There are several myths used by Russia and its fellow travellers to justify the invasion of Ukraine. One is that a “genocide” was happening in Donbass, where Ukrainians killed “14,000” pro-Russian separatists and civilians since 2014.
This is just another myth, as are others we debunked in a previous Bitter Winter series. Many who repeat this story have only a vague idea of what “Donbass” means. “Donbass” (also spelled Donbas) is not a legal but a cultural and historical expression. The name was coined in the 19th century as an acronym for “DONetsk BASin,” an area in the east of Ukraine renowned for its coal mines. The coal boom of the same 19th century led to the immigration of thousands of Russian-speaking workers from present-day Russia into what was originally a predominantly Ukrainian-speaking area.
With the Soviet Union, a part of the historical Donbass was incorporated into Russia, while most of it formed the two oblasts (regions) of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Soviet republic of Ukraine. Generally, today, “Donbass” refers to the two Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk.
During World War II, Donbass witnessed some of the bloodiest battles between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which left the area depopulated. Because of its substantial Russian minority, a result of the 19th-century coal immigration, Stalin saw the presence of Donbass within Ukraine as a positive element, balancing the independentist aspiration prevailing in Western Ukraine.
He tried to strengthen this position with a new wave of immigrant workers sent from Russia to settle in Donbass, and—as demonstrated by Lenore Ann Grenoble in her book Language Policy in the Former Soviet Union (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2003)—by greatly restricting the use of Ukrainian language in the two oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, where most schooling was in Russian only. As a result of these policies, the last Soviet Census, of 1989 reported the population of the two oblasts as 55 percent Ukrainian and 45 percent Russian.
After Ukrainian independence, there were almost immediately Russian voices that claimed that Donbass (as well as Crimea) was in fact part of Russia. The matter became part of the negotiations leading to the Memorandum of Budapest of 1994, a treaty that settled the question of the large quantity of Soviet nuclear weapons left in Ukraine by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. By that treaty, Ukraine agreed to give these nuclear weapons to Russia (which it did), and Russia agreed to respect “the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” — thus abandoning its claims on Donbass (and Crimea).
In 2014, however, after the ousting of the pro-Russian president Yanukovych, which Russian propaganda depicted (falsely, as I discussed in a previous Bitter Winter article) as a Western-organized coup to promote anti-Russian interests, Putin invaded and annexed Crimea, and Russian soldiers without uniforms entered the Donbass to support a pro-Russian separatist revolt. This was a clear breach of the Memorandum of Budapest of 2014, which did not make Russia’s respect of the borders of Ukraine contingent on the kind of government, pro-Russian or otherwise, or even democratic or non-democratic, Ukraine would have in the future.
Unlike in Crimea, Ukrainian troops and anti-Russian militias managed to organize an effective resistance in Donbass, which led to intervention of Russian forces, this time with uniforms, and to a ceasefire signed in Minsk (“Minsk I”) on September 5, 2014. Minsk I left to the pro-Russian separatists roughly one-third of the territory of the two oblasts, where the two pseudo-independent republics of Donetsk and Luhansk had been established with Russian support. The other two-thirds remained under Ukrainian control.
On February 12, 2015, a second Minsk agreement (“Minsk II”) was signed, where Russia agreed that the territories of the pseudo-republics of Donetsk and Luhansk should return to Ukraine, which in turn should grant a broad autonomy to the two oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk as a whole, including provisions for the use of the Russian language.
The Minsk II agreement was never implemented. The territories of the pseudo-republics were never given back to Ukraine, as their leaders claimed they could not disregard the referendums they had organized in May 2014, where the majority had voted for independence.
Ukraine answered that few would take seriously referendums held in a situation of military occupation, and at any rate referendums cannot be a solution, one reason being that according to United Nations figures at least 30 percent of the whole population of the two pseudo-Republics had been expelled or had escaped to Ukraine, and could not vote in any referendum. On the other hand, Ukraine never implemented the measures for autonomy and promotion of the Russian language in the areas of Donbass that remained under its control.
It does not follow from this that those living in the two oblasts, if given a choice, would like to separate from Ukraine and join Russia. The Ukrainians living in those two-thirds of Donbass controlled by Ukraine until 2022 have never expressed these intentions, nor have they fled en masse to the pseudo-republics and Russia. The opposite is true: 1.6 million Ukrainians have fled from the pseudo-republics to Ukraine, and in 2022, when Russian troops are advancing or threatening to advance in the Donbass, hundreds of thousands more Ukrainians, many Russian-speaking, are fleeing to the western part of Ukraine or to countries of the European Union.
Periodically, both the Ukrainian and the pro-Russian troops and militias have tried to control more territory in the Donbass, leading to more than seven years of what was called a low-intensity war, which became a full-fledged war in 2022.
How many died in this war? It seems reasonable to discard the different figures offered by both Ukraine and Russia, which both have their own propaganda interests. Happily, the situation in Donbass is also monitored by the United Nations. On January 27, 2022, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released its most recent estimate of the victims of the Donbass conflict from 2014 to December 31, 2021. The famous figure of 14,000 casualties, often quoted by pro-Russian comments, comes from this document. In fact, the U.N. estimate is between 14,200 and 14,400 victims.
By no means were these victims all “killed by the Ukrainians.” According to the UN, 10,900 victims were soldiers, of whom 4,400 were Ukrainians and 6,500 pro-Russian combatants of or on behalf of the separatist pseudo-republics. Civilian victims were between 3,400 and 3,500. The latter were in turn not all victims of attacks and of drones and rockets launched by Ukraine against the pseudo-republics. In fact, a part died in the portions of the oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk that remained under Ukrainian control during attacks by separatists.
The UN report also notes that 8.8 percent of all civilian victims come from a single incident, which happened on July 17, 2014, when Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot by a missile, and all the 298 who were aboard (283 passengers and 15 crew members) died. While Russian and pro-Russian propaganda has tried to spread several conspiracy theories about the incident, two Dutch investigations concluded that the plane was shot by a surface-to-air missile supplied by Russia to the People’s Republic of Donetsk and fired by the latter’s militias.
In conclusion, there was no “genocide” of the Donbass population by the Ukrainian army. There was a war, provoked by Russia in violation not only of the territorial integrity of a sovereign state but also of the treaty it signed in Budapest in 1994. Like all wars, there were casualties on both sides. Sadly, civilians also died. They were killed, again, by both sides. To claim that all the 14,000 victims of the war in Donbass were “killed by the Ukrainians” is just primitive propaganda. Unfortunately, some in the West uncritically believe and propagate it.
This article has been republished with permission from Bitter Winter.