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Violence in Ukraine's Donbass raises fears of Russian invasion; all you need to know about region of conflict

Donbass, the eastern region of Ukraine, has again found itself in the middle of the country’s nervous standoff with Russia, refuelling an almost eight year-long conflict with Russia-backed separatists.

Ukraine’s military claimed on Thursday that Russian-backed rebels fired artillery rounds on a kindergarten facility in a village in the Luhansk region. It was hit by shelling but no casualties were reported.

Luhansk and Donetsk, collectively called Donbass region, have been occupied by Russia-backed anti-government separatists since 2014.

Also read: Ukraine crisis: Continual military build-up from Russia raises fears of geopolitical risk amid border tension

The fight over, and across, the Donbass region, which was once a part of Ukraine, has long been the bone of contention between the two countries. The conflict over Donbass dates as early as World War II.

Here’s everything you need to know about the region:

Once a part of the Russian empire, Ukraine gained independence as the USSR broke up in 1991.

In late 2013, violent protests erupted in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, after a political and trade deal with the European Union was rejected by pro-Kremlin Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, reportedly in favour of closer ties with Moscow.

While Yanukovych was removed as leader by mass protests in February 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula on the pretext of defending the interests of Russian-speaking citizens.

According to a report by Al Jazeera, Moscow also indirectly supported a separatist rebellion, which it claimed to be volunteers, in the country’s eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.

In April 2014, Russia-backed rebels seized government buildings in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, proclaimed the creation of authoritarian “people’s republics” there and battled Ukrainian troops and volunteer battalions.

Amid ferocious battles involving tanks, heavy artillery and warplanes, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine on 17 July, 2014, killing all 298 people aboard.

An international probe concluded that the passenger jet was downed by a Russia-supplied missile from the rebel-controlled territory, but Moscow denied any involvement.

Ukraine and the West accused Russia of backing the rebels with troops and weapons. Moscow denied that, saying any Russians who fought in the east were volunteers.

The months of heavy fighting between Ukraine and the pro-Russian separatists led to the death of more than 14,000 people, according to Al Jazeera.

As per UN figures, more than 3,000 civilians have died in eastern Ukraine in conflict since March 2014.

Peace Agreements

After a massive defeat of Ukrainian troops in the battle of Ilovaisk in August 2014, envoys from Kyiv, the rebels and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe signed a truce in the Belarusian capital of Minsk in September 2014.

The deal required a ceasefire, pulling back of all foreign fighters and exchange of prisoners and hostages, and a promise that separatist regions will have a degree of self-rule.

The deal couldn’t last very long as large-scale fighting resumed soon after, leading to another major defeat for Ukrainian forces at Debaltseve in January-February of 2015.

Moscow, Kyiv and the rebels signed another peace deal in February 2015, brokered by France and Germany with similar conditions as the previous deal.

The 2015 peace deal, known as Minks Protocol, obliged Ukraine to grant special status to the separatist regions.

It allowed them to create their own police force and have a say in appointing local prosecutors and judges.

It also envisaged that Ukraine could only regain control over the roughly 200-kilometer (125-mile) border with Russia in rebel regions after they get self-rule and hold OSCE-monitored local elections — balloting that would almost certainly keep pro-Moscow rebels in power there.

Even though the Minsk Protocol helped end full-scale fighting between the rebels and Ukrainian forces, the region has remained riddled with small-scale skirmishes along the line of contact.

In the years since the Minsk deal, Moscow has worked to strengthen its hold on the Donbass region by handing out more than 720,000 Russian passports to roughly one-fifth of their population of about 3.6 million.

According to the Associated Press, it has also provided economic and financial assistance to the separatist territories, but the aid has been insufficient to alleviate the massive damage from fighting and shore up the economy.

The Donbass region accounted for about 16 per cent of Ukraine’s Gross Domestic Product before the conflict.

With inputs from agencies

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