Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev’s recent tirade against the West, as well as his insistence that Western governments are the tools of major capitalist groups and that the West wants to reduce Russia to the size of 15th-century Muscovy has attracted enormous attention as an indication of prevailing attitudes in the Kremlin and possible plans for even greater self-isolation and more aggression against Russia’s neighbors. Even so, it is another of the secretary’s comments made in the course of his Argumenty i fakty interview that could have more immediate consequences than these ideological pronouncements: For the first time in decades, a senior Moscow official—not merely lower-ranking commentators—has referred to the Ukrainian population in the Russian Far East, an indication that the Kremlin is now worried again about something it had supposedly solved (Aif.ru, January 11).
Specifically, Patrushev pointed out that “in the southern parts of the Far East, given the large share of those who resettled there already during the times of [tsarist prime minister Pyotr] Stolypin, a significant number of residents consider the culture of the Ukrainian people to be their native one.” Few in the West, or even in Moscow, know much about these communities. But for Ukrainians, they are key outposts of Ukrainian civilization. They have long referred to them as “wedges,” with the one in the Far East between Vladivostok, Vostok and Khabarovsk being the “green” wedge and others such as those along the Russian-Kazakhstani border and in the Kuban being the “blue” and “crimson” wedges, respectively. Moscow has worked long and hard to suppress Ukrainian communities in these places, with mixed success. Yet, until the Ukrainian government began raising the issue after 2014, few paid much attention either to what Moscow was doing or how Ukrainians there, or in Kyiv, were responding (Topwar.ru, June 11, 2014; Window on Eurasia, June 9, 2016; August 26, 2018).
Today, Russian writers argue that “in the post-Soviet period, the number of Ukrainians in the Siberian population has significantly contracted in all regions,” especially in the north but also in the Far East more generally. This contraction became the result of deaths, departures and assimilation (Russian7.ru, January 2). Now, only about a third as many Ukrainians reside in Chita Oblast than were there in 1989—and only about half as many in Irkutsk, Buryatia, Sakha, Krasnoyarsk Krai and Kemerovo Oblast. For the Russian Far East, as a whole, Russian government statistics show, the number of ethnic Russians across the Far East has fallen by more than 50 percent. But in reporting these declines, Russian outlets unintentionally call attention to the critical role ethnic Ukrainians have played east of the Urals in the past and the ways in which they continue to play a role to this day (Regnum.ru, June 9, 2018; TRT Russian, April 26, 2022).
Yet, three developments over the past several years have given the Kremlin new cause for concern regarding the Ukrainian “wedges” inside its current borders. First of all, many Moscow writers saw the resistance to the central government in Khabarovsk as a reflection of the Ukrainian background of the population in that Far Eastern republic (Siberia.Realities, September 29, 2020).
Second, the Ukrainian government has increasingly called attention to these Ukrainian areas, a move that has infuriated Russia, which claims the right to intervene on behalf of ethnic Russians abroad but is outraged when anyone else does the same regarding other ethnicities in Russia (Topwar.ru, June 11, 2014).
Russian officials have particular concerns about the Russian Far East because a precedent was set through the actions of Japan and some Western countries a century ago as well as in more recent claims with some Ukrainian officials discussing the potential “re-Ukrainization” of the region (Svpressa.ru, June 9, 2016; Tyzhden.ua, August 22, 2016). Thus, any mention of the green wedge sets off alarm bells with a Russian state that is suspicious of anything other outside countries say. (On these suspicions, see (Topcor.ru, August 26, 2018; Fondsk.ru, April 7, 2022; on the historical foundations of such suspicions, see Ivan Svit, Ukrainian-Japanese Relations, 1972; John Stephan, The Russian Far East, 1994).
And third, Ukrainian writers have begun to talk about other “wedges” inside the Russian Federation, raising the specter that Moscow faces Ukrainian threats in far more places than just the distant Far East. Some discussion was had in Kyiv about these wedges in the 1990s, but it ebbed in the first decade of the 21st century. Russia’s all-out aggression against Ukraine has sparked its revival. (See svpressa.ru, June 9, 2016.)
The two wedges that have attracted the most attention first in Ukraine and then in Moscow are the Kuban and the Ukrainian community along the Russian-Kazakhstani border, respectively. The first, known as the “crimson wedge,” historically was Ukrainian, and many Ukrainians believe it should be part of Ukraine again. That has outraged Russians who see it as being Russian “forever” (Apn.ru, September 30, 2022). And the second, the “blue wedge,” had an ethnic Ukrainian population a century ago, and some Russians see it as playing a role in promoting anti-Russian attitudes in Kazakhstan, or as an obstacle to the reabsorption of Kazakhstan by the Russian Federation. (For an especially detailed discussion on Russian perceptions of the blue wedge, see Vpoanalytics.com, May 23, 2022).
By mentioning the Ukrainians in the Russian Far East, the “green wedge,” Patrushev has raised this issue to a new level, signaling that the Kremlin is worried not only about Ukrainians themselves but also about people with Ukrainian backgrounds who have taken Russian citizenship but retain a Ukrainian identity. All this likely sets the stage for a new Moscow campaign against Ukrainians inside the Russian Federation and especially those associated with the wedges.
Whether such a campaign will succeed, however, is an open question. Using force, which is the Kremlin’s most likely choice, could easily be like trying to extinguish a grease fire with water: it will not put it out but only lead to its spread, with efforts to excise one or more wedges leading to the emergence of even more.