What’s behind Russia’s assault on Ukraine’s Donbas region

Russian forces have made a push into the contested Donbas region as President Vladimir Putin focuses on capturing the Eastern part of Ukraine. To understand why the area is so significant, and the long battle ahead, Judy Woodruff talks to Samuel Charap, an author and senior political scientist at The Rand Corporation, about the latest and the challenges facing forces from each country.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    For more on the Russian offensive on the Donbass and why this part of Ukraine is so important to Russia, we turn to Samuel Charap. He's a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He is the author of "Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia."

    Sam Charap, thank you very much for joining us.

    First of all, give us a sense of what the Donbass consists of. We know there's industry there, but give us a sense, how much of it is urban, the terrain, and so forth?

  • Samuel Charap, RAND Corporation:

    So, this is Ukraine's industrial heartland.

    It has been a mining center since the 19th century. It's an area slightly smaller than the state of West Virginia, and is largely, in terms of its topography, plains, unlike the forests north of Kyiv, where much of the fighting early on in the conflict was taking place.

    Russia has controlled about 30 percent of the territory, to include the two biggest cities now, for over seven years, and is trying to achieve control over the entirety of these two regions that compose the Donbass, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what difference would it make for Russia if they were able to control all of the Donbass? What would it give them?

  • Samuel Charap:

    So, the pretext that Russian President Vladimir Putin gave for the war was to protect the people of the Donbass, who, although Russian-speaking ,are certainly not exclusively ethnically Russian, but to protect them from what he called the genocide, the evidence for which was pretty nonexistent.

    Nonetheless, what he did in the day before he announced his attack on Ukraine was to recognize the so-called independence of these two regions of Ukraine within their full administrative boundaries, so not just the 30 percent that the Russian-backed separatists controlled, but the entirety of those two regions.

    And so, basically, the — one of the main operational objectives since the beginning of the war has been taking control over those two full regions. Additionally, a significant concentration of Ukrainian forces has remained on the front lines that was previously, before February 24, the main front line in Ukraine, the site of the conflict in the Donbass.

    And so if the Russian forces can take those Ukrainian military — that military concentration out, it would be a significant blow to the Ukrainian military.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So that's — and that's the question. I mean, how difficult or how easy is it going to be for Russia to swallow up this big area?

    You were telling us it's a lot bigger than people realize. And you have talked about, we have all seen, the Ukrainian resistance has been fierce.

  • Samuel Charap:

    Absolutely.

    And in some of these places, they have had eight years to build defensive fortifications and other ways — basically to dig in. So, a full — a frontal assault was never going to be possible, or was at least going to be extremely difficult for the Russians. So, basically, what they have tried to do is encircle those Ukrainian forces coming from the north and from the south to the north from Mariupol, which is why that — taking that town was so important.

    But we're talking about a line from the north of Ukraine to the Azov Sea that's 275 miles' long. So, actually having an effective encirclement is going to be quite difficult, cutting off all lines of supply that the Ukrainians have.

    So this is not going to be easy. However, it's much more of a plausibly achievable operational objective than fighting five different fronts at the same time, which is what the Russians initially tried to do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I asked you about Ukrainian resistance because we have seen how strong it is all across the country. And yet we also know, in the Donbass region, close to Russia, we know many of the people who live there, some of them feel an affinity with Russia.

    Do you have a sense of how many do? How would you say the public — what the public attitude there is toward Russia?

  • Samuel Charap:

    I think, from what we know about polling that took place in the Ukrainian government-controlled areas, the parts that the Russian-backed rebels didn't control before this latest phase in the war that began in February, there was not significant separatist sentiment, a desire to join Russia or to completely leave Ukraine.

    People might have gripes with the government in Kyiv, but they certainly did not want to become part of Russia. And, in Ukraine, this is the sort of paradox, that to be Russian-speaking doesn't necessarily mean to be pro-Russian or to want to sort of leave Ukraine. It just means sort of different historical cultural identities.

    And so I don't think there's going to be widespread pro-Russian sentiment in a lot of these places.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meaning we can expect the Ukrainians to put up a fight.

    But it sounds like, bottom line, Sam Charap, is, we're in for what could be a long and protracted battle for the Donbass.

  • Samuel Charap:

    It's certainly not going to be a matter of days, weeks at the very least, and potentially longer than that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sam Charap with the RAND Corporation, we thank you.

  • Samuel Charap:

    Thanks for having me, Judy.

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