Donbas’ ‘crazy’ battlegrounds where conditions are ‘like WW1’

Vladimir Putin accuses The West of ‘starting the war’

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Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces have been at loggerheads in the region ever since 2014, the year that Putin illegally annexed Crimea. A nine-year battle, Putin maintained in his 2023 annual address that the area was part of Russia.

By early 2022, 14,000 had died in the Donbas. The Ukrainian government initially battled to fend off the Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, which eventually resulted in the Minsk agreement — a series of international meetings that ultimately failed to bring peace to the region.

It has meant that for the best part of a decade, millions have been forced from their homes and displaced due to hostile conditions. According to Crisis Group, it is now one of the world’s most mine-contaminated areas.

In 2021 and 2022, the Russian military began to build a presence along the border, foreshadowing what was to come. But in the eyes of Putin, Russia was simply preparing to defend itself from NATO expansion.

In his address this week, the 70-year-old blamed the Ukraine regime for providing artillery and other weapons to attack the Donbas in 2014 and the following year, continuing the “shelling terror”. The Russian President added: “They started the war and we used force to stop it.”

He explicitly addressed those in the Donbas — namely those in the regions of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Luhansk, and Donetsk — thanking them for the controversial referenda results and stating that nothing was more substantial than their “resolution to be part of their country, Russia”.

But the referendums he refers to have been widely discredited, with Ukrainian officials claiming residents were coerced into voting to become part of Russia.

Speaking in the context of development, Putin said: “I would like to emphasise that those who were born and grew up in Belarus and in the Donbas, those who fought for the independence of these areas, need to be at the forefront of our future development…Russia is counting on you to take into account these massive tasks.”

It hints at Russia’s goal: to take the entire Donbas region. While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has hinted that forces may need to withdraw from the town of Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, Russian casualties are reportedly running high.

In an interview with Italy’s Corriere della Sera, the 45-year-old said that it had been “devastated by Russians,” like many towns in the Donbas, and added: “It is important for us to defend it but not at any price and not for everyone to die.”

Before the war, Bakhmut had a population of some 70,000. This now stands at less than 8,000. Analysts have said the town is more symbolic rather than strategically useful to Ukraine.

As Zelensky hinted, the situation in the Donbas is particularly bleak. The region has been described as akin to conditions seen in World War 1 with the Russians taking a ruthless approach, including towards their own soldiers: wounded soldiers are often left to freeze to death in no man’s land.

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Fighting in the Donbas has taken on all sorts of forms, with the rulebook largely torn up. New technologies have made for cutting-edge ways of operating, perhaps the biggest being the introduction of lightweight drones.

Ukrainian forces have taken full advantage of drones to scout out Russian positions, with one drone pilot telling the Sunday Times in January about his observations of just how brutal opposition forces are.

The 54-year-old said: “It’s just like the First World War. It’s crazy how many of them there are. If we kill them they just replace them.

“[The Russians] are taking grenades and AKs and trying to get as close as they can to just throw grenades into Ukrainian trenches.”

As the war’s one-year anniversary approaches, it is believed that Russia is preparing to launch a more ferocious attack in the Donbas. Preparations are in place for almost 2,000 tanks to be rolled out, and 300,000 soldiers drafted.

But as has been seen throughout the war, Ukraine will not bow down quietly. Just this week, the country claimed that Russia had been hit with “extraordinary” losses in the region.

On February 19, in his nightly address, Mr Zelensky defiantly told viewers: “The more losses Russia suffers there, in Donbas — in Bakhmut, Vuhledar, Marinka, Kreminna — the faster we will be able to end this war with Ukraine’s victory.”

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