Ukrainian elites began to lean toward nazification well before the crisis of 2013-2014. Even modern Ukraine was built on an anti-Russia foundation, but a large part of the country refused to play along with it and led to a volatile situation.
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There are numerous frontlines in Ukraine’s conflict. While the rest of the world is focused on the fighting, an even more dangerous war is raging inside the Ukrainian camp. This political struggle between Ukrainians and Russians has been ongoing since 2014, but it reached a new, decisive phase three months ago when Russia launched its military offensive.
Three distinct communities have lived alongside in Ukraine since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. A state that was founded in 1917 and whose current borders were established by Joseph Stalin, the Georgian dictator who headed the Soviet Union until his death in 1953.
The very first, Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians (also known as Galicians, after the ancient area of Galicia), live primarily in Ukraine’s western and central regions. Their ethnic narrative is very apparent; they regard Russians to be their enemies, and Stepan Bandera, a Nazi collaborator during World War II, is their prominent icon.
“If you disagree with us, there is still time – pack your suitcase and catch the next train to Russia,” as the Galician motto goes. They are promoting the idea that Ukraine as a country is independent of Russia and Russians. This is backed up by their selection of national heroes. During the Great Northern War between Russia and Sweden, Hetman Ivan Mazepa sided with King Charles XII of Sweden. Symon Petliura was the president of the Ukrainian People’s Republic from 1918 to 1921, when Ukraine was independent. From the 1920s to the 1950s, the aforementioned Bandera created and headed the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.
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Before the propaganda that preceded the 2014 Maidan coup in Kiev, Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the centre and southern portions of the country never considered Russians to be foreigners or adversaries. Ethnic Russians make up the third group of people that live in Ukraine. By language and historical narrative, they are linked to Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who both feel they stood on the right side of history when defending the Soviet Union from Nazis during World War II.
West Ukrainians hold a distinct perspective, yet they too believe in the virtues of their forefathers. They claim that their forefathers fought for an independent Ukraine rather than the Third Reich, even if they were members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (now outlawed in Russia), which took part in the Holocaust and assisted in the massacre of Jews.
In other words, distinct historical perspectives, dialects, and political representation divide these communities, particularly the Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians and Russians. Consider the “Euromaidan” of 2013-14, when “pro-Western” and “pro-Ukrainian” forces ousted Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s ostensibly “pro-Russian” leader (despite his years of negotiations with the EU).
That hostility had been simmering in society for a long time — just check at the names individuals from different regions gave one other. “Ragul” (a disparaging term for a farmer or village inhabitant), “zapadenets” for those from western Ukraine, and “moskal,” “kommunyaka,” or “colorad” (according to the colors of St. George’s ribbon, which represents Russia’s triumph in the Great Patriotic War) for people from the south. Prior to 2014, however, the clash of narratives was minimal, and the equilibrium was thrown off when the policy of constructing a national state came to prevail.
The moderates have been Russian-speaking Ukrainians (or, to paraphrase Mikhail Pogrebinsky, a political analyst in Kiev, “Russian Ukrainians”). This group has long been classified as a cross between political Russians and radical Ukrainians, gaining some of its identity from both groups while remaining fairly distinct. Their stance toward Russia and Russian culture has been a major source of contention since the conflict began in 2014.
For radical Ukrainians, everything was crystal clear: Russians were always regarded adversaries, and Russia was perceived as an aggressor and existential threat. On the other hand, moderate Ukrainians had no ill feelings toward Russians and even consented to refer to them as a “brotherly nation.” It was difficult for them to distinguish the Russian and Ukrainian cultures since they were so intimately entwined in their lives. In 2014, the Donbass contact line divided two armies, two political regimes, two world perspectives, and people. Friends, neighbors, and family members were split up on opposing sides.
For the bulk of moderate Ukrainians, however, the more challenging problem has been their political position on Russia. Russian-speaking Ukrainians did not despise Russia as much as radical Ukrainians did, but they were worried about the notion of a “Russian world” as a civilizational group. When the concept was utilized to promote political unity between Russia and Ukraine in 2013-2014, many Russian-speaking Ukrainians saw the idea of such unity as tainted.
The issue is that Ukrainian elites began to lean toward nationalism well before the crisis of 2013-2014. This is also the primary reason why Russia’s policy in Ukraine has failed: Russia had overlooked for far too long the reality that virtually the entire Ukrainian elite – political, economic, and cultural – was eager to act independently, dreaming of a Ukrainian political project that was independent of Russia.
The Ukrainian establishment came up with two designs for the nation in the early 1990s, just after the Soviet Union collapsed: the Galician (nationalist) paradigm and the Eastern Ukrainian model. The latter foresaw the emergence of a multiconfessional, multiethnic, multicultural state in which a country was seen as a civil actor. The radical strategy, on the other hand, was founded on the ethnic premise of nation-building, which was most commonly advocated by Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians from the western areas.
The idea of a monoethnic country – a “Ukraine for Ukrainians” as carriers of the Ukrainian language and culture – lies at the heart of this notion. Even if Volodymyr Zelensky, a Russian-speaker from the Krivbass who claimed to adhere to the Eastern Ukrainian model, was elected president in 2019, individuals who championed the Galician concept proved more active and prominent in political activities after 2014. Until he got office, when reality kicked in.
Initially, he attempted to reach an agreement with the Galician group, but after a while, he became an important member of it, not only maintaining the Ukrainianization strategy, but also pursuing the complete elimination of “pro-Russian” political parties.
Without a question, the launch of the special military operation has prompted numerous Russian-speaking Ukrainians to embrace the Galician ideology and adopt Ukrainian nationalism, taking a hardline posture against Russia. There have been other instances where people from the southeastern regions who had earlier supported Russia’s reabsorption of Crimea have changed their minds and taken up guns, for example, by joining the territorial defense forces. This was especially prevalent among young individuals.
A rising desire to join the European Union political project; effective propaganda with limited access to Russian TV and social networks; the Ukrainianization of education; military service in the Ukrainian Armed Forces and work in government agencies were all variables that impacted the situation for many years. In other words, the so-called “post-Soviet people” in Ukraine’s southeastern areas were subjected to social engineering. Russia, on the other hand, had no choice except to relocate these people permanently to a neighboring nation. Many of them left their motherland forever, unable to bear the Ukrainianization of education and political persecution.
Importantly, it was the post-Euromaidan dramatic shift in cultural and linguistic policy, as well as the desire to construct a nation-state, that triggered armed confrontation in 2014. When Ukraine discarded its moderate nationalization approach in favor of extremism, it made a terrible error. The government did follow the nation-state model under the presidency of Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma, but without disturbing the sensitive balance of interests between the three factions.
The status quo was ultimately disrupted with the loss of Crimea and the Donbass following Euromaidan in 2014, resulting in a shift in official historical knowledge, language policy, and ties with regional elites. The debate over federalization and autonomy in politics lost all credibility, and politicians on both sides refused to acknowledge their adversaries as a distinct cultural and political entity. Representatives from the Russian-speaking southeast took it particularly hard.
In terms of the linguistic dispute, it has gotten worse in recent years. The comprehensive Ukrainianization of education began under Petro Poroshenko’s administration and continued under Zelensky’s president. Despite his previous opposition to such policies.
For a third of the population, it was more than just political Ukrainians expressing themselves at the cost of Ukrainian Russians. They felt as if they were being relegated to second-class status.
The problem is that the Russian language’s status in Ukraine has always been exclusively political and ideological rather than practical. After the Soviet Union fell apart, Ukrainian society remained multilingual, with citizens openly speaking both languages. In practice, if the government desired to establish true equality for its residents, it could have addressed all of the Russian population’s linguistic requirements without designating Russian as a regional language. It would have sufficed to enact reasonable legislation to safeguard and defend it.
In light of the current ongoing struggle with Russia, the direction of Ukraine’s development suggests that continued evolution of the Ukrainian political nation will be founded on the political model of the nation state. It will not only be constructed on the estrangement of Russian language and culture (including de-Russification and the destruction of historic sites memorializing Russian major figures) – it will undoubtedly lead to violence aimed directly against unwelcome pro-Russian Ukrainians, many of whom have already been dubbed a “fifth column,” including recently arrested journalist Yuri Tkachev and writer Yan Taksyur.
When Ukraine, the home country of the three groups we stated above, including those individuals whose national identity is still developing, refuses to represent and protect their own interests, it is unsurprising that they seek representation and protection from other countries, particularly Russia. As a result, the sooner we accept that Ukraine will not be able to construct a politically and ethnically united nation without turning to war, the sooner Russia will be able to set about providing such living circumstances in the territory it governs.
Despite the complexity of the current situation, Russia will have to engage with the Ukrainian people. And a realistic view of the issue necessitates treating each of the three population groupings differently. The fact that the groups in question live in physically defined areas of Ukraine, on the other hand, makes this process much easier.
The central and western areas of the country are home to one group, while the southern and eastern parts are home to the other. It is, in fact, the “Subtelny line,” an imaginary separating line that runs through Ukraine, dividing it into distinct zones based on the population’s philosophy, beliefs, and culture.
Orest Subtelny, a Ukrainian-born Canadian historian, presented the findings of an ethnolinguistic survey on the distribution of Russian and Ukrainian native speakers across the nation in the 1980s. He came to the conclusion that the country was divided into two sections by a fixed imaginary line, with differing cultural, linguistic, and, as it turned out, ideological preferences. The historical area north of the Black Sea, also referred as Novorossiya, which was captured from the Tatars and Turks under Catherine the Great; Sloboda Ukraine, or Slobozhanshchyna – an area that has been part of the Russian state since 1503; the Donbass, which contains some of the regions previously belonging to the Don Host Province (Oblast); and Crimea are all included in “Russian Ukraine.” Surprisingly, the outcomes of all Ukrainian elections and opinion polls (such as on Ukraine’s NATO membership) indisputably duplicate the line Orest Subtelny sketched on the map of Ukraine, validating his theory of two camps in Ukrainian society.
Approximately half of the “Russian Ukraine” is presently under Russian military control, and here is where the majority of the military actions are currently taking place. As a consequence, Moscow has a number of crucial duties to complete in order to gain the trust of the people who live in the territory it administers. The region’s highest priorities include reviving the economy, filling the political void (by instituting military and civilian administrations), assisting locals in getting through the sowing season, opening the border with Russia for consumer goods, rescinding debts owed by enterprises and individuals, providing benefits to small and medium-sized businesses (including tax relief), expediting the process of acquiring Russian citizenship, and restoring the destroyed infrastructure, and producing local mass media and social media content.
Today’s primary objective is to win the hearts and minds of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. To be successful, Moscow will have to put the Russian identity front and center by encouraging local patriotism, even in places it does not govern. This will not be a difficult effort, as the people’s identity in the southeastern areas of Ukraine – the historical Novorossiya – is essentially unchanged in many ways from 100 years ago. And any variations that may be discovered are insignificant in terms of determining the region’s future.
What is more essential is that the histories of Odessa, Kherson, Nikolaev, and Melitopol are firmly embedded in Russian history and culture, as this is what shapes the Russian national identity of people residing in Ukraine’s southeast, especially Russian-speaking Ukrainians. And considering Kiev’s intolerance of all those who believe differently, political persecution, and attempts to eradicate the Russian language and culture, Moscow may opt to utilize this trump card. We just need to understand that the Ukrainian nation’s process of self-determination is still underway, and that the vital war for human minds is taking place right now.
This says nothing about the key issue: Russia can’t afford a strong anti-Russian state on its borders. Geopolitical analyst George Friedman discussed this, in depth, years ago. Russian obsession with its “near abroad” has clashed with the efforts of the U.S. and Britain to absorb Ukraine into the EU, if not NATO. Other analysts insist that the long-range goal is to balkanize Russia, as forecast by thinkers like Zbigniew Brzezinski. In this context the demonization of Putin, promoted by Western media for several years, is a true red herring. The identities of Russian leadership are immaterial, control of its “near abroad ” is a nonnegotiable state interest, similar to the U.S. Monroe Doctrine.