How Ukraine missed the opportunity to get its people back in the Donbas

People evacuated from Donbass are seen at a temporary accommodation center at the Mechta children's health resort., 18 February, 2022. (Photo: Keystone/TASS/Sergei Karpukhin)

Russian President Vladimir Putin's recognition of the two self-proclaimed republics opens up a time of great uncertainty, with the possibility of a major conflict. But these territories were already alienated from Kyiv. How did we come to this?, asks Dr. Anna Matveeva, visiting senior research fellow at King's College in London and expert in Russian and Eurasian affairs.

Donbas in south-eastern Ukraine is the largest active war zone in Europe, with a population of roughly 3.5 million out of the region’s six million residents before the war. Yet, little is known about how its people live, and what they aspired for since the self-declared republics of Donetsk and Luhansk sprung into being in 2014.

Trapped in Putin’s shadow, they were never acknowledged as having a will and a mind of their own, unlike Kosovars or Karabakh Armenians, who are better known to the western public. Donbas residents dubbed as pro-Russian separatists were no more than pawns on a geopolitical chessboard. The human toll of the war has barely been reported on, though according to the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, up to 80 per cent of civilian shooting casualties routinely occur on “the republics’” side. This happens because these territories are urban and populous and city quarters are in the direct line of shelling and sniper fire of the Ukrainian army.

From my many trips there, I remember that the last thing that the people of Donbas wanted was to become “separatists”, ending up with a semi-fictional “statehood” on the devastated land that their industrialised and flourishing region turned into.

Their vision was to join Russia or to go back to a “different Ukraine” that was sympathetic to them and where their rights and values were respected. In 2014, the Russian Spring movement [the pro-Russian response to the events of Maidan] brought aspirations to Donbas of building a fair and humane society, but they did not come true.

What appeared instead were “survival” entities: “republics” could defend themselves when threatened, but they were not inspiring places to live. The worst thing was the feeling of uncertainty, because three options were proclaimed at the same time by the politicians: the return to Ukraine on the basis of the Minsk agreements, joining Russia or developing their own “statehood”. No wonder people were confused about what their future held.

A “different Ukraine” did not materialise. When the rupture happened in 2014, Donbas people were angry and bitter towards “Ukraine,” but it was still their country. However, the government in Kyiv, instead of offering an olive branch, took steps to cut them off. In 2017, Kyiv introduced a ban on commercial interaction with the territories, knee-capping their economies just recovering from war. Ukrainian politics was disappointing. Laws on language and education banned the use of Russian in the official sphere as well as in school and higher education.

At first, Donbas was enthused by Volodymyr Zelensky when he ran for presidency in 2019 on a pro-peace ticket. His Servant of the People TV series was popular and, as put by a Luhansk interlocutor, “the population would have voted for him with both hands if they were allowed to.” However, they could not because the 2019 electoral code made it virtually impossible for those from the “republics” to vote in the Ukrainian elections.

Instead, President Zelensky, on whom hopes were pinned, went on air in August 2021 to advise those with a pro-Russia orientation to leave for Russia now because “there will be no happiness for these people [in Donbas].” Zelensky spoke in Russian to have his message heard. The parliament and the MPs elected on a Russia-friendly ticket were perceived as a let-down because they failed to initiate legislation on re-integration and on amnesty that could alleviate security fears. People felt that they had reasons to be afraid after detentions on the government-controlled territory for “collaboration with the enemy,” which can involve anybody who holds an administrative job.

Covid-19 was the last nail in the coffin when in 2020, cross-line movement dropped 95 per cent from a previous 1.1 million monthly crossings. In March that year, Kyiv introduced restrictions, the “republics” retaliated and the barriers never came down. Only very determined pensioners still ventured to draw their Ukrainian pensions.

After eight years in limbo, one wonders what still connects the two sides. The image of a “life in Ukraine” is fading in the collective memory of Donbas, Ukraine itself has transformed since the region was cut off, and it gets harder for society to imagine what their lives would be like in re-united Ukraine. The population lost a habit of Ukrainian speech and children do not really know Ukraine. The young generation “is burnt by the war and has matured early. They know that death exists and value life,” a mother from Donetsk told me.

Young people therefore see their future with Russia. Kyiv lost a crucial opportunity while reintegration was still possible. It was about embracing a hostile region, but also close and familiar. Over the years, the self-proclaimed republics of Donbas have moved away from the rest of Ukraine. Economic ties have been severed, its information space has been dominated by Moscow, and Russian citizens are growing there.

The window of opportunity that existed for eight years was not well used and closed last night. Now it’shard to imagine what it would take for Ukraine to accept the region as it has become.

Dr. Anna Matveeva, a visiting senior research fellow at King's College in London, is an expert on Russian and Eurasian affairs and the author of Through times of trouble: conflict in southeastern Ukraine explained from within, Lexington Books, 2019. This article was first published in French in Le Temps.