Why is Ukraine’s Donbas region a target for Russian forces?

A residential neighborhood that was heavily damaged by Russian strikes on April 30 in Dobropillya, a town in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

Russia is planning to formally claim wide new sections of Ukrainian territory in the southern and eastern parts of the country, a senior U.S. official said Monday.

The portions would include the city of Kherson in the south, as well as the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Michael Carpenter, told reporters at the State Department. He said the United States had “highly credible” intelligence indicating Moscow would attempt to stage fraudulent, pro-Russian referendums there in the coming weeks — after which it would install friendly local leaders.

Russia last month launched a ground offensive in eastern Ukraine to “liberate” the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, parts of which are already ruled by separatists loyal to Moscow. The area, known collectively as Donbas, has long been a flash point for conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Just days before Moscow invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally recognized the independence of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. He has accused Ukraine’s government of persecuting the mostly Russian-speaking residents of the area.

But U.S. officials say Russian forces have not made much progress militarily in Donbas. Speaking to reporters Monday, a U.S. defense official said Russian troops were making “minimal progress at best” and described the operation as “anemic.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity under Biden administration rules.

For Moscow, a victory in eastern Ukraine would be a welcome diversion from its failed offensive in the north. It would also give Russia a critical piece of Ukrainian territory, depriving Kyiv of its industrial heartland.

Here’s what is happening in Ukraine’s Donbas region and why it matters.