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Can the war end where it started – in the Donbass?

In his end-of-year address Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted the motto of the year was: ‘We don’t leave our own’.  The slogan originated in the second half of the 19th Century and was deployed by Alexander II to justify expansionist wars against ‘the sick man of Europe’.1, Ottoman Turkey, in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.  The modern-day special relation with Serbia and unresolved status of Transnistria (then Bessarabia) are legacies of this period.

Putin was especially referring to the Donbass – the original justification for the ‘special military operation’ – and more widely to the illegally annexed regions of Southern Ukraine.  This article examines what Russian ‘liberation’ has meant to ‘our own’ in the Donbass.  The under-reported story tells of a social and economic disaster that threatens to undermine the very reason for the Kremlin’s war.

Are Donbass residents ‘our own’?

The last occasion when there was a free vote in the Donbass over sovereignty was 1 December 1991.  83.9% of Donetsk residents voted to be part of an independent Ukraine.  The voting in Luhansk was 83.86% in favour of Ukrainian independence.  Over 1990-1991 no former soviet socialist republic voted to remain with Moscow.  In the case of Ukraine, this overwhelming vote (over 90% nationwide) went against President George Bush’s summer address to the Ukrainian parliament in which he urged Ukrainians to remain in an association with Russia (the so-called ‘Chicken Kiev’ speech, in fact drafted by Condoleezza Rice who later served as Secretary of State to President Bush Jr). Ukrainians emphatically wanted out, including Donbass residents.  The exception was Crimea where a small majority (54%) voted for independence from a low turn-out (just over 60%).  The vote was even more stunning when it is understood over 8 million ethnic Russians were living in Ukraine.2 A majority of this community voted to break from Russia.

In the spring-summer of 2014 there was no free vote.  There were fake referendums organised by separatist gunmen supported by Russian security services.  From 2014 to the present there have been stillborn proposals to organise voting but these have always fallen on the same hurdle: the Russian-separatist side will not allow independently-verified free voting.  Most recently, the veteran Henry Kissinger has suggested  referendums to settle Donbass sovereignty (the absurd ‘99%’ referendums in September, obviously, were meaningless).

This path still seems the fairest route but the question – who is a Donbass resident? – has become complex.  As at November 2017, the last available data, the UN had identified 1.8 million internally displaced and conflict-affected persons in Ukraine from the 2014-15 fighting. Another 427,240 had sought asylum or refugee status in the Russian Federation, and 34,000 in EU counties.  Are these Donbass residents?  Would they be entitled to a vote?

In October 2022, Chairman of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev stated 5 million Ukrainians had arrived in Russia from the Donbass and southern Ukraine (the pre-war population in separatist Donbass was 3.6 million, begging the question how many people are actually left in these enclaves).3  According to the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, 300,000 Ukrainians requested Russian citizenship between February and October.  Neither of these numbers is likely accurate: useful refugee numbers were cited by the Rostov-on-Don border authorities in the early stages of the war but control has since broken down; and regarding Russian citizenship, the Ministry has been under pressure to demonstrate success in the policy of ‘passportisation’ of Ukrainians.

Even so, taking the Russian numbers, this data implies just over 6% of Ukrainians [bold added] that fled the Donbass or other areas of Southern Ukraine have sought Russian nationality.  How is this mass of distressed humanity ‘our own’ as Putin claims?  These refugees have been treated shamefully despite Russian state propaganda suggesting otherwise.  The Russian Red Cross (RKK) recently stated it has helped just 66,000 refugees or around 1% of the displaced.4  The total sum disbursed in aid was 185 million roubles ($2,5 million), a trivial sum.

On the eve of the invasion the Kremlin claimed 790,000 Donbass residents had taken Russian citizenship (to justify to a domestic audience the impending military action to protect ‘our own’). The number was almost certainly fiddled and even if it were accurate it would imply three out of four Donbass residents [bold added] in the separatist enclaves were not ‘our own’ but rather Ukrainian citizens who had not chosen to take the Russian passport [bold added].

Russian authorities have been straining to coax Ukrainians to take Russian citizenship (such as linking aid to ownership of a Russian passport) and have roundly failed.  And following the waves of displacements caused by the invasion, if a referendum were held today, who would now count as a Donbass resident?  All we can really assert is that since 1991, a majority of residents in the Donbass have not wished to be Russian, however much Putin claims he is ‘liberating’ ‘our own’.  They are peoples whose lives have been hijacked by pro-Russian gunmen who have created a hell.

A last historical point may be made.  Stalin deported Ukrainians from two regions in the 1920s-30s: Galicia, following the Molotov-Ribbentrop partition in 1939, and, yes, the Donbass.  The latter mining region was viewed as disloyal and truculent.  The numbers were 10,000s.  Putin, remarkably, has far exceeded Stalin in displacing Ukrainians from their homes and livelihoods.

The decimation of Donbass fighting males

Pre-war, the two separatist militias (Donetsk (DPR) 1st Corps, Luhansk (LPR) 2nd Corps) were roughly each 10,000 strong.  At the beginning of December, the DPR leadership reported just over 4,000 fatalities since the start of the war.  3-4 times as many militiamen will likely have been wounded.  The LPR has never offered casualty figures.  The numbers are probably comparable to DPR casualties.  This implies in the order of 40,000 militiamen have been killed or wounded, or the two separatist corps have been destroyed twice over.

At the end of the year, the Russian MOD announced 1st and 2nd Corps were being incorporated into the Russian Army.  This was a meaningless gesture. Work place communities have been decimated (the militia ‘battalions’ typically recruit from the same factory, mine or other workplace).  The mobilised have acted as security guards on the hundreds of checkpoints in occupied Ukraine and little more. In combat they have been cannon fodder. Looting, drunkenness and disorder have been common. Some units have been disbanded because they became mutinous. Militiamen have been amongst the worst behaved, driven by a psychology of envy against Ukrainians ‘on the other side’ who have been living in free and more prosperous circumstances. Morale is low.  In Kherson, it was a DPR unit (127th DPR Battalion) that broke first and fled.  In the Kharkiv counter-offensive, militiamen also fled.  This is not a force that fights with belief or at all in the Russian war.

The destruction of Donbass industries and employment

The Donbass was the showcase region of the Soviet Union. Foreign visitors were taken to the region to show off the achievements of communism (this author has a 1950s Russian language book in which one of the chapters is set around a foreigner taken on a tour of the Donbass).  Lenin was adamant the region had to be seized.  The Germans prized its coal mines (sabotaged irrecoverably by the retreating Red Army).  The post-war resurrection was a genuine success.  The dissolution of the Soviet Union and consequent economic turmoil were a blow but recovery was underway before being set back again by fighting in 2014.


The Soviets viewed the Donbass as beating heart of communist industry Source: Voennoye Obozreniye

Even before the current war, the 2014-15 Russian intervention had provoked ruinous economic consequences in the separatist enclaves.  Monthly salaries were $180 (DPR) and $218 (LPR), or poorer than any region in Russia and almost the poorest in all Eurasia.  Both enclaves were draining inhabitants with the young leaving – what was the point of living in now dead backwaters controlled by Russia and with no future?

Three main industries were present in the Donbass at the time of the invasion: mining, metallurgy and chemical.  All three have been destroyed raising the question, what jobs will the mobilised militiamen return to?  The chemical hub centred on the Azot plant at Severodonetsk has stopped operating.  LPR head Pasechnik’s claim the works will restart are empty.  There is no electricity or water in the area and the workers have left.  The now destroyed Azov and Illych Steelworks in Mariupol directly employed around 15,000 workers.  Ukrainian owner Renat Akhmetov is suing the Russian government to the tune of $20 billion.  In the meanwhile, DPR head Pushilin has insultingly suggested the site of so much suffering and endurance during the siege will be turned into a theme park.

The miners are in for the biggest shock.  Around 65% of this workforce has been mobilised. A commission from the Russian Energy Ministry is currently drawing up plans to close the majority of Donbass mines in 2023 on the grounds of ‘unprofitability’. This historic class – so closely associated with the identity of the Donbass – has sacrificed lives and limbs; it has lost entire communities; and it is now about to lose its very livelihood.  Stalin did not treat the Donbass miners so badly.

The destruction of Donbass settlements

The German Army Group South advanced into the Donbass in September 1941 and was forced to retreat two years later following the failure of Operatioa Citadel (the Battle of Kursk, July 1943) and Russian counter-offensives. Both sides engaged in scorched earth tactics to cover their respective retreats but the region was not devastated. No city or settlement  was destroyed.

German troops on the outskirts of Mariupol in October 1941 Russian troops approached from the same direction in the spring of 2022. Unlike the Russian assault, the city was not destroyed in WW2. Source: Voennoye Obozreniye

The most heinous aspect of the German occupation was massacres of Jewish communities. Even in this respect the Russian invasion has managed to add another grim chapter. At the beginning of April 2022, a nonagenarian Ukrainian Jew named Wanda Obedkova died frozen in a basement in Mariupol.  When the Germans rolled into Mariupol she was a ten-year old schoolgirl.  She belonged to a select band of Ukrainian Jews that lived through Stalin’s Holodomor and Hitler’s Holocaust.  She survived both those dictators but Putin got her.

Mariupol has gained notoriety as a levelled city but the list of destroyed and significantly damaged settlements in the Donbass is now depressingly long: Volnovakha (21,000 residents), Popasna (22,000), Rubizhne (56,000), Severodonetsk (99,000), Lysychansk (93,000), Marinka (9,000), Avdiivka (20,000), Bakhmut (70,000), and recently in the news Soledar (22,000).  The list of abandoned and destroyed villages and hamlets would be too long to include.  Ukrainian Luhansk governor Serhii Hadai has been characteristically blunt over Russian attitudes to this devastation: ‘Absolutely nothing is being rebuilt.’ The Russian government, wary of committing long term, has only approved an inadequate one year development plan and funding for Luhansk. In the meantime, attempts to restore services have been clumsy and farcical.  In Mariupol, Russian engineers trying to restore electricity overloaded the system and burned out hundreds of appliances.  In Severodonetsk, an attempt to restore heating to a surviving nine-storey building resulted in flooding of the building with water ‘knee-deep’.

The ‘liberated’ have been duped. Donetsk City has been receiving two hours of water every 2-3 days for months.  Gas and electricity supply are intermittent and there have been fuel shortages. Residents survive on state hand-outs and humanitarian supplies. Luhansk City has been in a similar situation and gained the nickname ‘hospital city’ because of the number of wounded in overflowing hospitals.  LPR head Pasechnik recently admitted destroyed settlements such as Severodonetsk will not be restored before 2035. Periodic announcements of programmes to alleviate the dire conditions are met with scepticism.  In the sarcastic reporting of Victor Biryukov (a Luhansk reporter):

Despite regular statements by the head of the LPR, Leonid Pasechnik, and the chairman of the government of the republic, Sergei Kozlov, that ‘the situation in Severodonetsk, Lisichansk, Rubizhnoye and Kremennaya is under the control of the government’, which is ‘implementing the planned measures’, the situation has not changed significantly since the beginning of autumn, and residents of these cities do not particularly notice these ‘events’

There is no point in complaining. As Biryukov points out, ‘Ordinary citizens cannot get through to Leonid Pasechnik at all – there is not even an email address where they can write to him.’

Liberated Soledar Source: RIA Novosti/News

Collapse of the war?

Currently, the war can only end in two ways: with the removal of Putin and/or significant defeat of the Russian Army. Neither seems likely at the moment.  There may be a third way.  The war began in the Donbass in 2014 – can it end there? Anecdotal reporting over the last ten months suggests the separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk are pent up with suppressed anger.  The smug interviews given to the press by separatist leaders Pushilin and Pasechnik on 23 February seem far distant.  The author remembers the  superior smile on the latter’s face when a French reporter asked whether the Russian Army was about to enter the Donbass. ‘We’ll have to see how the situation develops,’ Pasechnik replied condescendingly.

Putin’s foolish war has caused a greater displacement of peoples than Stalin’s deportations and vastly greater destruction than was wreaked by the Nazis. With every passing week the Donbass is being turned into an uninhabitable wasteland. He has called it ‘liberation’ and created a desert. Can this continue before revolt is provoked?

Cover photo РИА Новости. Link.

Sergio Miller

Sergio Miller is a retired British Army Intelligence Corps officer.  He was a regular contributor and book reviewer for British Army Review.  He is the author of a two-part history of the Vietnam War (Osprey/Bloomsbury) and is currently drafting a history of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.


  1. The phrase was coined by Alexander II’s predecessor Nicholas I
  2. The only accurate data is the 2001 census that showed 8.3 million Ukrainians (17%) were ethnic Russians.
  3. According to the latest data, more than 5.1 million people, including 728,000 children, have arrived in the Russian Federation since February last year, law enforcement agencies have told TASS. https://www.gazeta.ru/politics/2023/01/09/16053055.shtml
  4. The fault does not lie with RKK but with the Russian government and the manner in which it supports and regulates organisations such as RKK.

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