Moscow is increasingly concerned about Kyiv’s increased attention not only to the non-Russian republics and regions within the current borders of the Russian Federation but also, and particularly, to parts of the country that have, or at least had, significant ethnic Ukrainian populations (see EDM, July 28, 2022). The last of these regions—and there are perhaps a dozen—are known in Ukrainian parlance as “wedges,” and any mention of them is enough to outrage Russian leaders who have arrogated to themselves the exclusive right to determine borders and identities within the post-Soviet space (see EDM, January 18). Of them, the “green” wedge in the Russian Far East, historically, has attracted the most attention. Yet, the “crimson” one in the Kuban, a region that includes Krasnodar Krai and parts of Stavropol Krai and is situated between Ukraine and the non-Russian republics of the North Caucasus, represents the most immediate explosive case.
The Kuban’s history is complicated, reflecting both general trends in Russian history and the specific features of the region. Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, the national republics and the accompanying ethnic self-identification were not opposed by the government, and after 1917, when republic borders were established, they were frequently shifted to meet the needs of the Soviet state rather than the desires or characteristics of the population (Window on Eurasia, May 21, 2021). This means that neither the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) nor the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic existed and that ethnic identities competed with other identifications, including social strata of the kind the Russian authorities always pinned on the Cossacks. The Kuban was thus not part of either Russia or Ukraine and became part of the RSFSR only in 1924 after a period of indeterminate status, during which some of its people sought independence and others union with Ukraine (Russian7.ru; Russia-ukraine.com, accessed January 23).
Equally, identities were fluid with some of the people in the Kuban, having a long tradition of identifying as Ukrainians (Babel.ua, February 16, 2022; Apn.ru, September 30, 2022). And others have assumed that identity for tactical reasons—as when many of the Cossacks there reidentified as Ukrainians (significantly, not as Russians) so as not to be subject to the Soviet fratricide against them (Russian7.ru, accessed January 23). These two situations meant that, by 1926, more than 60 percent of the Kuban’s population was ethnic Ukrainians, a figure that declined to less than 5 percent in 1939 due to Stalinist actions, including both the Holodomor (“Terror Famine”) and forcible re-identification (Postivka.com, December 31, 2019). The large number of Ukrainians and Ukrainian speakers there in the 1920s pushed Moscow to retain Ukrainian as an official language in the Kuban until 1932.
In Soviet times, any public discussion of the Ukrainian wedges was prohibited. But with glasnost and the re-emergence of a Ukrainian state, it became an increasingly hot issue. Kyiv commentators and politicians spoke more frequently on the need for Ukraine to support the wedges, including the one in the Kuban. Russians, up to and including President Vladimir Putin, countered with an insistence that Ukrainians had no right to do so because these were Russian areas now and forever.
As relations between Kyiv and Moscow deteriorated, such exchanges became ever-more heated. In 2013, for example, Ukrainian activists explicitly called for reuniting the Kuban with Ukraine (Window on Eurasia, September 1, 2013); these calls increased in frequency and volume following Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea in 2014. In response, ever-more Moscow commentators and officials denounced the idea, which ironically only attracted more attention to the issue (Window on Eurasia, September 15, 2014).
Between 2014 and Putin’s expanded invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the issue continued to mushroom, with ever-more Ukrainians supporting the region’s inclusion in Ukraine; ever-more Kuban residents backing that idea or even complete independence; and ever-more Russians expressing outrage about either possibility. The situation gained new prominence in 2020 when a group of Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) deputies formed a group calling for the return of the Kuban to Ukraine under the slogan “Kuban is Ukraine” (Nvo.ng.ru, March 27, 2020; Glavcom.ua, December 9, 2022). Their actions caused Russian commentators to respond with articles explaining “why Kuban is not Ukraine” (Apn.ru, September 30, 2022).
Since the invasion, however, Ukrainian talk about recovering the Kuban has only intensified, with ever-more deputies, and even some senior officials, calling for that. Perhaps most scandalously from Moscow’s point of view, Kirill Budanov, who heads Ukraine’s intelligence operations, now has a map on the wall behind his desk that shows Kuban as part of Ukraine—and the rest of what is now the Russian Federation divided up into smaller states (Ura.news, December 26, 2022). The display of such a map by a Ukrainian official would have been unthinkable a year ago, but now it is a reflection of resentment against Russia for invading Ukraine and a widespread view that Moscow, by questioning the legitimacy of the borders of other countries, has opened the door for discussions on the legitimacy of its own.
As for the people of the Kuban, some are indeed thinking about independence, but many favor becoming part of Ukraine, according to Dmitry Dorovskikh, an activist of the Crimson Wedge Group. He says that Kubantsy, a regional group most Russians deny exists, up until recently, had hoped for autonomy and thus did not think about other alternatives (Apn.ru, February 9, 2015). But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed that (Apostrophe, November 8, 2022). At the same time, although the Crimson Wedge activist does not mention this, many people in the Kuban have shown interest in the revival of a Cossack state, Cossackia (see EDM, February 21, 2019).
Putin, of course, is unalterably opposed to all of this. He believes that Russia gave land to Ukraine rather than, as history shows, Russia took land that should have been part of Ukraine from the beginning. But as ever-more people are concluding, what Putin wants may not determine what happens next. As a result, the Kuban may soon pass from being an object of history to a subject of its own and go its own way, either toward independence or alternatively become part of a larger Cossack state or Ukraine itself, any of which would make it truly “a wedge”—not only between Ukraine and Russia but also between the past and the future.