A Blog by Jonathan Low


Oct 8, 2022

The Reason Putin Lost the Support of Formerly Pro-Russian Eastern Ukraine

First, Putin misjudged how disaffected residents of the Donbas region were. Since liberation,  the Ukrainian government significantly invested in improving the lives of people there. 

And then the brutal Russian invasion and occupation destroyed everything that had been built up. Which is why the people of Luhansk, Donetsk and other occupied areas now identify as Ukrainian and reject Russian rule, proving Putin and his toadies like Elon Musk wrong. JL 

Brian Milakovsky reports in The Guardian:

The entire premise of Putin’s destructive invasion is that residents of Donbas are just Russians from a lost province, and so their relationship with Ukraine could not possibly improve. But much changed in those eight years. Ukraine was able to firm up pro-unity support and swing many adapters towards that camp by upgrading roads, parks, schools, stadiums, apartment buildings and public spaces. Mariupol, Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk became noticeably more attractive. (Then) Russia imposed its brutal occupation. Russia’s terrible war will accelerate the full integration of its residents in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin has convinced himself that “reunification” of south-east Ukraine and Russia is a historic inevitability – so obvious that it will warrant just a paragraph in the heroic textbook he’s writing in his head. But the recent announcement by the Kremlin that the vast majority of the residents of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson oblasts voted to break away and join Russia is the product of an absurd fantasy. This is obvious to the region’s war-scattered residents and even to myself, who spent the past six years working on humanitarian and development projects in Sievierodonetsk, the temporary capital of Luhansk oblast.

This is because this easternmost corner of Ukraine has always been where questions of its national identity and cultural entanglement with Russia are most laid bare.

In 2014, there was widespread political alienation in the Luhansk region after the Euromaidan revolution in Kyiv. When polled, most of the region’s residents questioned the legitimacy of the new government. Russia tapped into this alienation to lure thousands of them into the paramilitary and administrative structures of the “Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics” and to conceal its own invasion of eastern Ukraine. Kyiv sent in the army and managed to wrest back half the region after intense fighting. There was destruction and civilian casualties on both sides, but particularly in the “People’s Republic” – the experience of violence did much to cement the separatist ethos of this Russian statelet.

I arrived in the government-controlled half of the Luhansk region in March 2015, just after the second Minsk agreement had frozen the frontline and greatly reduced the intensity of fighting. I immediately saw that the Luhansk region was ideologically diverse. There were pro-Ukrainian residents, from students and young professionals to grizzled farmers and factory hands, many with Russian last names, and who spoke Russian. And there were barely concealed separatists, more or less from the same demographics (though they drew particular strength from the ranks of pensioners whose lives unravelled in the chaos of the 1990s).

In the middle was a spectrum of the ideologically uncommitted, the adapters. Moscow always equated them with the most passionate Russian sympathisers and separatists because they preponderantly spoke Russian and generally perceived the Soviet past positively. In 2014, it was able to swing many adapters towards the diehard separatists, playing on the perception that the Ukrainian state was shaky, if not failing. Pro-Ukrainian friends in Sievierodonetsk told me that the spring of 2014 was a deeply unsettling time for them, as a tide of separatism moved through their community.

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Russia, I am sure, thought that this would still be the case in 2022. The entire premise of Putin’s sloppy but destructive invasion is that residents of Donbas are just Russians from a lost province, and so their relationship with Ukraine could not possibly improve. But so much changed in those eight years. Ukraine was able to firm up pro-unity support and swing many adapters towards that camp by demonstrating reasonably good state capacity.

Local and national authorities significantly upgraded roads, parks, schools, stadiums, communal apartment buildings and other public spaces. New public service centres appeared. Cities such as Mariupol, Kramatorsk and Sievierodonetsk became noticeably more attractive instead of descending into chaos as Russia had predicted. This was in contrast to the nearby “People’s Republic”, where economic isolation from Ukraine and kleptocratic, semi-colonial management by Russia brought only degradation.

By no means did separatism and pro-Russian feeling disappear from Luhansk oblast. Both have deep roots in a political culture that consistently gave majorities to pro-Russian parties in local elections across eight years of war. But Ukraine, with the help of the Kremlin’s own mistakes, successfully decoupled the ideas of separatism, prosperity and development.

And Kyiv practised a certain political restraint that damped down further radicalisation. True, it imposed decommunisation that led to the “Leninfall” of hundreds of monuments and the renaming of thousands of streets. But it kept its promise to leave Red Army monuments alone, which have so much meaning in second world war memory. Russia warned that churches of the Moscow patriarchate in the east would be forcibly taken over by nationalists after the Ukrainian Orthodox church received independence. It never happened. Kyiv passed a new language law to increase the use of Ukrainian, but it was enforced with moderation and tact in the east. Pro-Russian feeling simmered but didn’t boil over.

And so it was that when Russian troops entered rural towns across the north of Luhansk oblast this year they were not met with bread and salt, the traditional Slavic hospitality greeting, but by brave, defiant crowds of Ukrainians who blocked their tanks, waved the blue and yellow flag, and generally boggled the mind of Vladimir Putin, who was sure such people could not exist.

What followed was pure horror. Russia violently dispersed protesters and imposed its brutal occupation on the rural north of Luhansk oblast. The Ukrainian army retreated to the government-held cities, which the Russians bombed to rubble. So disappeared my home in Sievierodonetsk, where my daughter had been born just months earlier.

It has been a moment of truth for pro-Russian residents. Some doubled down; one elderly acquaintance happily told me: “Putin is doing everything right in Sievierodonetsk. As Stalin would have.” Another said in agony: “My homeland has come and destroyed my home. I have no homeland now.” Not all will change their minds, but Russia’s terrible war on Luhansk oblast will accelerate the full integration and consolidation of its residents in the Ukrainian nation.


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