Moscow has been sharply critical of Ukraine’s welcoming attitude toward non-Russian political refugees from Russia, its attention to the non-Russian nations within the current borders of the Russian Federation, and Kyiv’s willingness to provide a home for a movement dedicated to freedom for the peoples of Russia’s Middle Volga region. And just days before sharply escalating its aggressive war against Ukraine, the Russian government took another step to show its anger: it declared the Free Idel-Ural organization, which was created in Kyiv in 2018 by emigres from the Middle Volga, “an undesirable movement” and declared that the group “represents a threat to the constitutional order and security of the Russian Federation” (T.me/genprocrf, The New Times, Tatar-toz.blogspot.com, Idelreal.org, February 18). This action will have little practical effect given that nearly all of its activists live outside of Russia (though some residing in Ukrainian cities could certainly find themselves caught up in the war); but it does explain some of the fears that lie behind President Vladimir Putin’s broader belligerence against Ukraine.
In response to Moscow’s playing up ethnic issues in Ukraine, something Russia has been doing for decades, Kyiv has long focused on what Ukrainians call “wedges”—large Ukrainian-populated areas within the Russian Federation, the most important of which is in the Far East. Moscow has been irritated by this but generally more dismissive of such discussions than anything else (Topwar.ru, June 11, 2014; Topcor.ru, August 26, 2018). Then, in 2017, the Ukrainian government decided to train its attention on non-Russian nations within the Russian Federation as possible allies in resisting Moscow’s pressure on Kyiv. That provoked a firestorm of criticism in the Russian capital, a firestorm that only grew in intensity when a group of emigres from the Middle Volga set up the Free Idel-Ural organization in Ukraine in 2018 (see EDM, July 9, 2019).
The organizers declared that Free Idel-Ural was committed to “non-violent actions within the framework of international law to achieve state sovereignty for the Tatars, Bashkirs, Udmurts, Maris, Chuvash, Erzyan and Mokshan nations” and the establishment of “a Volga-Ural confederation of indigenous peoples” (Zona.media, February 18, 2022). Russian ire further intensified when the group, along with some in Ukraine, raised the issue of the status of the Orenburg corridor, which physically separates the Turkic peoples of the Middle Volga and Kazakhstan. According to Vladislav Skvortsov, a Russian nationalist writer in Ukraine, any change in the status of that corridor—which Joseph Stalin specifically created to preclude independence for the Middle Volga peoples (they would have qualified under the Soviet constitution to be union republics because they would have bordered on another union republic rather than be surrounded by Russian territory and, thus, would also have had the right to withdraw from the Soviet Union)—would constitute a direct threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation (Kamerton, November 16, 2021; see EDM, November 19, 2013).
Like other Russian commentators, Skvortsov expresses doubts that the Ukrainians came up with the idea to support non-Russians on their own or to back those calling for the elimination of the Orenburg corridor. In his view, they were encouraged to do so by the United States—he mentions in particular articles by this author that appeared in the US-based Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasian Daily Monitor (see for example EDM, November 19, 2013). That origin, the Russian commentator asserts, makes any talk about Idel-Ural and the Orenburg corridor especially dangerous, and something that Moscow must nip in the bud before it can flower and threaten the country.
Other Russian writers and officials have followed suit, arguing that the ostensibly US origins of attention to Idel-Ural are also shown by the fact that the United States, in its 1959 Captive Nations Week resolution, lists Idel-Ural as well as Cossackia as being among such peoples. All the others listed in the Congressional resolution that established the week, which is still marked in the United States, have already gained their independence. And so Washington, these Russian authors say, now wants to secure the independence not only of the peoples of both Idel-Ural but of Russian Cossacks as well (see EDM, February 21, 2019).
In fact, of course, the United States—in sharp contrast to Putin’s Russian Federation—respects the territorial integrity of states in general and those of the post-Soviet space in particular, and it opposes any border changes achieved by force alone. But the alarm that Moscow has shown by its denunciation of Free Idel-Ural and its goals this past week underscore how sensitive even raising this issue is for the Kremlin. Moscow fears that the Idel-Ural case could easily become the model for Ukrainian moves elsewhere, especially in the North Caucasus.
Despite such Russian criticism, many Ukrainians remain committed to supporting the peoples of Idel-Ural and other nations within the Russian Federation. Kyiv commentator Pavlo Podobed is one of them. In a 2018 article, he contends that “Idel-Ural is the Achilles’ heel of the Russian Federation.” If Moscow’s arrangements there collapse, then the process of the exit of the six republics in that region will begin. Today, Moscow still has control; but in the future it may not. The number of ethnic Russians there and in neighboring Kazakhstan is declining, and Turkey’s interest in the region is growing. According to him, “if Ukraine is interested in a victory over Russia, we need to reflect about non-military means of having an impact on the enemy.” One of the best, he says, is to support the aspirations of the peoples of Idel-Ural and those of the other peoples in places Moscow now controls (Tyzhden, September 30, 2018; Afterempire.info, November 1, 2018).
Podobed argues that Kyiv should take three steps: 1) create an analytical center in Ukraine focusing on the Middle Volga, 2) end any further talk of possibly extraditing Middle Volga leaders who seek asylum in Ukraine, and 3) backing existing Idel-Ural movements like Free Idel-Ural, whose representatives are to be found not only in Ukraine but in a number of European Union countries. So far, Kyiv has taken steps in all three directions, and he suggests that talking up the need to eliminate the Orenburg corridor is another move Kyiv should make. It is the key to the future not only for the peoples of Idel-Ural but for Ukrainians and the West as well.