Putin bets the Russia house on the Donbas rustbelt

By 1991, the Donbas, the former core of the Russian Empire’s coal, iron and metallurgical industries, was in large part Europe’s biggest rust-belt. For Russia, the benefits of annexing the region are far from clear.
donetsk ukraine russia donbas
An overview of Pavlograd coal processing plant in Donbas. Credit: VINCENT MUNDY / Alamy Stock Photo.
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My family used to own the city that is nowadays called Donetsk in the Donbas region. When my great-grandfather acquired the territory in the mid-nineteenth century it was an almost uninhabited sheep-run. No doubt Paul Lieven realised that beneath the soil lay rich seams of coal. He leased the land to the man who actually developed the territory that was to become the core of the Russian Empire’s coal-mining industry — a Welsh entrepreneur named John Hughes. For that reason, Donetsk before 1917 was called Yuzovka. Hughes brought with him from Wales hundreds of skilled miners. 

In time, immigrants from Russia poured into the region and formed the majority of the mining community. So, too, did some Ukrainian peasants. In the nineteenth century it was often hard to tell Russian and Ukrainian peasants apart. Along most of what is now the Russo-Ukrainian borderlands peasants spoke local dialects, mixing what we now define as the Russian and Ukrainian languages but often incomprehensible to educated citizens of Moscow or Kyiv. Like most pre-modern peasants throughout the world, the mental horizons of the rural population were largely confined to the village. To the extent that these peasants had a wider identity it was linked to religion, which in their case meant Orthodoxy. Along with this often came monarchist loyalties. A dynasty that had ruled for centuries was entwined in popular memory and folklore. More important, the tsar was widely perceived as the protector of the Orthodox community and as a mythical embodiment of justice and mercy in a harshly exploitative and cruel world. Modern ideas of ethno-linguistic identity had limited traction among illiterate peasants. Still less did they share the modern nationalist idea that every ethno-linguistic community required its own nation-state.

The same was true at the other end of society. My great-grandfather, Prince Paul Lieven, was a cosmopolitan aristocrat who took speaking five languages for granted. His main estates were in the faraway provinces of Livonia and Courland, in other words, today’s Latvia. As Marshal of the Livonian nobility, he was for many years the senior spokesman for the Baltic German landowning class that dominated the Baltic provinces for centuries. But he would never have seen his primary identity as German nor indeed have attached any political significance to ethno-linguistic identity as such. Family history and class mattered much more: he saw himself as the descendant of the Livonian chieftains who had ruled in his homeland’s forests before the German knights arrived, but who subsequently had been centuries-long members of the Livonian noble corporation. If asked, he would have defined himself in political terms as ‘Russian’, by which he would have meant that he was a loyal subject of the Russian emperor, Alexander II, to whose dynasty the Lievens had been linked for generations. Paul Lieven had been a friend of Alexander from his youth and was the Lord Chamberlain of the imperial court. Alexander saw himself not just as emperor but also as the first (European) gentleman of his realms. All attempts to mine the pre-modern history of dynastic empire for contemporary nationalist purposes tell many lies.

In Russia as elsewhere in the late nineteenth century pre-modern empire was increasingly challenged by modern nationalist ideologies that proclaimed the sovereignty of the nation, defined in terms of ethnicity, language and citizenship. In time, all the great empires that dominated most of the world before 1914 succumbed to this challenge. For the rulers of tsarist Russia, of all the nationalist movements they faced the Ukrainian one was potentially the most dangerous. If the Ukrainians came to define themselves as a separate people, then the Belorussians would probably follow them. In that case Russians would make up only 44 per cent of the empire’s population and would become almost as vulnerable to nationalist movements as their Habsburg and Ottoman rivals. Even worse, in 1914 the territories of today’s Ukraine included the core of the empire’s export agriculture as well as its coal and metallurgical industries. If Ukraine was lost, Russia would cease to be a great power. For a brief period in 1917-18 this happened. Ukraine emerged as a nominally independent state but, in reality, a German protectorate at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of March 1918 which ended the First World War on the eastern front. Facing powerful external (Russians, Poles) and internal (Bolsheviks, Russians, Jews, peasant anarchists) enemies, a Ukrainian independent government could only survive under Berlin’s wing. If Brest-Litovsk had stood, then Russia would have been eliminated as a great power for decades and German hegemony in Europe would have resulted. By launching their campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare and bringing the United States into the conflict at the very moment when revolution was beginning the destruction of the Russian Empire, the Germans threw away their best chance to win the First World War.

Once Germany withdrew from Ukraine after November 1918 any chance of independence was gone. Ukraine was certain to be sucked back into one or other version of empire offered by the two main parties in the Russian civil war. The Whites were Russian imperial nationalists pure and simple. Their key slogan was ‘Russia – one, great and indivisible’, and by Russia they meant the whole empire of the Romanovs. Most of them disliked Ukrainian nationalism almost as much as Bolshevism. Lenin’s stance was more equivocal. As a Marxist he saw nationalism as basically false consciousness. On the other hand, he loathed arrogant Russian imperial nationalism, identified it as Bolshevism’s arch-enemy and sought allies against the Whites wherever he could find them. He envisaged the future Soviet polity as a new civilisation — successful, socialist modernity. But he was happy to encourage non-Russians towards this utopia through the medium of their own languages and cultures. Lenin was the key architect of the USSR, in principle a federal state of equal national republics which had the right to secede from the union should they so wish and the duty to promote native non-Russian cultures and languages. Lenin insisted that the non-Russian republics should be run by locals, though always under the eagle eye of the central Bolshevik party leaders in Moscow — most of whom in those early years of Bolshevism were not Russians. 

The basic point about Vladimir Putin is that, despite his KGB origins, he is entirely ‘White’ in sympathy. Though political tact does not allow him to say so, he despises Lenin and loathes all revolutions. In his ideal world Russia would have moved seamlessly from Alexander III to Stalin, in the process consolidating and increasing the power of the Russian imperial state. An ethical and cultural chasm divides the tsarist elite of my great-grandfather’s era and the contemporary Russian elite. What unites them is a commitment to empire and the sense of status, power and world-historical significance it gives to those who rule it. To do these old and new elites justice, they also share a sense of just how much Russia had suffered to achieve this power, and how merciless could often be the fate of the powerless in the world of the Eurasian steppe before 1600 and the Western-dominated system of great-power politics that succeeded it.

Putin’s view that the Russians and Ukrainians are basically one people would have made sense in 1860. Most educated Ukrainians believed this at that time. By 1914 the issue was hotly debated but many educated Ukrainians still believed that Russians and Ukrainians were a single people, though no doubt with specific regional cultures. After 75 years of Soviet rule, it was much harder to defend this view. Whereas in 1914 the great majority of the Ukrainian population were peasants with little sense of nationhood, by 1989 a sense of Ukrainian identity had spread much wider. It lived alongside, and was by no means always in conflict with, feeling close ties to Russians and loyalty to an over-arching Soviet identity. By annexing former Habsburg Galicia in 1945, Stalin, however, made a fatal error. Back in 1914, Peter Durnovo, the most intelligent police chief ever to serve the Russian state, had warned Nicholas II that although Ukrainian nationalism was currently no great threat, if Russia annexed the heartland of the nationalist movement in Austrian Galicia, then the consequences could be fatal. In my opinion, if the Soviet Union had not annexed Galicia and the Baltic republics in 1945, then the core territory of the USSR — Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan — might well have remained united despite the collapse of communism.

In the 30 years since the collapse of the USSR a sense of Ukrainian identity has put down deep roots in most of the population. For much of the younger generation, Vladimir Putin’s Russia offers an unattractive model for the future, which reinforces their sense of a Ukrainian identity linked to the West. The premises on which Putin’s invasion of Ukraine were based were therefore mistaken and led to the failure of his initial strategy. Optimists in Moscow — who probably still include Putin — hope for some variant of Finlandisation; in other words, both to annex Crimea and the Donbas and to secure a relatively pliant regime in Kyiv. This is almost certainly now beyond Russia’s power. The USSR was much stronger then than Russia is now. The Finns were inspired to caution by two lost wars with Russia, a world war and awareness of the fate of the east European peoples subjected to Soviet empire. The reality is that Russia has lost Ukraine and Ukraine has lost Crimea and much or all of the Donbas. Many people will die on both sides before it becomes clear just how much territory Ukraine will lose. Even then, we could end up not with a peace settlement just about acceptable to both sides but rather with a frozen ceasefire line as in Korea or Kashmir.

Putin has made crucial and costly mistakes which have caused vast suffering and destruction. Though great-power politics never were nor will be driven by respect for law or ethics, his invasion of a sovereign state and annexation of its territory strikes at the foundations of international peace and security. Western policy makers also made important blunders both before and in 2014. But structural factors were even more crucial. In my opinion, the Ukraine which emerged as an independent country in 1991 was never likely to survive within its then borders unless relations between Russia and the West remained friendly. Bitterly hostile historical memories divided Ukrainians. Within living memory, millions had died, often at the hands of other Ukrainians serving Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. Even more fundamentally, the fall of empires usually results in international and civil wars. It is only too plausible to believe that the Russo-Ukrainian conflict will continue for as long and with as dangerous risks of escalation as — to take but one of many possible comparisons — the Indo-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir.

Even if it does not spread beyond Ukraine’s borders, the Russo-Ukrainian war has great consequences. It risks becoming a key step towards a global confrontation between the West and a Chinese-Russian alliance that, even in a best-case scenario, will waste enormous resources and distract attention from a common strategy to conquer the greatest challenge of all — namely, climate change. Nevertheless, Ukraine remains less important in geopolitical terms than was the case in 1914. Ukraine is no longer the key to hegemony in Europe and Europe is no longer the centre of the world. Even in the narrowest terms of realpolitik and Russian interests, Putin’s strategy is deeply flawed. Crimea is of value to Russia in both symbolic and geopolitical terms. The benefits of annexing the Donbas are far less clear. The former core of the Russian Empire’s coal, iron and metallurgical industries was in large part by 1991 Europe’s biggest rust-belt. It has now been ruined and largely de-populated by war. When my family owned Donetsk that made us the equivalent of second-class contemporary oil sheikhs. If anyone tried to give the territory ‘back’ to me now, they would receive a polite refusal.

Dominic Lieven

Dominic Lieven is a Fellow of the British Academy, an Honorary and an Emeritus Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and an Honorary Academician of the Russian Academy of Sciences. His most recent book, In the Shadow of the Gods. The Emperor in World History, was published in May 2022.

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