Ukraine is not an ethnic war

Power politics not blood ties is the cause of unrest

The World Today Published 3 December 2014 Updated 10 March 2022 2 minute READ

Janet Gunn

Trustee, BEARR Trust

The crisis in Ukraine – the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March and the armed conflict in southeastern Ukraine – has been framed in various ways by external observers: as an ethnic conflict between ethnic ‘Russians’ and ‘Ukrainians’, as a civil war, and as a struggle between Russia and the West for control of Ukraine’s destiny.

It is none of these. It is a struggle between Russia and Ukraine for Ukraine’s future – either as an authoritarian, corrupt state controlled by Russia, or as an independent state building European standards of democratic governance and rule of law.

There has been no ethnic conflict between Russians and Ukrainians in recent history and there was none involved in the Maidan unrest from November 2013, which was a protest against corruption and bad government.

Soviet nostalgia
There has never been a politically organized Russian minority as such in Ukraine. In the last census in 2001, 78 per cent of the population defined themselves as Ukrainians and about 17 per cent as ethnic Russians, the remainder being members of the Crimean Tatar, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Moldovan, Greek, Jewish and other minorities.

Those with a Russian identity are principally inhabitants of the Crimean peninsula, many of them employed by the Russian Black Sea fleet and in recent years issued with Russian passports; and a number of people in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine who are immigrants or descendants of immigrants brought in from Russia to work the mines.

Many Donbas Russians have a sketchy knowledge of the West and its institutions and are influenced by Russian media depictions of Europe as characterised by gay marriage and a lack of moral values. Thanks to their geographical proximity to Russia, and employment in heavy industry previously managed from Moscow, they retain close links with Russia. Many of the coal mines are now worked-out, resulting in unemployment which encourages Soviet nostalgia. Traditional Russian notions of top-down government are accepted, unlike in western and metropolitan Ukraine, where historical experience exists of Polish and Austro-Hungarian as well as Russian systems of government, and people struggled for free and fair elections in the 2004 Orange Revolution.

In most of Ukraine, whether people speak Russian, Ukrainian or Surzhyk, a mixture of the two, is irrelevant to their identity. There have been disagreements over the years about the legal basis for the use in education and public life of the Russian language, which is widespread as the mother tongue of Ukrainians in many central, eastern and southern regions. However, even in eastern Ukraine, many rural people are native Ukrainianspeakers. This makes it problematic to try to divide the country into ‘Russianspeaking’ or ‘Ukrainian-speaking’ regions.

The language issue came to the fore in the spring when Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, unwisely tried to change the law to downgrade the threshold for the use of Russian in dealings with the authorities; the law was not adopted, but it left the field open for propaganda manipulation by Russia.

The Russian government has repeatedly intervened in the language issue in Ukraine, and justified its intervention in Crimea in March by the need to protect Russian-speakers – who were in no way threatened.

The idea of demanding separate statehood in Luhansk and Donetsk was not spontaneous, nor did it arise from a long-held yearning to be part of Russia. It was provoked by the annexation of Crimea and Russian media scare stories about the Kyiv government. Disinformation has been used relentlessly in Russian media portrayals of the post-Maidan Ukrainian leaders as ‘fascist’, and claims that the US provoked the Maidan protests.

Legacy of hatred
The rest of the so-called separatists’ story is based on state-sponsored infiltration and subversion from Russia. The ‘separatists’ include unemployed miners, pensioners and romanticists for past Soviet times, led by thugs, former (and some still serving) operatives of Russian military intelligence and state security, common criminals, Chechen and Dagestani combatants, naive volunteers from Russia, and some Serbian and other fanatics.

While the conflict did not start as an ethnic one, the bloodshed in the East over recent months could nevertheless leave a legacy of hatred between inhabitants of the conflict zones and the majority of the Ukrainian population.

Many people have fled the zones for other parts of Ukraine or Russia. Some have returned since the much-violated September ceasefire. Whatever happens, re-integration of those affected by the fighting to restore Ukrainian sovereignty over the Donbas could be a difficult process. And if the separatist zones turn into Soviet-style neo-fascist statelets modelled on other frozen conflict zones such as Transnistria, the prospect of their re-integration becomes even more remote.