By Michael Karadjis
We’ve all heard it time and time again. Whether it is an argument in support of Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, or just as often, opposed to it but claiming both sides are equally at fault, we hear that that “the Ukrainian army killed 14,000 ethnic Russians in Donbas between 2014 and 2022.”
Here’s just one example among thousands of examples regurgitated, with never a simple fact-check, all over the left and right media: According to pro-Putin writer Max Parry, “For what the late Edward S. Herman called the ‘cruise missile Left,’ the 14,000 ethnic Russians killed in Donbass by the Ukrainian army since 2014 are ‘unworthy victims,’ as Herman and Noam Chomsky defined the notion in Manufacturing Consent.”
The purpose of this claim is to argue that, while Putin may have over-reacted by going all the way to invading, it was the Ukrainian army most at fault before the invasion. Even if it is admitted that Putin’s invasion is criminal and may have imperialist goals and is only using the plight of the Donbas Russians as an excuse, the claim is that this excuse is genuine.
Therefore, even many of those who oppose the Russian invasion equally oppose the Ukrainian resistance, and in particular its receipt of arms, because if Ukraine gets the upper hand, it will just continue to do to the “ethnic Russians” what it was previously doing, the same as what Russia is now doing to “the Ukrainians.”
While not quite as colourful as Putin’s claim that Ukraine was committing “genocide” against the ethnic Russians in Donbas, these claims are nevertheless serious and merit clear examination.
Let’s look at the claim again:
“The Ukrainian army killed 14,000 ethnic Russians in Donbas between 2014 and 2022.”
Is any of this true?
Yes – the 14,000 figure. Yes, 14,000 were killed in the conflict in Donbas between 2014 and 2022. That’s a terrible figure, and of course many times that number were wounded, the entire region is a dead zone covered by landmines, and some 3.3 million people fled the region (ie before the millions who have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion). But what of the rest?
“The Ukrainian army killed.”
Wrong – two sides were involved in the armed conflict – the Ukrainian army, alongside various irregular Ukrainian militia (often composed of people uprooted from their homes) on one side, and the Russia-backed and armed separatist militia of the two self-proclaimed ‘republics’ in eastern Donbas on the other, backed by Russian troops and mercenaries. Both sides shoot; both sides kill.
Ethnic Russians are a minority of around 38-39 percent of the population in Donbas, so it is unlikely that all or most killed are “ethnic Russians,” but that is not the point of this part of the assertion. The reason this fiction is inserted is to imply that people were killed “by the Ukrainian army” simply for being ethnic Russians, in a war of targeted ethnic extermination, rather than being victims of the cross-fire between the two sides shooting at each other.
But the other problem with the assertion is the implication that these were 14,000 “ethnic Russian” civilians. In reality, according to the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), the numbers killed in Donbas from 14 April 2014 to 31 December 2021were:
4,400 Ukrainian troops
6,500 Russia—owned separatist troops
So, let’s be clear: we are talking about 3,404 civilians, killed by both sides, over 2014-2021.
However, what about the last part:
“between 2014 and 2022.”
Well, yes, if we make the small change to 2014-2021, then this is correct in the abstract.
But the implication here is that there was a continual, ongoing bloody conflict (allegedly all caused by the Ukrainian army incessantly “shelling ethnic Russians”) right up to the Russian invasion. The invasion, in a sense, is simply the continuation of the ongoing bloodshed, at a perhaps slightly higher level; a reaction to it, even if perhaps an overreaction.
In reality, almost all the 14,000 deaths, including almost all the 3,404 civilians, were killed when the open conflict was raging from 2014 till the ceasefire in mid-2015 – that is, during a time when no-one seriously denies the direct involvement (ie, invasion) by the Russian army. Let’s just look at the OSCE Status Reports from 2016-2022.
The OSCE report ‘Civilian casualties in eastern Ukraine 2016’ shows there were 88 fatalities in 2016, including 37 from landmines, unexploded ordinance etc.
The OSCE report on civilian casualties covering 2017 to September 2020 shows 161 fatalities over those almost 4 years, of which the majority (81) were from landmines, unexploded ordinance etc. Note that both sides lay landmines; indeed, the UN has characterised the Donbas as one of the most mine-contaminated areas in the world.
The year by year figures were 87 fatalities in 2017, 43 in 2018, 19 in 2019, and 12 to September 2020.
The OSCE report as of 11 January 2021 reports “The total number of civilian casualties in 2020 stands at 128: 23 fatalities and 105 injuries.”
The OSCE Status Report as of 13 December 2021 reports “since the beginning of 2021, the SMM has confirmed 88 civilian casualties (16 fatalities and 72 injured)” in 2021.
Of these 16 fatalities in 2021, 11 were from the first half of 2021: according to the OSCE Status Report as of 14 June 2021, “Over the past two weeks, the SMM corroborated four civilian casualties, all injuries due to explosive objects. This brings the total number of civilian casualties that occurred since the beginning of 2021 to 37 (11 fatalities and 26 injuries). Again, the majority of the casualties (27) were due to mines, unexploded ordnance and other explosive objects.”
Meanwhile, the weekly OSCE Status Report as of 6 September 2021 reported “a fatality, bringing the total number of confirmed civilian casualties since the beginning of 2021 to 62 (15 fatalities and 47 injuries).” Hence, of the 5 fatalities in the second half of the year, 4 were before September.
From these three 2021 reports, we see a continual decline in fatalities in Donbas: 11 in January-June, 4 in June-September, 1 in September-December.
This trend continued into 2022. The OSCE Status Report as of 7 February 2022 reports “The Mission corroborated reports of a civilian casualty: a 56-year-old man suffering a leg injury as a result of small-arms fire on 29 January 2022 in the western part of non-government-controlled Oleksandrivka, Donetsk region. This is the first civilian casualty corroborated by the Mission in 2022.” In other words, to 7 February 2022, 2 weeks before the Russian invasion, there had been zero fatalities in Donbas in 2022.
Therefore, this is the trend in what Putin calls the “genocide” of the ethnic Russians in Donbas, even taking into account that the Russian-owned armed forces shoot and shell as much as do the Ukrainians, and that perhaps half if not the majority of deaths were due to landmines and unexploded ordinance, laid by both sides:
2016 – 88 deaths
2017 – 87 deaths
2018 – 43 deaths
2019 – 19 deaths
2020 – 23 deaths
2021 – 16 deaths, including:
– 11 deaths (Jan-June)
– 4 deaths (June-Sep)
– 1 death (Sep-Dec)
2022 – 0 deaths (before Russian invasion).
As we can see, the rate of death has continually declined until it reached zero. The Russian invasion, which resulted in thousands of deaths and untold injuries, destruction and dispossession, was “in response” (allegedly) to the zero deaths in Donbas in 2022.
The total number of civilian fatalities from 2016-2022 was therefore 276, about half due to landmines. Of course any number of deaths is far too many, and neither the Ukrainian side nor the Russia-owned side should be excused for violations and war crimes that resulted in civilian deaths.
But as there were 3,404 civilians killed from 2014 to 2022 before the Russian invasion, that means that 3128 of these (92%) occurred in 2014-15, when no serious observer denies the direct intervention of the Russian armed forces, mercenaries and heavy weapons in the conflict.
The aim of this is not to let the Ukrainian government and army off the hook. Both the Ukrainian army and the Russian-backed separatist militia have committed war crimes (mostly in 2014-15), all of which should be condemned.
There is also room for criticism of the post-2014 Ukrainian government’s virulent Ukrainian nationalism, as a major factor leading to opposition among parts of the Russian-speaking population in the east; the fact that the Maidan was confronted by an anti-Maidan in the east was in itself an entirely valid expression of democratic protest. What was not valid was the almost immediate militarisation of the anti-Maidan by Russian-backed militia, armed by Russia, involving the direct intervention of Russian armed forces, mercenaries and heavy weaponry, arbitrarily seizing control of town halls and chunks of eastern Ukraine.
Indeed, Russian FSB colonel Igor Girkin, known as Strelkov, one of the leaders of the first gang of far-right Russian paramilitaries in Donbas, has admitted that it was he who pulled the first trigger that led to war, stating that “if our unit had not crossed the border, everything would have ended as it did in Kharkiv and in Odesa.”
Simon Pirani argues that neither the Maidan nor the anti-Maidan should be stereotyped as reactionary as they often are by different people, and in fact the “social aspirations” of the two “were very close,” but “it was right-wing militia from Russia, and the Russian army, that militarised the conflict and suppressed the anti-Maidan’s social content.”
It is important to understand that the Donbas is ethnically mixed; according to the 2001 census, ethnic Ukrainians form 58% of the population of Luhansk and 56.9% of Donetsk; the ethnic Russian minority accounts for 39% and 38.2% of the two regions respectively. How ironic that Putin supporters justify the flagrant Russian annexation of Crimea by pointing to the 58% ethnic Russian majority there, when Ukrainians are the same size majority in Donbas! The ethnic Ukrainian population is then evenly divided between primary Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers, but language does not equal ethnicity, and neither language nor ethnicity equal political opinion.
Surveys carried out in 2016 and 2019 by the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin found that in the Russian-controlled parts of Donbas, some 45% of the population were in favour of joining Russia, the majority against. Of the majority against, some 30% supported some kind of autonomy, while a quarter wanted no special status. But in the Ukraine government controlled two-thirds of Donbas, while the same percentage (around 30%) favoured some kind of autonomy within Ukraine, the two-thirds majority favoured just being in Ukraine with no special status (almost none supported joining Russia). Even this should not be read to mean that, therefore, the chunks seized by the separatists are the regions most in favour of autonomy or separation – given the dispossession of literally half the Donbas population, it more likely means a degree of subsequent relocation between the two zones.
Hence neither ethnic composition nor opinion shows the two Donbas provinces are “Russian” regions that favour separation or even necessarily autonomy; they are very mixed in all aspects. The borders of the bits that have been seized therefore (the fake ‘republics’) are entirely arbitrary – there was no basis for these seizures in terms of any “act of self-determination;” and since the armed conflict took off after these seizures, neither can the seizures and the militarisation be justified as necessary armed defence against some violent wave of government repression of the anti-Maidan which had not taken place.
The foreign-backed militarisation of the anti-Maidan on the one hand polarised views on the edges, while on the other driving away the middle, including a large part of the original anti-Maidan civilian population; and the more the far-right and fascist Russian-backed, or indeed actual Russian, political figures and militia came to dominate these ‘republics’, imposing essentially totalitarian control and massively violating the human rights of the local population, the less this had anything to do with any genuine expression of valid opposition to the Ukrainian government’s policies. Alienation from this reality, combined with the war itself, led to literally half the population fleeing Donbas – 3.3 million of the original population of 6.6 million – either to other parts of Ukraine (the majority), or to Russia or Belarus.
In this context, it was entirely expected that the Ukrainian armed forces would attempt to regain these regions conquered by separatist militia backed by a foreign power; and ‘valid’ in terms of international law, regardless of one’s views on how Ukraine conducted it. Of course, one may well criticise Ukraine’s reliance on purely military means to regain these regions with complex ethnic/regional issues, almost inevitable given that its virulent Ukrainian nationalist stance precluded a more political approach. But to lay the majority of blame on this military response rather than the foreign-backed military aggression it was responding to is hardly logical.
Whatever the case, and whatever one’s views on the relative responsibility of the two sides over these years, the continual and decisive reduction of fatalities, injuries and ceasefire violations between 2015 and 2022 – from 3128 civilian fatalities in 2014-2015 to 0 in early 2022 – puts the lie to not only Putin’s claim that his bloody invasion, with its countless thousands of deaths, millions uprooted and cataclysmic destruction, was in response to “genocide” of “ethnic Russians,” but also to the more subtle plague on both your houses case that the Ukrainian army was waging a relentless war against “ethnic Russians” in Donbas.