The conflict narratives prevailing in eastern Ukraine obscure the likely “ground truth” at the center of the conflict. Russia’s and Ukraine’s press releases and official commentary are political statements; statements that contain elements of truth bent towards justifying (or legitimizing) certain political actions. Geographically, these narratives center on eastern Ukraine and its people. With the start of Ukrainian military action in the east, the critical factor is which identity the eastern Ukrainians emphasize – are they primarily cultural Ukrainians? Or Russian speakers? The answer to this question will have repercussions for the rest of Ukraine.
note: this post draws on information from a useful BBC report (here).
For Russia the conflict is about protecting the interests of Russian-speakers in Ukraine, specifically eastern Ukraine at the moment. As the BBC observes, most of these Russian-speakers are “ethnic Ukrainians”. This unhelpful phrase is probably meant to convey that these communities of individuals are “culturally Ukrainian”. Ethnic groups, like nations, are an imagined community; a community often based on: 1) culture, 2) language, 3) religion, et cetera. This seemingly minor details carries important weight – first, a person’s identity has multiple faces. An individual living in Donetsk is probably, at once a Russian-speaker who consider herself Ukrainian. Perhaps next door neighbor, similar in all respects, considers themselves Russian. In the Russian narrative, Putin aims to protect both groups, Russian-speaking cultural Russians and Russian-speaking cultural Ukrainians from Ukrainian-speaking government oppressing this group from Kiev.
For Ukraine the conflict is about maintaining territorial cohesion and its cultural identity. The government argues that Russia sparked the unrest in the east, insinuating that these problems occurred at foreign behest; moreover, it has labelled the pro-Russia groups as “terrorists.” Kiev’s argument is that Ukraine is a country for cultural Ukrainians, whether they speak Russian or Ukrainian. Unsurprisingly given this position, it has wholly dismissed the demands of the pro-Russia group, marking them as illegitimate.
Taken together, the conflict is about two competing nation/state narratives – a Russia seeking to assert itself abroad as the protector of Russian-speakers worldwide and a Ukraine seeking to maintain its identity as the abode of cultural Ukrainians. The problem, of course, is what the Ukrainian-passport holders (i.e. the official Ukrainian public) consider themselves. As the BBC article notes, many people in the east are angry with a government in Kiev that see is dominated by politicians from the central and western oblasts. Further, they believe that the interim government has simply appointed oligarchs as governors, similarly corrupt individuals from Yanukovich’s tenure. Besides the international community, the Ukrainian and Russian governments are also attempting to influence these locals – labeling pro-Russia groups as “terrorists” and advocating the defense of “Russian speakers.”
With the Ukrainian military undertaking an “anti-terrorism” operation in the country’s east – the government risks pushing the resident cultural Ukrainians, who have a legitimate gripe with the government – poor representation and corruption, into the waiting arms of Russia. This risk would grow even more likely, and dangerous, should the operation negatively impact local residents. By prompting local Ukrainians to switch allegiance, Kiev would ultimately be challenging its own identity – is Ukraine for cultural Ukrainians, regardless of language or is the vision much more limited a state only for Ukrainian-speaking cultural Ukrainians in the west and central oblasts? If the latter is the case, what happens to the Hungarians, Poles, and Romanian speakers?
The CIA’s World Factbook also illustrates the religious aspect of Ukrainian identity, although it the data is only provided a the countrywide-level.
Of 44.2 million estimated Ukrainian citizens:
- 67% speak Ukrainian
- 24% speak Russian
- 9% speak other languages (including Polish, Romanian, and Hungarian)
- 50% practice Ukrainian Orthodox (Kiev Patriarchate)
- 26% practice Ukrainian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate)
- 8% practice Ukrainian Greek Catholic
- 7% practice Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox
According to its Wikipedia page, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is primarily located in eastern Ukraine. The other two Ukrainian Orthodox churches are mostly located in the west and center.