ArticlesThe Donbass: Beyond Resolution?

The Donbass: Beyond Resolution?


Economic roots and humanitarian consequences of the 2014 conflict in Ukraine

The roots of the conflict in the Donbass can be traced back to Ukraine’s history as part of the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukraine became an independent country and struggled to establish a new political and economic system. The Donbass region, which was home to many industrial cities and relied heavily on mining and manufacturing, was hit particularly hard by the economic turmoil of the 90s and early 2000s. In the early 2000s, Viktor Yanukovych, a politician from the region, rose to power in Ukraine. Yanukovych was known for his pro-Russian views and his efforts to align Ukraine more closely with Russia. In 2013, Yanukovych’s decision to abandon plans to sign an association agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia, sparked widespread protests in Ukraine. After Yanukovych was ousted in February 2014, separatist movements began to emerge in the Donbass region. Pro-Russian activists declared the establishment of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, which were not recognized by the Ukrainian government.

The Ukrainian government responded with military force, launching an “anti-terrorist operation” in April 2014. The fighting continued since then, with each side accusing the other of violating ceasefires and escalating the conflict. The conflict has also drawn in Russia, which has been accused by Ukraine and the international community of supporting the separatist forces with weapons, funding, and troops. The conflict in Donbass had a devastating impact on the region’s economy and infrastructure. Many businesses closed, the region’s mining and manufacturing industries shrunk. The conflict has also damaged or destroyed many buildings and infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, and homes.

One should look primarily at the economic factors underpinning the dynamics of conflict between Ukraine and the Eastern region. The issue of industrial assets in the Donbass produced a high degree of tension between separatists and the central government, leaving the country in the hands of Ukrainian oligarchs. Rinat Akhmetov, Owner of the football club Shakhtar Donetsk and the wealthiest businessman in Ukraine, gained leverage over the new government in Kiev and brought more financial resources to the region. In May 2014, workers from two of his steel mills were gathered by Akhmetov to resist the pro-Russian demonstrations in Mariupol, with reports that the businessman had also funded the pro-separatist movements.

The humanitarian crisis that has emerged out of the conflict in the Donbass has been severe, with almost 260.000 internally displaced people from eastern Ukraine according to reports by UNHCR in September 2014. In total more than two million people have been displaced from their homes and access to healthcare and other essential services has been limited. Aid organizations have struggled to provide assistance to those in need, and many people have been forced to rely on support from family and friends to survive, with the Ukrainian government offering social services assistance to more than 400.000 people, but withdrawing its financial support in the Donbass by December 2014 in order to prevent providing the separatist government with financial gains.

The Minsk agreements and the path to the 2022 escalation

After almost six months of fighting in the Donbass in 2014 the first signs of a dialogue between Ukraine and the separatists are brought about by the signing of the peace consultations on the 5th of September 2014 (Minsk I), an initiative of the Trilateral Contact Group which was formed by representatives of the Russian Federation, Ukraine and the OSCE. On this occasion the parties propose an immediate ceasefire, OSCE monitoring of the ‘regime of non-weapons’ and possible mechanisms of addressing the issue of self-determination in Donetsk and Lugansk to ‘implement decentralization of power, including by means of enacting the Law of Ukraine with respect to the temporary status of local self-government in certain areas of the Donetsk and the Lugansk regions’. Not only would the rights of minorities be recognized through the Law on Special Status, but the organisation of early elections in the two regions would guarantee that a democratic political order could be built in the aftermath of the war. Indeed, the document agreed upon by the Trilateral Contact Group called for ‘the holding of early local elections in accordance with the Law of Ukraine’, based on respecting the temporary status of local self-government in certain areas of the Donetsk and the Lugansk regions. This law was passed by the Ukrainian Parliament on the 16th of September 2014, and granted people in Donetsk and Luhansk their own rights, such as the right to use whatever language they considered native.

Efforts to resolve the conflict in Donbass have thus been ongoing following the 2014 war, but progress has been slow. Despite the Minsk II agreement being signed, its provisions have not been fully implemented, and fighting has continued, leading to the escalation on the 24th of February 2022. It is important to point out that between 2015 and 2022, the consolidation of de-facto state institutions has thus been enabled by the political status-quo offered by on-going negotiations in the Minsk framework, as well as by the socio-economic and security situation on the ground. These three aspects are all relevant for understanding the current post-annexation situation in the Donbass.

Economic interactions between the central government and de-facto states

Following the war in 2014, despite these negotiations under the two Minsk agreements, the economic interactions between the central government in Kiev and the two self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk only provided opportunities for further contention, with the two sides drifting apart. As the International Crisis Group has reported, despite initially cross-line commerce remaining an activity in which both parties had been engaged ‘with anthracite mined on the separatist side shipped to factories on the government side, and Ukrainian companies conducting operations in both areas’, these operations ceased in 2017, with the decision of the government in Kiev to impose ‘a ban on all, but humanitarian cross-line shipments, and the de facto authorities responded by seizing Ukrainian-owned industrial assets on their side of the line, vesting control in a newly created entity that has racked up wage arrears and run facilities into the ground’. These decisions have produced in the aftermath of the conflict a specific political economy of the war across the unrecognized border that has affected residents on both sides. One the one hand, ‘In government-controlled territory, an influx of foreign organisations and “pension tourists”, who (as required by Kyiv) visit from across the front line to collect their monthly stipends whilst ‘Workers who used to travel to jobs in and around the eponymous provincial capitals, Donetsk and Luhansk cannot, because those areas lie in separatist hands.’

Security interactions between the central government and de-facto states

Finally, if one is to look at the security interactions between the central government in Kiev and the de-facto states in the Donbass, these have been characterized by ceasefires that, despite agreements between the parties under various negotiating formulas, have often been short lived. As the International Crisis Group reported in 2019 following the signing of a new ceasefire in July, the main reason for the regular deterioration of security on the ground throughout the entire period of negotiations under the Minsk Agreements was rooted in the ‘the warring sides’ fundamentally different views of the 2014-2015 Minsk agreements, which are supposed to provide the scaffolding for ceasing hostilities and reunifying Donbas. Signed as Russian regular forces were ravaging Ukrainian troops, the accords call for an immediate ceasefire and, ultimately, for the parts of Donbas currently under Moscow backed separatist control to be reintegrated into the Ukrainian state under a special status that grants them partial autonomy’.

If one is therefore to look at the record of success of the Minsk Agreements between 2014 and 2016, it is important to point out that such a fundamental disagreement between the parties has produced the stagnation of the conflict resolution process, resulting only in a series of broken ceasefires agreements that include the following: The September 2014 Minsk agreement, the Minsk II Agreement from February 2015,  the Framework Agreement on disengagement of forces and material from 2016.

Donetsk and Luhansk beyond the Russian annexation

It is therefore unsurprising that last year’s move by the Russian government to recognize the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk has generated significant condemnation by NATO and the international community. This recognition followed the longstanding conflict between Ukraine and separatist forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions explained above, which has resulted in thousands of causalities (both civilian and military personnel) estimated from 14 April 2014 to 31 December 2021 to be 51,000–54,000. With the escalation of the war on the 24th of February 2022 the displacement of civilians has also become one of the most severe consequences, with over seven million Internally Displaced People in Ukraine. With the illegal annexation of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia on the 30th of September 2022, as well as the condemnation by the international community of Russia´s actions, it is important to understand the ongoing conflict in the Donbass from the point of view of both future military changes that will take place on the ground, as well as the possible agreements that have currently been proposed for negotiations by China. Having assessed the path to escalation brought about by the failure of the Minsk agreements, one can therefore argue that despite an elaborated twelve point proposal that takes into account the need to cease hostilities and resume talks between the parties, there is no detail regarding the situation in the Donbass and how a concrete peace agreement could be reached between the parties, with bleak chances that a comprehensive political settlement that can provide a resolution to the conflict is actually possible under the current circumstances. As long as the political and economic consequences of the war have led to the consolidation of de-facto state institutions in the Donbass and a specific political economy of war that has survived for more than eight years, it is important to consider what the future scenarios for peace in Ukraine might look like. So far, proposals have still been limited at achieving the type of negative peace understood by the cessation of violence – something that was not even possible under the Minsk agreement – rather than a full acknowledgement that any resolution should take into account the existing economic and humanitarian consequences of an unresolved conflict that has changed the demography of Ukraine, as well as its prospects for economic prosperity. To consider what the political economy of peace might look like, any real resolution can only come from an acknowledgment of the major societal aspects that the initial 2014 conflict has changed: the way in which local and regional politics have transformed, the economic hardships that populations have been pushed to adapt too, as well as the way in which political, economic and security provisions have been split between a weak central government unable to enforce its monopoly on violence and an unrecognized political authority dependent on Russia.

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