A member of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic forces stands guard near buildings destroyed during battles with Ukrainian armed forces, at Donetsk airport, Ukraine, June 1, 2016.
A member of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic forces stands guard near buildings destroyed during battles with Ukrainian armed forces, at Donetsk airport, Ukraine, June 1, 2016.
Alexander Ermochenko / Reuters

For all the articles written about the low-intensity war in Ukraine, few journalists and authors have actually visited the areas most affected: the two Russian-speaking regions within the Donbas. If they did, they might see that narratives that paint the conflict as a battle between Ukrainian nationalists and marginalized Russian speakers is overly simplistic and an outgrowth of four myths. The conflict in Ukraine is much more than a showdown between the Russian-speaking east and the Ukrainian-speaking west. In fact, language and cultural ties have little to with the conflict at all.

Most of those who live in eastern and southern Ukraine, including in Crimea, speak Russian. Throughout the rest of the country, though, Ukrainian is the main language. According to the 2001 census, moreover, most Crimeans identified as ethnically Russian, not Ukrainian. And yet the region’s linguistic and ethnic ties to Russia played no role in Crimea’s annexation. Nor have they played an important role in the Donbas conflict. For example, international human rights organizations such as the Council of Europe have shown that the Ukrainian government posed no threat to the country’s Russian speakers before conflict broke out in Crimea. In 2013, just prior to the region’s annexation by Russia, Crimea had only 15 schools where Tatar was the sole language of instruction, and no fully Ukrainian-language schools. Since 2014, Tatar schools have been reorganized as Tatar-Russian, and parents have been pressured to choose the latter. The handful of Ukrainian-language and Tatar print publications and electronic media outlets have been closed. Mainstream Ukrainian nationalist and democratic political parties had little influence in Crimean affairs, which voted for the same political forces as eastern Ukraine. 

According to the International Republican Institute, 65 percent of Ukrainians believe that their country’s position toward Russian-speaking Ukrainians had not changed since Euromaidan, when Ukrainian citizens protested against their government’s reversal of a decision to pursue European integration and opted instead for closer ties with Russia. In fact, roughly ten percent of respondents said that the language’s status had improved because of softening attitudes toward Russian-speaking Ukrainians, whose patriotism has been manifest during the conflict. When asked whether Russian speakers were under pressure or threatened within the country after the Euromaidan, only one percent said yes, and another ten percent said somewhat. Responses varied along ethnic lines, of course, with 23 percent of ethnic Russians believing that their language was threatened by Ukraine’s political climate (as opposed to only eight percent of ethnic Ukrainians).

Yet it is hard to square such fears with the fact that two-thirds of Ukrainian troops in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO), Kiev’s official term for the Donbas conflict, speak Russian. I spoke to several ATO soldiers, who seemed to harbor no resentment toward their Ukrainian-speaking compatriots. These troops included Russian-speaking Ukrainian troops from the Donbas, as well as Ukrainians who had previously served in the Russian army and returned to serve in Ukraine after the conflict broke out in spring 2014. One paratrooper I met, Sever, had lived most of his life in Russia, since his father had been in the Soviet military. Sever fought against Russian elite forces during the siege of the Donetsk International Airport, the scene of some of the conflict’s bloodiest fighting. Right Sector and Azov, two radical pro-Ukrainian battalions, are both primarily composed of Russian-language speakers, and the country’s Russian-speaking Jewish community has provided financial resources, training facilities, favorable media coverage, and volunteers for Ukrainian forces.

A woman inspects debris while standing outside her damaged house, which according to locals was caused by recent shelling, in the village of Staromikhailovka, outside the separatist-held city of Donetsk, Ukraine, May 24, 2016.
A woman inspects debris while standing outside her damaged house, which according to locals was caused by recent shelling, in the village of Staromikhailovka, outside the separatist-held city of Donetsk, Ukraine, May 24, 2016. 
Alexander Ermochenko / Reuters
To be certain, language is important part of Ukrainian identity—a lens through which the country’s citizens identify themselves. Language influences Ukrainians’ attitudes toward the past, as well as toward their country’s future. Russian and separatist leaders perpetuate Soviet-era stereotypes about the primacy of the Russian language, and continue to denigrate Ukrainian as a peasant language, uncouth and unfit for the urban, industrialized world. In fact, Soviet-era Russification policies meant to crush Ukrainian nationalism have returned to the Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Russian speakers constitute the majority of the combatants on both sides of the frontline. Therefore, it is wrong to view repression of the Russian language as a major source of the conflict.

This leads us to the second myth, which blames nationalism for starting the Crimean conflict. Ukrainian identity was the bugbear of the tsarist Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and it continues to be a nuisance for Moscow to this day. In the past, nationalists were called Nazi collaborators and fascists for supporting a free and independent Ukraine. Today’s Russia views every supporter of the Orange and Euromaidan revolutions in a similar light. Russian President Vladimir Putin justified Russia’s annexation of the Crimea by saying, “We see neo-Nazis, nationalists, and anti-Semites on the rampage in parts of Ukraine, including Kiev.” Last July, Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s commissioner for human rights, democracy, and supremacy of law, said that this had continued. “Over the last one and a half years, we witness rampant neo-Nazism, Banderism, and radical nationalism in Ukraine,” he told reporters. Combatting this, he went on, was “one of Russian foreign policy priorities.”

Moscow’s use of fascist imagery to describe Ukrainian politics harks back to Soviet-era perceptions: namely, that all pro-Western Ukrainian political forces are nationalistic and anti-Russian in nature. But in fact Ukraine’s nationalist right has always been unpopular, and it only gained seats in parliament in 2012 with ten percent of the vote. Meanwhile, most Ukrainians voted for the Svoboda (Freedom) party in protest of former President Viktor Yanukovych’s authoritarianism. On other occasions, such as after the Euromaidan, Ukrainian nationalists have been unable to mobilize votes and win parliamentary seats. Ukraine’s regional, linguistic, and religious diversity has mitigated the rise of ethnic nationalism, as has the absence of state-led nationalistic, anti-Russian campaigns. Instead, the conflict has given way to increased feelings of patriotism in Ukraine, rather than ethnic nationalism. Although nearly three-quarters of Ukrainians view Putin negatively, and 70 percent hold a dim view of the Russian government, these feelings do not spill over into perceptions of Russian people themselves. In fact, 30 percent have a positive view of Russians, and only 23 percent view them negatively. 

Members of the Ukrainian national guard "Azov" regiment and activists of the Azov civil corp take part in a protest against local elections in pro-Russian rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine under the Minsk peace agreement, in Kiev, Ukraine, May 20, 2016.
Members of the Ukrainian national guard "Azov" regiment and activists of the Azov civil corp take part in a protest against local elections in pro-Russian rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine under the Minsk peace agreement, in Kiev, Ukraine, May 20, 2016. 
Gleb Garanich / Reuters
In past elections, parties and leaders with bases of support in Ukraine’s east and south have generally won elections. The Communist Party of Ukraine, which supported the revival of the USSR in the 1990s and reintegration with Russia in the 2000s, and the Party of Regions, which supported former Ukrainian President Yanukovych, who was close to Putin, won pluralities in five of Ukraine’s last seven parliamentary elections. And four of the last five Ukrainian presidents have come from the eastern and southern regions of the countries, dispelling the notion that the rest of the state ignores these regions.

A third myth deals with the alleged suppression of the Russian Orthodox Church by Ukrainian nationalists. Russian mercenaries and Orthodox zealots, such as those led by separatist commander Igor Strelkov and the Russian Orthodox Army, claim that they are fighting on behalf of the Orthodox church in Donbas, a myth that has been cited by Western scholars and journalists, such as Richard Sakwa in his book Frontline Ukraine. Ukraine is a profoundly religious country; it has the same number of Orthodox parishes as Russia itself, despite being a much smaller country. The majority of the parishes of its three Orthodox confessions are in the Ukrainian-speaking central and western regions, which supported the Orange and Euromaidan revolutions and overwhelmingly support European integration. Therefore, the stereotype of an Orthodox east fighting a Catholic west is as wrong as the myth of a Ukrainian-speaking west versus a Russian-speaking east.

Catholics only hold majorities in the three Galician regions of the seven regions in the west. Driving around Donbas, one sees very few churches in its villages and towns. Of those churches one does find, the majority are Protestant, not Russian Orthodox—a reflection of antireligious Sovietization and the proliferation of Protestant missionaries who arrived in the post-Soviet religious vacuum. But despite this, the breakaway regions have declared the Russian Orthodox Church as their state-sanctioned religion, and have repressed other faiths. In 2014, Strelkov’s Russian and pro-Russian separatists slaughtered members of a small Protestant church in Slovyansk, and Donbas’ Jewish population has mostly fled to the other regions of the country which belies Russian claims of the Euromaidan regime being led by anti-Semitic fascists.

The final myth about the Ukrainian conflict is the Russian idea of odin narod (one people), which posits that Russians and Ukrainians cannot live apart and should always live in the same union state. Putin and others have described Russians and Ukrainians as one people, belittling Ukrainian sovereignty as a Western construct meant to weaken Moscow. Strelkov, who credits himself as being the instigator of the Donbas conflict, believes that Ukrainians are simply “Russians who speak a different dialect.” Putin’s fondness for White émigrés, particularly political scientist Ivan Ilyin—Russian intellectuals who fled the country during the Russian Revolution—and Eurasianist ideology—only compounds his chauvinism; these groups never saw Ukrainians are a separate people in the first place. Eurasianism was developed by White Russian émigrés, and resembles the National Bolshevism that emerged under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who integrated communist and tsarist imperial ideology and identities. Today, Eurasianism is popular in Russia because it provides a new imperial identity for Russia as the center of a civilization that is separate from both Europe and Asia. In this worldview, there is no room for Ukrainian identity, let alone an independent state. Russian extremists, such as political scientist Aleksandr Dugin, have moved from the fringes of the country’s politics to its center over the last ten years. Their doosmsday prophecies and theories about the need for all-out war with former Soviet satellite states to create a unified Eurasia, are more popular than ever before. In June 2014, Dugin called for “fascist” Ukrainians to be killed, and for Russia to invade and destroy the Ukrainian state.

Putin bases his policies on age-old Russian stereotypes of Ukrainians, Soviet conspiracy theories, and anti-Western xenophobia—coupled with a profound misunderstanding of the internal dynamics of Ukrainian politics and identity. Putin and Russian nationalists have never been able to understand how a Russian-speaking Ukrainian could support the Euromaidan and be a patriot of Ukraine in its war with Russia. Western policymakers and scholars would be better able to fully understand the roots of the Russia-Ukraine crisis and conflict by getting to grips with the four myths of language, nationalism, religion and identity, rather than repeating long-cherished stereotypes fanned by Moscow that have proved to be false. 

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  • TARAS KUZIO is Senior Fellow at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta.
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