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William Dowell’s regular Tom’s Paine column.

Cartoon by Jeff Danziger. (Also see LINK to Danziger’s latest book, The Vietnam War according to Lieuttenant Dangerous)

The two break away regions, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, in south eastern Ukraine, known collectively as the Donbas, have been largely autonomous since 2014 when the Russians interceded in Ukrainian affairs after the pro-Russian government of Victor Yanukovych was overturned by demonstrations that eventually led to the Ukrainian Revolution in 2014. What Putin has accomplished at this point in time is to put the Kremlin’s official stamp on what to a large extent was already an accomplished fact. Putin had already recognized Donetsk and Luhansk as independent entities when they effectively declared autonomy in 2014. No one else has so far and despite the threat from Russian troops, it’s doubtful that anyone else will.

The situation in the Donbas has always been less than clear. Russia’s influence extends back to the time of the Tzars.  The name, Donbas, refers to the Donets coal basin which runs along the Donets River. The region’s coal mines led to a population boom mostly of Russian immigrants throughout the region towards the end of 1700s. Under Tzarist Russia, the Donbas came to be known as Novo Rossia (New Russia). The region is still important for its coal mines which reach deep underground, for its metallurgy and for its heavy industry.

While Ukrainians populated the Donbas’ rural areas, the Russians were  concentrated in the cities, and they still make up an important part of the industrial work force. Through much of its history and particularly lately, the rest of Ukraine has treated the Russian concentration in the region with suspicion and ambivalence.

After the Russian Revolution, Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.  In a 1991 referendum, more than 80 per cent of the citizens in the Donbas region voted for independence from the USSR. By 1993, however, the region was experiencing serious economic difficulties, the coal miners were frequently on strike and the ethnic Russian population, which still constitutes nearly 40 per cent of the region’s populations beginning to feel crowded out by Ukrainian nationalism and the fact that decisions were made in Kyiv.  The rise of powerful and heavily corrupt oligarchs, including Victor Yanukovych, did not help the situation. While more than half the regional population was Ukrainian, the ethnic Russians were heavily concentrated in the cities and nearly 3/4ths of the Donbas considered Russian to be their principal language. 

Reconciling the ethnic Russians with the rest of the Ukrainians was never going to be easy, but Putin complicated matters considerably by encouraging the Russian community to rise up and issuing Russian passports freely to just about anyone who wanted one.

The question now is whether he plans to stop with Donbas or try to take over other areas of Ukraine as well? Are the troops stationed elsewhere merely there to keep Kyiv from objecting to the loss of Donbas, or will he try to swallow the whole country?

For the moment, President Biden has held off leveling massive sanctions against Russia, although he has leveled sanctions against the self-styled Donbas republics. Obviously the White House wants to see if Putin can be stopped from going any further.

From both NATO and Russia’s perspective, Ukraine can be strategically important—not so much because of Donbas, but because of Ukraine’s western border is the gateway to eastern Europe.  The frontier provides access to Romania, Moldova, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland as well as Belarus. A military threat can move in either direction.  If Putin had control of all of Ukraine, he might begin to create problems in those eastern European countries that were subject to Soviet takeovers at the end of World war II.  All the same, It is easy to see why NATO having open access to Ukraine might make the Kremlin nervous. 

Even Ukraine’s economic success and its opening to western markets and particularly the European Union, might raise questions in Russia about its own economic problems and the increasingly repressive tactics of Putin’s regime.

For the moment, increased sanctions may be the most reasonable western reaction, but that will not come without a price.  Europe is dependent on Russian gas to heat its homes and if Russia is cut out of the world economy and forbidden to buy Russian oil, energy costs will likely sky rocket and that could lead to a global recession.   With a population of only 44 million, Ukraine may seem like a far away tempest in a tea pot, but the potential ramifications of that tempest may come as a shock to us all. 

Foreign correspondent and author William Dowell is Global Insights Magazine’s America’s editor based in Philadelphia. He is also a contributing editor to Who,What,Why. Tom’s Paine is his regular column. Over the past decades, he has covered much of the globe for TIME, ABC News and other news organizations.


William Dowell is also a co-editor of the fourth, fully-revised edition of The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan published by Crosslines Essential Media, a partner of Global Geneva Group. Although this current edition was pubished in 2014 much of it is still relevant. You can procure an e-edition through this LINK on Amazon. https://www.amazon.fr/Essential-Field-Guide-Afghanistan-Humanitarian-ebook/dp/B00HZ1FNRW

We still have a few hard copies left, too. If you would like a copy, please order with: editor@global-geneva.com Cost: 50.00 CHF/USD including p&p. DHL, FEDEX etc. please add.

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