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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 All information is accurate at the time of writing, but we recognise that certain elements may be outdated at the time of posting due to the escalation of conflict.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.

INTERVIEW: Dimitar Bechev’s RIVAL POWER: Russia in Southeast Europe

Borimir S Totev14 September 2017

Dimitar Bechev’s new book ‘Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe’, (Yale University Press, 2017).


Dimitar Bechev is currently a research fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has extensive experience in the world of policy and is affiliated with the Atlantic Council think-tank in Washington, D.C.  In 2015, Dimitar Bechev became the founding director of the European Policy Institute, a small but dynamic outfit based in Sofia, Bulgaria.  His area of expertise cover EU external relations, especially enlargement and neighbourhood policy, the politics of Turkey and the Balkans, and Russian foreign policy. Prior to the University of North Carolina, Bechev held fellowships at Harvard’s Center for European Studies and the London School of Economics. Having authored or edited several books and articles in academic journals, he also publishes on current affairs in outlets such as the American Interest, Al Jazeera Online, Foreign Policy, openDemocracy and others.  In 2010-14, he headed the Sofia Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Prior to that Dimitar Bechev taught International Relations at Oxford where he obtained his D.Phil. in 2005.

Dimitar Bechev is in conversation with the Executive Editor of SLOVO Journal, Borimir Totev, about his latest book ‘Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe’ published by Yale University Press.


Why did you initially decided to enter academia within this particular field? Was there a turning point or a moment of clarity? 

I have always been fascinated with international politics and knew I would pursue a graduate degree.  I arrived to Oxford in 2000, at a moment the EU, as well as Europe as a whole were undergoing dramatic changes. Southeast Europe was at the forefront as former Yugoslavia, following a decade of wars, and Turkey embarked on the path of membership, and Bulgaria and Romania entered accession negotiations with the EU.  Such momentous events provided the inspiration for my D.Phil thesis and ultimately the book I published in 2011, Constructing South East Europe (Palgrave), which explores the international relations of the region.  Though there are IR scholars who stay in the academic ivory tower, that has not been my case.

Where do you position of social sciences within wider society? 

I have not pursued a typical academic career but have been moving back and forth between universities and think-tanks, which does have its disadvantages but also helps one get a better perspective on world affairs. Academic training provides the means to think a rigorous manner.  There are far too many pundits and current affairs analysts who juggle terms and conceptual shortcuts uncritically. Or who lack historical depth to see through the latest hype.  Equally, academic researchers are better off if they keep up-to-date with global political events which, admittedly, develop at breakneck speed and think more clearly about what their particular project means for those outside the university circuit.  Navel-gazing is not what social science should be about.

How does ‘Rival Power’, as a Russia focused project, differ to your previous book publications?

Rival Power is an attempt to bridge the divide between scholarship and current affairs writing. It looks at Russia’s growing footprint in Southeast Europe – a region comprising the post-communist Balkans, Greece, Cyprus, and even Turkey, heir to the Ottoman Empire, which once dominated the area.  I argue that Russia has no strategic ambitions nor is it driven by the rich historical legacies which link it to the Balkans. It simply exploits opportunities to poke a finger into the eye of the West, at a moment when relations with the US and EU are at their lowest point thanks to the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine.  Yet, contrary to other authors, I put a great deal on emphasis on local players too (governments, individual leaders, business lobbies, political parties etc.).  Rather than being mere pawns or proxies of Moscow, they often leverage their connection to the Russians to advance their own, often parochial interests.  It is a two-way street. And more than once, Russia has suffered setbacks – a point that many writing about the standoff with the West and Putin’s talents as a foreign policy chess master often fail to appreciate.  Readers can also learn much about the twists and turns in the ambiguous relationship between Russia and Turkey, a marriage of convenience, as I call it.  My hope is to draw in both readers following Southeast Europe, who may or may not know much about Russia beyond the usual stereotypes, and those interested in the broader subject of Russian foreign policy and Moscow’s influence beyond the confines of the former Soviet Union.


The book is available on Amazon or from Yale University Press’ website. Excerpts will be published by The American Interest.  


Flora Murphy: Bolotnaia Five Years On

Borimir S Totev4 August 2017


Flora Murphy, author of ‘Bolotnaia Five Years On: Can Online Activism Effect Large Scale Political Change in Russia?’.


Flora has just completed her undergraduate degree in Russian with German at University College London. Studying the Russian language from scratch has had a very strong influence on her interests, starting with the language itself initially, and later moving far beyond into politics, culture and everything in between. From learning Russian, Flora got into making documentaries and during her time at UCL, she made two films about the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine and one documentary about the LGBT community in Moscow. When she was on a year abroad in Moscow, Flora learned more about internal Russian politics by interning at TV Rain, arguably Russia’s only non pro-government television channel. Her interest in the ideas of modern propaganda in Russia and restrictions on freedom of speech was the starting point for the SLOVO published article about the opposition’s use of the internet as a tool for resistance in Russia. In the near future, Flora plans to travel more extensively in the post-Soviet region, especially in Moldova, Georgia and the Central Asian countries, perhaps making some more films along the way. Her further interests include organised crime, conflict management, and security issues. Flora is set to be in St Petersburg from late September until Christmas, trying to keep up her language skills and to complete a short translation internship.

Flora’s article explores the role of new media in Russian politics and ultimately argues that their potential to bring about significant political change in the current Russian political landscape is limited. The 2011-2012 winter protests, in Bolotnaia Square in Moscow and across Russia, led to a boom in both Russian and English-language protest scholarship, especially regarding the role that new media and online communication networks play in the organisation and execution of political movements. But the significance of her case study is not limited to Russia: this question must be understood in a global context. In a post-Arab Spring world, this topic is one of active discussion and current global relevance. Her paper aims to consider the Russian case study in that broader context, bridging gaps in existing scholarship in this field.


The article ‘Bolotnaia Five Years On: Can Online Activism Effect Large-Scale Political Change in Russia?’ by Flora Murphy (School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London) was published in SLOVO Journal, VOL 29.1, and can be read in full here.


Posted by Borimir Totev, Executive Editor of SLOVO Journal

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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.