The Donbas Story
It needs to be told right. Part One.
I started following the Donbas revolt back in 2014, when the trouble began. I ended up following it mostly on Twitter, which I was just getting used to using. Twitter was a bit more useful then than it is now.
I found it to be a very powerful story, worth a few books. People rose up and fought against a really evil regime. They created a pair of small states for themselves in defiance of all the might of the American empire.
No book, no good account of it, has ever been written in English. I do not think one has even been written in Russian. It is far beyond my competence to produce an authoritative account of the Donbas story.
I am writing this now because I see a need for it. No one else is summing up what happened in a concise way. This is my recollection of events, checked by such references as I can find over the net.
I wish I had taken some notes about it, kept some files on it. Eight years ago I never thought I was going to turn to writing. I never expected the conflict would go on for eight years.
I was always puzzled that Russian affiliated media was so silent about the Donbas. That meant in those days, the RT channel which ran in Canada until it was pulled last winter. Video sources of what was happening were largely provided by independent podcasters from the west, some very good.
Thus, what you are reading here about the Donbas republics comes from Twitter storms and other internet media. I have been a fan of Donbas and I can give a good and insightful interpretation of events. However, you would not want to cite me as a source on anything.
If I am biased toward the Donbas republics and those who created it, then so be it. They deserve many more favorable accounts of them within western media. Most of what is written about them in wikipedia and such places is rot, always showing them in the worst possible light.
Alas, most history of that part of the world is also rot. It is intended to create narratives for various forms of toxic nationalism. The truth is that the territory which the Donbas is built on was pretty much uninhabited until 240 years ago, so the practical history goes back to further than that.
There are written records about the area going back three millennia. There is a long archeological record. The soil in the area is among the richest and deepest on earth.
However, the place has always had trouble staying inhabited. Various groups have settled down and started farming, and then disappeared or moved further west. The problem is that the area has been constantly in the storm path of migrations of warlike nomads.
The word ‘Ukraine’ means ‘borderland.’ About 1780 the area called Novorus was a mostly uninhabited buffer zone between the Zaporozhian
Cossack republic and the Crimean Tartars, allied with the Ottoman empire. Russian Empress Catharine the Great decided to send Prince Potemkin south with an army to conquer it so she could occupy it and build a ‘New Russia’ there.
Potemkin may have built some Potemkin villages, but he also got a lot of real villages built, and towns and cities, and filled them with real people. The area came to be called ‘Tauris’ or ‘Novorossiya’, meaning ‘New Russia’. It became a major supplier of grain to the Russian empire and its wealthiest province.
The area North of Novorossiya was also good farmland and had come to be inhabited by people called Galicians or Rusyn who had migrated from further west. They had a common heritage with Russian people in the old ‘Kiev state’, the origin of Russian civilization. However, the Galicians had come to speak a different language and to have a different religion than Russians, and their land was under Polish and then Austrian rule.
In 1869, Russia was building its railroad system and trying to industrialize. Large coal and Iron deposits had been found in the area. Russia invited a Welsh entrepreneur, John Hughes, to set up a steel industry.
The area came to be called ‘Donbas’: Donets Basin, for the rich coal basin underneath the Donets river. The city of Yuzovkha, ‘Hughes-ovkha’, became the hub of this area. The city eventually came to be called ‘Donetsk’. Khrushchev was from there.
Out of the first world war, old Russia fell and the Soviet Union arose. The Bolsheviks conquered land to the west from Austria and Poland. For some reason they thought it would be a good idea to lump all this territory together and call it ‘Ukraine’.
None of these people had much in common. The term ‘Ukraine’ had mostly been used before this by Galician nationalists wanting independence from Austria. The Galicians are one of these peoples who seem to breed a very aggressive and intolerant nationalism.
World war two rolled over this part of the world. The great tank battles which decided the war were fought in or near Novorossiya. The Donbas suffered terribly under German occupation.
Much of Galicia cheered the arrival of the Nazi armies. Many of them rushed to join the Nazi forces. However, many of them seemed more interested in looting and murdering anyone not Galician, after the demagogue Stepan Bandera, than with fighting the red army. The Nazis finally had to curb them.
When the Soviet forces regained control of Ukraine, they did not look kindly upon such people. Their mentality survived only among Galician Nazis and their families who were evacuated into Germany. Then they were found useful for suppressing communism during the cold war.
Thus they migrated to many parts of the west, including Canada. They were a useful resource for reseeding Nazi ideas back into Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union. This has produced a new generation of Banderite type personalities, available for use by western intelligence services.
The Soviet Union fell under questionable circumstances because most of its citizens voted not to dissolve it. The Donbasians found themselves a linguistic minority in the new independent Ukraine. Conditions steadily deteriorated in Ukraine due to the introduction or reintroduction of neoliberal economics and other toxic ideas from the west.
By 2014 Ukraine had seriously declined economically and politically. It was the poorest and most corrupt country in Europe. It had already endured one western style ‘colour revolution’ which had thrown out a legal government and imposed corrupt and fanatic nationalists.
The whole of Ukraine finally threw this pro western and pro NATO government out, and elected a government favouring a ‘balance’ between the west and Russia. However, the president of this government, Yanukovich, was weak and inept. Extreme nationalists, who had been wiped out in Ukraine in Soviet times, were ever more aggressive and disruptive.
Yanukovich tried to negotiate a deal with the European Union (EU) to become a member. He was given ridiculous terms which would have reduced Ukraine to being a colony. He instead turned to Russia to negotiate a new economic treaty.
Most of Ukraine, even much of the Galician north west, seemed to support this. The pro EU and NATO element were mostly Banderite nationalists who started frothing at the mouth when they heard the word ‘Russia’. As well, many Ukrainians were brainwashed to believe that if they could get into the EU they would quickly have the lifestyle of the core EU countries.
Nationalists who openly espoused Nazi ideology and considered themselves the successors to the world war two Ukrainian Nazis led by Bandera, began fighting police on Maidan square, Kiev. Yanukovich could and should have suppressed them. Under fear of sanctions from the west, he tried to negotiate with them.
An election was due in a few months and pro Russia parties would easily have won it. Yanukovich made a sucker’s deal with the maidan leaders, to move the date of the election up and to stand down the police from Maidan square, in return for the Banderites also standing down. As soon as the police left the square, the Banderites swarmed back and stormed the government offices.
Yanukovich found himself in the common situation of those who try to negotiate with armed psychopaths; fleeing for his life with them chasing him down. If Russian commandos had not got to him first, he would have had a fate similar to another head of state who thought he could cut a deal with the Atlanticist empire. By that I mean western Neo colonial oligarchy based in the so called ‘western countries’ and still determined to rule the world.
No government in Kiev since this coup in February of 2014 has had any legitimacy. A pretence of representative democracy continues, but any real opposition to the Maidan agenda is responded to by goons from the Banderite militias. They will assault opposition politicians right on the floor of the Duma in front of TV cameras.
A debate has continued in the Russian world as to whether the Russian government made a grave strategic error in not rolling into Ukraine to stop this before it started. The western ‘deep state institutions’ who had organized the Maidan coup were expecting this. They were surprised when the Russians did not, but instead only took in Crimea.
The obvious reason was that this could have led to a war with NATO, which could have led to a nuclear war. Russia was not yet ready for that, the west was not yet weak enough, and it was not yet clear enough that some kind of conflict over Ukraine was inevitable. Russian forbearance until action could no longer be postponed is what created the Donbas situation and has kept it frozen for all these years.
The people of Novorossiya, especially of the Donbas, did not approve of their government being changed in that way. They did not like the racist slurs of the Banderites about Russian people; Moskals, Goat Faces, Judeo-Mongols, and so on. They were concerned about the return of restrictions on the Russian language, which had been mostly removed by Yanukovich.
Donbas had voted strongly for Yanukovich. He was a wealthy businessman, or in the terminology of that part of the world, an ‘oligarch’. However, he was based in Donbass and seen by many as a kind of ‘sugar daddy’, a benefactor of the local economy.
Yanukovich’s views had been more progressive and pro Russian than many of the hard right, pro western Ukrainian oligarchs. However, he had destroyed his credibility by his cowardly behaviour against ‘The Maidan.’ Since then he seems to have vanished from public life.
The Donbas people looked to Crimea for a solution to their dilemma. Crimea is a peninsula going into the Black Sea which was in Ukraine but which contained a Russian naval base. As part of the treaty by which Ukraine was allowed to separate from the Soviet Union, Russia retained control of this base in exchange for a rent.
A clause in this treaty allowed Russia to station troops in Crimea and take control of security in any crisis. When the coup occurred in Kiev, Russia exercised this option. Such was the ‘Russian invasion’ of Crimea.
The residents of Crimea had passed a referendum years earlier asking Russia to annex them back into their ‘homeland’, Russia. The Russian government of that time ignored it. After Maidan, they held another one, which also passed, and this time Russia agreed to it.
The Donbas people looked on this with interest. The two provinces, Donetsk and Lugansk, began organizing referendums. The Russian government tried to persuade them to stop.
The Donbasians modified the terms of the referendum to ask only for autonomy within Ukraine, guaranteed by Russia, rather than independence. The Russian government was not happy with this but was in a dilemma. Public opinion in Russia was strongly in favour of intervening in Novorossiya if the people were attacked.
The vote was organized entirely by volunteers with minimal resources. Officials of the central government tried in various ways to interfere, even removing the ballot boxes. The poll organizers had to improvise their own boxes.
In both provinces, the referendum passed resoundingly. The Russian government announced that it ‘respected’ the results, but committed to nothing. Nonetheless, public committees in other Russian speaking provinces of South Ukraine began trying to organize their own referendums.
The coup regime in Kiev really did not trust the Ukrainian army. At the time this consisted of teenage conscripts with a few weeks of training, and whom the army could not even feed. Nonetheless, Kiev tried to order this army to stop the attempts in Donetsk and Lugansk to set up autonomous governments.
I recall numerous videos of the Ukraine army being stopped by hastily thrown up barricades and sometimes, literally, by old women with brooms. Many young soldiers handed over their weapons in exchange for something to eat. I recall my fervent hopes that this was all it would take to win the Donbasians their freedom.
Such hopes soon died. Maidan thugs arrived in Donbas to try to intimidate the population. They broke into homes and businesses, robbed people at gunpoint, and committed rapes.
The Donbasians were enraged by the failure of authorities to protect them. They stormed government buildings and seized a good number of weapons. They drove the ‘Maidans’ and the Ukrainian army out of their towns.
In other parts of South Ukraine, the old Novorossiya, weapons were removed before the public could get them, several protesters were shot dead, and autonomy votes had to be called off. In Donbas itself, the rebels had got ahead of the suppression measures, and events accelerated toward war.
End Part One.