Armed Hostilities

The War in Donbass as the Legacy of the Cold War


Cold War was a significant event in the newest history that demonstrated the deep division between nations, differences in mentalities, and the difficulty in finding compromises to continue cooperation. It was also characterized by the struggle between superstates and their camps, resulting from the desire to control global intercourse and gain more power. The collapse of the USSR is considered the end of the Cold War and the new era in relations. However, the significance of the given phenomenon and the multiple effects caused by it on numerous countries created the basis for many long-term effects seen today (Westad, 2019).

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The USA remains one of the powers trying to protect its interests in various areas. Thus, the restoration of Russia’s power and its status as a superstate indicated a new phase of opposition, which is often compared to the Cold War. From this perspective, the War in Donbas can be seen as one of the most obvious legacies of the past confrontation as multiple processes affecting the region remains similar to previous ones.

Current Status

Currently, Donbas remains an unstable region because of the military conflict between the Ukrainian Army and forces of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. The sophistication of the situation comes from the different perspectives on the conflict and the events that triggered the deterioration of the case and the development of the conflict within Ukraine. The official government of the state does not accept the idea of these regions’ independence and blames Russia for using its forces to control the area and support rebellions (Lakomy, 2016). At the same time, Russia does not prove its military presence but demonstrates its interest as it wants to protect the Russian people living on the territory (Lakomy, 2016).

This opposition created the basis for the global discussion and dispute as different states have their positions regarding the question. As for the USA, it predictably supports Ukraine and emphasizes the Russian aggression and the use of its army on the territory of another independent state.

America’s stand on an issue can be easily understood if correlate with the patterns peculiar to the Cold War. After the USSR collapsed, Ukraine became one of the biggest newly independent states with a strong resource base. Ideologically, it remained close to Russia because of the long history of relations, similar culture, language, and demography. However, in the 21st century, the situation altered, and Ukraine proclaimed the idea of westernization and rapprochement with the USA (Lakomy, 2016).

For Russia, Ukraine also has strategic importance, and this factor turned the region into a battlefield between two powers trying to reclaim their former influence. The Ukrainian crisis and Euromaidan protests supported by the Western world and the USA resulted in altering the state’s course, and its decision to step away from Russia and become NATO’s partner (Hauter, 2021). This victory of U.S. diplomacy was followed by a big disaster as Russian Federation managed to gain control over Crimea, a strategically important fleet base (Westad, 2019). These events signalized the new phase of relations between the two states, and Donbas became the area of their struggle.

Cold War Legacy

The clash of two superstates’ interests is the first factor making the War in Donbas similar to conflicts of the Cold War. Both Russia and the USA have their concerns in Ukraine and are not ready to step back. For the first one, the Western control over the area will mean that NATO forces will be close to its borders (Mykhnenko, 2020). Moreover, Russia emphasizes its role as the leader of the Russian world and cannot let people in Donbas, who mostly consider themselves ethnic Russians, without its support as it will mean significant reputational losses (Mykhnenko, 2020). On the other hand, the USA also viewed Ukraine as the sphere of its interests and declared its readiness to support the state with finances and army (Westad, 2019).

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The Donbas’ independence and its most probable annexation to Russia will also undermine its image of the superstate and damage its strategic and financial interests. For this reason, similar to conflicts of the Cold War period, both states are ready to use different methods to control the area.


The ideological aspect is another issue that should be mentioned, analyzing the War in Donbas through the prism of the Cold War legacy. Initially, the radical change of the political course initiated by Euromaidan activists also presupposed the reconsideration of the ideology and cultural heritage (Hauter, 2021). The new government emphasized the national issues and the necessity to prohibit Russian culture and focus on the cultivation of the Ukrainian one only (Hauter, 2021).

For the state, the language problem has always been topical because of the peculiarities of its history and the division between the Russian Empire and other European states (Hauter, 2021). The population of the eastern regions who spoke Russian and followed its values was not ready to accept this alteration of the course and new Western paradigms. For this reason, Donbas was supported by Russia, while the official government of Ukraine acquired U.S. patronage. It means that Donbas again became the place where two different ideologies clashed.


At the same time, the causes for the emergence and development of the given conflict can also be viewed as the legacy of the Cold War. The end of this period meant the disappearance of the bipolar system in international relations with the necessity to belong to the opposing camps (Hauter, 2021). However, contrary to multiple expectations, the new world order also contained numerous problems. With no rivals, the USA started to spread its influence in many regions, including Eastern Europe, and tried to accept the role of the only superstate controlling all significant issues. However, fast Russia’s rise and its growing military power provided it with the authority to challenge this pattern and insist on switching to a multipolar system, also focusing on protecting its traditional interests (Hauter, 2021).

It became a serious threat to the USA’s growing influence and introduced a new pattern of relations, similar to those that existed during the Cold War. For this reason, states started to use already known methods and rhetoric in their diplomatic relations.

Ukraine and Donbas became a perfect ground for the discussion as they offered both states a chance to struggle for dominance, not start a real war. Supporting its allies, the USA challenges Russia, similar to its guidance over different nations in the Cold War period. At the same time, Russia, as the USSR’s successor, cannot refuse the idea of its ability to influence international affairs and cannot accept the world order with the dominance of the USA and its alliances with NATO (Mykhnenko, 2020). For this reason, the clash between the two states was inevitable, and they found the formal cause to struggle for the strategically important area (Hauter, 2021).

The diversity of the population, their culture, languages, and values traditionally peculiar to Donbas became a factor employed by the USA and Russia to use their powers and authority to support different sides of the conflict and attract international attention to various factors (Mykhnenko, 2020). From this perspective, Donbas is similar to Cuba or Vietnam during the Cold War period, which became the battlefield of superstates.

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Different Perspectives

Another important feature associated with the war in Donbas is the existence of two opposite perspectives on it. Russia insists that the conflict should be classified as the civil one, and Ukraine uses the army to struggle with its citizens trying to protect their constitutional right to national self-determination (Mykhnenko, 2020). This position is used to explain support provided to people living in these territories, armed forces, and readiness to protect the region (Hauter, 2021). It also explains the role of Russia as intermediary power in negotiations between Ukraine and the governments of DPR and LPR (Hauter, 2021).

At the same time, the USA and its allies form another camp with the opposite position. Supporting the official Kiev, this party to the conflict defends the idea of Russian military presence in the region and rejects the idea of civil war (Hauter, 2021). This ideological opposition and the differences in perspectives can also be viewed as the legacy of the Cold War. Following the patterns established in the second half of the 20th century, the international society is not ready to compromise and accept one position on some disputable issue.


The manner the military conflict is highlighted by the media can also be considered a legacy of the Cold War. The given opposition of two blocks significantly impacted the way journalists and various mediums described disputable issues. The term infowar was one of the concepts that emerged at that time and were used to affect the masses to form a specific opinion (Roman et al., 2017). Today, the situation is similar to the War in Donbas and is highlighted differently by the Western and Eastern press. They emphasize various factors, depending on the position and the interests protected by different parties (Roman et al., 2017).

For this reason, regardless of the end of the Cold War, society still uses its heritage and methods used by opponents to shape public opinion and make the position of an opponent vulnerable. It also means that the War in Donbas is a newsworthy event that can be utilized by one of the states involved in it to acquire a competitive advantage and alter the balance of power.


The USA’s relationship with Ukraine and its alteration can also be analyzed through the prism of the Cold War legacy and viewed as one of the causes of the discussed conflict. The collapse of the USSR provided the USA with the opportunity to spread its influence to regions previously controlled by the Soviet Union and increase its global power and authority. In this regard, Ukraine, as the biggest European state with rich natural resources and outstanding strategic importance, became one of the major U.S. interests.

The change in attitude was seen in support of national issues, attempts to step away from Russia and the Russian world, and assistance in establishing new governments following Western models (Mykhnenko, 2020). Under these conditions, the relationship altered from complete non-interference to close collaboration and guidance. Nowadays, the USA also creates a military base on the territory of Ukraine as a tool to empower its presence in the region (Mykhnenko, 2020). These actions triggered Russia’s response and offered the basis for the civil and political conflict.

New Features

However, the War in Donbas also acquired some new features which, however, evolved from the legacy of the past. For instance, both states provide military support to Ukraine and LPR, and DPR; however, different from the conflicts of the Cold War period, they refuse official interventions and the use of their armies. It can be explained by the increased complexity of the international situation nowadays, the fear of total war, and the existence of nuclear weapons serving as restricting factors (Hauter, 2021). These issues influence strategies and precondition the use of the UN and other international organizations as the basis for discussion and attempt to find a solution. Furthermore, the desire to avoid the re-establishment of the bipolar system in international relations results in the involvement of other actors trying to play their significant role in the conflict. However, the War in Donbas remains a problematic issue with multiple factors that should be considered to succeed in its resolution.


At the moment, there is no clear understanding of how the military opposition can be ended. The legacy of the Cold War remains relevant even today as both states influencing the situation are not ready to negotiate. They also refuse to make a compromise, as it will mean their defeat and loss of influence at the global level. For this reason, the future of Donbas remains vague. Examples from history show that regions that served as the ground for the clash of superstates’ interests suffered from devastation, a decline in industry, and multiple national conflicts. Today, the situation remains the same as the population of Ukraine is already divided regarding the cultural and language factor (Hauter, 2021). The USA and Russia’s attempts to gain control over the situation make it worse. They facilitate the development of the conflict and its transformation into a long-term issue with no real chances for its resolution or making a compromise.

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Altogether, the significance of the Cold War for history is evidenced by the fact that its legacy still affects global intercourse. The USSR is replaced by Russia, which also tries to act as the world’s leading state and protect its concerns in strategically important areas. It means the clash of interests and its opposition with the USA, which also views itself as the dominant global dominant. For this reason, Ukraine suffers from these states’ attempts to hold control over strategic areas and gain new points in the struggle for authority. The War in Donbas continues the old battle for dominance and the conformation of the two camps, the Eastern and the Western ones.

The only difference is that now Russia acts as the USSR’s successor and challenges the USA in its attempts to establish a unipolar model of international relations. The ideology, use of economic and military power, and media also stem from the Cold War conflicts and prove the strong influence of its legacy.


Hauter, J. (2021). How the war began: Conceptualizing conflict escalation in Ukraine’s Donbas. The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review, 48(2), 135-163. Web,

Lakomy, M. (2016). The game of Ukraine: Conflict in Donbass as an outcome of the multilayered rivalry. Politeja, 45, 279-316. Web.

Mykhnenko, V. (2020). Causes and consequences of the war in Eastern Ukraine: An economic geography perspective. Europa-Asia Studies, 72(3), 528-560. Web.

Roman, N., Wanta, W., & Buniak, I. (2017). Information wars: Eastern Ukraine military conflict coverage in the Russian, Ukrainian and U.S. newscasts. International Communication Gazette, 79(4), 357–378. Web.

Westad, O. (2019). The Cold War: A world history. Basic Books.

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