First, I should say that Russian speakers are everywhere in Ukraine, and they are not only Russians. They are Russians and Ukrainians, Jews and Crimean Tatars, Armenians and Greeks. So the Russian language is not itself a significant marker of national identity or political allegiance, except for far-right nationalists. What is significant is whether you identify with your fellow citizens who live here in this country, as one nation.
Many in the international left don’t grasp this when they say that there is this Russian population dissatisfied because it faces discrimination. That is simply not true. It is a claim made by the propagators of the ideology of the russkiy mir (the Russian-world civilization) to which all of Ukraine, they say, rightfully belongs, including Donbas.
Those claiming discrimination against the Russian language have lately focused on the January 2021 law requiring that public and commercial services be provided in Ukrainian, where, until now, Russian had continued to predominate, especially in mass and social media. It is, in effect, a positive discrimination law intended to strengthen Ukrainian, now the official language. Such a measure is deemed necessary after three centuries of discrimination and prohibition against Ukrainian and in the face of competition with corporate media broadcasting out of neighboring Russia.
The law is widely supported because it is in keeping with what most people want and choose to do themselves. But it was introduced with little attention paid to measures needed to ease the transition from Russian for unilingual Russian speakers. The biggest critics remaining are media and publishing outlets that must now produce parallel services in Ukrainian, if they continue to provide them in Russian
So let’s see how things really are in the Donbas. It was industrially the most developed part of Ukraine; the region also spreads over the border into Russia. It had a very high standard of living, was economically closely tied into the economy of the Russian Federation, was historically linked up with Moscow and Leningrad by rail and other communications. From the 1970s onward, particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the new capitalists pillaged and privatized the nationalized assets, this region declined economically. The working class experienced what workers in rust belts in the United States and in Britain have experienced: becoming marginalized, unemployed, forced to emigrate in search of work. Their environments have been poisoned and polluted by industrial production. They suffer as a result in all kinds of ways, including their health and their opportunities in life.
So there is this resentment that was seized upon by Russian nationalists: the far right in Donbas and in Russia. They argue that the Donbas people have been politically disenfranchised and so need to have their own government or, rather, that they should join the Russian Federation. That’s how this process began, and if you look carefully, the separatist republics were launched in 2014 by far-right Russian nationalists. This, in turn, generated a strong Ukrainian nationalist reaction, including its far right. These two nationalisms feed off each other, shaping important parts of the entire political process and the military situation.
The majority of the Donbas electorate supported Ukrainian independence in the December 1991 referendum. But independence came without a radical break with the past, without removing the old Soviet ruling class from public office or its command over the economy. More than anywhere else in Ukraine, those who ruled the Donbas maintained an authoritarian, paternalistic relationship with the working-class population and fostered their distinct regional identity rather than a civic and national identity. But they identify with other people in Ukraine as citizens of one country. That was the situation before 2014, but the situation was obviously polarized and inflamed by the conflicts that broke out.
When Viktor Yanukovych was elected in 2010, he brought with him to government in Kiev a faction of oligarchs from Donbas. They lined up behind him because he controlled access to licenses to trade abroad, for instance, oil, gas, and chemicals processed in Ukraine. His ministers basically came from the Donbas region. When he was ousted by the Maidan in 2014, he fled to Russia, but his party established itself as a rump force in the Donbas. They tried to mount a response from there and to maintain a foothold in Ukraine. The Russian Federation under Putin came in and backed them militarily. First, Russia seized Crimea in February 2014, and then the people behind that seizure moved to the Donbas and established, with the local Russian nationalist parties and remnants of Yanukovych’s party, the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics.