By Uriel Araujo – After Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met for the first time in December 2019, and war prisoners were exchanged between Ukraine and the self-proclaimed Donbass republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, the world once again turned its eye to the Donbass War. This civil war between Ukraine’s government and pro-Russian rebels in its eastern regions has been going on since 2014 and has the moniker of being a “forgotten war.”
The conflict is now “frozen,” as scholars call it, but it has not ended and there are still tensions and occasional gunfire. The people of Donbass, go through many hardships, such as a lack of water supply, electrical power, etc. Many experts have written about the economic and geopolitical aspects of such a conflict and how it, in some ways, is a proxy war between Ukraine and the Russian Federation, which is accused of aiding the rebels to de-stabilize Ukraine. It is often described as an “ethnic conflict” between the Russian minority in eastern Ukraine and the Ukrainian majority. That is not quite so. And it is not simply a conflict over language either.
First of all, Ukraine is a strongly bilingual community, with a high degree of intermarriage between self-declared “ethnic Ukrainians” and “ethnic Russians”. Russian and Ukrainian History has always been intermingled to a high degree and both languages are very similar and mutually understandable. This, however, is not to deny that there have also been tensions, historically. Many people, especially in the Donbass region (but not only there) may declare themselves as either Ukrainian or Russians, depending on context. Regarding one’s attitude towards the conflict, political stance is a much stronger predictor than language.
There are of course strong correlations between regions, particularly Eastern Ukraine and Western Ukraine, language and ethnicity. No one denies it. Ukraine’s tensions can be traced to the linguistic and ethnic policies of the former Soviet Union (and even the late Russian Empire of which Ukraine was a part of). However, many self-declared ethnic Ukrainians are pro-Donbass (that is, “pro-Russia”), including some of my interlocutors when I visited the region. In the same manner, several ethnic Russians from the Russian Federation (including many neo-Nazis) have acted as volunteers in the conflict, fighting on the Ukrainian side, mostly in the infamous Azov battalion. Some of them have faced prosecution back in the Russian Federation and are now applying for Ukrainian citizenship – which perhaps is a bit ironic, considering that Ukraine’s current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish.
Thus, describing the Donbass war as simply an “ethnic conflict” is partially true, but doing so does not give one the full picture. It could perhaps be rather described as a political-ideological conflict with ethnic and linguistic overtones (as so many “ethnic conflicts” actually are).
But what is the ideology that has divided the country? There are two, as in most cases: a pro-Russian one and the Maidan one.
One of the locals with whom I talked to when I visited the region in 2019 said to me: “we celebrate the History of our region, even its more complicated aspects. We celebrate our grandparents who were heroes of the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany”. There are indeed many Lenin statues in Donbass, as there are in the Russian Federation. Thus, during the anti-Maidan protests there, one could see demonstrators carrying Soviet banners – right next to Christian Orthodox icons. Although it may be surprising and even outrageous for Westerners, there is some respect and gratitude for Stalin as well (as there is in Russia), even amongst anti-communist Cossacks. He is respected as the man who led the peoples of the Soviet Union against Nazi German invasion and also as the man who brought the Christian Orthodox Church back out of clandestinity.
Russia is seen by many in Donbass as a natural ally and many of the Russian-speaking people of Donbass saw themselves (before the conflict started) as both Ukrainian and Russian. In some areas, it is hard to know where the Ukrainian language ends and Russian begins – some people alternate between Ukrainian dialects and Russian ones, using them both or even mixing them sometimes.
The other ideology is that of Maidan – it is basically Ukrainian nationalism, often anti-Russian. There are some fascists (and even neo-Nazis) and their sympathizers (like the aforementioned Azov battalion), but most pro-Maidan Ukrainians are pro-Western liberals who want to turn their backs to Russia and to have Ukraine as a part of the Western world. Unfortunately for them, integration with the EU so far has not advanced much.
Meanwhile, the plight of the people of Donbass goes on.