many western scholars refrain from calling it a civil war, as the Russian involvement and local manipulative elites (including the biggest oligarch in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov) are the key to the escalation and sustaining of the conflict. Tragically, the ongoing war has claimed 14,000 lives, and more than 1.8 million people became internally displaced persons with another 1 million fleeing to other countries, predominantly to Russia.

Q: What is the history behind the conflict?

A: The history regarding this region is very complicated. According to the Ukrainian version of history, the Donbas should be part of the modern Ukrainian state because it is an integral part of Ukrainian ethnographic territory and Ukrainians’ historical patrimony. However, unignorably, from the eighteenth century onwards, the region was undergoing a huge influx of migrants as a result of Tsarist immigration policy. At the same time, many Ukrainian peasants were encouraged to move to the Urals and Siberia especially after the 1861 emancipation reform. Also, in 1764, a new administrative concept called Novorossia (‘New Russia’) was created, covering South and East Ukraine including Donbas. Subsequently, amid all the turmoil during the first world war, there was a short-lived republic established in Donbas and surrounding regions called the Donets’k-Kryvyi Rih republic. The republic was created in opposition to Kyiv-based Ukrainian People’s Republic as it refuses any forms of Ukrainian nationalism, but the republic was highly dependent on Bolsheviks and hence its legitimacy is controversial. During the Soviet era, the Donbas region again underwent massive influx of migrants, predominantly Russians, and the extensive urbanisation and industrialisation in the region made local residents possess a identity of “imagined economy”. As the industrial output was so high, no wonder there were some well-known slogans such as “Donbas feeds the whole Soviet Union” and later “Donbas feeds the whole Ukraine”. However, the region’s economy started to decline after the Ukraine’s independence. By 2014, it was not a region which could “feed” the whole Ukraine anymore but had to receive additional financial helps from Kyiv.

Q: How did the conflict originate?

A: The conflict in Donbas started with protests. To everyone’s surprise, the former Ukrainian president Yanukovych fled to Russia on 22 February 2014 as a response of the massive protest in the central square of Kyiv, called Euromaidan. Yanukovych was a Donbas-born and was backed up by many residents and local elites. His ousting and the overt Ukraine’s turn to Europe made local residents uncertain about the future, particularly the economic prospects as the region’s economy was highly dependent on Russia. Following the unrest in Crimea, there were also many protests in Donbas condemning the unlawful ousting of Yanukovych in February and March. However, many protesters were actually from nearby Russian regions, and they were bussed to various Donbas cities to take participate in the protests. Also, we do not how many of the protesters were paid to protest by local elites, including the biggest oligarch in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov. In April, the social movement in Donbas became radicalized, with various governmental building seized and the creation of so-called Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, covering the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk oblast’ respectively. There were many “volunteers” from Russia who took participate in the battles between Ukrainian government armies and local separatists. Ukrainian government armies managed to take back some of the lost territories, but the two regional centres, Donetsk and Luhansk are still under separatists’ control.

Q: Why is this conflict important with regards to international relations and global peace?

A: Since Ukraine may potentially gain NATO membership, the conflict is crucial for international relations and global peace. Ukraine has become the frontline of the Russia-NATO’s rivalry, and the occupied territories of Ukraine mean Ukraine’s path towards NATO and EU membership is still uncertain. Also, as in any other conflict, there are a huge flow of displaced people and numerous human rights abuses inflicted by the Donbas conflict. The shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines civil aircraft likewise means the conflict is never far away from us and can have a huge impact on us at any minute.

Q: What sparked your interest in researching this topic?

A: I was really interested in the complexity of identity regarding the Donbas region and the conflict. There are so many layers in this issue and I genuinely wish to hear first-hand accounts from local people themselves. I am a massive fan of Svetlana Alexievich and I really hope to incorporate her style of writing and investigating into my research.

Q: What is your current research based on?

A: My research is looking at the fluid identity of people with dual nationality in Donbas in the context of the ongoing war. As a result of the massive migrant flow into Donbas, intermarriage was so common in the area. According to official statistics, the intermarriage rate reached 55% in 1970s, meaning there is an enormous number of people who actually possess more than one ethnicity. However, in the first and only one census of the modern Ukraine, they were not given a choice in the census to claim their true identity, as they had to choose either “Ukrainian” or “Russian”. Shall we assume these people naturally possess a middle-ground identity? This is unlikely because there are so many other factors which can affect an individual’s identity, just as we learned from our sociology textbook. My research, hence, is eager to examine the interactions of ethnic, regional, and national identity and the casual mechanisms of how various factors and lived experience influence the context of their identity and the process of their identification, using the case of people with dual nationality.

Q: Why do we (those interested in the SSEES region and the wider academic community) need to know about the conflict?

A: As I have been trying my best to illustrate the origins of this conflict here, the Donbas case is just so fascinating and there are just so many things to study about from different perspective! Whether you are a political scientist, sociologist, or psychologist, the empirical evidence is so rich in the Donbas case. Also, except from those war entrepreneurs who can gain colossal benefits from wars, every conflict is a tragedy for everyone else. My humble wish is by studying the conflict onsets and dynamics, I can make the smallest contribution to future conflict prevention and alleviate a tiny bit of the pain of those who suffered from the war.

Q: How has the international community responded to the escalation of tensions in the region?

A: On 21 February 2022, Russia recognized Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, but Putin did not specify whether Russia recognizes the de-facto borders of these two republics, or the borders claimed by these two republics, that is the whole territory of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasti. The recognition of these two republics was followed by an infamous speech of Putin, in which he again denied the legitimacy of Ukraine as a country and believed Ukrainian as a nation is an artificial concept. Since his speech did not only touch upon the two republics, but Ukraine as a whole, many people were worried that Putin is aiming for expanding the borders and capturing more territories in Ukraine. The next day Putin confirmed that Russia recognizes the borders of the two republics as the borders articulated in the constitutions of the republics, which clearly shows Russia is going to expand borders. However, the Russia’s invasion in Ukraine on 24 February 2022 at 5 am still shook the whole world, as it is totally unprovoked, and Russia attacked the whole territory of Ukraine. In a video address aiming to justify the invasion, Putin mentioned the goal of this “special military operation” is to demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine. The barbaric attack on Ukraine was responded by harsh sanctions of the international community. Russia is sanctioned financially in all possible ways including the expulsion of some major Russian banks from SWIFT. The war is still unfolding, but it is clear that Russia has failed its initial goal of blitzkrieg. Russian armies are faced with strong resistance from both Ukrainian militaries and civilians. Hence, unfortunately, we can see Russia has somehow adjusted its plan to a more brutal way and we are witnessing more and more casualties of civilians. These horrendous war crimes must be recorded and stridently punished later by the international community.

Glory to Ukraine!

 

Slovo wishes to convey its shock and anger at the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and lends its full support and sympathies to all involved in the conflict. We also encourage you to get involved, whether it be attending protest demonstrations or donating items for those in need. A full list of ways you can get involved can be found on UCL’s ‘Ways to Help’ webpage.

So Far, So Good, So SLOVO

Borimir S Totev17 April 2017

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Today the Royal Academy of Arts ends its exhibition on Russian art in the period of 1917-1932. The much celebrated works of Malevich, Petrov-Vodkin, Kandinsky, and Chagall, amongst many others, remained open to visitors of the Main Galleries for more than two months. Back in February, SLOVO Journal was invited to the Press Viewing of the exhibition supplemented by a tour with the curators Ann Dumas, Dr Natalia Murray, and Professor John Milner.

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The Press Viewing of ‘Revolution: Russian art 1917-1932’ at the RA

It was made obvious to me then, that a season of appreciating Russian art was slowly about to unravel in our country’s capital, and with its cultural calendar London fully embraced the task of marking one of the most profound and consequential moments in world history. However, much in contrary to what some critiques suggest about the centenary of the Russian Revolution, I contend that its acknowledgment here was done elegantly, with an accurate awareness of history and its plights.


We are now almost half way through the year. So far, so good. Fear not, there is still plenty out there to see, explore, and read on the topic of all things Russian.

For starters, if you haven’t done so already, make sure to read through the latest issue of SLOVO Journal available online, or rummage through our collection of electronic archives. For nearly three decades we have provided a platform for the publication of promising academic work covering the Russian, Post-Soviet, Central & East European regions. In VOL 29.1 published in January this year, our authors covered intellectually stimulating explorations of human testaments to past events and cultural relations, as well as the more contemporary topics of online activism in Russia and the revival of populism in Europe.

There is still some time left before our 1st May deadline to submit your own papers and reviews for consideration. The publication of VOL 29.2 will complete our annual run marking the centenary year of the Russian Revolution and will be published around the autumn season of 2017.

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SLOVO Journal’s Call for Papers


Don’t forget to keep an eye out for the events that are constantly taking place at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. Back in March, SLOVO Journal screened the feature documentary ‘Revolution: New Art for a New World’ as part of SSEES’s events calendar, hosting BAFTA Award wining filmmaker Mary Kinmonth.

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SLOVO Journal organised screening of ‘Revolution: New Art for a New World’

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Executive Editor Borimir Totev (left) in conversation with Director Margy Kinmonth (right)


What else is left? Plenty. The Design Museum is in the middle of its ‘Imagine Moscow’ exhibition exploring Moscow as it was imagined by a new generation of bold and creative architects and designers. The launch of the new book ‘The Sixth Sense of the Avant-Garde: Dance, Kinaesthesia and the arts in Revolutionary Russia’ by Irina Sirotkina and Roger Smith will take place on the 18th May at the Calvert 22 Bookshop. Film fans can look forward to the screening of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1928 cinematic masterpiece, ‘October: Ten Days that Shook the World’ with a live orchestral accompaniment at the Barbican on the 26th October. Tate Modern is still only getting ready to join the wave of exhibitions with its own ‘Red Star Over Russia’ covering artworks from five decades, between 1905 and Stalin’s death in 1953, opening on the 8th November. In the meantime, you can always head to Pushkin House or the Gallery for Russian Art and Design (GRAD) and discover what’s on schedule there.

 


By Borimir Totev, Executive Editor of SLOVO Journal

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Behind Putin’s Self-imposed Food Ban

Borimir S Totev7 April 2015

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By Enrico Cattabiani

On August 4 last year, Vladimir Putin responded to the latest round of sanctions levied against his regime by imposing a ban on the import of food products from the EU, the US, and their supporters. The disruption of commerce was worth approximately $12 billion to the Russian economy, with secondary effects in the targeted countries, particularly the EU, causing unemployment within the agricultural sector, a slump in the price of the banned foods in domestic markets, and great losses for producers.

At the same time, Russia saw a dramatic rise in food prices, empty shelves in shops, restaurants obliged to change their menus and a revival of the old-fashioned black market, all as a consequence of the ban. Western media has been harshly critical of Putin’s policy, calling it a desperate and useless retaliation done simply for the hell of it. The ban, they argue, is a boomerang that will come back to hit Russia hardest.

There are two very good reasons why this might be true. First, sanctions are a political tool used to force a rival to alter its behavior. In this case, although affected parties in the West are pressing their governments to lift sanctions, damage to the wider European economies has been limited, and the voices of agricultural producers are not strong enough to force a change in policy.

Second, restrictions on trade are usually harmful for any economy, and Russia is no exception. Although it could eventually be beneficial for some sectors, scarcity of products and rising inflation have predictable and undesirable effects on a large segment of the population. Therefore, the ban on food appears to be ineffective in the first instance and counterproductive in the second one.

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Why, then, has Putin opted for such an irrational policy? Didn’t he have any alternatives to imposing sanctions – and why food, rather than something else? Before asserting that the ban has been a total failure, however, we must analyze the situation from the Russian president’s perspective.

Why Putin needed to act

Two main political calculations pushed Putin to adopt sanctions. First, to be considered a superpower a country must act like a superpower, and that is certainly the status that Putin seeks for Russia. When the sanctions hit, Russia had to show its muscles and hit back. This is even more the case considering sanctions were imposed in response to Russia’s undeniable involvement in Crimea – which Putin has always denied.

The second reason is purely domestic and concerns the fact that many Russians, thanks to state-led propaganda, perceive the escalation of the Ukraine conflict as the result of Western interference in support of a fascist, anti-Russian coup. Putin’s approval rating rocketed up at the beginning of the turmoil in Crimea, and he has had to keep playing the part of the strongman to maintain credibility at home.

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The logic of sanctions: trade-offs, elites, and money

The decision of whether to adopt a particular programme of sanctions is generally made with an eye on the damage, both economic and political, and consequent backlash that they are likely to provoke. In other words, political leaders choose sanctions regimes that maximize damage to its targets and minimize repercussions for their own state or power base.

If we accept that the most important goal of every leader is to remain in power, it follows that, in democratic countries, reducing the impact of sanctions on one’s own economy is essential. Indeed, popular support is necessary to be re-elected, and damaging consumers and businesses for political reasons would likely lead to electoral defeat. This logic has been called the ‘enforcement dilemma’ and expresses the trade-off for the political elite of imposing sanctions.

However, such logic works in a different way in non-democratic countries. Here, to remain in power an authoritarian leader must guarantee a constant flow of money to his inner circle, upon whom he relies for support. In this case, the trade-off is dictated by the need to avoid losses for the elites, disregarding the fallout for the population at large, unless widespread unrest or civil disobedience makes them impossible to ignore.

Such considerations partially explain why Western sanctions have targeted individuals and sectors related to Russian’s elites while Russia has targeted ground-level economic activities in the West.

As such, the repercussions on Western governments of their own sanctions have been manageable, since only a very small fraction of their economies, mostly oil and gas multinationals, have been prevented from trading with Russia. Likewise, Russia’s sanctions haven’t damaged crucial sectors related to the elites’ businesses, nor have they triggered protests or revolts. This may indicate that Putin opted for the solution that caused the least suffering from his own perspective, implying that he acted with absolute (authoritarian) pragmatism.

Behind the choice of banning food

Food is a replaceable good. Russia imports most of it from Western countries. Food is not linked to Putin’s friends’ interests. By bearing in mind these three considerations and by understanding the starting conditions of Russian’s economy, we can put ourselves in Putin’s shoes and understand why he chose to target food imports.

The fall in value of the ruble has led to more expensive imports for Russian firms and to a consequent worsening of the balance of payments. Cutting $12 billion of imports of a replaceable good could help curb Russian dependence on Western countries and slightly alleviate the ruble’s decline. This is not properly orthodox from an economic point of view, for the obvious reasons of rising inflation and widespread shortages, but in Putin’s logic, that $12 billion could also be reinvested and spent elsewhere, which is his declared goal. Where?

The first candidate is obviously the internal market, which can provide goods on the cheap. Second, and more important, are the other BRICS (Brazil, India, China and South Africa) and the countries of Central Asia, with whom a great number of new supply contracts have been signed in recent months. This has contributed to a diversification of Russia’s international trade patterns, which will have further consequences in the long run.

Yet, both the slow pace of transitioning to new suppliers and the inadequacy of local industry in meeting internal demand, as evidenced by the current shortages, demonstrates that not all that money has been spent. Part has been invested in industry, while some may simply have been diverted to other goods.

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Losers and winners

Looking at the ban from a broader perspective, consumers, obviously, have been the main losers. Not only do they have access to a much lower quality of food, but they also face the daily uncertainty of sudden price increases. More dramatically, it could also be argued that Putin, conscious of his approval rating and of ordinary Russians’ paranoia about inflation, has played on their fears to trigger a ‘run on food’, letting consumption accelerate in a problematic macroeconomic environment.

This is plainly unsustainable in the long run, but a crucial point, which many critics seem to have forgotten, is that the food ban will – or at least, should – end in August this year. Food prices may gradually return to normal once trade patterns with Western economies are reestablished.

Yet, nothing will be as it was before. Russia’s internal market will have developed, maybe not enough to compete with the EU and the US, but certainly considerably. Many new supply relationships will have been established with countries in the rest of the world. Restaurants may not necessarily revert to their pre-ban menus: people’s tastes are impossible to predict, but who is to say that Russian consumers might not have acquired a taste for cheaper foreign cuisine (Chinese?). All these factors might keep the demand for Western products low.

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From a broader geopolitical perspective, Russia’s dependency on Western countries will be further reduced, which is line with Putin’s goals. Moreover, the events in Crimea have accelerated a process that has seen emerging powers try to carve out a bigger role on the international stage by banding together, both in political and economic terms. The disruption of the food trade undoubtedly represents another front in this battle.

August is coming. Conclusions may then be drawn. We will see whether one year of the food ban will have been enough to signal a further step away from Western dependence. More importantly, we will be able to determine whether the suffering of Russia’s population in the short term will result in long-term gains for President Putin. If not, we will be free to criticize his decision to ban Parmesan cheese and other delicacies from Russians’ tables and to reflect on the consequences of a failed policy of economic brinkmanship.

Enrico Cattabiani is on the first year of the IMESS double-degree Masters programme at SSEES, studying Economics and International Relations. From next September, he will study at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, where he is planning to write a thesis addressing some of the questions left unanswered in this article.

A Hope that Died with Boris Nemtsov

Borimir S Totev9 March 2015

By Natia Seskuria

He understood how Vladimir Putin’s regime worked and still was brave enough to oppose it. He was an outspoken critic of the Kremlin, and never hesitated to make sharp statements against the direction Russia was going. He publicly denounced Russia’s war in Ukraine, and went to the European Parliament to call for the imposition of ‘Magnitsky sanctions’ against regime officials. A former Deputy Prime Minister, who Boris Yeltsin almost named as his successor, a man committed to liberal values, freedom of expression and human rights, Boris Nemtsov has paid the ultimate price for his bravery.

Nemtsov’s murder is the highest profile killing during Putin’s fifteen years of rule. That the leading voice of opposition could be gunned down in public, two hundred metres from the Kremlin, under CCTV cameras that happened not to be working, can hardly be perceived as a coincidence. Like all opposition leaders, Nemtsov was under constant surveillance by the Russian security services. It is hard not to conclude that no matter who pulled the trigger, they were allowed to do so.

During Putin’s rule, several symbolic figures have been sacrificed to intimidate other potential dissidents. In 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the outspoken owner of the Yukos oil company and the bank Menatep, was arrested and jailed for ten years. His imprisonment brought the oligarchic class to heel and consolidated Putin’s ‘vertical’ of power. In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent reporter of the Russian Army’s abuses in Chechnya, was shot dead, apparently as a warning to other journalists.

One month later, Alexander Litvinenko’s death proved that no one is beyond the reach of the regime. The former FSB officer, who became an outspoken critic of Putin, was poisoned by radioactive polonium in London. In 2009, Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who accused Russian officials of large-scale theft and tax fraud, died in prison after being denied medical care. Thus the most vocal critics of the Kremlin have often ended up silenced.

Semi-official theories about Nemtsov’s murder have pinned the blame on everyone from Islamist militants, to Ukrainians, to CIA agents, to liberal provocateurs, to Nemtsov’s lover, the 23-year old Ukrainian model Anna Duritskaya. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dimitry Peskov, implied that the state had no reason to want Nemtsov dead when he commented that “Boris Nemtsov was only slightly more than an average citizen”.

It is true that Nemtsov was not immensely popular as a politician. His role in Yeltsin’s governments in the 1990s led many Russians to regard him unfavourably. He lost his seat in the Duma in 2003, and came a distant second in the Sochi mayoral elections in 2009. He certainly did not have the profile of the anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, released from jail last Friday after serving a fifteen-day sentence for distributing leaflets.

However, with the rouble crisis, a shrinking economy, oil prices down 50% and rising unemployment, a leader like Nemtsov could have become a real threat for Putin’s regime. He had been a longstanding irritant for the Kremlin, producing reports for several years detailing government corruption and incompetence, but it was the Ukrainian crisis that returned him to national prominence.

A supporter of the Orange Revolution in 2004 and a former adviser to president Viktor Yushchenko, Nemtsov had been among the first to criticise Putin’s annexation of the Crimea. Last year he produced two films which highlighted Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine and suggested Russian rebels may have been responsible for downing Malaysian Airlines flight MH17.

At the time of his death, he was preparing to publish a report based on interviews with relatives of Russian soldiers who had been killed fighting in Ukraine, which would have further undermined Putin’s assertions that no army units were on Ukrainian soil. Not for nothing did Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko describe him as “the bridge between Ukraine and Russia”.

Just weeks ago, Nemtsov said in an interview: “I am afraid Putin will kill me”. Even though he knew he was in danger, he continued to condemn the Russian president’s aggressive domestic and foreign policies, and the principle of ‘managed democracy’ by which the state exercises control over television channels and the press. It is Putin’s media that is behind the intolerant and paranoid public mood in Russia today, which portrays opposition leaders as evil forces, foreign agents and traitors. The responsibility for the atmosphere of murderous hatred in which Boris Nemtsov was killed lies squarely with Vladimir Putin.

Five men are now in police custody, suspected of Nemtsov’s murder. But this will not bring about an end to speculation over who pulled the trigger, and who gave the order. Few of his supporters expect the full truth to come to light. With Boris Nemtsov died another piece of hope that Russia might become a liberal country without totalitarian features, a democratic country without adjectives, and a place where individuals will be able to express their thoughts without being afraid that they will be the next victims of the regime.

Natia Seskuria is completing her Master’s degree in Politics, Security and Integration at SSEES. Her thesis focuses on the Russian-Georgian War of 2008. Follow her on Twitter @natia_seskuria.