McIntosh on Marples, 'The War in Ukraine's Donbas: Origins, Contexts, and the Future'

David R. Marples, ed. The War in Ukraine's Donbas: Origins, Contexts, and the Future. Budapest: Central European University Press, 2021. 244 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-963-386-419-7; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-963-386-597-2

Reviewed by Scott McIntosh (Kansas State University)
Published on H-War (June, 2023)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

A Deeper Dive into the Donbas Dispute

The War in Ukraine's Donbas is a collection of essays initially presented at the 2018 University of Alberta/Canadian Department of National Defense conference. The editor, David R. Marples, has compiled the contributions into a cohesive examination of the ground truth in eastern Ukraine. The assembled insights provide some intellectual heavy lifting in assessing the complex historical, sociological, political, and legal facets contributing to continuing discord within the region.

One particular continually occuring phenomenon within the work is the importance of messaging and rumor in the effort to motivate demographics toward that discord. Phrases like "Maidan," "Banderites," and "paid protestors" figure prominently in this enterprise, as historian William Jay Risch points out in his "Prelude to War" chapter, amping up local concerns about outsiders' influence in Donbas affairs and fostering acceptance that Russia is the only entity offering salvation from it. Law professor Alina Cherviatsova delves into the origins and characteristics of "hybrid war," framing it as a law enforcement issue, and argues that international law must provide institutions like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court a better tool kit for wrestling with hybrid conflicts like Donbas. Kamitaka Matsuzato from the University of Tokyo, also a legal scholar, makes an apt comparison to Russian-enabled frozen conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria and describes the Russian-enabled elites—for example, social scientists with stalled academic careers and no experience or expertise with governing—installed to advise key leaders in the Donbas. Sociologist Oksana Mikheieva makes a bottom-up analysis of soldiers comprising the paramilitary formations in Donbas—age, education, preferred language, economic opportunity—and examines their self-identifications and their aspirations for the region should they be victorious. As Mikheieva deftly elucidates the matter, the two sides do not communicate much, which facilitates othering and opening a space for hate speech and dehumanizing the perceived enemy.

Other chapters examine how private citizens step in to provide necessities to combatants when the state does not and how demonstrated logistic, corruption, and bureaucratic challenges to both providing services and protecting citizens’ rights call into question the state’s very legitimacy. This volunteer network approach to equipping individual soldiers—"de-individual[izing] the costs of war”—represents non-state actors rolling in to solve problems when the state does not (p. 84). Like everything else in this conflict, confronting large numbers of individually displaced persons is complicated, and the book examines this phenomenon from the bottom up as well. Ernest Gyidel argues that it represents “the most significant demographic change in the history of the region since the end of World War Two,” and in his analysis a crisis looms as people are resettled into substandard living conditions, where housing and jobs are scarce, and they cannot vote in elections outside of the areas they fled (p. 120). Integrating them “into Ukrainian society, which has often treated them with hate, suspicion, and indifference,” has not been successful, according to Gyidel (p. 121). No one can blame these populations for decamping the gruesome situation that Oleksandr Melnyk describes in his chapter, one in which both sides are using battlefield casualties for their information operations campaigns on media and social networking websites. Melnyk, however, does describe some remarkable individuals deliberately entering the combat zones—poiskoviki—unarmed volunteers driven to bring back battlefield remains to grieving families in an enterprise known as “Evacuation-200.” The interviews described in the chapter about interactions with their armed paramilitary guides reveal not only stark danger to the volunteers but also a later acknowledgment of common humanity as they begin their grim labors and their escorts begin to view them and their tasks from a different angle.

It is here that Marples’s gifts for editing such a collection shine through; after all, organizing the chapters for coherence is part and parcel of the task. The subsequent chapter reacquaints the reader with hybrid warfare’s origins (both the Gerasimov and Primakov Doctrines) and meaning, building on the 2019 description of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO): “‘the coordinated and combined use of different methods of warfare,’ including the use of regular and irregular forces ... blended with other methods, such as political warfare, cyberwarfare, disinformation campaigns, lawfare, diplomatic, and economic activities” (p. 161). The chapter, written by Jamestown Foundation analyst Alla Hurska, then describes the strategic significance of the adjacent Crimean Peninsula and Sea of Azov for Russia, by implication the justification for Russia’s hybrid warfare investment in eastern Ukraine. This flows into the penultimate chapter, in which Sergei Sukhankin describes how—and how badly—the Maidan scared Russian elites. The Maidan had, after all, looked to Vladimir Putin and his entourage like the 2010 Arab Spring, when in several nations “initially peaceful public protests [morphed] into a military confrontation between opposition forces and the current political regime” (p. 184).

As the book’s title promises, the origins and contexts of the Donbas conflict are elucidated, and Serhiy Kudelia’s final chapter effectively brings the work to a close by offering possible futures and a better state of peace for all involved—via a negotiated settlement based on power sharing, deployment of peacekeepers and election monitors, amnesty for combatants, and establishment of a truth commission. To be fair, Kudelia (a political scientist) does not guarantee success—the international community has employed each of these conflict resolution measures in the past to mixed results—but ending a book about deep-seated problems with possible solutions offers something to history, legal, and sociology scholars seeking a way out of frozen conflicts in former Soviet spaces.

Citation: Scott McIntosh. Review of Marples, David R., ed., The War in Ukraine's Donbas: Origins, Contexts, and the Future. H-War, H-Net Reviews. June, 2023.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.