Why the Donbas War Was Never “Civil”

Foto: Imago

In April 2014, Russia began a covert armed invasion of the Ukrainian Donets Basin. However, many politi­cians, jour­nal­ists and even some academics still follow the Russian propa­ganda narrative of an alleged “civil war” in eastern Ukraine at the time. An analysis by Julia Kazdobina, Jakob Hedenskog and Andreas Umland.

Read this article in German on Russlandverstehen.eu.

Exactly ten years ago, on 12 April 2014, the Russo-Ukrainian War, that had begun with the start of Russia’s illegal occu­pa­tion of Crimea on 20 February 2014, turned into a large violent armed conflict. Even many of those public commen­ta­tors who are today sympa­thetic towards Ukraine and condemn Russia’s large-scale invasion on 24 February 2022 remain ambiva­lent about its pre-history. Whether because of Russian propa­ganda, theo­ret­ical precon­cep­tions, simple naivety, or other reasons, numerous foreign observers continue to make a sharp distinc­tion between the fighting in Ukraine before and after this date.

How Russia Insti­gated an East Ukrainian “Rebellion”

The Donbas War was one of several results of a larger Russian attempt to take under control the largely Russo­phone eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. Initially, the Kremlin intended to do so with as little as possible overt military combat. The best-known part of this largely non-kinetic and mostly covert, yet already compre­hen­sively organized and clearly military operation was Russia’s annex­a­tion of Crimea between 20 February and 18 March 2014. The attempt to capture all of what Russian imperial nation­al­ists call Novorossiia (New Russia) included a multitude of other simul­ta­neous subver­sive, hybrid, clan­des­tine, soft etc. actions designed to undermine social cohesion, political stability and state capacity in eastern and southern Ukraine, and beyond.

Among the most important instru­ments of Russia’s hybrid war in mainland Ukraine, in early 2014, were Russian mass media as well as Ukrainian media outlets under the influence of Russian or pro-Russian actors in Ukraine. Even so, the effect of Moscow’s demo­niza­tion campaign on east Ukrainian public opinion remained limited. Not only Russian propa­ganda channels, but also foreign mass media often portrayed the pro-Russian demon­stra­tions in the Donbas, at that time, as expres­sions of allegedly wide­spread popular moods. However, various opinion polls conducted before and during this phase paint a different picture. In March 2014, for instance, still only one-third of the residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions supported sepa­ra­tion of the Donbas from Ukraine, while 56% rejected this idea. Many of the sepa­ratist actions in east and south Ukrainian cities were not only or not at all initiated locally, but instead insti­gated, directed and financed by Moscow.

How Russian Irreg­u­lars Led the Way to Violent Escalation

While tensions were thus already high by early April 2014, large-scale fighting started only in the second week of April. The new stage of confronta­tion in mid-April featured the use of firearms, and an omnipres­ence of Russian citizens. This esca­la­tion consti­tuted the beginning of the Donbas War as an armed sub-conflict of Russia’s larger war on Ukraine which had started with Russian troop movements in Crimea on 20 February 2014 and lasts until today. The Donbas War begun when, on 12 April, admin­is­tra­tive buildings were seized in Sloviansk and Kram­a­torsk of Donetsk Oblast under the lead­er­ship of irregular Russian fighters. The seizure of Sloviansk was followed by the first large-scale fighting of the Russo-Ukrainian War.

The anti-Ukrainian irreg­u­lars in Sloviansk were led by the Russian citizen, retired Colonel and former FSB officer Igor Girkin (alias “Strelkov”). Girkin’s armed group of 5o+ irregular fighters had just arrived in mainland Ukraine – via Russia – from the already occupied Crimea where most of these men had partic­i­pated in the annex­a­tion operation. Girkin’s group played a decisive role in the trans­for­ma­tion of the Donbas regional civil conflict into a delegated inter-state war between Russia and Ukraine. In an interview for the Russian far-right weekly Zavtra (Tomorrow) in November 2014, Girkin admitted: “I pulled the trigger for the war. If our [armed] unit had not crossed the border [from Russia into Ukraine], every­thing would have turned out the way it did in [north­eastern Ukraine’s] Kharkiv and [southern Ukraine’s] Odesa. [...] [T]he impetus for the war, which is still going on today, was given by our [armed] unit. We shuffled all the cards that were on the table. All of them!”

How Ukraine’s So-Called “Sepa­ratists” Were Guided by Moscow

On 13 April, Acting Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov announced the start of a so-called anti-terrorist operation (ATO). The Ukrainian government’s initial decision to launch the defensive operation as an anti-terrorist rather than a military one – despite evidence from the start of deep Russian involve­ment in Sloviansk and Kram­a­torsk – is sometimes also inter­preted as evidence for an intra-state rather than inter­na­tional conflict. Yet, this decision was made on pragmatic rather thanpar­a­dig­matic grounds mainly because the preven­tion of sepa­ratism is covered by Ukraine’s counter-terrorism legis­la­tion rather than defence-related laws. Kyiv was, in April 2014, unwilling to announce martial law ahead of the pres­i­den­tial elections which were scheduled for May 2014 and would have had to be cancelled under a state of emergency.

Several deep scholarly inves­ti­ga­tions of the pre-history, outbreak and course of the Donbas War have disclosed and analyzed multiple connec­tions between seemingly inde­pen­dent irregular anti-Ukrainian actors in eastern Ukraine, on the one side, and Russian state organs, whether in Moscow, Rostov-on-Don, Simfer­opol or elsewhere, on the other. The Germany-based Russian historian Nikolay Mitrokhin was among the first prominent academics to point, in an article called “Transna­tional Provo­ca­tion”, to the crucial role not only of Russian irregular actors, but also of the Russian state in the outbreak of the puta­tively civil Donbas War. Later on, the Japanese political scientist Sanshiro Hosaka with his articles, e.g. “Russian Political Tech­nology in the Donbas War,” and German researcher Jakob Hauter with his book Russia’s Over­looked Invasion, among other analysts, confirmed and supported Mitrokhin’s early indications.

Already before the appear­ance of detailed empirical inves­ti­ga­tions into the involve­ment of the Russian state, the latter factor appeared as the most plausible expla­na­tion for the outbreak of the war. The larger political context of the military esca­la­tion in Donbas in spring 2014 was, from its start, sugges­tive. It could have hardly been a coin­ci­dence that war had been in the making and even­tu­ally broke out during the same period when regular Russian troops were capturing Crimea and when Russia was accel­er­ating a multi­di­rec­tional hybrid attack against mainland Ukraine. A strange aspect of the seeming “rebellion” in the Donbas was always that, from the beginning to its end, it never included any well-known political or other leaders or relevant political or other orga­ni­za­tions from the region.

How Russian Regular Forces Inter­vened in the Donbas War

Until today, Russia vehe­mently denies that its regular troops were actively involved in the conduct of the Donbas War on the ground. This was indeed largely the case until late August 2014. Yet, there were – apart from the crucial role of Russian regular troops in the annex­a­tion of Crimea in February-March 2014 — a number of instances in dryland Ukraine indi­cating the presence of not only irregular but also regular Russian soldiers.

The most infamous such exception was the crew of a Buk TELAR self-propelled, surface-to-air missile system of the Russian Air Defence forces which entered east Ukrainian territory for a couple of days in July 2014, and shot acci­den­tally down the Malaysian Airlines passenger flight MH-17 which was, with 298 civilians on board, flying over the Donbas. At the same time during which smaller Russian regular detach­ments like the Buk unit supported the pro-Russian irreg­u­lars fighting in Donbas, the Russian army started shooting across the border on Ukrainian troops. During July 2014, a number of rocket and artillery attacks on Ukrainian positions from Russian territory were captured on both photos and videos. The first such attack occurred on 11 July 2014 near the village of Zelenopillya in Luhansk Oblast, resulting in the deaths of 30 Ukrainian soldiers and border guards. In a report published in December 2016, the famous OSINT group Bellingcat described Russian shelling of Ukraine on at least 149 separate occasions.

During the following month, Russia even­tu­ally invaded mainland Ukraine on a large scale. On August 14, 2014, a large column of, at least, two dozen armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles of the Russian army crossed the Russian-Ukrainian border. This was the first massive intrusion of Russian regular forces into mainland Ukraine confirmed by inde­pen­dent observers. By late August 2014, up to eight regular so-called “battalion tactical groups” (BTGs) of Russia’s armed forces had been deployed to the territory of Ukraine, with over 6,000 personnel. 

Conclu­sion: Setting the Narrative Straight

Never­the­less, many politi­cians, jour­nal­ists, diplomats and even some scholars across the globe still follow, when commenting these events, the Kremlin’s propa­ganda narrative on the Donbas War for the last 10 years. Media, political, academic, civic, and other commen­ta­tors should make sure to get the origins and nature of the war right. Politi­cians, diplomats, and other actors inter­ested in Ukraine’s future should explic­itly and contin­u­ously emphasize in their public and non-public state­ments that the armed conflict in the Donbas in 2014–2022 was a delegated inter-state war between Russia-Ukraine and not an inner-Ukrainian civil war.

Julia Kazdobina is a Senior Fellow at the Security Studies Program of the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” in Kyiv, and Jakob Hedenskog as well as Andreas Umland are Analysts at the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of Inter­na­tional Affairs. This article is based on a SCEEUS report.


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