Ethnopolitical Conflicts in Eastern Ukraine and the Increasing Tension in Donbass

Since the 1990s, the end of the Cold War, separatist movements and ethnicity-based conflicts as a “security issue” started to become an important concern in the world politics. Ukraine has been one of the sources of instability emerged in the post-Soviet geography after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The separatist movements and ethnopolitical conflicts starting in the east of the country are among the problems still needs to be resolved. The conflicts in the Donbass region during the political crisis that started in Ukraine in 2014 increased again in the first months of 2021, despite the ceasefire. This causes deterioration of the relations between Russia and Ukraine.

The “Berlin Plus Agreement” signed between the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Trade Organization (NATO) on December 16, 2002 was prepared accordingly to NATO’s 1999 Washington Summit. The scope of the agreement includes the EU’s ability to benefit from NATO’s facilities in its peacekeeping operations. In this regard, members of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) and Individual Partnership Action Plan as well as among the countries participating in the Membership Action Plan including the states in the post-Soviet geography (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) have their armed forces restructured to integrate with NATO. Under NATO’s “Open Door Policy,” Ukraine has also turned its direction to the West. As a matter of fact, “the Orange Revolution” in the country in 2004 led to the color revolutions happened one after another in the region.

Color revolutions were considered as developments corresponding to the West’s policy of containing Russia. After the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, Moscow supported the opposition party leader Viktor Yanukovych. On the other hand, as the regions where Russia has increased its sphere of influence, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have started to gain importance. However, in 2010, with the administration of Yanukovych, who is known to be close to Russia, Ukraine started to turn its direction towards Russia again and rejected the Association Agreement expected to be signed with the EU.

The struggle between the pro-Western and Russian supporters in the country turned into a political crisis and then into street clashes. In this chaos in Kiev, the Yanukovych administration was overthrown and a new administration supporting the EU and NATO was formed. The chaos in the country has spread to Eastern Ukraine and Crimea as well. In this environment, Donbass, Luhansk and Crimea declared their independence and established their own republics with the support of Moscow. Crimea, where Russia’s Black Sea fleet is located, went to a referendum with direct Russian intervention after a short time and decided to join the country. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its recognition in international law is the subject of another analysis. In this analysis, the recent increasing tension in Donbass and Luhansk regions and the political disagreement with Ukraine, which does not recognize the independence declarations, turning into ethnopolitical conflicts over “ethnic identity” in a short time is analyzed.

Donbass region, located in the east of Ukraine, is an economically important region where the mining industry stands out. Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv are vital places in the region. Donbass is a region where Russians live in numerous sizes ethnically and people are in close contact with Russia in socio-economic terms. In fact, the apparent differences of opinion between Western Ukraine and Eastern Ukraine triggered separatist movements after Yanukovych’s overthrow. Therefore, with the escalation of conflicts in the region, the seeking for a solution has increased and the Minsk Process was initiated with the participation of Germany, France and Russia.

During the ceasefire process started on 27 July 2020, many violations detected from the both parties by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observers. During the inspections by British military consultants to the Joint Forces Operations (JFO) zone in Donbass on March 6-7, 2021, the frontline training of the Ukrainian soldiers in the region was evaluated.

In the background of this visit, there are indicators that a possible military operation will be carried out by the Ukrainian troops and that Ukraine will withdraw from the Minsk Agreements. Because the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky stated that he was waiting from Moscow for the approval of “peaceful solution” which he claimed to have developed together with Germany and France. However, Moscow replied that he had no knowledge of such plan.[1] “The peaceful solution plan for the situation in Donbass announced by Kiev is another attempt to ignore the Minsk Agreements,” said Natalia Nikonorova, Permanent Representative at the Trilateral Contact Group of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

On the other hand, Valeriy Chaly, Former Ambassador of Ukraine to Washington, stated that the relations between Moscow and Kiev should be severed.[2] Spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zaharova interpreted Chaly’s words as “the desire to find a justification for the war initiated by Kiev against its own people.”[3] First deputy chairman of the Federation Council’s foreign affairs committee, Vladimir Dzhabarov said, “Diplomatic relations are easy to severe, but it is difficult to build, ”and he has shown Georgia as an example.[4] Moscow emphasizes that Ukraine will have a problem in the supply of Russian gas and maintenance of nuclear power plants in case of tensions between Russia and Ukraine over the Donbass problem.

NATO, the United States of America (USA) and the EU support Ukraine’s territorial integrity. However, from Russia’s point of view, the solution plan suggested in the Minsk Process and considered within the framework of a “loose federation” may pave the way for Russia to gain control over Ukraine. Currently, the relations between Moscow and Kiev are tense. In the case of Ukraine’s direct military intervention in Donbass, it is possible for Russia to intervene by using citizens with Russian passports in the region. As a matter of fact, considering the current events with increased tension, it is seen that there are warnings for civilians to evacuate the region.[5] Therefore, it can be argued that the conflicts in the region will increase in the near future.

Zelensky attaches great importance to the issue of advancing cooperation with the U.S. President Joe Biden and developing a strategic partnership with the U.S. in priority areas. However, rejoining the occupied regions of Donbass and Crimea to Ukraine is one of Zelensky’s top priorities.

In Donbass negotiations, Kiev representative Leonid Kravchuk stated that they are considering new plans for conflict resolution; Zelensky signed a decree on the occupation of Crimea.[6] The decree signed on February 27, 2021, covers the development of the Crimean Tatar language in addition to the rescuing from invasion and reintegration of Crimea.

In fact, Ukraine is aware that it is not likely for Crimea to become its territory again. However, by drawing the attention of the international public opinion to the region, it emphasizes its legitimacy and tries to get the support of the West against Russia. This situation causes Ukraine to be a geography where conflicts of interest between NATO’s Open-Door Policy and Russia’s near-abroad doctrine take place.

Moreover, the political crisis, which became evident with the political differences of the pro-Western people in the west of the country and the pro-Russian people in the east, also triggered the separatist movements. While Moscow’s political and military support to Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic, which declared their independence in April 2014 and announced their separation from Ukraine, increased the sanctions of the West against Russia, The Kiev administration, on the other hand, started military action against armed separatists.

Konstantin Bondarenko, President of the Ukrainian Politics Foundation, argues that the parties in the conflict in Donbass are the beneficiaries of this chaos. According to Bondarenko, even though the actual parties to the conflict are Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk, apart from the base of the conflict, the main problem in the region is between Moscow and Washington. That is why, it is not possible to completely resolve the issue until a consensus is reached between the U.S. and Russia.

As a result, the increasing tension in the region indicates that the conflicts will intensify in the near future. Considering the statement of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that they are ready to provide military aid of 250 million dollars including weapons to Kiev from the 2021 defense budget, it can be asserted that the search for a solution will be negatively affected.


[1] “Фантомный Документ: Как в Москве Отреагировали на Заявление Киева о Новом Плане Урегулирования по Донбассу (Fantomnıy Dokument: Kak v Moskve Ot Reagirovali na Zayavlenie Kieva o Novom Plane Uregulirovaniya po Donbassu)”, Russian.rt.com,  https://russian.rt.com/ussr/article/841163-ukraina-donbass-plan-peregovory-rossiya, (Date of Accesion: 11.03.2021).

[2] “Привлечь Третью Сторону: Киев Призвали Разорвать Отношения с Москвой, (Privleç Tretyu Storonu: Kiev Prizvali Razorvat Otnoşeniya s Moskvoy)”, Gazeta.ru, https://www.gazeta.ru/ politics/2021/03/08 _a_ 13504670.shtml, (Date of Accesion: 08.03.2021).

[3] “Захарова Ответила на Предложение Экс-Посла Украины Разорвать Дипотношения с Москвой. (Zaharova Otvetila na Predlojeniye Eks-Posla Ukrainı Razorvat Dipotnoşeniya s Moskvoy)”, Gazeta.ru, https://www.gazeta.ru/ politics/ news/2021/03/08/n_15713102.shtml, (Date of Accesion: 08.03.2021).

[4] “Экс-Посол Украины: Нужно Быть Готовыми к Разрыву Дипломатических Отношений с Россией. (Eks-Posol Ukrainı: Nujno Bıt Gotovımi k Razrıvu Diplomatiçeskih Otnoşeniy s Rossiey)”, Kommerstant.ru, https://www. kommersant. ru/doc/4721204, (Date of Accesion: 09.03.2021).

[5] “Rusya- Ukrayna Gerilimi Artıyor: Siviller Uyarıldı, Rusya’dan ‘Açık Mesaj’ Geldi”, CNN Türk, https://www.cnnturk.com/dunya/rusya-ukrayna-gerilimi-artiyor-siviller-uyarildi-rusyadan-acik-mesaj-geldi? page =1, (Date of Accesion: 11.03.2021).

[6] “Зеленский о Крыме: 7 Лет Назад у Нас Вырвали Сердце (Zelenskiy o Krıme: 7 Let Nazad u Nas Vırvali Sertse)”, Pravda.ru, https://www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2021/02/26/7284807/, (Date of Accesion: 11.03.2021).

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Güler Kalay
Güler Kalay
1976 Eskişehir doğumlu olan Güler KALAY, ilköğretim eğitimini Eskişehir Fahriye Köyü İlkokulu'nda tamamladıktan sonra 1989-1995 yılları arasında Ankara Gazi Anadolu Lisesinde orta öğretimine devam etmiştir. Süleyman Demirel Üniversitesi İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi İktisat Bölümünden lisans derecesini alan Güler KALAY, Bilkent Üniversitesi ve ardından Devlet Tiyatroları Genel Müdürlüğü'nde İdari koordinatörlük görevlerini yürütmüştür. 2012 yılında Atılım Üniversitesi Sosyal Bilimler Enstitüsü Uluslararası İlişkiler Anabilim Dalı Uluslararası İlişkiler Bilim Dalı'ndan Prof. Dr. Ulvi KESER danışmanlığında "Soğuk Savaş Sonrası Eski SSCB Coğrafyasında Etnik ve Dinsel Çatışmalar" başlıklı yüksek lisans teziyle mezun olmuştur. Aynı yıl MEB Yabancı Ülkeler Eğitim Bursu kapsamında Rusya Federasyonu Doktora tam burslusu olarak Lomonosov Moskova Devlet Üniversitesi Siyasal Bilgiler Fakültesi Rusya Politikası Anabilim Dalı Çatışma Bilimi Bilim Dalı'nda doktora programına başlamıştır. Prof. Dr. Aleksandr Pavlovich KOCHETKOV danışmanlığındaki doktora tezi savunma aşamasındadır. İlgi alanları; etnopolitik çatışmalar, milliyetçilik ve siyasal tarihtir. Ana dili Türkçe ve Kırım Tatarca olan Güler KALAY, ileri seviyede Rusça, Kazakça, Özbekçe; iyi derecede İngilizce ve temel düzeyde İtalyanca bilmektedir. Yüksek lisans tezi Berikan Yayınevi tarafından 2013 yılanda kitaplaştırılmıştır. Çeşitli uluslararası dergilerde ve uluslararası sempozyum kitaplarında makaleleri yayınlanmış olan Güler KALAY, bir çocuk annesidir.

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