By Paul Goble
On January 22, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed a decree calling for Kyiv to devote more attention to the fate of ethnic Ukrainians living in Russia (President of Ukraine, January 22; see EDM, January 25).
Kremlin officials and commentators view the decree as an indication of Ukrainian aggressiveness and an attack on Russia’s territorial integrity. Perhaps more importantly, some see it as an effort to call into question Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. Others believe that the measure is meant to undermine domestic support for the Russian war effort and a broader policy of support for non-Russian nationalist and secessionist movements (Vzglyad, January 22; Ukraina.ru, January 24; Business Gazeta, January 28; Izvestia, January 30).
Paradoxically, these Russians see Zelenskyy’s move as larger and more threatening than many in Ukraine and the West do. Many observers in the West and Ukraine have focused solely on the Ukrainian president’s explicit call for expanded attention to ethnic Ukrainians in the portions of Russia bordering Ukraine rather than on the rest of his text (Kavkaz Realii, January 26). Zelenskyy also called for more attention to the other regions and nations within the Russian Federation that are further away from the Ukrainian border, which include ethnic Ukrainians as well. As so often happens, the Russian reaction may prove more significant than Zelenskyy’s specific intentions.
Those in Moscow who view Zelenskyy’s decree as an expansion of Kyiv’s longstanding policies have their reasons. Some Russian writers point to Ukraine’s persistent interest in ethnic Ukrainians across the Russian Federation all the way to the Pacific Ocean (Apostrophe.ua, January 29; Sibir’ Realii, January 29; Bloknot, January 31). Additionally, they refer to Kyiv’s increasing support for non-Russian ethnic groups within Russia, especially those national movements that are on the rise (see EDM, July 28, 2022). These analysts also comment on Zelenskyy’s increasing willingness to call Putin’s Russia “an evil empire,” as former US President Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union 40 years ago (seeEDM, October 13, 2022).
Many in Moscow are concerned that, despite claims to the contrary, Russia’s program of assimilating Ukrainians is not working and that many of the nominally assimilated remain Ukrainians at heart. The fear is growing that the Ukrainians living in Russia are waiting for the chance to express their true sentiments once Moscow has been significantly weakened and Ukraine and the West have grown in strength. This possibility will likely increase as other nations expand their protests against the Kremlin.
A year ago, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, was explicit on this point (Argumenty i fakty, January 10, 2023; see EDM, June 8, 2023). There is little reason to think that such worries have lessened, especially with increased attacks on Russian military and transportation facilities east of the Urals These attacks have almost certainly been carried out by “assimilated” Ukrainians in support of Ukraine (Stoletie, January 19; The New Times, January 23).
In contrast, most Ukrainian and Western analysts view Zelenskyy’s latest decree as having a more limited scope. Above all, they point to the fact that the Ukrainian president explicitly talked about the Ukrainian or formerly Ukrainian regions in Russia along Ukraine’s eastern border and made no mention of other “wedges”—Kyiv’s term for regions across Russia that, in the past or currently, have sizeable Ukrainian populations (President of Ukraine, January 22; Kavkaz Realii, January 22, January 26).
These writers also touch on the notion that Zelenskyy’s actions have broader implications. They discuss how assimilation has reduced the number of Ukrainians recorded by the Russian census from over three million in the early 2000s to under 900,000. Additionally, they highlight the closing of Ukrainian institutions and restrictions on the Ukrainian language throughout Russia since 2014 (Kavkaz Realii, March 14, 2023; Apostrophe.ua, January 29).
Russian observers are likely to see the arguments of Ukrainian officials and commentators that Zelenskyy’s words are more about attracting Western attention to what Moscow has done as confirmation of their views. They believe that these efforts are an attempt to generate more support for Ukraine in the West and to force more Western populations to accept the fact that Putin’s empire is about to disintegrate, just as the Russian Empire did in 1917 and the Soviet Union in 1991. (On Ukrainian efforts to do just that, see the comments of former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ogryzko at Glavred, January 29.)
Kremlin analysts are even more convinced that their assessments of Ukrainian policies are correct based on comments from Volodymyr Postnikov, a commentator in Kyiv who used to work with ethnic Ukrainians in Russia in the 1990s. In a recent article, Postnikov speaks to an even deeper fear in the Kremlin and says there are now few committed Ukrainians left in Russia (Censoru.NET, January 29). While he acknowledges that Moscow’s assimilation policies have been successful among ethnic Ukrainians in the country, he points out that the Kremlin’s success parallels Kyiv’s own success with ethnic Russians in Ukraine, who are identifying more frequently as civic or even ethnic Ukrainians.
Postnikov argues that Kyiv should not be under any illusions that it can reverse the process in Russia. Still, Moscow should not be under any similar illusions about what it can do regarding ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in Ukraine. According to the Ukrainian analyst, the current realities are the final sorting out of these communities into two nations, precisely the opposite of what Putin has declared as his goal.
Putin cannot possibly accept Postnikov’s perspective. The Kremlin leader appears more likely to use his favored method of repression to end the history of the Ukrainian community in Russia quickly as part of his war effort against Ukraine. Such an approach will likely backfire, leading more Ukrainians and non-Russians to view Moscow as the enemy, more ethnic Russians in Ukraine to identify as Ukrainians, and more in the West to recognize the Kremlin’s true intentions. The current realities in Russia are exactly the opposite of what Putin seeks and are compelling reasons for viewing Zelenskyy’s decree as having far more sweeping intentions and consequences than many in Ukraine and the West now envisage.
This article was published at The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 16