Understanding the Regions at the centre of the Current Ukrainian-Russian Conflict (Part Two)

This blog follows on from "Understanding What is Happening in Ukraine from a Historical Perspective (Part 1)"


As the war continues in Ukraine it has led many to ask why? This question has inspired part two of this blog series.


The three main areas of Ukraine in question prior to the start of the 2022 war were Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk (the later two better known as the Donbas).


Initially, I thought Putin’s recognition of the later two breakaway regions would see Russian forces invade and that be about it. We now know that hasn’t been the case but initially it seemed that this was a war to “help” these regions break from Ukraine and become “independent” (by which I’m sure Russian control would soon follow suit) but that's not the discussion I'm wanting to have today.


The 2022 war has now grown beyond these regions and we are struggling to understand what it is that Russian President Putin actually wants to achieve, but before we delve into what is happening across the rest of Ukraine I think it is important to take a look at these three “troubled” regions so that we can better understand how we got here and what could have happened if Ukraine simply let these regions go.

This BBC map of the conflict shows the strategic benefit to Russia of assuming control of these regions (BBC World Service https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-60506682)

Crimea (aka The Republic of Crimea)

Russian occupation of the Crimea dates back to 1783 under Empress Catherine the Great, however in the 1917 attempts for an independent Ukraine Crimea was included in the greater Ukrainian plan. To understand what happened with that attempt I suggest reading my first blog of this series (click here).


All of what is now Ukraine was assumed by the Soviet Union at the end of World War One (WWI) however in 1954 the territory was transferred from Russian to Ukrainian control (this was during Soviet Union times though, so borders didn’t really matter as much as they do today).


After Ukraine declared independence in 1991 the autonomy of Crimea was reinstated which meant that even though they were part of Ukraine they were able to have self-determination.


The Flag of Crimea that was adopted in 1992

In 2014 Russia invaded the Crimea and effectively took control of the territory. This occurred after a referendum was held in which the majority of Crimea voted to be under Russian rule. The referendum has been declared illegal internationally and questions remain over the true result. Despite this Ukraine began withdrawing troops from the 2014 conflict and the region remained under the status of “occupied” but part of the Ukraine. In all but name the Crimea is a Russian district, even becoming merged with neighbouring states – goodbye independent or autonomous Crimea!


NOTE: As this region is basically Russian (during the current invasion Crimea was used as a staging post) and there seems to be no alternative to it remaining Russian at this stage I’m not going to explore the area more in this post but will endeavour to circle back one day in the future.


Donetsk People's Republic (DPR)

Flag of the Donetsk People's Republic

Formed on 7 April 2014 this breakaway region is controlled only partially by rebels with Ukrainian control remaining in some parts of the Oblast (that was true prior to the recent events). The initial plan was for a referendum like that held in Crimea but instead a more violent war has ensued and remained since 2014.


To say that the Donetsk was “formed” in 2014 ignores the history of the region and the path that led to the current situation but most of the republic's rhetoric is derived form the events of 2014. Having said that we need to understand the history of the region.


The city of Donetsk, at the heart of the crisis now, has its origins as a mining settlement with formalisation as a city not occurring until 1869 when a Welsh company established a steel plant and operated several coal mines, all begun at the invitation of the Russian Tsar! At this time the city was called Aleksandrovka and became home to many English and Welsh settlers who travelled there to work in the Welsh operated businesses.


After World War Two (WWII) the city and region were part of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic that attempted to declare independence. This failed and in 1924 the city’s name was changed to “Stalino”, I’m sure you can guess who it was named after!


With the start of WWII the city was home to half a million people however by its end just 175,000 residents remained. One of the main reasons for this was that the city was almost completely destroyed when Nazi soldiers occupied the territory. Slave labour was used to re-build the city after the war and in 1961 the name was changed back to Donetsk.


The subsequent path of Donetsk is interesting when put in place with its past. In the years leading up to Ukrainian independence there was violent gang warfare as different powers tried to gain control of the industrialisation of the city. The best way to describe Donetsk is as a rough place which can only be influencing what is happening today.


Ukrainian Flag of the Donetsk Oblast

In 1994, the Oblast held a referendum on the topic of the Russian language, which is spoken by he vast majority of the population. Approximately 90% of the people voted in favour of Russian being formalised as an official language of the oblast, alongside Ukrainian. The results of this referendum were overturned by the federal Government.


Unlike Crimea, which transitioned to Russian control relatively easily, this region did not in 2014 and fell between a void created by Ukraine legal control, Russian influence and DRP independence. For example, in 2016 the DPR began issuing passports and declared dual Ukrainian/DPR status for all citizens but in 2019 Russian began issuing passports with Ukrainian passports no longer recognised. Around this time the media portrayal of Ukraine began to deteriorate with propaganda around the revival of the Russian Empire amping up.


Unfortunately, the regions of DPR control are considered to experience a breakdown of law and order, which I can only imagine has grown even worse during this current conflict. With such a low standard of living many in the region don’t care who governs them, they just want stability and access to paid work.


As of 2021 the Oblast was home to just over 4 million people.

Illustration of the DPR and LPR held areas. The Oblasts are coloured deep orange while the separatist areas are also noted (source: Al Jazeera)

Luhansk People's Republic (LPR)

Flag of the Luhansk People's Republic

Like Donetsk this republic is noted as being established in 2014 but there is much more to the story.


The city of Luhansk dates back to 1795 when British industrialists established a metal factory which helped a city develop by 1882. Some of the most noted industrial activities over the years have included locomotive building which saw the area become a important industrial centre.


The earliest parts of the regions story are tied in with Donetsk however in 1938 the Luhansk Oblast (at the time called Voroshylovhrad) was created when the Donetsk Oblast was divided by the Soviet Union. This was an administrative decision and as WWII descended on the region the people experienced the same perils as the Donetsk. The name of the city wouldn’t change back to Luhansk until 1990.


Like Donetsk there is a history of Russian preference in Luhansk. This was first illustrated in 1991 when 70% of the people voted to remain a part of the Soviet Union but as an independent republic. Later in the year as the Soviet Union began to crumble even further another referendum was held and this time almost 84% of people voted to join the Ukrainian declaration of independence (a change from the initial 1991 referendum)!


Three years later, in 1994, Luhansk held a referendum on the formalisation of the Russian language as an official language, alongside Ukrainian; and like in Donetsk this was voted in favour of by over 90% of the people however it was subsequently overturned by the Government in Kiev.


Ukrainian Flag of the Luhansk Oblast

Jump ahead ten years and in the wake of Crimea and Donetsk's referendums and independence declarations, Luhansk declared independence on 27 April 2014. After holding a referendum shortly after, the LPR ceded from Ukraine on 11 May 2014. This was obviously not accepted by the Ukrainian Government and so, like in Donetsk, war ensued. Ukrainian forces surrounded the city of Luhansk and heavy shelling took place which caused a high number of civilian casualties.


At the start of 2022 separatist forces just held control of the southern third of the oblast with Ukrainian forces hanging onto the rest of the region. The administrative capital for the Ukrainian Oblast was re-located to Sievierodonetsk following the start of the 2014 war and has been the focus of LPR forces supported by Russian forces during the current conflict. At the time of writing many surrounding villages have been destroyed but the city remains under Ukrainian control.


Unlike in the Donetsk, it appears that most of the Luhansk oblast desires to remain part of Ukraine, but this isn’t necessarily the case for the occupied region and obviously much as changed since the 2022 war began.


Sadly, like the DPR, this region suffers from human rights violations and immense instability.


As of 2021 the Oblast was home to just over 2 million people.


What now?

If you look at the map above it becomes clear that Russia is attempting to connect the Donbas and southern Ukraine which would make a direct link to Crimea. This is why fighting is so intense around the port city of Mariupol as it seems to be the only area holding out and stopping those plans in this new land grab.


Has this helped you understand how history has brought us to where we are today? If your answer is no, don't worry because I also still have many questions I'd like to explore and answer. For this reason I am planning a few more blogs that will cover:

  • Part Three: The Current crisis, where we are one month in (a personal reflection)

  • Part Four: The Ongoing Crisis (wouldn't it be great if this blog wasn't needed)!

  • Part Five: A Closer look at Ukraine's History (incl. the Cossack State).

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Further Reading (A selection):


Articles:

Websites:

Books:

  • 15th Edition SBS World Guide (2007)

  • Geographica World Atlas and Encyclopaedia (2008: Random House Australia)

  • The World 1st Edition (Lonely Planet, 2014)


Disclaimer: The observations and comments made in this blog are made after reflecting on the news stories and histories I read. History plays a big part in how I understand the present so my comments largely take into account history and the role it has in the present. After all, those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.


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