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Luhansk? Donetsk? Why two ‘people’s republics’ may be a trip wire for a Ukraine war

Two small regions in eastern Ukraine are now the focus of one of Europe’s most dangerous crises since World War II. Here’s why Donetsk and Luhansk matter.

Hear more from Joshua Keating about this story:

Flashpoints for war: How we got here

Luhansk is a city of 1.5 million; Donetsk is home to 2 million people. They are the largest cities in the Donbas, along the Russian border in eastern Ukraine, a region known as a center for mining and steel production.

At that point, Donetsk and Luhansk became more than just two important regions in the Donbas. Russian separatists managed to hold onto parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, with a combined area of a little over 6,000 square miles and population of around 2.9 million. On May 11, 2014, both regions held referendums declaring their independence from Ukraine, proclaiming the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

Until this week, no other country — not even Russia — had recognized their independence.

A peace deal — that wasn’t

In 2014 and 2015, Ukraine signed two ceasefire deals with the Russian separatists, known collectively as the Minsk agreements. In exchange for an end to the fighting and full withdrawal of Russian forces, Ukraine agreed to pass laws granting special status and greater autonomy to the breakaway regions. While the Minsk agreements tamped down the fighting for a short time, neither side lived up to its end of the deal. The Russians never pulled their forces; Ukraine never passed laws granting the separatists greater autonomy. Many Ukrainians argued that legitimizing these regions and granting them special status would essentially give Moscow a say over Ukraine’s domestic politics.

Russia to the rescue

What now?

As for the residents of the people’s republics, they get the worst of both worlds, languishing in a kind of stateless limbo, part of neither country and isolated from the world. (This could change if Russia decides to back a Crimea-style referendum on formally absorbing the regions into Russia.)

On the other hand, listening to Putin on Monday, the Russian leader sounded like a man with broader ambitions. He excoriated Zelenskyy and his government and questioned Ukraine’s legitimacy as a nation; it’s possible that Donetsk and Luhansk are only a first step toward wider escalation. The Russian military may try to expand the territory under the separatists’ control or use some Ukrainian action against the newly recognized republics — real or fabricated — as the pretext for launching a wider war.

It was always clear that a Russia-Ukraine war would start with Donetsk and Luhansk. It’s harder to know whether it will end with them.

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