Ukraine's Fog of War

Why the World Misunderstands the Crimean Conflict

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

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