While the one year anniversary from Russia’s invasion into Ukraine passes, British and American commentators are gleeful in sharing theories about future NATO actions, further aid to Ukraine and inflicting punishment towards Russia, whether it is the loss of Crimea or War Crime tribunals at the Hague. In these vivid fantasies of Russian humiliation and utter defeat, there is little to no attention given to an urgent demographic: the Russian ethnic minority in Ukraine, who have suffered years of shelling and slaughter from the aftermath of the so-called ‘Revolution for dignity.’
Journalists unfamiliar with Eurasia have contributed to this problem. Douglas Murray, usually known for his authoritative commentary on political correctness and immigration, failed to mention the Russian minority in Ukraine while writing for the New York Post. Likewise, the British historian Dominic Sandbrook has framed the Russo-Ukrainian war as ‘not complicated’ and as a true battle between good and evil. Such childish framing will not protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine, as Sandbrook negates to mention them, either. This problem is also amplified by Unherd contributing editor David Patrikarakos, who references the concerns many in Donetsk and Luhansk had concerning the status of the Russian language. Patrikarakos resorts to a strawman and claims there never were intentions for Ukraine to ban the Russian language. Whilst correct, this glosses over the 2019 law passed by the Ukrainian parliament, where Ukrainian is enforced as a state language in health care, education, publishing and in corporate settings. Job advertisements were forbidden in requiring a language other than Ukrainian to access the position.
Exceptions were available to languages of the European Union; Yiddish, Belarusian and Russian were not granted this status. In 2017, the education law made Ukrainian the required language of study in state schools from the fifth grade up. These laws were combined with quotas promoting Ukrainian on radio broadcasting. The most provocative move came from the Lviv Oblast in 2018: a ban on Russian-language culture (movies, books, songs) until Russia conceded occupied territory. This ban was overturned in January, 2019. These scenarios are relevant to understanding the perilous situation ethnic Russians have undergone in Ukraine. This alone doesn’t justify Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. However, NATO countries must not neglect the human rights concerns present in Eastern Ukraine. In the case of a total Ukrainian victory, where Crimea and Donbass are reconquered, the risks of being ethnically Russian in Ukraine will only increase. This must motivate NATO countries into ensuring protections for ethnic Russians. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find evidence of any NATO interest in doing this.
The Russian ethnic minority in Ukraine are not foreigners to the land they are on. The Russian language has centuries-long roots in Eastern Ukraine and is used by children, the elderly and others. These people, fluent in Russian, have old familial ties to the land they live on. Ukraine’s geography suggests diverse influences from many empires and states: The Russian Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Golden Horde, the Ottoman Empire, Nazi Germany and most recently, the Soviet Union. Such variety guarantees differences among Ukrainian citizens. The notion of a cohesive, Ukrainian identity, one connected with the Ukrainian language and is found all over Ukrainian land, is not accepted everywhere within Ukraine. However, this doesn’t mean there is no Ukrainian identity and the country is a fictional invention. One can acknowledge these divisions without subscribing to Vladimir Putin’s notion about Ukraine being an invention from Vladimir Lenin. Likewise, advocating for Russians in Ukraine doesn’t imply Kremlin support. It is disappointing to see a lack of interest by English-speaking journalists about the Russian minority within Ukraine.
These individuals are pro-Russia, speak the Russian language and do not align well with Kyiv’s nationalist agenda, and overarching vision for Ukraine. Many, if not all, have family inside the Russian Federation. Any peace talks and attempts at negotiation must keep this population in mind. External powers, such as the United States of America, India, China, Türkiye and the United Kingdom, must acknowledge the importance of this minority to both Russia and Ukraine. When Ukraine’s borders were established in 1991, no care was given to the ethnic realities present in Eurasia, particularly in Crimea. Only 56% of Crimeans voted for independence in 1991 from the Soviet Union. This era, as I’d argue, enjoyed a different geopolitical environment than 2014. In addition, there is a difference between seeking independence from the Soviet Union and seeking independence from Russia. This nuance requires future exploration and debate. Unfortunately, few historians and journalists have done this.
At the present moment, there needs to be a greater focus among NATO powers about the Russian minority in Ukraine, and seeking humanitarian and compassionate resolutions to this ongoing concern, shared by both the Russian Federation and the so-called Republics in Eastern Ukraine. There’s more to warfare than merely ‘winning’ and making your opponent lose. Civilians matter, too. During World War II, many NATO countries such as Poland, Germany and France suffered from extreme violence and mass civilian casualties. Having a flippant attitude towards the Russian minority in Ukraine is unacceptable and will further degrade the overall security situation in Europe.