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Are the Russian speakers in Ukraine on Putin’s side?

  • Published
  • By Prof. Anna Batta

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, scholars and practitioners were on high alert as to whether there would be another potential Weimar Republic scenario unfolding that could lead to World War III. Once communism as an ideology officially ended, over 25 million Russian minorities got stranded behind the borders of Russia in countries, such as Estonia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Ukraine, and more.1 The issue of minorities was important at the time of the Munich Agreement in 1938, which allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia which had over 3 million people of German origin. Hitler had used ethnicity to justify his takeover of this territory within another sovereign country. Similarly, Russia could have used the Russian minority issue after the Cold War to reclaim territory from surrounding states; however, it did not. The dissolution of the Soviet Union was relatively peaceful. This could not be said about the former Yugoslav republics which fell amid bloody civil wars and ethnic hatred. Slobodan Milosevich was adamant about holding Yugoslavia together and used ethnicity as a way to galvanize the population for violence; however, Boris Yeltsin at the time did not. In other words, the dog did bark in the case of Yugoslavia, but in the case of the Soviet Union, it did not.2

Fast forward to the crisis in Ukraine to 2014: we see the dog, that did not bark in 1991, was very vocal, but in something of delayed reaction. Vladimir Putin used the issue of the protection of the Russian minority to move into Ukraine and illegally annex the Crimea, all the while saying that this move followed international rules.3 At the time, his rhetoric indicated that the Russian speakers in Ukraine needed protection from right wing extremists who were mistreating people, even though the Crimean Russians have had broad autonomy, and the rights of Russians were largely protected.4

In the fourteen former Soviet republics where Russians reside, they vary a great deal with respect to group size, lifestyle, the extent of knowledge of the titular language,5 and levels of assimilation.6 Overall, Russians in the surrounding states are not a cohesive group and in some cases their tie to Russia is not strong. In the past, they often did not identify themselves strongly with Russia and did not consider Russia as their homeland.7 With the leadership of President Vladimir Putin this has changed, but to what extent, we don’t know for sure.

In Ukraine, the Russian speakers’ potential level of support toward Russia is very complex because of the country’s history and the divided nature of allegiances that are visible on a regional basis. Ukraine is divided between the mostly Ukrainian speaking western region and the mainly Russian-speaking eastern region.8 What complicates this situation, however, is that determining who is ethnically Russian does not always coincide with who is a Russian speaker. Ethnicity in the Ukrainian census is shown by self-identification and we know that ethnicity is malleable according to the theoretical literature.

So, does the Russian minority in Ukraine support Putin and where can we see support regionally? First, if we look at the ethno-linguistic map, it is clear that the majority Russian speakers are located in the eastern part of the country, in the Donbass area. However, while they are Russian speakers, most identify themselves as Ukrainian. Indeed, in Donetsk ethnic Ukrainians make up 56.9 %, and ethnic Russians 38.2 % of the population.9 The numbers are similar for Luhansk, and in both cases, ethnic Ukrainians are a majority. According to this data, we still see a large number of the population who consider themselves Ukrainian, despite the fact that they live in the Donbass and may have voted for President Viktor Yanukovych in multiple elections. Second, historically Ukraine developed differently with respect to their political administration and the extent to which nationalist sentiments were allowed to surface. From the 1860s, western Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while Eastern Ukraine fell under the rule of the Russian Empire, the Romanovs. This impacted the extent of political participation as well as the expression of nationalist sentiment, i.e., how Ukrainian one felt or identified. Indeed, these aspects lead to a division in attitude towards Russia; people in the west primarily exhibiting a negative attitude toward Russia, while the east was less so. Still, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the east is entirely under the spell of Russia, whereas the west is Ukrainian nationalist. The dynamics are much more complicated.

President Putin is accomplishing the exact opposite of what he intended to when he started this invasion, and if he is counting on the Russian speakers, he should be aware that the Russian minority is not entirely on his side.

Dr. Anna Batta
Dr. Anna Batta is an Associate Professor of International Security Studies and the Course Director for the Global Security course in the Department of International Security Studies at Air War College. She is also the Language Program Liaison at Air War College. Dr. Batta’s teaching and research interests include Russian politics and foreign policy, Eastern European politics, and the politics of authoritarian states. She has published in academic journals, such as Ethnopolitics, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, Civil Wars, and Party Politics. Her book, The Russian Minorities in the former Soviet Republics: Secession, Integration, and Homeland, was published in December 2021 with Routledge. Dr. Batta holds a PhD in Political Science in Conflict Studies from the University of North Texas and an Honors BA in Political Science from the University of Texas at Arlington. She grew up in Hungary during the Cold War and attended the National University of Public Service in Budapest. 


[1] Some of these former Soviet republics had a sizeable Russophone population, such as Ukraine and Latvia, however, others did not. In 1989 before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the total of Russian speakers in the 14 republics was 25,289,000. Ukraine had the largest number of Russophones, 11,356,000. Source: Moya Flynn 2004 Migrant resettlement in the Russian Federation. London: Anthem Press.

[2] This expression is from the book by Saideman and Ayres, For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism, and War. 2008. Columbia University Press.

[3] Allyson, R. 2014. Russian ‘deniable’ intervention in Ukraine: how and why Russia broke the rules. International Affairs. 90 (6), pp. 1255-1297.

[4] Batta, A. 2021. The Russian Minorities in the Former Soviet Republics: Secession, Integration, and Homeland. Routledge.

[5] Titular language refers to the language of the nationalities of the seceded states, such as Latvian, Estonian, Georgian, Kyrgyz, etc.

[6] Laitin, D. 1998. Identity in Formation: The Russian-speaking populations in the near abroad. Cornell University Press.

[7] Barrington et al. 2003. The Motherland is Calling: Views of Homeland among Russians in the Near Abroad. World Politics 55 (1): 290-313.

[8] The distinction is much more nuanced in the entire country given the ethno-linguistic makeup by various regions.

[9] Yekelchyk, S. 2015. The Conflict in Ukraine: What everyone needs to know. Oxford University Press.

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