This Monday was Ukraine’s Day of Unity which necessarily had to be marked with an expression of national pride. However, president Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision to issue a decree “On the Territories of the Russian Federation Historically Inhabited by Ukrainians” represented not simply that, but an open political challenge to Moscow, and one which strangely echoed Putin’s rhetoric.
The decree begins castigating Russia for oppressing Ukrainians “in the lands historically inhabited by them,” which is defined as the “modern Krasnodar, Belgorod, Bryansk, Voronezh, Kursk and Rostov regions” — a large swathe of south-western Russia. From this, it demands the creation not just of “an action plan for preserving the national identity of Ukrainians in the Russian Federation,” but the “development of interaction between Ukrainians and peoples enslaved by Russia” and coverage “of the true history of ethnic Ukrainians in the lands historically inhabited by them within the borders of the Russian Federation” in “educational programs and textbooks.”
Things are more complicated than Zelensky (let alone Putin) are willing to accept
Ukraine is in the process of a true state-building project, one ironically accelerated by Vladimir Putin’s vicious invasion. The old divisions between east and west, Catholic and Orthodox, Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking matter vastly less now than they ever have been. In that context, it is understandable and inevitable that Kyiv would want to deepen the process, just as the brutality visited on its people will naturally incline it to strike back against its invader.
The trouble is, though, that things are rather more complicated than Zelensky (let alone Putin) are willing to accept. Kyiv was originally the so-called “Mother of Russian cities,” foremost amongst the medieval Rus’ principalities, until it was sacked by the Mongols and saw pre-eminence slip to others: Vladimir, Suzdal, the upstart Moscow. In the fourteenth century, the Mongols lost it to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It remained part of what became the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the mid-seventeenth century, it was seized by Cossacks, who ultimately would submit to the Russian tsars as the lesser evil. Albeit with considerable autonomy, Ukraine remained a Russian dominion and despite managing to assert effective independence 1917-18, it was then absorbed into the new Bolshevik state. There it remained until Mikhail Gorbachev dissolved the USSR at the end of 1991.
While one can certainly talk about the evolution of a Ukrainian identity, its distinctive language and culture, until recently this was almost always within the confines of a larger state, and Ukrainian, Pole, Lithuanian, Russian and Soviet identities mixed, mingled and overlapped. Using this as the basis for policy thus has some serious problems. Indeed, the very notion of standing up for Russian citizens of Ukrainian heritage directly mirrors Putin’s own claims to a right to defend the interests of “Russians” in Ukraine.
Furthermore, the reference to developing links “between Ukrainians and peoples enslaved by Russia” — beyond the emotive and questionable language of “enslaved” national minorities — sounds dangerously like a call to using Russians of Ukrainian heritage to stir up interethnic tension and fragment the federation. This is, of course, exactly the kind of thing the Kremlin has been accusing Kyiv (and the West) of seeking to do, so far without grounds.
Finally, it cannot be a good thing when a president starts dictating what should or should not be in textbooks and classrooms. That is hardly the same as the what the US does but rather exactly what Putin is doing.
Of course, Zelensky is not Putin, and there is a limit to how far the comparisons can be drawn. With its habitual lack of self-awareness, the Russian government has reacted with fury. As usual, former president and current toxic bellwether Dmitry Medvedev was first off the mark, calling it “primitive propaganda” and asserting that “Ukrainians are Russians, and Malorossiya” — “Little Russia,” an anachronistic name for Ukraine — “is part of Russia.”
This will, of course, be gleefully exploited by Russian propaganda. Kursk Region governor Roman Starovoit has already claimed that the decree “proves once again that our president was right to launch the special military operation.” However, arguably anything Zelensky does is twisted to such ends.
More important is the extent to which this decree almost mirrors some Russian talking points in inflammatory manner, at the same time as a series of other measures and statements seem to be trying to up the ante. Zelensky has just tabled a bill allowing those able to demonstrate Ukrainian heritage to claim dual citizenship, unless they are Russian citizens. The government is also proposing a fifty-year ban on all transport links with Russia. Most strikingly, deputy defense minister Ivan Havrylyuk, interviewed by a German newspaper, added a new one to Kyiv’s existing demands for peace: that Russia give up its nuclear weapons.
It is hard to believe that even the most enthusiastic Ukrainian partisan believes that the war will take such a turn that Moscow can be forced into such an abject capitulation. Putting all this together, one might wonder whether, to try and head off any Western pressure to negotiate with Moscow, Kyiv is trying to make any dialogue impossible.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK website.