Moscow Alarmed by Growing Non-Russian Nationalism and Ukraine’s Role in It
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 160
Moscow has long been upset by Kyiv’s efforts to reach out to non-Russian nations inside the Russian Federation and enlist them as allies in its fight against the Kremlin. But steps taken by Ukrainian leaders in the past few weeks, a time of heightened concern in Moscow due to the setbacks suffered by the Russian military in Ukraine, as well as the response of the non-Russians to these failures, have clearly alarmed the Russian leadership. As a result, these events appear to be prompting the Russian government to take extreme measures against both the non-Russian nations and those Ukrainians supporting them.
Ukrainian military intelligence is reporting this week that “the special services of the Russian Federation are preparing a campaign to discredit the national movements of the peoples of Russia” (T.me/DIUkraine, October 25). Moscow is planning this effort because it views “national liberation” movements as major threats to the unity and even existence of Russia. According to Kyiv, this campaign will be launched in the near future and is intended to discredit the leaders of the national movements, break their ties with Ukraine and other outside powers, as well as convince the non-Russians that they have no chance of achieving independence and must submit to Russian rule. As part of this effort, Kyiv says, the Russian special services will seek to convince Ukrainians that they should not place any hopes in the non-Russian nations inside Russian borders. Furthermore, the Kremlin will demonstrate to the Ukrainians and the West more generally that they should stop trying to support these people in “protecting their rights, language and culture” and defending the principle of national self-determination.
Those inclined to dismiss Kyiv’s report as self-serving propaganda—and they will likely be numerous—should keep in mind three important factors. First, Ukraine has been reaching out to the non-Russians within the Russian Federation for quite some time. Second, Kyiv’s efforts have increased in the past two months and have generated an impressive response among non-Russians, feeding into their anger regarding the actions of the Russian state. And third, Moscow has expressed growing alarm about this long-term Ukrainian policy and its recent impact. Each deserves closer attention than they have typically received and together they lend real credibility to what Kyiv is now reporting.
After gaining independence in 1991, Ukrainians in Ukraine have devoted attention to the large ethnic Ukrainian communities in Russia itself, most prominently in the Russian Far East and in the Kuban. Government officials only rarely became involved in talks about the need to defend what Ukrainians call “wedges” in Ukraine, and Russians only rarely reacted to what was said as complete nonsense. (On the “wedge” issue, see Window on Eurasia, August 26, 2016; for a typical Russian reaction, see Topcor.ru, August 26, 2016.)
But after the Russian Anschluss of Crimea in 1914, and especially after relations between Kyiv and Moscow further soured at the end of that decade, Ukrainian activists and politicians pressed Kyiv to take up the cause of all non-Russians in the Russian Federation, including, in particular, those in the North Caucasus and Middle Volga. In 1919, that effort led to the adoption of a resolution by the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) ordering the government to take steps in that direction (Facebook.com/hanna.hopko, May 30, 2019). But until Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his expanded invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, this effort was much more muted, and Russian reactions to it were more dismissive than anything else, seeing it as a failed effort to revive Poland’s pre–World War II Prometheanism (Fondsk.ru, May 11, 2021).
All that has now changed. Ukraine has increased the level of its activities and the publicity it has given to these non-Russian national movements. The non-Russian reaction has not only been positive but is also growing, and Moscow’s reaction has been increasingly vocal and alarmist, with some analysts even expressing fears that Ukraine will be successful unless Moscow achieves an overwhelming victory in Ukraine or takes harsh measures against the nationalists in Ukraine and the West more generally (Vz.ru, July 21). Among the most prominent of these Ukrainian actions was a video appeal by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calling on all non-Russians of the Russian Federation to refuse to serve in the Russian army now fighting in Ukraine and to fight instead against Russian imperialism and for the rights of their own peoples. (For the original Ukrainian, see President.gov.ua, September 29; for an informal English translation, see Window on Eurasia, October 9).
Even more dramatically and perhaps of even greater concern to the Kremlin, various non-Russians have now made their way to Ukraine to fight against Russian forces, and the Ukrainian government has now recognized the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria as under temporary Russian occupation. Anti-Kadyrov Chechens view this move as a step toward official recognition of their republics’ independence and one they hope others will soon follow (Kavkaz-uzel.eu, October 21). Moreover, the Tatarstan government-in-exile has called on Kyiv to take a similar step with regard to their republic and government (Tatar Government in Exile, October 20). Additionally, some Circassians hope Ukraine will follow up these moves by recognizing the Russian “genocide” committed against them in the 19th century (Newcaucasus.com, October 19).
Russian commentators close to the Kremlin have condemned all these matters, although more independent observers have pointed out that Moscow only has itself to blame, as all its talk about defending Russian language and cultural rights in Ukraine has only sparked more discussion about the lack of such defense for non-Russian languages and cultures in the Russian Federation itself (Kasparov.ru, April 25). Lingering fears of the memories of the Soviet Union’s collapse simmer below the surface of these condemnations and official actions against non-Russian activism regarding the war and subsequent mobilization.
After all, as many will recall, the Soviet Union died when the rhetoric of its communist leaders failed and ever more non-Russians asserted that “we are not Soviets” but rather members of this or that nationality. Now something analogous is happening in Putin’s Russia; the rhetoric of the Russian world is no longer effective, and people there are proclaiming: “We are not Russians” (Meduza, October 7). The Ukrainians, who have long insisted that “we are not Russians” are helping this process—in the case of Zelenskyy, reviving talk of “captive nations” and “the evil empire.” It thus should come as no surprise that the empire is preparing to strike back, although whether it will succeed or further exacerbate its situation remains to be seen.