The expected Russian offensive began in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow announced that “the plan for the liberation of the people’s republics [autoproclamées] Donetsk and Luhansk”. In the sights of the Kremlin, the Donbass region, a Russian-speaking region has been at the center of tensions since 2014.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday, April 18, announced the start of the Russian offensive on eastern Ukraine, where bloody fighting has intensified in recent days.
“Now we can say that the Russian troops began the battle of Donbass, for which they have been preparing for a long time. A very large part of the entire Russian army is now devoted to this offensive,” he said. Broadcasting speech on Telegram.
After warning the day before, he said, “No matter how many Russian soldiers are brought here, we will fight. We will defend ourselves.”
Clarifications from France 24’s special envoy to Ukraine, Gulliver Cragg
Shortly before, the Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk region, Sergoych Gaydych, explained that the Russian offensive “has begun”. “It’s hell. The attack, we’ve been talking about for weeks, has begun,” he said on Facebook. For his part, Chief of Staff Andrei Yermak announced that “the second phase of the war has begun,” stressing that the Ukrainian forces have the means to resist the attack.
“Plan for the Liberation of the People’s Republics [autoproclamées] Donetsk and Luhansk ”, according to the will of the Kremlin, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced on his part on Tuesday.
This attack had been expected since the Russian army had evacuated the Kyiv region and announced on March 25 that it now intends to focus its efforts on the east of the country.
Donbass was already under discussion on February 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on television that he had taken a decision to launch a “military operation” in Ukraine, at the official request of the leaders of the separatist “republics” of Luhansk. And Donetsk, which was recognized as “independent” by the Kremlin two days ago and has been partly controlled since 2014 by pro-Russian forces.
While explaining the pursuit of “the disarmament and disarmament of Ukraine”, Vladimir Putin said he wanted to “protect” the pro-Russian population of Donbass, the victims according to him and Russian propaganda of “genocide”.
To understand the dangers of this new stage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, France 24 looks at this region, which has become the main target of Moscow.
Donbass where and what is it?
Donbass is a Ukrainian region consisting of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces (provinces), which took its name from the contraction of “Don”, the name of the river that crosses it, and “Pass” of the basin. This Russian-speaking region located in the east of the country, on the border with Russia, is the great Ukrainian mining region and the main industrial center (mainly steel and minerals) of the country. Before Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the region, bordered to the south by the Sea of Azov, was already one of the main industrial strongholds of the USSR, while the west of the country was its granary.
In 2001, about 600,000 Ukrainians were still working in more than 200 Ukrainian mines, mainly concentrated in the Donbass. Before the conflict began in 2014, this region had a population of nearly 7.3 million according to AFP out of 45.5 million Ukrainians, representing 16% of the national GDP. Donetsk, the largest city in the mining basin alone had a population of one million.
Why does Donbas speak Russian?
Today, a significant part of the population of Donbass is of Russian origin, and family ties connect Ukrainians and Russians on both sides of the border. Especially this population is descended from Russian workers who were sent in large numbers by the Soviet authorities, in the period between the two world wars and after the Second World War, to work in the Ukrainian mining basin. If it has been Russian-speaking for several generations, then the Donbas is not necessarily pro-Russian. The region is already Ukrainian, as its residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Ukraine in the December 1991 referendum.
However, during their first presidential election in their history, Donbass voters voted for Leonid Kravchuk, a former communist, and not for nationalist candidates, but quickly ended up turning his back on Moscow and imposing Ukrainian as the national language. Many years later, when it comes to Ukraine’s rapprochement with the European Union (EU), Russian speakers in Donbass will look to Russia.
Russian Manual Bass on Donbass
In November 2013, the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, abruptly abandoned the association agreement with the European Union and opted for closer cooperation with Moscow. This decision sparked a wave of pro-European protests in Kyiv, with Maidan Square becoming the epicenter of brutal demonstrations. On February 22, 2014, Viktor Yanukovych was impeached by Parliament and took refuge in Russia. Vladimir Putin denounces the coup and warns that he “reserves the right to use all available options, including force as a last resort”. In March 2014, he annexed Crimea as a pro-Russian insurgency, encouraged and financed by Moscow, spread across the country’s predominantly Russian eastern regions.
On April 7, 2014, the Donbas War began. Pro-Russian rebels, supported and armed from Moscow, even if the Russian Federation is not officially involved in the conflict, take control of the offices of the regional government in Donetsk and declare a “sovereign republic”. For its part, Kyiv launched an operation “against terrorism” and deployed its army there. On May 11, the separatists declared the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, after a referendum that deemed Kyiv illegal, like Crimea.
As of 2014, eastern Ukraine will not know peace. Donbass remains torn apart by a bloody war between separatists and Ukrainian forces, while the Minsk agreements, signed in 2014 and 2015, were aimed at silencing the guns by enforcing a ceasefire and demilitarization in the region. without result. In October 2019, representatives of Ukraine and Russia meeting in Minsk reached an agreement on the organization of elections in the Ukrainian separatist regions of Donbas to give them special status. In vain, there is too.
President Volodymyr Zelensky, elected in 2019, began a policy of dialogue with Moscow before realizing its failure. He declared in April 2021 that his country’s membership in NATO was the only way to end the war in Donbass. A red line for Moscow, which also criticizes the Ukrainians for never respecting the terms of the Minsk Agreement. Before the unilateral recognition of the independence of the separatist “republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk by Vladimir Putin and the start of the Russian invasion, the conflict in Donbass left more than 14,000 dead and 1.5 million displaced.
What is the current strategy of the Russian army in Donbass?
If there is currently no significant breakthrough on the ground, the offensive and intentions of the Russian army, forced by the Ukrainian resistance to revise their plans, are reflected in the increased artillery activity aimed at several Donbass towns such as Robyzhny, Popasna and Marinka. However, the Russian army took control of the small town of Kremena, which had a population of 18,000 before the war, and which lies on the main road used by Russian troops heading south towards Severodonesk.
According to the Ukrainian army, “the enemy continues to transfer weapons and military equipment to Ukraine from the central and eastern regions of the Russian Federation.” Tor anti-aircraft missiles have been transferred to the Kharkiv region (northeast) and the S-400 and S-300 anti-aircraft systems have been deployed in Russia’s Belgorod region, near the border with Ukraine, said Tuesday, April 19, employees of the Ukrainian army.
On the American side, a senior Defense Ministry official noted on April 18 that Russia had reinforced its military presence in eastern and southern Ukraine with “eleven battalions,” bringing its number to 76 in one week, with a total of one battalion in the country. These battalions generally consist of units that combine air defense, armour, tactical vehicles, artillery, helicopters, engineers, and logistical support. According to this official, it is likely that about 22 battalions stationed in northern Ukraine will be resupplied and re-equipped, while 12 of the 76 battalions are still trying to capture the port of Mariupol. If it falls into the hands of the Russians, then 12 battalions will be sent to other cities in eastern or southern Ukraine.