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The invisible war: 8 years of battles in Donbas

Donbas (short for ‘Donetsk Basin’) is the unofficial historical name of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. Since 2014, these lands have been the site of the Russian invasion and fierce Ukrainian resistance. For 8 years, Donetsk and Luhansk have suffered from armed clashes, shelling by Russian artillery, and increasing levels of crime in the areas occupied by Russia-backed mercenaries and Russian occupation forces.

Two boys and a Ukrainian soldier in the city of Popasna
Two boys and a Ukrainian soldier in the city of Popasna, near the Donbas frontline in 2014. For many Ukrainian kids, war has been a reality for 8 years, much earlier than 2022. Photo: Anatolii Stepanov

The Russian invasion of Donbas region was preceded by Ukraine’s fight for democracy and freedom during the Maidan revolution of 2014. When Kremlin-backed president Yanukovych fled Ukraine due to massive protests and the demands of Ukrainians for European integration and rule of law, Russia saw this as a threat to its geopolitical interests. Continuing the tradition of 30 years of Russian wars, the Moscow regime invaded and annexed Crimea. This was an unprecedented violation of the sovereignty and independence of a European country since World War Two. Emboldened by the relatively mild response of the international community, Russia escalated its aggression into a bloody war in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Many Ukrainians percieve this part of the war as having been “invisible” to the world at large, as despite thousands of Ukrainians killed by Russian fire over its 8 year duration and almost 2 million internal refugees, massive international support and attention was rallied only after Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022.

The Russian aggression that raged in Eastern Ukraine since 2014 irreversibly changed the country, brought about destruction and human suffering. Yet, there are a lot of myths and disinformation surrounding Russia’s invasion of Donbas, so let’s take a look at the verified facts and history.

A brief history of Donbas

Ethnologist and historian Lesia Gasydjak (author of the book Unknown Donbas: Historical myths and cultural reality) is one of the foremost experts on the region. A deep dive into its fascinating history deserves a separate article, but we turn to her to lay out the main facts:

Monument to John Hughes
Monument to John Hughes in modern Donetsk. Photo: Mykhailo Markovskiy
  • In the 15-18th century, Donbas was the “free plains”, to which Ukrainian Cossacks and farmers escaped to establish villages away from feudal slavery.
  • In the 19th century, Donetsk city (then named Yuzivka or Hughesivka, after the Welsh industrialist John Hughes) became a destination for British, French, and Belgian investors and engineers that worked with local coal and iron. It was a flourishing European town with schools, confectionary factories, and rich Ukrainian culture. 
Yuzivka (historical name of Donetsk city) in the 19th century
Yuzivka (historical name of Donetsk city) in the 19th century: it had electricity, a telegraph, and complex architecture. Photo: Ukrainian Ethnographic Museum of Donetsk
  • Soviet Rule led to a decline of Donbas: in the 1930s, a famine engineered by Stalin (Holodomor) wiped out 3 million 941 thousand Ukrainians throughout the country (some research cite higher numbers). In 1933, the Kremlin regime directed 147 trains filled with Russian peasants which moved into the empty houses of deceased Ukrainian families in Donbas. Forced immigration of Russians into Donbas continued up to the 1960s.
  • Yet the area still remained ethnically diverse: many Ukrainians were deported from other parts of the country to Donbas as a form of Soviet repression, and other minorities (like Greeks, Jews, and Armenians) had prominent communities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

The timeline of the war in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions

FSB colonel Igor Girkin
FSB colonel Igor Girkin (supposedly — former) is the same man who led Russian special forces in Crimea and then — in Donbas battles.
Photo: Oleksander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images

April 12, 2014.
The Russia’s invasion began

FSB officer Igor Girkin (Strelkov), crossed the Ukrainian border with a detachment of Russian special forces and seized the towns of Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, and Druzhkivka. Local criminals and Russian proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk were armed and turned into a militia (considered terrorists by Ukrainian and international law). 

“I really am a FSB colonel, and I don’t hide it… I was the one who pulled the trigger of this war. If our unit had not crossed the border, it would have all fizzled out, like it did in Kharkiv or Odesa. It was practically our unit, which got this ongoing war moving.”

Igor Girkin in an interview with Russian media, reported by Euromaidanpress.

April 13, 2014.
Ukrainian National Defence Council announced the Anti-Terrorist Operation

To counteract Russia’s armed groups invading the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, terrorizing the local population, and breaking Ukrainian laws, the National Defence Council and the President ordered an Anti-Terrorist Operation conducted by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. 

May 11, 2014.
Illegal gun-point referendums were held in the occupied parts of Donbas

The illegal referendums for what Russian FSB officer Girkin called “Donbas independence” were done in a similar fashion to those in Crimea: no voting or ID controls, breach of Ukrainian and international laws, no observers, and no valid vote count (the results were announced immediately).

Crimea illegal referendum
A representative of the illegal Russian “voting commission” in Crimea talking to an elderly woman in her house. The same shoddy and illegal methods were used in Donbas. Photo: Oleksandr Khudoteply/AFP

“I certainly consider myself a monarchist. Above all, I’m a patriot of the [Russian] empire”

Igor Girkin in an interview to Gazeta TV

Russian national state channels and their foreign counterparts such as Russia Today started spreading propagandist myths of a “genocide in Donbas”.  This mirrored the same disinformation about a “genocide of Russians” used to justify Russia’s brutal war in Chechnya (that resulted in anywhere from 90,000 to 300,000 civilian casualties). 

June 13, 2014.
Ukrainian Armed Forces liberated Mariupol 

After a short and successful operation, the Ukrainian army liberates the city of Mariupol from Russian-backed militant groups, restoring (more or less) normal life in the city.

July 1, 2014.
Ukraine’s Armed Forces launched a counteroffensive

The Ukrainian army successfully counteracted many conquests of the Russian invasion. Overall in July, the Armed Forces of Ukraine freed the Artemivsky, Maryinsky, and Slovyansky districts of the Donetsk region. In the Luhansk region battles continued until September 5. 

July 17, 2014.
Passenger flight MH17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down by a Russian missile

The missile, launched from an area controlled by Russian forces, killed 298 people (citizens of the Netherlands, Malaysia, and 16 other countries). The international court case is still ongoing but has found conclusive evidence that FSB officer Girkin was the main culprit.

Russian militant holding a child’s stuffed toy animal from the wreckage of MH-17. 298, including children, died. Photo: Dominique Faget

August 2014.
A large-scale invasion of Russian Armed Forces

Seeing the success of the Ukrainian army against the Russian illegal armed formations, the Moscow regime decided to intervene more aggressively. Most military analysts estimate that around 8 battalion tactical groups of the Russian army entered parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to reinforce the Russian proxies. This turned the tide of battles in Donbas.

August 29, 2014.
The Russian army killed 254 Ukrainian soldiers (423 MIA) near Ilovaysk 

With the regular Russian army entering Donbas, Ukrainian troops were surrounded. A “green corridor” was being negotiated for the evacuation of Ukraine’s defenders. Yet Russian artillery opened fire on the Ukrainian troops despite the calls for a peaceful evacuation route. 

Yaroslav Tynchenko, director of the Ministry of Defense Museum of Military History, notes that 254 Ukrainian servicemen were killed as a result of Russian shelling that broke the evacuation ceasefire, while 366 were killed during the entire time of the Ilovaysk military operation.

Ukrainian soldiers trying to evacuate the wounded near Ilovaysk
Ukrainian soldiers trying to evacuate the wounded near Ilovaysk. Photo: EPA

September 5, 2014.
Signing of the 1st Minsk Agreements

The massacre of Ilovaysk was followed by the signing of the Minsk Agreements (their main feature being a ceasefire) under Russian military pressure. However, in February 2015, Ukrainian Defense Minister reported that Russian forces had opened fire on the Ukrainian side more than 4000 times, completely disregarding the accords. Bombings of Donbas by Russian artillery based across the border continued killing Ukrainians throughout the entire war.

September 19, 2014.
A protocol on ceasefire demarcation line was signed

Ukraine, Russia, and representatives of the Russian occupation administration in Donbas signed an additional protocol to the Minsk Agreements that defined a 30 kilomtere “safe zone” where no use of artillery or aviation was allowed. Each side agreed to remove heavy weaponry (able to shell at large distances) no less than 15 km away from they demarcation line. Russia also promised to close its border to prevent passage of military equipment or troops.

However, Donbas bombings by the Russian forces continued, breaking the ceasefire. Use of heavy by weaponry (banned by the Agreements) by the Russian side within the 15km zone persisted as before.  The OSCE observer mission recorded numerous heavy vehicles and men in military uniform entering Ukraine through the border Russia promised to have closed.

January 31, 2015.
Russian-backed separatists demanded Ukrainian forces stand down. The Ukrainian president asked for international aid

The terrorist forces in Donbas supported by Russia refused to acknowledge the Minks Agreement demarcation protocol and demanded Ukrainian forces cease defensive operations. The Russia-backed militants continued their aggression, however. It was essentially a demand to accept violence without any defense.

President Poroshenko asks for the international community to provide military aid to stop the advance of the Russians.

January — February 2015.
The battle for the Donetsk city airport escalated

Aleksandr Zakharchenko, the self-proclaimed leader of the Russian occupation administration in Donbas, moved to seize the airport. This new aggression completely destroyed the First Minsk Agreements.

The battles (from their initial stage of defense to Zakharchenko’s final attack) lasted 242 days and became a symbol of the bravery of Ukrainian soldiers, similar to the defenders of Mariupol in 2022. The defenders of the airport held against Russia’s superior numbers and firepower, earning them the name “Cyborgs” among Ukrainians due to their endurance and skill. Eventually, Russian forces brutally shelled the airport and ended the siege. 

The Ukrainian “Cyborgs” defending Donetsk airport. Many would not come back alive. Photo: Sergey Loiko

More than 200 people were killed and 500 were injured. Many Ukrainians were taken prisoner.

The control tower of the Donetsk airport at the height of the fighting for the Donetsk airport. A symbol of the heroic defense of the airport. Ukraine, October 2014. Photo: Reuters

January 16 — February 18, 2015.
The Donbas battle for Debaltseve

The Donbas battle for Debaltseve ledge (that included 4 towns) raged between the Ukrainian defenders (2,500 soldiers) and a mix of professional Russian military and armed separatists (around 17,000 troops). 

wounded Ukrainian woman
This woman is one of those whose apartment was destroyed during the so-called Debaltsevo cauldron. Photo: UNIAN.

As before, professional Russian soldiers were the driving force of the war. Military researchers have found evidence of Russian regular soldiers active in Donbas starting from 2014: at the very least the 61th Marine Brigade and 200th Motorized Rifle Brigade of the Russian Northern Fleet. There are strong indications that many of the so-called local rebels were, in fact, Russian servicemen out of uniform. 

Paratroopers of Russia’s 331st Guards Airborne Regiment captured near the village of Dzerkalne on 24 August 2014. Credit: Hromadske. 

February 12, 2015.
The 2nd Minsk Agreements

In fierce battles, Ukrainian troops lost some positions. Thus, during the battles for Logvinove, the Ukrainian army got into a cauldron, from which it was quite difficult to withdraw troops. Those events led to the second Minsk Agreements.

February 2015.
Failure of the 2nd Minsk Agreements, positional warfare

Russia’s invasion of Donetsk and Luhansk and the temporary occupation of parts of their regions turned into a drawn-out positional war. The 2nd Minsk agreements were violated multiple times by the Russian side, including shelling both from the temporarily occupied territories and from across the Russian border.

In the summer of 2017, 34,000 Ukrainian soldiers were defending Eastern Ukraine in the Anti-Terrorist Operation.

Ukrainian soldier
Ukrainian soldier Vova in a combat position in Donbas, 2021. Photo: Oleksandr Klymenko, Reuters

November 25, 2018February 23, 2022.
Azov Sea Blockade, Russian escalation

On November 25, 2018, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) coast guard fired upon and captured three Ukrainian Navy vessels. The Sea of Azov was blockaded. 

In 2019, trying to secure another ceasefire, Ukraine agreed to disengage its troops from some positions in Donbas. Russia did the opposite: it did not comply with any agreements and moved more troops from Russia and Belarus to the Ukrainian border.

Russian proxies holding the police department in Sloviansk
Russian proxies holding the police department in Sloviansk, 2014. Photo: Focus.ua

Consequences and casualties of the war in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions

FSB officer Girkin himself admitted that Russia’s invasion had turned the temporarily occupied parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions into a criminal wasteland. The UN reported growing lawlessness, recording instances of targeted murders, torture, and abduction, conducted by the Russian regular armed forces occupying parts of Donbas. 

A servicewoman kneels down in front of the Wall of Remembrance for the fallen heroes in Kyiv, depicting defenders of Ukraine killed during the war since 2014. Photo: Slava Ratynski

The 2014-2021 Russia’s aggression in Donbas resulted in more than 14,000 Ukrainians killed (at least 3,375 civilians), more than 1.8 million internal refugees, 251 hostages held in occupied territories, and 410 people missing. 

Ivan Shovkoplias, сommunications consultant, Ukrainian media volunteer