- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has ordered Kyiv to devote more attention to Ukrainian “wedges” within the Russian Federation.
- Zelenskyy’s pronouncement has set off alarm bells in official Moscow, which is already worried about what such attention and contacts may mean to its control over critical parts of the country.
- Moscow will likely increase repression against Ukrainians and other minorities inside Russia, moves that may prove counterproductive not only for Russia itself but for the outcome of the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine as well.
For more than a decade, Moscow has claimed that a significant portion of the people who live within Ukraine are ethnic Russians and that the Russian government is within its rights to intervene on their behalf. Many around the world have accepted these claims without close examination. Few have paid attention to the reality that there have been and remain many large ethnic Ukrainian population centers in Russian territories. These communities can be found not only in regions neighboring Ukraine but also as far as the Pacific coast. (For background on the Ukrainian “wedges,” numbering more than three million people, see Window on Eurasia, June 9, 2016; EDM, January 18, 2023; and the sources cited therein.) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently elevated the significance of these “wedges” against the backdrop of Russia’s war. On January 22, he issued a decree directing the Ukrainian government and the international community to focus more attention on the plight of these Ukrainian communities under repressive Russian rule and thereby make them allies in Kyiv’s fight against Moscow’s invasion (President.gov.ua, January 22).
Today, more than a dozen centers of Ukrainian life exist within the Russian Federation. Most were formed at the end of tsarist times or during Stalin’s deportations in the 1940s. Ukrainians call them “wedges,” with the three most important being the “crimson” wedge of regions immediately adjoining Ukraine, the “blue” (or “yellow”) wedge along the Russian-Kazakhstan border separating Bashkortostan and the peoples of Idel-Ural from Central Asia, and the “green” wedge between Vladivostok, Nakhodka, and Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East. Zelenskyy focused on the crimson wedge in his decree, which has already been the focus of attacks by Ukrainian forces. Kyiv’s attention to this particular community has outraged Russians who view these territories as theirs from time immemorial. It has also frustrated other nationalities, such as the Circassians, who were there before the Russian imperial advance. This may prove to be a problem for Ukraine in its efforts to reach out to the peoples of the North Caucasus (Apn.ru, September 30, 2022; see EDM, January 24, 2023; Kavkazr.com, January 22).
The other two wedges located much further away from Ukraine could ultimately prove to be the most explosive. The blue wedge along the Russian-Kazakhstan border has been growing in importance because Russians view that strip of land as a wall between the peoples of Idel-Ural, including the Tatars and Bashkirs, which they see as critical to holding the Muscovite empire together (Vpoanalytics.com, May 23, 2022). Bashkir activists believe that recovering what they call the “Orenburg Corridor” will make this historically Ukrainian territory a bridge to independence from Russia (Window on Eurasia, February 7, 2023). These activists have been gaining support for their aspirations both in Ukraine and Kazakhstan (Webkamerton.ru, November 16, 2021).
The “green” wedge in the Far East was once the largest Ukrainian population center within what is now the Russian Federation. Ethnic Ukrainians who arrived in the last decades of tsarist times formed a majority of the population there in the 1920s. This community remains the focus of Moscow’s greatest concerns. In 2023, Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, said many residents of the region, despite speaking Russian and identifying as Russians in the census, are, in fact, Ukrainians in spirit. As such, they are a serious threat to Moscow’s control (see EDM, June 8, 2023; Aif.ru, January 11). Such Muscovite fears have only intensified in recent months, given the raft of attacks on Russian infrastructure and increased criticism of Kremlin policies enacted against the people of the region who are presented as agents of the Ukrainian security services (Stoletie.ru, January 19).
Moscow has tried to assimilate the ethnic Ukrainians within Russia by suppressing Ukrainian institutions and preventing the outside world from learning much about these communities, both in Soviet times and more recently. The Ukrainians in Ukraine, nevertheless, have a long history of interest in connecting with their co-ethnics inside Russia. That interest has grown over the years as efforts by activists and parliamentarians after Ukraine’s independence in 1991 to do more to support these communities did not gain much traction until Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Anschluss of Ukraine’s Crimea and his invasion of Donbas in 2014. At that time, those efforts were expanded, with many in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) expecting the Ukrainian government to reach out to the wedges and make them its allies (Topwar.ru, June 11, 2014; Window on Eurasia, June 9, 2016, August 26, 2018). Kyiv did relatively little, however. Its attention to the wedges has been overshadowed by its appeals to and support for other non-Russians inside Russia until now (President.gov.ua, September 29, 2022; see EDM, October 13, 2022; Svoboda; Abn.org.ua, August 24, 2023).
Some Ukrainians are hopeful that Zelenskyy’s recent pronouncement will finally lead to concerted government efforts to connect with these communities, though many remain pessimistic. One skeptic, Yuri Kononenko, who founded the Library of Ukrainian Literature in Moscow (since closed) and oversees an archive on Ukrainian diaspora communities in Kyiv, says that the Ukrainian government lacks “a systematic policy on this issue,” and so its achievements in this area have been “pathetic.” Kononenko suggests that Zelenskyy’s decree has more to do with mobilizing Ukrainians within Ukraine and the diaspora communities in countries other than Russia than with any outreach to the wedges within Russia (Novaya Gazeta Europe, January 23). He does see two positive consequences of the Ukrainian president’s new stance. On the one hand, it represents “a symmetrical answer” to Putin’s oft-repeated claims that he is engaged in “’the reunification’” of Russia’s historical territories. On the other hand, Zelenskyy’s decree will likely increase attention to and research on an essential component of Ukrainian life that has often been ignored.
Many Russian commentators have concluded the opposite of Ukrainian skeptics’ view and are already demanding that Moscow respond forcefully (Vz.ru, January 22; Ukraina.ru, January 24). In the coming days, such demands are likely to become more frequent. The Kremlin will presumably launch a propaganda barrage and impose even more repressions against Ukrainians inside Russia as well as against any other non-Russians seeking Kyiv’s support. Both these moves could prove counterproductive, attracting more attention to the Ukrainian wedges and to the duplicity of Moscow’s claims about ethnic Russians in Ukraine. This, in turn, could prompt ethnic Ukrainians and other non-Russians to become increasingly alienated from and at odds with Moscow. If that happens, Kyiv’s expanded attention to the wedges could give Ukraine some powerful new allies in its fight against Putin’s aggression.