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The Donbas: Europe's last war

The crisis in eastern Ukraine has intensified amid tensions between NATO and Russia
Un militante de la autoproclamada República Popular de Donetsk (DNR) observa desde una posición de primera línea en la línea de separación de las fuerzas armadas ucranianas a las afueras de la ciudad de Donetsk, el 19 de noviembre de 2021

REUTERS/ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO  -   A militant of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR) watches from a frontline position on the disengagement line of the Ukrainian armed forces on the outskirts of the city of Donetsk, 19 November 2021.

Eight years after the "Euromaidan" Ukraine is once again in the media spotlight and at the centre of the international community's attention due to the current crisis with Russia, a dispute in which the United States also plays a key role. However, it is necessary to look back over the last few years to understand the current dispute and the position of the actors involved, both the Ukrainian authorities and pro-Russian groups in the east of the country.

In November 2013, demonstrations in Kiev's Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) made headlines in the mainstream media. 1,500 citizens, mostly political opponents, activists and journalists, took to the central square of the capital on 21 November to protest against Viktor Yanukovych's decision to suspend the association agreement with the European Union. This treaty was part of the 'Eastern Partnership Countries' project, a Brussels plan to intensify cooperation with a number of neighbouring countries, all of them former Soviet republics. Thus, Brussels has treaties with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia and Moldova on a range of issues, including trade, visas, energy security and human rights protection. 

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AFP/ SERGEI SUPINSKY - Ukrainian supporters of the "Euromaidan" stand united to prevent an attack by Euromaidan opponents who have come to dismantle their barricades on January 18, 2014 in Kiev

One of the reasons for Yanukovych's refusal to sign the agreement was the EU's refusal to donate more funds to Kiev. Yanukovych called for a 'financial and economic assistance programme' estimated at $160 billion. The Ukrainian government also asked for support to modernise the gas pipeline system and the cancellation of import restrictions on domestic products. However, the EU accused Russia of 'pressuring' Yanukovych not to sign such a treaty.

As a result, the protest that began in the centre of Kiev quickly spread to other cities in the country. The so-called "Euromaidan" movement also crossed borders and spread to cities such as Paris, Munich and Toronto. As the marches grew, so did the clashes. On the one hand, between demonstrators and security forces, and on the other, between demonstrators and titushki, young supporters of the Yanukovych government.

The protests ended on 22 February 2014, after protesters stormed the Presidential Palace demanding Yanukovych's resignation. The former president fled Kiev and an interim government headed by Alexander Turchnikov was formed. However, the situation in the country remains bleak. The economic crisis deepens and fighting between citizens persists

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AFP/ SERGEI SUPINSKY - Euromaidan (name given to Independence Square) activists stand in front of a barricade to prevent a police attack in Kiev on January 24, 2014.
A divided society  

The Euromaidan revealed the strong division of Ukrainian society vis-à-vis the European Union and Russia. According to a poll conducted by the International Institute of Sociology in Kiev the month the protests began, 54 per cent of the population was in favour of joining the EU, while 46 per cent were against. On the other hand, 51 per cent preferred the EU compared to 49 per cent who favoured the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. This fraction is especially papable in the different regions of Ukraine. While the western part is more sympathetic to Europe, the eastern part prefers to move closer to Russia. In the 2010 elections, Yulia Tymoskhenko, a pro-European candidate, did better in the west of the country, while Yanukovych, who is close to Moscow, won in the east. The disparity between the east and west of the country also extends to more basic aspects, such as language, as in the regions closest to Russia citizens speak Russian, in contrast to the western areas, where the main language is Ukrainian.  

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REUTERS/SERGEI KARPUKHIN - Viktor Yanukovych (L), winks at his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during a signing ceremony after a meeting of the Russian-Ukrainian Interstate Commission at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, 17 December 2013.

The Association Agreement between Brussels and Kiev constantly referred to Ukraine's 'European character', ignoring the fact that many Ukrainians do not identify with these words. The introduction defined Ukraine 'as a European country with a common history and values with the other EU members' and stressed 'the importance Ukraine attaches to its European identity', despite the fact that a large part of the country feels closer to Russia. 

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REUTERS/GLEB GARANICH - Members of the Azov battalion attend a rally on Volunteer Day in honour of the fighters, who joined the Ukrainian armed forces during a military conflict in the country's eastern regions, in central Kiev, Ukraine 14 March 2020.
Conflict shifts from Crimea to Donbas   

The disputes that flourished during the Euromaidan have moved to the Crimean peninsula, an area where the majority of the population is Russian. After Yanukovych's ouster, citizens in the region began to demonstrate against the new Ukrainian government. Moscow considered the events to be an "internal uprising" taking place "in response to the Kiev uprising", according to Reuters. The turning point in this crisis came on 16 March 2014, when the peninsula's parliament organised a referendum to decide whether the region wanted to remain part of Ukraine or become part of Russia. A total of 96.77% of Crimeans voted in favour of Crimea's entry into the Russian Federation, and two days after the vote, Vladimir Putin signed the annexation of the peninsula. Brussels and Washington considered the referendum illegal and imposed sanctions on Moscow for its "aggression" against Ukraine. NATO also suspended its activities and agreements with Russia, an event reminiscent of the worst moments of the Cold War. 

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AFP/ALEXEY DRUZHININ - Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a concert marking the seventh anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on March 18, 2021.

With Crimea's independence came a new conflict between the Kiev government and pro-Russian separatist forces in the east, specifically in the Donbass region. This war, considered the last in Europe, has not yet ended and has already claimed more than 14,000 lives according to official figures. Pro-Russian demonstrations in Donetsk and Lugansk, where the transitional government had increased control because of its affinity with Moscow, were the prelude to the fighting. Following these protests, several government buildings were stormed and the Donetsk People's Republic and the Lugansk People's Republic were proclaimed.  

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AFP/AFP - Map of Ukraine showing regions under separatist control and Crimea, annexed by Russia.
A weak government  

Fighting intensifies in places such as Savur Mogyla or Donetsk airport. Meanwhile, elections were held in May 2014, which were marked by controversy, as citizens in the eastern regions were unable to vote. These elections gave victory to Petro Poroshenko, a pro-European candidate who was unable to solve the country's serious political, social and economic crisis. For this reason, the Ukrainian tycoon failed to win the next elections in 2019. Poroshenko is replaced by the well-known comedian Volodimir Zelensky, who promised to defend the Ukrainian language and culture, as well as to support the country's entry into the European Union. But, as with Poroshenko, Zelensky's popularity has fallen over time. As GEOPOL21 reports, a survey by the Kiev Institute of Sociology a year ago revealed that, in the event of presidential elections, Zelensky would come third with only 18.7 percent of the vote and the pro-Russian party For Life would win with 22.1 percent of the vote.  

REUTERS/GLEB GARANICH
REUTERS/GLEB GARANICH - Veterans of the Azov battalion and activists and supporters of the Azov civilian corps take part in the March of the Defenders of Ukraine as part of Ukraine's Independence Day celebrations, in Kiev, Ukraine, 24 August 2020.

Social discontent is not only due to the economic situation or the continuation of the war, but also to scandals within the government itself. Such as the case of the former Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov, linked to extreme right-wing and neo-Nazi groups such as the Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian ultra-nationalist militia.  

International institutions have called for a peaceful solution to the conflict in the Donbas, but nearly eight years on, tensions between Kiev and pro-Russian groups continue to simmer and escalations are becoming more frequent. The Minsk peace accords brought some progress, such as prisoner exchanges and peace talks, although, on balance, the results have been meagre and have not achieved their ultimate goal: to end the war. 

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PHOTO/AFP - Ukrainian servicemen patrol along a position on the frontline with Russian-backed separatists, not far from Avdiivka, Donetsk region

On the other hand, the growing dispute between NATO and Russia has deteriorated the situation in eastern Ukraine. The US has accused Moscow of planning an invasion after deploying its troops on the border, while the Kremlin condemns NATO's activities near its territory. "Russia is pursuing a peaceful policy, but it has the right to ensure its security in the medium and long term," Putin said after his meeting with Biden. The US president threatened "strong economic and other measures" in the event of aggression against Ukraine.