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Russia’s Don River: History, Conflict, Water and National Security

By Blake MacLeod Blake

MacLeod lives in Gibsons BC, and has been a WFMC member for 20 years. World federalism interests include activity related to the UNPA campaign, UN reform, and strengthening the ICC.

Now on Russian soil, for millennia the Don river has played an important role in the lives of the people living in the region. There are historical and cultural reasons to connect the river basin in this seemingly unresolvable conflict over the Donbas region. At its closest point, the Don is less than 100km from Ukraine’s South Eastern border at the Sea of Azov. A significant number of its tributaries, the secondary rivers and streams that feed the Don originate deep within Ukrainian territory in the region roughly defined as the Donbas.

In the present era of climate threat stressors, and considering the importance of water to national security and political stability, one might conclude too, that the identity of the ethnic Russians in the area would be inseparable from the history and essential nature of the Don. In antiquity, the river was seen as the border between Europe and Asia, similar to Constantinople.

A significant proportion of the people living in the Donbas are from somewhere else. Many of Russian birth were drawn there to work in coal mines kilometers below the Earth’s surface. The link to place though, even if only symbolically includes a little known history; one that reaches back to when humans began settling in the area as the Pleistocene ice shield receded circa 10,000 BC.

There is a strong, evidence based argument stemming from independent work done by US and Russian scientists in the years following glasnost, which asserts that a connection exists between the flood myths, including of the biblical Noah, and as told in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and a real life flood event that occurred in the Black Sea. Similar stories are present as cultural tradition within many nonChristian cultures, and are supposed to originate from, or were influenced by the same cataclysmic geological event as sea levels were rising as the ice age was ending. The Don, the Dneiper and the Danube emerged in their present forms at that time.

In the book ‘Noah’s Flood’, authors Walter Pitman and William Ryan explain that seabed core samples taken by scientists show that the Black Sea had once been a lake, and previous to that a sea. The writers propose that life for the people living along its shores, and logic and evidence suggest that they did so peacefully, was changed in an historical instant when the rising sea level from a flooding Mediterranean Sea broke through to create the form of the Bosporus strait we see today.

In a matter of weeks, they believe, a massive and growing flume of salt water many times the flow of Niagara Falls changed the much smaller lake to sea, killing the fish, subsuming much of the surrounding land, and destroying the plentiful and peaceful, Eden-like way of life of humans living there.

Geological evidence is married with the anthropological to demonstrate that, in the years following that geological event, all of the European continent was affected by migration and displacement, with fortifications and weapons suddenly becoming much more evident. The evidence supports the theory that a relatively peaceful coexistence changed, as the people fleeing that natural disaster, confronted, warred with, and displaced or were killed by cultural groups of people who had previously also enjoyed a long period of peaceful, stable prosperity, with food and newly available land being plentiful. Today again, climate change, and now this war in Ukraine near the shores of the Black Sea threaten Europe and the world with upheaval once again.

It is proposed too, that that the sudden migration, in its eastward path coincided with the dawning of agriculture in the levant. This would be supported by other theories of how our species naturally transitioned from hunter gatherer societies to agrarian and civic, planting the seeds of the great civilizations, empires and progress to follow.

As for the Don river watershed, its western reaches correspond roughly to the regional borders of the Donbas region. All that water runs away from Ukraine and into Russia, to the Don, eventually spilling into the Sea of Azov near the border between those two countries.

Whether or not he understands the complex history, there is logic in Russian President Vladimir Putin wanting to redefine the shape of Ukraine, to force the release of the Donbas region to full Russian control. There is logic too, that he would want to secure the remaining land encircling the Sea of Azov as a ‘final solution’ to the long simmering and seemingly unsolvable conflict with Ukraine. The war crimes being committed during the civil war, and now during this Russian aggression are an echo of humanity’s ancient past.

Having control over the entirety of the Don watershed, as well as the full length of the canal that brings water from the Dneiper river to farmland in the Crimean peninsula is likely seen by Putin as critical to Russia’s interests. The North Crimean Canal was built in the Soviet era, and so was paid for from the Soviet purse. Controlling the entirety of the Don watershed, as well as the land to the south of the Donbas region would secure Russian agricultural independence over a vast region, provide continuous overland access between Crimea and Russia, and firmly establish a dominant position in the Black Sea. Without this, it might be argued that Russian insecurity will remain as an impediment to the Europeanizing of Ukraine due to the grip of agitated nationalism in that politically and socially conservative country.

Water and food security are at the very core of human conflict and riparian politics. Increasingly, treaties will be challenged to establish and keep the peace in the age of climate change, especially as the struggles between democratic and nationalist factions heat up. More focus should be paid in the public square to these issues and histories, and there are many examples to cite, including the influential North Crimean Canal, and the long simmering civil war in the Donbas for helping us understand the root causes of conflict. In the process, we will come to better understand ourselves, and our place and responsibility within the human community.

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