Staunton, April 20 – Russian actions in eastern Ukraine are intensifying anti-Russian feelings among Ukrainians living there, deepening a divide between the Ukrainian and Russian communities there even as some in Moscow question whether the Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine should be considered ethnic Russians at all.
That Moscow’s moves in Ukraine are infuriating Ukrainians is now old news, but the consequences of that development for the future both for Ukrainian-Russian relations at the state level and those relations at the communal and inter-personal levels are only beginning to be assessed by some on each side.
An extremely useful contribution to this discussion is offered by Oleg Shro on the Hvylya.org portal in an article entitled “Farewell, Donbass: Ukraine Begins to Close the ‘Russian Question.’”
The actions of those in eastern Ukraine, backed by Moscow, are having a profound impact on the psychology of people there. “A large part of Ukrainian society is already inclined toward anti-Russian attitudes,” but if earlier, these attitudes were directed at the Russian state, Shro says, now it has “grown over into a state of antagonism toward Russian society.”
A majority of Ukrainian citizens, regardless of ethnic origin, are beginning to display “radical characteristics of real Russophobia,” he continues. But that is not the fault of the Ukrainians but of the impact of the anti-Ukrainian actions of Moscow and the anti-Russian content of the Russian media over the last months.
Those actions and content “have given birth to a logical social-psychological response” among many in Ukrainian society who were initially loyal to Russia,” he says. And he argues that “one of the turning points in this process of shifting from ‘love to hatred’ have been the events in the East and in the Donbass.”
Pro-Russian forces there have made three “fatal mistakes,” Shro suggests. First, “the elites in the south and east of Ukraine began to present the rest of Ukraine de facto with an ultimatum that the East must be ‘treated with respect’” even though they showed no respect to anyone else. Not surprisingly, this produced a reaction among Ukrainians.
Second, those demanding “their rights in the East of Ukraine quickly moved from the norms of a peace process to radical forms of expression,” ignoring or openly lying about the fact that the Maidan they oppose did not become violent except very late and only in response to repressive measures from the government.
And third, the pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine undercut support for their cause by so openly relying on “external interference” from Moscow to achieve their ends. There is a social base for protest in the east, “but the obvious interference of Russia in the process under the cover of a cynical and open lie destroyed forever the possibility” of inter-communal dialogue.
But even more than that, “the events taking place in the Donbass at the present time are inevitably leading toward a radical response to regional separatism on the part of Ukrainian society, and that in turn will lead to the final breakdown of any, even perhaps healthy pro-Russian ideas.”
According to Shro, “we all are becoming witnesses of a situation in which Ukrainian society is beginning to reject any manifestation of Russianness in its milieu” and to reject any membership any “’Russian world,’” not because of pre-existing Ukrainian nationalism but because of the behavior of “Russian society and its state machine.”
Those who are saying “Farewell, Donbass” today, Shro insists, will inevitably say “Farewell, Russia” soon, and “not only on the moral and ethnic level but on the physical plane as well.” In sharp contrast to the past, the two communities will isolate themselves from each other and the “social diffusion” that had taken place will end.
“In such a case,” he continues, “there is no need for ‘an iron curtain;’ it has already arisen and the logic of events suggests that in the coming years, the turning away from each other will only deepen.” To put it bluntly, Shro concludes, for the immediate future, “’the Russian question’ is closing both as one about culture and one about geopolitics.”
But if the Kremlin-backed Russian activists in eastern Ukraine are alienating other Ukrainian citizens, including some who earlier might have identified as ethnic Russians, those same activists are alienating some in Moscow who question the way in which the Russian activists and Vladimir Putin define them and the situation.
In a post on Ekho Moskvy, Vladimir Milov, a Russian politician and commentator, says that in evaluating eastern Ukraine, one should remember how anti-Moscow the workers in eastern Ukraine were earlier, how much they supported Ukrainian independence, and how much power they in fact have had in post-1991Ukraine.
In an open letter to the residents of the Donbass, Milov suggests that the Russian speakers there should not “drag” Russia “into your internal conflict,” especially since it was precisely eastern Ukraine which imposed on the rest of that country “a corrupt and ineffective” set of rulers.
And then Milov declares openly the Donbass activists “are not Russians.” They supported Ukraine when it suited them, and now, because circumstances have changed, they have suddenly decided that they are Russians and that Russia must solve their problems by changing the borders.
But why should anyone consider such people Russians? Because they speak Russian? Milov asks, and then says: “Forgive me,” he continues, “language is hardly the only criteria of national identity. Half the world speaks English, but this doesn’t mean that all these people are Englishmen.”
“Try telling Canadians or Americans – or Australians or New Zealanders – that they are ‘one people,” Milov says, and you’ll quickly find out how wrong that notion is.
Consequently, he concludes, those in the Donbass who are now undermining Ukraine are not Russians but “another people” altogether. That people made its choice in 1989-1991, and there is no basis for thinking that anyone else, including Russia and the Russians, should solve their problems now.
Milov’s comments, of course, are directed in the first instance not at the nominal addressees of his open letter but rather at Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin leader’s self-interested, elastic and expansive definition of who is a “Russian” and who is not, a definition that is now triggering problems in Ukraine and has the potential to spark more elsewhere.
Most of those who identified themselves as ethnic Russians at the end of Soviet times but who live in the post-Soviet states are citizens of those countries and increasingly identify as such even if they continue to speak Russian and even think of themselves as part of a Russian cultural milieu.
Putin’s effort to make ethnicity more important than citizenship violates the international rules of the game and promises more instability across not just the former Soviet space but more generally. And among the victims of his approach will be those trapped in between like Donbass Russian speakers as well as any possibility of good relations between the countries and the peoples of the region.