As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine drags on, Ukraine is stepping up its efforts to attract the non-Russian peoples of Russia to its side. Kyiv is working from the long-standing conviction that these nations are natural allies in resisting Russian imperialism. Ukraine’s current actions, which have reached a new high in the past two weeks, grew from earlier Ukrainian efforts to attract Ukrainians living in Russia. These efforts have now expanded to include a focus on all non-Russians and many regional groups within the Russian Federation.
Both the non-Russians and Moscow have responded. The non-Russian groups have had their most radical leaders flee to the welcoming arms of Ukraine to escape the Kremlin’s repression. Many more fight alongside the Ukrainian army against Russia’s forces. Moscow has responded by intensifying efforts to suppress non-Russian identities, which have been magnified due to Moscow’s disproportionate use of non-Russians as cannon fodder in Ukraine. There is some evidence, however, that these Russian repressions are counterproductive as Kyiv increases its efforts to support these groups and the non-Russians find new ways to oppose the Putin regime.
The ancient observation “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a frequent strategy for combatants to try to attract minorities within enemy states to their sides. Not surprisingly, in the years since Russia began its open aggression against Ukraine in 2014, many Ukrainian officials and politicians have pressed Ukraine to do the same. Such appeals initially focused on the need to reach out to the ethnic Ukrainians living in what Kyiv calls “wedges” across Russia. This effort sparked genuine concern at the highest levels of the Kremlin (see EDM, January 18, January 24). But beginning in 2019, and especially in 2022, Moscow has expanded the approach to include not only appeals to Ukrainians but also to other non-Russian and regional groups that may aspire to independence or, at the very least, may be angry at Moscow for denying them autonomy (Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com December 8, 2018, April 17, 2019, and May 30, 2019).
Most of these efforts involved deputies in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) and Kyiv’s readiness to host and cooperate with political emigres from non-Russian areas. Special focus was given to those willing to form battalions to fight alongside Ukrainian forces. But in October 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave his imprimatur to a broader effort by labeling the Russian Federation an “evil empire” and calling on non-Russians within Russia to come to Ukraine’s aid (President.gov.ua, September 29, 2022). (For an informal translation of the Ukrainian leader’s remarks, see Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, October 9, 2022; see EDM, October 13, 2022). Zelenskyy’s words opened the floodgates to expanded actions by Ukrainian officials.
Earlier this year, Ukraine began observing Captive Nations Week, copying what the United States has been doing every year since 1959 and further fueling alarm and outrage in Moscow. More significantly, this move gave the Verkhovna Rada sanction to create a special commission to organize this effort. Most recently, this body began to hold conferences on the enslaved peoples of Russia and the need for these peoples to unite with Ukraine to bring them freedom and independence.
In August 2023, the Rada set up a special commission to work with the national movements of Russia’s numerically small and indigenous peoples. The commission actively promotes their cause internationally by asserting that the world will be safer if the Russian colonial empire is demolished. It is comprised of 11 deputies and is headed by Yaroslav Yurchishin of the Golos Party and Mariya Mezentseva of Servants of the People Party. At its first meeting, the commission members indicated that they plan to base their activities on what the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe have already done (Kavkazr.com; Radiosvoboda.org; Abn.org.ua, August 24).
The last ten days suggest that Ukraine’s renewed efforts have been succeeding. On October 3, Kyiv hosted a conference titled “Ukraine and the National Movements of the Nations of the Russian Federation: Fellow Travelers or Allies?” (Abn.org.ua, October 7). On October 10, Ukrainian officials organized a second conference, “Permanent Genocide as the State Policy of Russia” (Youtube.com/GenocideoftheCossacks, October 11). Both featured speakers from among the non-Russian diasporas in Ukraine as well as Ukrainian officials. Their words were prominently featured on the Telegram channel that acts as the mouthpiece for the aforementioned special commission (Telegram.me/PiclyaRocii, June 2).
These actions are already attracting attention among non-Russian activists within Russia (Idel-ural.org, June 4). In the past, Moscow limited its response to denouncing such efforts and occasionally imposing sanctions on those in Kyiv who called for sanctions due to the Kremlin’s policies regarding non-Russians (Idelreal.org, October 23, 2018). Now, the Russian government has stepped up such efforts and even sought to force non-Russian republics to work with the center against measures intended to promote distinctive or anti-Moscow identities. Two weeks ago, Moscow demanded Kazan drop references to promoting Tatar identity in the future, to which Kazan agreed. This appeared to be a major defeat for non-Russians until it was reported that, while Kazan was telling Moscow it would follow these demands, Tatar officials were doing the opposite and planned to continue to promote Tatar identity just as the Ukrainians hope (Kommersant.ru, October 6; Nazaccent.ru, October 9; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com October 10).
Kyiv plans to press ahead with its efforts to attract non-Russian groups. While some may dismiss these efforts as a marginal part of Ukraine’s war effort, both speakers at the October 3 conference and Yurchishin, the head of the commission on work with non-Russians in Russia, insist that this is not the case. The conference speakers declared that work with non-Russians has long been an integral part of Ukraine’s policies, and Yurchishin declared that Kyiv is taking the long-term view on these efforts. In 1991, many expected Russia, having ceased to be communist, would basically transform itself into a democratic and non-imperial state. That has not happened and will not for years, if not decades. Those supporting Ukraine’s approach seek to ensure that this period of unrest will be as short as possible (Glavcom.ua, September 4).