Donbass: A Brief Recap

By Brendan S.

A pro-Russian separatist (left) stares at a Ukrainian soldier during a prisoner swap in Donbass, 2014.

We revisit the topic of Donbass today as the symptoms of Russian aggression are once again emerging on a large scale. In the past few weeks, numerous armored units of the Russian and Belarusian militaries have been dispatched to the Ukrainian border, and separatist ceasefire violations have skyrocketed. The Donetsk People’s Republic announced conscription on March 25. With imminent chaos on their hands, Ukrainian diplomats have been scrambling to NATO for help. It was announced today (April 3) that Ukraine will be joining NATO Mission Iraq along with Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean.


With one of the most corrupt crony capitalist states in Europe pitted against the second largest social imperialist state on Earth, the Donbass proxy fiasco is complex, and perhaps more nuanced than it may appear on the surface.


From the standpoint of self-determination, Donbass is a grey area, split between locals who identify as Ukrainian and those who identify as Russian. Ethnocentric policies have been the backbone of Ukrainian politics since its independence, a reaction to the decades of soft and hard genocide under Soviet hegemony. With 72% of the pre-war population of Donbass being Russian-speaking and 40% identifying as ethnically Russian, naturally the region was among the worst affected by this new social hegemony.


By 1993, wages in Donbass had dropped 80% and a large portion of workers were left unemployed, with the region bearing the brunt of Ukraine’s post-independence economic hardship. This sparked the first protests calling for an independent Donbass, which slowly dissipated as wages rose again, then became rejuvenated as pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was removed from office following the Euromaidan protests of early 2014.


One could saliently argue that Russian-speaking workers in Donbass have been pressed into an underclass by the Ukrainian state, and indeed this is the primary argument that the region’s separatist population has utilized. In this sense, some degree of self-determination may apply to Donbass on the basis of Russophobic class stratification. However, since the war broke out in April 2014, the Russian state has made sure to seize upon the friction to implant its own social imperialist interests, inviting thousands of military veterans from across Russia to join war crime-ridden militias and occupy the local politics in a power grab for daddy Putin. Overwhelming evidence has suggested direct intervention from the Russian military, especially during the first year of the war. This has earned separatists the title of “Russian hybrid forces” in the eyes of Ukraine.

Handy display of Azov Battalion symbolism. (Buck Clay)

West of Donetsk, Ukraine’s infamous Right Sector and other fascist groups have won the politicized militia race, the renowned Azov Battalion among their most prized possessions. Riding the wake of the post-Euromaidan auth-right surge, blatant fascism has stormed both the Ukrainian political arena and the frontlines. Having grown up in the immediate backwash of Soviet collapse with common family stories of genocide and famine, many in the Ukrainian youth have been convinced that the best alternative to Leninism is its auth-right brother.


Despite a presence of socialist volunteers in various units, the Ukrainian left has had virtually no room to organize itself into a cohesive faction, seen as an internal enemy by both the state and the volunteer militias. In the midst of the Second Artsakh War on October 16, 2020, incumbent President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a military pact with Turkey, nearly killing off the little hesitant support Ukraine had garnered from some in the internationalist left.

Gunmen of the newly-established Luhank People’s Republic guard a seized government office, in front of a Russian flag with “ANTIFA” stenciled across, April 2014. (Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko)

The Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics have snatched this left attention vacuum to gather as much international support from the gullible internet auth-left as possible. Since Euromaidan, Nazbol ideology has breached into the separatist mainstream, aiming to reconcile Soviet and Nazi sympathies under a single auth incel boy’s club of rogue testosterone and domestic abuse. Some separatist units have dubbed themselves “antifascist,” naturally drawing in the unfettered support of Reddit basement tankies. In 2014, small group of Western tankies bit the bait and formed the Carlos Palomino International Brigade, which virtually collapsed after eight of its members were arrested in Spain in February 2015. Texan Leninist Russell “Texas” Bentley has been one of the more covered examples of the Donbass basement tankie phenomenon.


Whether the larping auth-left of Donbass will march once again is yet to be seen. However one thing is certain: the War in Donbass will not be pacified any time soon.


See my August-September 2019 Ukraine series “Faces of Azov” and “Faces of Novorossiya” on @war_pic for context on Ukraine’s rightist militias and Russia’s separatist militias in Donbass.