Why Russia is trying to capture eastern Ukraine?

The Donbas is key for Russia

The War in Eastern Ukraine is an armed conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine, part of the wider Russo-Ukrainian War. Since 2014, Ukrainian forces have been fighting Russian-backed separatists to stop them from gaining control over much of the two heavily industrialized regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as Donbas.

The initial aim of Russian leaders was to invade Ukraine and overthrow its government, ending for good its desire to join the Western defense alliance NATO. After a month of failures, Russian President Vladimir Putin abandoned that plan to capture the capital city Kyiv, and focused all his attentions on Luhansk and Donetsk.  Seizing control of these territories has since become a primary goal for Russian leaders and now these areas are the main battlefield for Europe’s biggest armed conflict since World War II. On June 29, Putin declared that the crucial goal of the Russian war in Ukraine is the liberation of the Donbas, the protection of its people and the making of situations which would guarantee the security of Russia itself.

When Putin talks about Donbas, he is not only mentioning Ukraine’s coal and steel-producing area, but also the strategically important eastern part of Ukraine, which runs from outside Mariupol in the south all the way to the northern border with Russia. The people of Donbas are mainly Russian-speaking. After seizing the control of Crimea in 2014, Russian proxy forces have captured more than a third of Ukraine’s east in a war that has not come to an end so far. The Russian proxies created people’s republics in that region that the majority of them did not accept and Russia now plans to capture the rest of the east as well.

Luhansk and Donetsk may be mostly Russian-speaking, but they are no longer pro-Russian. By late March 2022, Russia claimed that they controlled 93 percent of Luhansk and 54 percent of Donetsk. In April Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky declared that Russian forces have started the war for Donbas, for which the Ukrainian forces are prepared. Russia is far from conquering the entire area, although if it captures the two big twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, then the whole of Luhansk will be under its control.

To gain control of the Eastern Ukraine is not only key for Russia in terms of its military strategy, but also it has a significant economic value.  First, the Donbas region is a heavily industrialized region that is known for coal mining. Large coal reserves are present there that Russia could potentially access if it annexes the entire region.

Second, Russian strategy is to capture all of the Donbas region that allows Russia to build a “land bridge” to Crimea, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2024,- a vital military and trading centre for Moscow on the Black Sea. Third, the reason behind capturing the eastern Ukraine is that Russia’s self-proclaimed “defense” of ethnic Russians in the Donbas has been a large part of its justification to invade the region.

There are many predictions about when the war is going to end. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has warned that this war could last for years, while Western intelligence agencies have reportedly said that Russia may lose its combat capabilities in the coming months

Since Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk have been the areas of conflict between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces. Figures vary, but during the prolonged but lower-level conflict in the region, it is estimated that around 14,000 people have been killed so far. After so much destruction in Eastern Ukraine, now the words of the Russian leaders sound very hollow when they say, “Neither our aim is to occupy the Ukrainian territory nor do we want to impose anything on anyone by force.”

The Ukrainian crisis, however, became a spark that made previously accumulated problems explode, ensuing in rising tensions between Russia and the Western world, while Ukraine has been converted into a playground between the European Union, the USA, and the Russian Federation. To solve this problem Ukraine would need a major build-up of its forces to take back the occupied territories. Russia knows it cannot conquer all of Ukraine, that’s why it will be focusing all its attention on Donbas and turning the Ukraine war back into a frozen conflict.

Because thousands of soldiers have been killed, billions of dollars’ worth of military supplies have been wasted and entire cities have been bombarded continuously, and for coming up on a year now, Russia’s intense military campaign in Ukraine continues unabated.

There are many predictions about when the war is going to end. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has warned that this war could last for years, while Western intelligence agencies have reportedly said that Russia may lose its combat capabilities in the coming months.

Shahzadi Irrum
Shahzadi Irrum
The writer is Assistant Research Fellow at the Balochistan Think Tank Network, Quetta

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