April 26, 2021

In Donbas conflict, voices of ordinary Russians and Ukrainians matter most

In Donbas conflict, voices of ordinary Russians and Ukrainians matter most

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has announced that Russian troops are withdrawing from the border of the disputed Donbas territory of Eastern Ukraine. With tensions between Russia and Ukraine de-escalating, NATO leaders appear to have rejected Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky’s bid to join the alliance despite his requests for support against Russia.

Media attention towards the incident has focused on statements by government officials on both sides, as well as analysis by pro-Western defense experts. Conspicuously absent was an effort to elevate the voices of ordinary Russians and Ukrainians. To remedy this oversight, Great Powers Journal conducted a series of interviews with supporters of both sides. Why have two peoples with similar languages, cultures, and faiths been locked in conflict for nearly seven years? Where is the conflict headed and why? We reached out to Aleksey, a war correspondent, and Egor, a writer and political theorist, for a Russian perspective. Representing the Ukrainian side were Oleksiy, a political strategist, and Aleksandra, a former reporter. Anti-war advocate Michael offered a neutral perspective.

Background: The Donbas War

The escalation started after reports of ceasefire violations between Ukraine and the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk republics, which declared independence with Russian support after the 2014 revolution in Ukraine installed a more pro-Western, anti-Russian government. NATO leadership was quick to condemn Russia’s troop deployments to the border while supporting a similar military buildup by Ukraine, though most Western leaders remained noncommittal towards President Zelensky’s urgent appeals to NATO. Meanwhile, Russian officials warned the United States to not get involved.

The Donetsk and Lugansk republics are located in the Donbas, the easternmost region of Ukraine. The territory is known for its coal mines and heavy industry. It is also majority-ethnic Russian, and Russians have historically referred to it as Novorossiya, or New Russia – a term that Ukrainian nationalists understandably despise. The two republics seceded at roughly the same time as Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, and brutal fighting ensued between pro-Russian militias and the Ukrainian military. The Minsk Protocols of 2014 and 2015 stabilized the situation somewhat, but failed to end the conflict. Now, the republics are pushing for unification with Russia, though it is unclear whether the Russian government has the desire or the will to absorb them as it did Crimea.

Western governments and media have overwhelmingly promoted an anti-Russia narrative to the public since the conflict began. In the United States, politicians from both major parties almost always side with Ukraine. But observers who lean right of the Republican Party establishment in America and mainstream conservative parties in Europe are generally split into pro-Ukraine and pro-Russia camps. The former see the Ukrainian nationalist movement as being similar to the rest of the European right, personified by figures such as Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban. The latter see Russia not just as a nation but as a civilization-state, a global power drawing legitimacy from a thousand years of historical tradition and offering an alternative to the Western liberal order.

1. Likelihood of re-escalation

Just a few weeks ago, the most pressing question seemed to be whether all-out conflict would resume. Neither of the Ukrainians thought it was likely, arguing that the Russian government benefited more from keeping the region’s status in a grey area indefinitely.

Oleksiy: “For the Kremlin, I suppose the current arrangement is ideal: constant maneuvers along the border, saber-rattling, dramatic commentary on every TV channel and in the media … It’s more than enough to accomplish internal political objectives.”
Aleksandra: “There was and still is absolutely nothing preventing Russia from doing so … But keeping an ongoing conflict at a low burn is a typical and effective way that Russia controls neighboring countries.”

The Russians argued that the conflict had never really ended in the first place. Opinions were mixed on whether or when it would re-escalate.

Aleksey: “I hear about another escalation of the Donbas conflict several times every year. And every time, no escalation happens … In reality, the war never ended, and residents of the Donbas have been forced to suffer through this every day for the past seven years.”
Egor: “It’s absolutely inevitable that the conflict will resume. If not today, then in a year, or two, or five. In fact, it never really ended, so it makes more sense to think of it as intensifying, not resuming.”

The peace advocate had no doubts about whether intense fighting would resume.

Michael: It is a near-certainty. In 2018, the Ukrainian government ended the anti-terrorist operation in the east and created a joint forces operation for the reintegration of the Donbas … Presumably that was not for a peaceful solution to the Donbas question.

2. Options for Ukraine

No one believed that Ukraine could decisively win a full-scale conflict. The Ukrainians offered a pessimistic assessment – but seemed to suggest that their country was better off without the breakaway regions in some ways.

Oleksiy: “Ukraine ultimately lacks the resources – economic, personnel, or technical – to directly reconquer her territories. Besides, reclaiming the 7% of territory stolen by Russia isn’t worth the losses in Ukrainian lives.”
Aleksandra: “The will and the resources aren’t there. Besides, the region has always been an economic burden … re-integrating the Donbas back into Ukraine would be a long, expensive, and dangerous endeavor.”

Aleksandra also pointed out that keeping the Donbas issue provided a permanent diversion for President Zelensky, whose approval rating barely exceeded 30 percent late last year, as well as for future Ukrainian leadership:

“First of all, they can write off all sorts of things as war losses (including money.) Second, they can always claim that Ukraine hasn’t joined the EU, or NATO, or the G7 only because of the armed conflict on her territory, and not because corruption levels are off the charts.”

The Russians argued that Ukraine itself had alienated the Russian population of the Donbas.

Aleksey: “I think Ukrainian elites understand that the population of the Donbas and Crimea is lost to them: they dehumanized the residents of the region for decades … and are making no effort to win back the people’s sympathies.”
Egor: “What you have to understand is that Ukraine and Belorussia are parts of historical Russia that were split off from her through subversion … “Ukrainians” and “Belorussians” are Russians who are being coerced into changing their identity and language.”

The outside observer would not speculate on the outcome of an all-out war, pointing out that both sides had built up their strength in recent years.

Michael: “Russia … could easily overrun Ukraine if she commits her full forces. However, it is doubtful that she will. International pressure will allow for only a limited campaign at most, and a Russian conquest of ‘New Russia’ isn't worth the economic sanctions.”

3. Russian regional objectives

The Ukrainians did not believe that Russia would go through with annexing the region.

Oleksiy: “Formal independence of the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk “republics” is definitely not in Russia’s interest: this would almost entirely lift the economic, political, social, and international pressure on Ukraine.”
Aleksandra: “Russia … doesn’t need the Donbas. Crimea received significant funding at the expense of other parts of the country, but at least there’s some tourism industry there. The Donbas would require an even greater investment, and the returns would be mediocre.”

The Russians both voiced their hopes that their government would integrate the Donbas, but differed on whether or not it would happen.

Aleksey: “The Donbas is a lucrative economic asset (cynical, I know, but this is more important to the Russian government than human lives, national interests, etc.) But … the issue of the New Russian republics has stalled.”
Egor: “I believe that formally integrating the residents of the Donbas, who are stuck in an uncertain legal status, would be the humane thing to do … So I’m highly confident that formal integration will happen in the near future.”

The neutral party offered a balanced argument likely to upset all sides equally.

Michael: “The Russians would be much better off if they returned the Donbas to Ukraine … However, the fanatical hostility that the US government shows to Russia is unlikely to abate even if Russia returned the Donbas to Ukraine, due to domestic issues in the US.”

4. Western perspectives

Both the Russians and Ukrainians seemed to think that siding with Russia made sense for the Western right, whether they agreed with such a stance or not.

Oleksiy: “Regarding right-wing movements and parties around the world, they, like Russia, are anti-globalist – on that point, their interests align with those of Russia. So it makes sense that they support Russia as a partner on this issue.”
Aleksandra: “That’s their opinion. I may not support it, but I can’t judge them for it. They’re welcome to like Russian values – just as long as those values aren’t imposed on others by force … interfering in the affairs of a sovereign state is wrong.”

Both Russians took the opportunity to slam Ukrainian nationalists, describing them as unwitting enablers of Western liberalism.

Aleksey: “It’s especially entertaining to watch ‘right-wingers’ support Ukraine, seeing as LGBT ideology and replacement migration from Africa and the Middle East are advancing even faster in Ukraine than in the Russian Federation.”
Egor: “It’s a completely wrong and simple-minded perspective. That is, if we’re talking about the actual right-wing anti-globalist movement, not about skinheads playing dress-up. Ukrainian radicals aren’t right-wing … They’re agents of globalism in disguise.”

Egor went on to argue that Russia was the only major player on the world stage standing up for traditional Western values.

“When the West attacks Russia, it does so in order to weaken the forces promoting religious and cultural traditionalism … Thus, by supporting Ukraine, the so-called ‘right’ undermines Russia as the only legitimate alternative to globalism.”

The non-aligned observer pointed out that domestic factors made it hard to compare Ukrainian nationalists to their counterparts in other Western nations.

Michael: “Ukrainian nationalists … are funded by oligarchs hoping to use them as muscle against their competitors – a situation very different from anywhere in the West, where anarchists and the like usually fill that role.”

As a result, he said, the Ukrainian right enjoys both unique privileges and unique disadvantages. Michael also argued that Russians’ unique worldview and circumstances give them different motivations for holding views that Westerners consider conservative:

“Abortion, for instance, is far more common in Russia than in the United States, and is related to equity feminism (as opposed to Western identity feminism) and anti-Islamic acts are based on immediate threats to the Russian state from Caucasian separatists.”

5. Parting thoughts

Oleksiy: Let’s be absolutely clear: Ukraine is not Russia. Ukrainians and Russians aren’t ‘brotherly peoples’ in any way. There can be no shared history, shared culture, shared language, shared faith, shared heritage, or shared past.”
Aleksandra: “Russia’s behavior is wrong by any legal standard … and not just from a legal point of view. Since we brought up conservative values, then “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal” are basic biblical principles.”
Aleksey: “I would advise Western audiences to treat the people of the Donbas with respect … I think many Americans arriving in Donetsk would be pleasantly surprised by its atmosphere, order, and level of culture. America doesn’t have that anymore.”
Egor: “By supporting Ukraine, the West turns Russia into a permanent, fanatical enemy with no possibility of genuine reconciliation … just as there would be no peace if Russia, for example, claimed and occupied Texas, there can be no peace if the West occupies Ukraine.”
Michael: “Ukrainian-Russian enmity is mostly at the government level. At the individual level, most Ukrainians and Russians still get along fine, and regularly marry. Most of the fighting in the Donbas has been done by a small number of diehards on both sides.”