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Donetsk People's Republic (DPR)

Insurgency Overview

Since 2014, The Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) in eastern Ukraine have been engaged in direct confrontations with the Ukrainian government in an attempt to gain independence and eventually integrate into the Russian Federation (1). Initially sparked by the Maidan revolution and Russia's annexation of Crimea, this civil conflict has since escalated into a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine (2). Before the Russian military's official involvement in the conflict, anti-government paramilitary groups in the Donbas region began taking control of essential government facilities using a mixture of civilian protests and armed raids (3).

These pro-Russian paramilitary units established partially-recognised governments across the region, such as the DPR and LPR (Luhansk People’s Republic) (4). The creation of these autonomous states and the insurgency that followed led the Ukrainian military to begin mobilizing units to conduct operations against the separatists (5). While initially having been labeled as terrorists, the separatists are now considered to be invaders by Ukraine and they fight alongside the Russian military (6). However, the soldiers of these self-proclaimed governments believe they are protecting the region's culture, history, and linguistic rights from fascists (7).

History & Foundations

Pro-Russian sentiments in Eastern Ukraine can be traced back to the Second World War, when an influx of migrants from across the Soviet Union came to the Donbas to fill a demand for factory workers; this demand can be traced back to the high civilian casualty rates during the war (8). Throughout the years, the Donbas remained a crucial region in the Soviet industrial geosphere, causing it to be further influenced by Russian culture (9). While most of the population would support joining Ukraine during the fall of the Soviet Union, they wished to keep close ties with Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) (10). As the Ukrainian government pushed for acceptance into the European Union in the 21st Century, disagreements and tensions developed amongst the citizens of the Donbas (11). Those who had ethnic and religious backgrounds in Russia saw this move away from fellow former-soviet states as an attack on their cultural heritage.

In 2014, Russia welcomed Crimea into the Federation after military personnel (which resembled those of the Russian Special Forces) took control of government facilities across the peninsula (12). Claiming to be local self-defense units, these suspectedly-Russian troops began surrounding Ukrainian military installations and preventing the movement of Ukrainian forces (13). With no official declarations of war, both sides remained relatively hesitant to engage in direct confrontation due to fears of international escalation. Since military forces could not act directly, Pro-Russian separatists eventually used civilian demonstrations to block Ukrainian troops inside their bases (14).

With support from pro-Russian protests and state council members, the separatists quickly held a referendum to integrate Crimea into Russia. Unable to react, the Ukrainian government ordered all troops who wanted to continue serving Ukraine to withdraw from Crimea. Citizens of the pro-Russian Donbas region in eastern Ukraine saw this chain of events and Russia's alleged involvement as inspiration for their own revolution. Fuelled by the Maidan Revolution and angered by the corruption in the Ukrainian government, pro-Russian protesters occupied government facilities across the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in early April 2014 (16). With armed checkpoints surrounding three major cities across the Donbas, the separatists demanded a referendum to be held to vote for their regions' independence (17). When the Ukrainian government did not comply with their demands, the separatists went ahead with the creation of an interim government for the Donetsk People's Republic, as well as the launch of a region-wide insurgency aimed to repel Ukrainian influence from the area (18).

During the lead-up to the referendum, violent clashes broke out in Donbas cities such as Mariupol and Donetsk, as Ukrainian forces attempted to hold buildings in the now-separatist-controlled region (19). However, civilian demonstrations hampered the Ukrainian military's ability to conduct what Ukrainian officials claimed to be counter-terrorist operations against DPR fighters (20). With no military support, additional Ukrainian government facilities fell under the control of the separatists. Similarly as in Crimea, pro-Russian civilians and armed separatists surrounded military bases, leaving the troops inside unable to mobilize (21).

On May 12th, 2014, DPR officials held a press conference inside the occupied administration building. They announced the referendum, which resulted in 2,252,867 votes for independence and 256,040 votes to stay a part of Ukraine (22). While the region has a long history of pro-Russian and pro-Donbas sentiment in its politics (as seen in movements such as the 1990 International Movement of Donbas), the vote caused international scrutiny for allegedly being falsified (23). Due to this scrutiny, the DPR did not receive meaningful international recognition until February 21st, 2022, when Russia recognized its independence just days before launching an invasion of Ukraine (24).

After this referendum, the DPR began constructing a full-time government and used military force to occupy key structures around the city. The most crucial was the Donetsk Airport, held by the Ukrainian military at the time (25). On May 26th, 2014, DPR forces took control of the Donetsk Airport terminal building and demanded the withdrawal of the remaining Ukrainian troops in the area. Seeing the logistical importance of the runway, Ukrainian forces launched an airborne assault on the airport (26). After 48 hours of intense combat, Ukrainian forces announced they were in control of the terminal (27). Minor skirmishes continued throughout the following days, but there would be no significant fighting until a few months later, on September 28th, 2014. As the airport was the last Ukrainian-held position in Donetsk, the DPR prioritized its capture and sieged the facility for the following five months. They eventually took control of the airport after Ukrainian troops completely withdrew in January of the next year (28). With the end of this battle – which was the bloodiest offensive of this initial secession – the conflict primarily transformed into a war of trench lines and artillery strikes. This caused the civilian populations of these frontline towns to either evacuate or attempt to survive without basic necessities (29).

Objectives and Ideology

The DPR wishes to gain independence from the Ukrainian government in order to hold a referendum and to integrate into the Russian Federation. They state in their constitution that their purpose is to establish an independent state based on the restoration of a unified cultural and civilizational space of the Russian World. This unified space would be formed on the basis of its traditional, religious, social, cultural, and moral values, with the prospect of becoming a part of ‘Greater Russia’ as halo territories of the Russian World (30). During the interim period between fighting for their independence and joining the Federation, the DPR have implemented authoritarian forms of governance to maintain domestic control, such as extrajudicial executions, restrictions against the press, and the implementation of secret police units (31). While the DPR does not consider itself to be a communist government (32), most of its early government officials once held positions in the Ukrainian Communist Party (33).

Military & Political Abilities

The DPR’s militia quickly grew from a coalition of paramilitary units (which used surplus equipment gained via captured Ukrainian military depots, donations, and personal purchases) to a professional military with access to Russian-made main battle tanks, anti-air weapons, and high-caliber artillery assets (34). The separatist government has expanded to begin exporting and importing goods, most recently seizing multiple shipping vessels for state use after the 2022 invasion (35). However, trade is mainly restricted to Russia due to sanctions placed by the international community (36).

Approach to Resistance

The DPR’s access to long-range weapon systems has caused their doctrine to primarily focus on fortifying already-occupied territory with conventional ground units and implementing indirect fire weapons for offensive strikes against Ukrainian positions (37). The DPR has also attempted to maintain a secure air space above the region, and this has led to sudden rises of tension, notably after a BUK M1 (NATO designation SA-11) surface-to-air missile system was used against a commercial airliner in the summer of 2014 (38).

While the role of civilians in the pro-Russian resistance was much more violent during the original occupation of Ukrainian Government facilities in 2014, nationalist rallies and public celebrations are now used to boost support for the war (39).

Alliances & Relations

The DPR relies heavily on Russia for necessities such as pensions, passports, and military equipment (40). They have tried to hide this support to limit accusations that they are puppet states of the Kremlin. However, a large majority of the ‘Western’, per se, international community still considers their insurgency to be an occupation led by the Russian government (41). This has limited the DPR to only building relationships with Russia's allies, private military contractors, and European extremists, such as the Wagner Group and Johan Bäckman (42).

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

(1) - Hamilton, Robert E. “Five Years of War in the Donbas.” Foreign Policy Research Institute, November 12, 2019.

(2) - Mitrokhin, Nikolay. “Infiltration, Instruction, Invasion: Russia’s War in the Donbass.” Journal of Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, 2015.

(3) - Rachkevych, Mark. Kyiv Post, April 12, 2014.

(4) - Baczynska, Gabriela. “Separatists in Ukraine's Donetsk Vow to Take Full Control of Region.” Reuters, April 14, 2014.

(5) - “Turchynov Ordered to Take the Building of the Donetsk State Administration under State Protection.”, April 9, 2014.

(6) - Zubkova, Dasha. “Invaders Issue ‘DPR’ Birth Certificates to Newborns of Mariupol ...” Ukrainian News, April 29, 2022.

(7) - Ukraine: Pro-Russian Separatists 'Fighting to Defend Culture'. Al Jazeera. YouTube, 2017.

(8) - Kuromiya, Hiroaki. Freedom and Terror in the Donbas: A Ukrainian-Russian Borderland, 1870s-1990s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

(9) - Wilson, Andrew. “The Donbas between Ukraine and Russia: The Use of History in Political Disputes.” Journal of Contemporary History 30, no. 2 (1995): 265–89.

(10) - Moniz Bandeira, L.A. (2019). Ukraine as Soviet Republic and After: Focus on Donbass. In: The World Disorder. Springer, Cham.

(11) - Ukraine-Russia Crisis: Life inside Separatist-Controlled Donesk. YouTube. YouTube, 2022.

(12) - AP. “Russia Officially Annexes Crimea Away from Ukraine with Signature from Vladimir Putin.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, March 21, 2014.

(13) - Getting Stuck on a Ukrainian Battleship: Russian Roulette in Ukraine. YouTube. Vice News, 2014.

(14) - Getting Stuck on a Ukrainian Battleship: Russian Roulette in Ukraine. YouTube. Vice News, 2014.

(15) - Podolian, Olena. “The 2014 Referendum in Crimea Outline - Central European University.” political science, March 2015.

(16) - Kofman, Michael, Katya Migacheva, Brian Nichiporuk, Andrew Radin, Olesya Tkacheva, and Jenny Oberholtzer. “Lessons from Russia's Operations in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.” Rand Corp., 2017.

(17) - Donetsk Demands a Referendum: Russian Roulette. YouTube. Vice News, 2014.

(18) - Donetsk Creates an Independent Government: Russian Roulette. YouTube. Vice News, 2014.

(19) - “Avakov Says 21 Dead in Mariupol after Clashes between Police and Separatists on Victory Day.” Kyiv Post, May 9, 2014.

(20) - Ukrainian Military Give Up Their Weapons: Russian Roulette. YouTube. Vice News, 2014.

(21) - Pro-Russian Protesters Attempt to Seize Airfield: Russian Roulette (Dispatch 27). YouTube. Vice News, 2014.

(22) - Detained in Donetsk on Referendum Day: Russian Roulette in Ukraine (Dispatch 38). YouTube. Vice News, 2014.

(23) - “Manifesto of the Donbass International Movement.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, August 31, 2016.

(24) - Russian President Putin Statement on Ukraine. C-Span. C-span, 2022.

(25) - The Battle for Donetsk International Airport: Russian Roulette (Dispatch 44). YouTube. Vice News, 2014.

(26) - Macdonald, Alastair, and Yannis Behrakis. “Battle at Donetsk Airport; New Ukraine Leader Says No Talks with 'Terrorists'.” Reuters, May 27, 2014.

(27) - Al Jazeera. “Ukraine Army 'in Control' of Donetsk Airport.” News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, May 28, 2014.

(28) - '5 Cyborgs': Watch the inside Story of the Battle for Donetsk Airport on Ukraine Today. YouTube. Ukraine Today, 2016.

(29) - Food Crisis in Eastern Ukraine: Russian Roulette (Dispatch 103). YouTube. Vice News, 2015.

(30) - Ukrainesolidaritycampaign. “Constitution of Donetsk People's Republic: Russian Nationalism, Clericalism and Capitalism.” Кампанія Солідарності з Україною, March 14, 2015.

(31) - “Death Penalty Introduced in Donetsk People's Republic.” Sputnik International. Sputnik International „Rosiya Segodnya" 25260, August 18, 2014.

(32) - Onopko, Oleg. “Foreign Policy of the Donetsk People's Republic: Interests and Ideology.” Belgorod State University Scientific Bulletin History Political Science, July 4, 2018.

(33) - “Список Депутатов Народного Совета ДНР Созыва 2014 Года.”, November 14, 2014.

(34) - Ukrainian Military Give Up Their Weapons: Russian Roulette. YouTube. Vice News, 2014.

(35) - Slawson, Darryl S., and Europe World News. “Donetsk Separatist Authorities Seize Ships in Mariupol to Form Their Merchant Fleet.” Europe & World News, May 31, 2022.

(36) - The Donetsk People's Republic Has A Merchant Marine...THEY STOLE IT! Piracy or the Right of Angary?YouTube. What is Going on With Shipping?, 2022.

(37) - Surrounded by War In Sloviansk: Russian Roulette (Dispatch 48). YouTube. Vice News, 2014.

(38) - “Malaysia Airlines MH17 Report Reveals Shocking Details about Final Moments.” NBCUniversal News Group, October 13, 2015.

(39) - Pro-Russian Vostok Battalion Fires Guns in Salute to Separatists of Novorossiya. YouTube, 2014.

(40) - “A Three-Year Investigation of Weapon Supplies into Donetsk and Luhansk, 2021.” Robert Lansing Institute. iTrace, March 29, 2022.

(41) - “Ukraine-Russia Sanctions.” Front Page. Accessed November 4, 2022.

(42) - Vincent, Isabel. “Wagner Group, Kremlin-Backed Mercenaries, Reportedly Laid Groundwork in Ukraine.” New York Post. New York Post, February 25, 2022.

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