Russian forces were bombarding towns and cities in eastern Ukraine with the declared aim of “liberating” the old industrial heartland known as Donbas.
Having abandoned his campaign to capture the capital, Kyiv, and second city, Kharkiv, Vladimir Putin was now looking for military victory in the largely Russian-speaking east, where he falsely accused Ukraine of committing genocide.
Achieving his goals in the east was the minimum he needed before he could end the operation and claim it a success.
Russian forces already controlled large swathes of the south. Ukraine says the battle for Donbas was the biggest on European soil since World War Two, but its president had vowed the military “will fight for every centimetre of our land”.
When Russia’s leader talked about Donbas, he was not just referring to Ukraine’s coal and steel-producing area. He was highlighting two big eastern regions, Luhansk and Donetsk, which run from outside Mariupol in the south all the way to the northern border with Russia.
Donbas was predominantly Russian-speaking and after Russia seized Crimea in 2014, its proxy forces captured more than a third of Ukraine’s east in a war that never came to an end.
The Russian proxies created so-called people’s republics that nobody recognised and Russia now plans to capture the rest of the east.
Luhansk and Donetsk may be broadly Russian-speaking, but they were no longer pro-Russian. One Ukrainian opinion poll in May 2022 suggested 82 per cent of Ukrainians in territory seized by Russia since the February 24 invasion had a negative attitude to Moscow.
A month into the invasion, Russia scaled back its ambitions to capture the capital, Kyiv, and instead moved its focus to Donbas. By late March, it claimed to have controlled 93 per cent of Luhansk and 54 per cent of Donetsk, although that was certainly an overstatement.
Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky declared in April that Russian forces had begun the battle for Donbas and that Ukrainian forces had long prepared for it. Russia was far from subduing the entire area, although if it captured the two big twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, then all of Luhansk would be under its control.
Just before he launched the war, President Putin recognised all of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent of Ukraine, not just the limited statelets created by Moscow-backed proxies. -BBCRead Full Story