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Wild Blue Yonder on the Air - Ep. 16 - Prof. Anna Batta on Russian minorities and the Russian diaspora

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  • By Prof. Anna Batta

Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other US government agency.

Dr. Margaret Sankey: Welcome to Wild Blue Yonder on the Air. Today's guest is Dr. Anna Batta, who is a professor in the International Studies Department at the Air War College. She's also the course director for the Global Security Course. Her teaching and research background is Russian politics and foreign policy, Eastern European politics, and the politics of authoritarian state. She's published in academic journals like Ethno-Politics, Communist and Post-Communist Studies, Civil Wars, and Party Politics. Her new book, The Russian Minorities In The Former Soviet Republics Secession Integration and Homeland was published last winter. She holds a PhD in Political Science in Conflict Studies from the University of North Texas. So we are very excited to have you here today, especially to talk about contemporary circumstances in Eastern Europe.

Prof. Anna Batta: Thank you Margaret, I appreciate the invitation.

Sankey: So you have a fascinating personal background. You grew up in Hungary and you maintain connections to friends and family in Eastern Europe, so what are you hearing from them about the conflict in the Ukraine, Russia and Hungary?

Batta: Right, so I have some friends in Ukraine and Russia and Hungary, one of my good friends from Kiev has recently fled to Romania. She's actually the head of women NGO, and she's working on projects, establishing a kindergarten over there. My friend Nina fled the conflict about three weeks ago and she's with her family. And then my friend from Russia, Misha, we are attending a conference next week and his take is that he thinks that the situation is getting worse. and he's afraid of repercussions for his work on Russia's image around the world. Also, my parents and my brother live close to the Ukrainian border, so what I hear from them is that there are refugees arriving. However, most people go to Poland, about 2 million people have gone to Poland, about 500,000 to Romania and about 100,000 to Hungary.

Sankey: So are you worried about Russia attacking other Eastern European countries? Its neighbors?

Batta: There is a possibility, but I am much more concerned about the war in Ukraine and ultimately NATO protection was important for Eastern Europe, when they joined the Alliance and so mostly I am concerned about what is going on in Ukraine at the moment.

Sankey: So what has the experience been like of doing research and certainly as a great power competitor, Russia has been very important in PME and in military thinking, but all of a sudden it is the center of the universe and you are one of our great experts on it. So what has that been like?

Batta: As you can imagine, it's overwhelming because there isn't a topic or a country that has not weighed in on this conflict and people I know ask me if they can go and book a ticket in the summer to Spain or Italy or what is going to happen. Which of course, I don't know, but this is mostly, what I tell people is that this is a war about ideas. It's about democracy versus authoritarianism. And this is where two important aspects of what we study actually intersect, just this past week, we've talked about globalization and state strength, nationalism in my Global Security course. And next week we'll discuss great power competition and democracy. So as you can imagine, it has been a very busy time and a lot of misunderstandings on people's side and just to bring this back to democracy because obviously, a great power competition from military stand point is much, much more clear to my students. According to Russia, all the colored revolutions in Eastern Europe were actually orchestrated by the West and Russia sees US as the overload of Ukraine and Medvedev came out with an op-ed back in November, but the Ukrainian people want democracy. They have a very strong civil society and in the past, really, even in Russia, Russia itself was afraid that it'll experience a colored revolution. And of course we see a lot of antiwar protests in Russia and about 70% of the Russian people support the invasion.

Sankey: So after a long period of research, some of it come from your dissertation, your book came out in December, right about when the storm cloud started gathering and Russian forces started to mass around the Ukrainian border. So what was it like seeing these ideas come into action?

Batta: It was a difficult project because when I finished the dissertation in 2013, at the time, three months later, the Maidan revolution occurred. And when I finished... Ukraine actually wasn't in the dissertation. It's a completely different book by now because I was able to go on a research trip funded by the Minerva Project, to the Baltics and then also Central Asia and Ukraine, and the Ukraine as a case didn't add up and I wanted to see what really was happening. Now, it took a while to find out what was happening. But by that time, I would say that the conflict was occurring perhaps on the level of language, because already in 2012 there were issues in front of the parliament, there were demonstrations and protests, so that war occurred on the issue of language.

Sankey: A key part of your research is about Russian diaspora populations. How they think of themselves, how the Russian state thinks of them. Could you explain what is a diaspora population?

Batta: Sure, so diaspora and Russian minorities... The terms I use actually are... I find is a group of people who differ from the main population by some form of ethnic or linguistic or religious character, for the most part, and I analyze the Russian minority in the book, which is an ethnic group that remained in the former Soviet States after the Soviet Union imploded.

So this idea of Russian minority and Russian diaspora is problematic because this population is not a traditional diaspora, because before the Soviet collapse, they were migrants within one country and after they were minorities. So what complicates this terminology even further is that they have been primarily defined as Russian speakers, Russo-phones, as well, which meant that they reside in a non-Russian country, and they primarily speak the Russian language within their respective host countries. This means that the Russian diaspora is a hybrid between migrants and minority. It's not a traditional sense in the way the Russian people, the Jewish people or the Armenians and the Palestinians are. So they never really crossed borders, but instead the borders moved. So we also see, of course, another vocabulary often is compatriots or citizens, which is the legal understanding of belonging, and this is also where we see how this population was used as a tool  with passportization in the de facto states of Ukraine and also in Georgia.

Sankey: And you've pointed out that Russia has used these minorities, claiming them as compatriots and citizens. Have they used this to boost or to stoke conflicts such as Crimea and Donbas?

Batta: So I think that this is a bit more complex question, right. So I don't think that necessarily this happened, for example, in central Asian Republics. some of you might know that Kazakhstan has the largest percentage of Russian minorities in the former Soviet space after Latvia and Estonia, Between 19 and 22% of Kazakhstan’s population are Russian speakers. But because the relationship between Russia and Kazakhstan has been positive and the Russian, European influence is mostly accepted by many of the Central Asians of Republics, this has not been a main issue of contention. For example, some of the people I talked to said that there was a consensus that for all the central Asian Republics becoming part of the Russian empire was a step up, whereas for the Baltics, it was a step down,

For them, being part of this Empire meant that they could read Dostoevsky, they had other elements of Russian civilization that they became part of. However, for the Baltic States, this was an alternative to the European life, the European way of thinking, of course this doesn't mean that Kazakhstan agrees with Russia entirely, Kazakhstan, for example, did not support the annexation of Crimea. It has abstained from voting on the status of Crimea in the General Assembly of the UN, yet Kazakhstan does not openly confront the Russian Federation in political discourse. Also in terms of the Baltic States, this is also has been an issue there, however, there is a very small chance that this could become much more problematic than it already is. Now the situation is extremely volatile at this point.

Sankey: Well, the dynamic that you described is really interesting for a minority population that before 1990, this was just moving around one country within its Republics, but then things change very rapidly out from under people, and you talk about that process. And that people who had been living and working in the Baltics or in Central Asia as Soviet citizens are now part of a new country, and your previous answer spoke to this a little bit, but as these new countries establish themselves with their own languages and traditions and customs, how are these Russian minorities integrating themselves? Are they well-integrated? Do they feel left out?

Batta: After the Baltic States gained independence, for example, Latvia and Estonia had a large number of Russian minorities stranded behind their borders, 24-25% respectively. And as I mentioned, this issue coincided with establishing Latvian and Estonian statehood. So some of the officials have stated that mistakes were made already in the start in the 1990s, members of parliament mentioned that, but also for example, the Mayor of Riga, Nils UĆĄakovs, said that politicians have exploited the issue of ethnicity language protection especially, but also the issue of stateless children were all problematic, and to some extent, they are still problematic today. However, these countries have come a very long way to ensure minority protection over time, especially after 2014, with the annexation of Crimea, additional laws were passed, for example, inclusive law on the stateless children in Estonia. But also in Latvia in 2019, when all of the stateless children became citizens. I think that both the government of these titular states and also the human rights advocates who advocated for minority rights, have done a tremendous job to come to an agreement in this regard. However, I'm not saying of course that there's no additional work to be done, but I would say that in general terms, progress has been made in this regard.

Sankey: When those separations happened in 1989, 1990 and around that period, Yeltsin's government in Russia didn't push for minority rights to be established in those new countries. Why was that?

Batta: As you can imagine, it's a volatile situation in the '90s, we don't know if there's another Weimar Republic about to occur, because we know that Hitler moved in to annex parts of Europe because of the German population that was living in other countries. At this time obviously the government had to be extremely careful as to what they were doing with the Russian minority, but at the same time, the Russian Minority was not a cohesive group after the Soviet collapse, and to some extent, it still really isn't. They very often didn't identify strongly with Russia, and many do not consider or did not consider Russia as their homeland. Yeltsin wanted to keep good relations with the West and said that the protection of the Russian Minority should be political and moral and not military. During that time, some of you might be familiar with the Russian Novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn who said that including parts of Ukraine Belarus and Kazakhstan into Russia needs to be done. This is something that needs to be followed. However, this did not occur. Also right wing politicians of course such as Zhirinovsky advocated for this option, but ultimately at that time, neither side was interested in this position.

Sankey: For the countries with Russian minorities that belong to the European Union, the EU has some pretty robust minority rights protections. In my own work, I've seen that this has been a real tool in helping to integrate groups like the Catalan and the Basque in Spain, in eastern Europe do these sufficiently mitigate some of the concerns of the Russian minorities?

Batta: It is interesting that you mentioned the Catalan issue, just last week I spoke with the journalist from a Catalan newspaper and she was interested in this topic. So yes the EU minority rights protection is a big question, especially within the European union, and as you can imagine, it's a hugely contested field and scholars differ in their assessment whether institutions indeed have this power to mitigate minority issues, when the Baltic States became members of the European Union... In 2004, at the time, there were still plenty of problems with language laws having Russian as the official language as opposed to the language of inter-ethnic communication for example, but also educational reforms were highly controversial and led to a lot of protests in Latvia, for example. In 2007, language requirements were reintroduced for political candidates, and this was viewed as a step back from the earlier efforts of trying to comply gradually with the minority laws of the European Union. In 2004, there was still a lot of work to be done in terms of minority protection. Now, since that time, of course, as I mentioned, a lot has progressed. However, this is still debated very heavily in the academic literature, obviously this will be an issue to be resolved even for a much later time both in the policy arena and also in academics as well.

Sankey: Putin's administration, especially after 2004, and again in 2007, started moving to reach out and to leverage that Russian minority diaspora. Why?

Batta: When Putin comes to power in 2000, he is a completely different leader from Yeltsin. He is much more interested in the Russian diaspora, he's much more interested in Nationalism as an ideology. He increases the budget available for the compatriot projects such as promoting Russian culture, Russian language, and also the Russian government intentionally simplifies acquiring citizenship, which was not the case so much earlier on. So in 2006, the government provides the so-called Fast-track citizenship option for Russians who would like to migrate back to Russia. They also encourage interestingly settlement to Siberia as opposed to Moscow and the black sea which places where normally people would like to migrate to. However, despite these efforts actually, migration to Russia is not substantial. Except maybe for the Central Asian Republics, where we see the civil war in Tajikistan there is a lot more migration and some other countries as well, but I think that ultimately the Putin regime is much more interested in the Russian diaspora because it has a completely different view of the world, a completely different understanding of Russia's place within the international community.

Sankey: I'm really fascinated by the means in which they undertook this outreach, what kind of hard and soft power initiatives did Putin and his regime use to do this?

Batta: We know that the Russia Today, Sputnik other media outlets are very influential. There are campaigns that are taking place, information campaigns to sort of get the Russian minority on Russia's side, and for some people watching Russia Today, in Estonia for example, is not propaganda, it's actually the news, because especially the older generation doesn't speak, some folks especially do not speak Estonian the way that they could enjoy television, for example. They watch Russian television and one of the media people told me that actually, for the Estonian population, the news is done in a way that is perhaps less entertaining for the Russian speakers, even if they would speak Estonian, there's much more excitement and interesting, things going on in Russian media that's one way. And Russkiy Mir and the Russian World Foundation is another avenue of doing, spreading the word, so to speak. Russkiy Mir was founded in 2007 and is of course a project of Russian soft power. This was a way to establish unity or reestablish maybe perhaps among ethnic Russians around the world.

But what the purpose is and what means and methods are being used is different for President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov. Because for him, it is a public diplomacy project that aims to spread Russian culture, language and values, something similar to the Goethe Institute or the British Council. But, of course, that could be the level of understanding is mirroring our understanding of public diplomacy, we can’t  say for sure as to what is behind closed doors.

Sankey: So can you kind of catch up those people who Crimea and Ukraine was not the center of the world, or a focus of their research? What is Russia's interest in the Crimea?

Batta: Crimea has mainly, I would say, a strategic importance for Russia. It holds the Black Sea Fleet, which is also the location of the port of Sevastopol, it is crucial for the Russian Navy. And it has become very clear, perhaps painfully clear in the past few weeks how important that has been to Russia. It is also of strategic importance for Russia's air defense systems. And as you know, the Crimea was a gift from Nikita Khrushchev to the Ukrainian people in 1954. To symbolize Russian and Ukrainian friendship. It was much easier to justify the annexation of Crimea, because it has a majority Russian ethnicity population, something that we cannot say entirely about the people in the Donbass.

Sankey: You mentioned a little bit earlier that you were doing research in Ukraine shortly before something really big happened last time. So you were there in 2013. And the people you interviewed really didn't have any warnings or any perceptions of anxiety about what was about to happen in 2014. What was your explanation for this lack of kind of foreboding?

Batta: I think that ultimately, at that time, the multi-factor policy that Ukraine pursued was a safe policy. And this is, of course, a policy that other Eastern European countries have also used, Armenia for example, and Bulgaria, they were both close to both the west and Russia as well. And it makes perfect sense. why choose one side when you can have good relations with both the European Union and Russia. You have larger markets, and political connections, and this can profit you on the long term. And also, energy mainly comes from Russia. For a lot of European countries, 60% to Germany, but to Poland and Hungary, then it is much, much higher.

So in the past, the conflicts that happened in Ukraine were internal and they were mostly resolved peacefully. If you look at 2004, the Orange Revolution, that revolution was resolved peacefully. Unfortunately, this was not the case in 2013, when people took to the streets the same way actually they took to the streets just 10 years ago before that. The election of President Yanukovych was perceived at the time as being rigged. It's the same Yanukovych, of course, that  later flees to Russia. The Supreme Court in 2004 wrote out a runoff election. And the revolution concluded and the Western leaning Viktor Yushchenko won But at the same time, I think that this was an unfinished revolution. There were still things to be resolved that were simmering under the surface ever since that time. And perhaps even since 2004, that these underlying issues were still there, and then it comes to surface in 2014.

Sankey: So can you walk us through what does happen in 2014? Tell us about that revolution.

Batta: Right, so the Revolution of Dignity or Maidan 2.0, if you will, the Euro Maidan starts out with President Viktor Yanukovych refusal of signing the European Union Association Agreement, which is an economic agreement for the most part, and long time in the making of course. Yanukovych tells the domestic population that he will sign this agreement. This is very important for a lot of people in Ukraine. However, the last minute he refuses to sign it and people take to the streets right away. What we don't know at the time when we are watching these events unfolding, is that actually from behind the scenes, Putin provides a lot of funding to Yanukovych and a very high sum of money for him, if he does not sign the agreement.

We saw what was happening in the cold winter of 2014, a violent revolution. When people initially protest... The student protest turns violent. And then as I mentioned Yanukovych flees the country, this revolution is about the rejection of corruption. It's the embracing of democracy, embracing democratic values. And at that time, I think that's when the distance from Russia starts to grow. Previously, 10 years ago, 10 years before that, there was not a big distance between the government of Ukraine and the government of Russia, because Ukraine made it work, in a sense that they were able to have the political connection and the economic connection with both sides. But in 2014, however, this is no longer the case.

Sankey: To what degree has Putin promoted minority rights as a pretext for actions that he wants to take?

Batta: Sure, the Russian minority, the Russian speakers, Russo-phones, compatriots, whichever you'd like to call, right. Some of them genuinely feel left out. Some of them would much prefer to have Russian as an official language. They can't get good jobs if they don't speak the language, which is understandable. So this is correct, Putin promoted minority rights as a pretext for action. However, we also need to understand the difficult position that these Russian minorities are in...

They're fighting for their rights with the host government, while at the same time, some of them think in the west, especially that Russia's using them as a tools to accomplish their objectives. So we also have a theoretical push that if we don't discuss ethnicity, this problem just would simply go away. Well, it's easy not to think in ethnic terms, however your question gets exactly at this point that Sometimes it's not possible to ignore ethnicity because there are issues that we need to address. Somebody I interviewed told me that when the language referendum came up in 2012, she did not want to be part of the conversation, the issue was highly politicized, she said it is not my game. But many people thought that it was their game, and it led to a lot of disagreements, both on the political level, but also on the social level. She mentioned that, for example, before the language referendum in 2012, people were playing together from both sides, from the Latvian and the Russian side, they were playing together on the playgrounds with their children, but after the referendum, this was no longer the case, and she said that it took about four years for the situation to normalize once again.

So sometimes ethnicity doesn't matter, but sometimes it does, and it is difficult for me to also explain it to my students, as to how does this factor in? Why would I deal with this topic even? And very often, my answer to my students or people I talk to is that the problem comes in when politicians play the ethnic card. But when I talked to my interviewee, she said that she understands of course as a Russian speaker within Latvia, that Latvians need to build their own identity. Especially it's a country that's fairly new, only 30 years in existence within the community, within the international community of sovereign states. But at the end, her answer was that it doesn't matter your identity, you should be focusing on whether you are a good person, not whether you are Latvian, or Russian, or American, or really anything else for that matter.

Sankey: You've done some thinking about how this weighs in the current situation in Ukraine, where are those Russian speakers in all of this, are they on Putin's side?

Batta: Not entirely, he's actually ending up killing many of them because this conflict is about ideas and not so much about ethnicity or nationalism, the issue is much more complex. Many Russian speakers in Ukraine identify themselves Ukrainian.  for example, Zelensky is a Russian speaker, but he's ethnically Ukrainian. And in the east of the country, especially in the Donbass, you see ethnic Ukrainians who speak only Russian. So the Donbass itself is primarily identified ethnic Ukrainian, but they speak Russian. So they are really not, not entirely, and we see this on the news playing out, especially because this war is fought about ideas and not entirely about identity, much more so about democracy. No, identity of course, has been a very convenient pretext in 2014 and 2022 for President Putin. But ultimately, this conflict is about the Western values, it's about freedom as opposed to authoritarianism, the influence by Russia, and Russian values. At least most certainly, the Russian speakers, but also the ethnic Ukrainians view it that way.

Sankey: Where is your research headed next in this incredibly rich kind of current environment, what do you hope to understand next?

Batta: So last summer, I went to Germany and France to understand where the negotiations are standing between Russia and Ukraine. And once again, I found out of course, where the negotiation's standing three months later. I interviewed diplomats and politicians, some of whom participated in the talks and looked at the road blocks, Germany's and France's role in the negotiation process, and then three months later, Russia moved  additional troops on the border, and in February invaded Ukraine. In the summer of 2013, when you mentioned, when I went to Crimea, three months later, the Maidan revolution occurred. And by next winter Crimea belonged to Russia. It's extremely difficult for me to think through these issues, especially being from the region, but also understanding of where the Ukrainian people are standing, speaking to them.

What I recall is a conversation I had in 2013 in the summer in the Crimea in Simferopol. The three of us were speaking, having a meal, I had some people who helped me, they were wonderful young Ukrainians. One of them was Russian, the other one was Tatar, the third one was a Ukrainian. I remember as if it was yesterday, the Ukrainian woman told me that you are out of your mind looking into this issue because at this time we are Ukrainian, we have made a decision to be democratic. Nobody in my country thinks that territorial disputes which happened on the fringes of Europe, on the east of Europe. I remember this conversation, and that time, I thought that I'm not suggesting that this would happen, this is something that I've been interested as a research question at the time, and Yugoslavia had a very violent secession, while the Soviet Union seceded relatively peacefully and I wanted to know why that was the case.

Sankey: So we're coming to the end of our questions together, is there something that you'd like to add about your research and your understanding of the situation? Certainly, this is one which it is very fraught with people you know and things happening to areas that you've lived in and that you have connections to, what kind of concluding thoughts would you like to leave us with?

Batta: My main message at the end of this conversation will be that the situation is extremely volatile, we are on the brink of a nuclear attack, we don't know what will happen. And the reason why Zelensky's cry for help, close our skies when he speaks to the Congress of the United States is very touching and of course, very difficult to listen to because you know exactly that he knows and everybody else in Europe knows that NATO is not establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine because this could lead to escalation, and that is something that everybody in the international community is working extremely hard to avoid. So it is difficult to see what is happening on the ground in the cities that I visited with my students in previous trips, on regional security studies trips. We have asked so many questions, and I think that avoiding escalation is my main message. And let us hope that this is not going to go any further and there will be some kind of diplomatic solution or economic warfare solution to this conflict.

Sankey: Thank you, Dr. Batta. We've been talking today with Professor Anna Batta of the Air Force Air War College at Maxwell. So thank you for your time today and your expertise, we appreciate your time today.

Batta: Thank you very much, Margaret.

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