Clearly desiring to give Moscow a taste of its own medicine, believing that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” a group of Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) deputies is pressing for the passage of bills that would require Kyiv to recognize the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria as an independent state and to condemn Russian actions against Circassians in 1864 as an act of genocide. This effort reflects Ukraine’s longstanding policy of support for non-Russians inside the borders of the Russian Federation and of providing refuge to non-Russians fleeing Moscow’s oppression. The bills have been registered and sent to committee; it is still unknown when they will be released (Itd.rada.gov, July 11; Kavkaz Realii, July 12). Their chances for approval appear remarkably good given that they appear to have support from at least some in the government who view the measures as an appropriate response to what Russia is now attempting to do in Ukraine.
Both measures are the work of the Ukrainian parliamentary group, For a Free Caucasus, which was formed by ten deputies earlier this summer after a visit to Kyiv by Akhmed Zakayev, the head of the Ichkeria government in exile. The parliamentary group is led by Oleksiy Honcharenko, who is also a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Honcharenko urged the body to recognize Russia’s actions against the Circassians in the mid-1800s as an act of genocide and attempted to do the same at a meeting of Circassians in Istanbul earlier this year. PACE has not taken any action, and the Circassian meeting split over those loyal to Moscow insisting that any such action would make future cooperation with the Kremlin impossible (Circassian Press, June 27; Newcaucasus.com, June 29; Euromaidan Press, July 16). Similar arguments are likely to surface in Kyiv, although most deputies there undoubtedly have concluded that any cooperation with Russia is nearly impossible.
Honcharenko and his group have submitted a second resolution calling for the recognition of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the name of the Chechen state that declared independence from the Soviet Union, which fought and won the first post-Soviet war but was defeated and then self-liquidated at the end of the second. The Ukrainian parliamentarian says it is critical to support Chechnya and other republics within the Russian Federation, because some representatives of these non-Russian nations are fighting for Ukraine, while Russia is using others as cannon fodder against the Ukrainians (Idel.Realities, July 5).
As might have been expected, the group’s call for recognition of Ichkeria has been dismissed by Chechen head Ramzan Kadyrov as ridiculous (T.me/RKadyrov, July 12; Kavkaz.Realii, July 13). But Honcharenko may have the stronger case at least as far as Ukrainians are concerned. He says that his fellow deputies should remember that “the wars of Ichkeria have already helped Ukraine in our struggle for independence in the war with Russia” (Kavkazcenter.com, July 13).
Some observers undoubtedly will be inclined to dismiss these two actions as the kind of grandstanding parliamentarians often engage in; but in fact, the measures reflect not only longstanding Ukrainian positions on non-Russians within the Russian Federation but also Kyiv’s willingness to provide refuge to non-Russian leaders fleeing Russian oppression. The moves also highlight shifts in Ukrainian and even international positions on the future of Russia as a state. Ukraine has been interested in the fate of Ukrainian communities across the Russian Federation since it gained independence in 1991. Called “wedges,” these areas have long been accepted by Kyiv as areas deserving special attention (Afterempire.info, September 8, 2017; Topwar.ru, June 11, 2014). Out of that has grown Ukrainian interest in non-Russians more generally, both before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his “special military operation” in February 2022 and even more so now as some non-Russians have come to fight side-by-side with Ukrainians and émigré non-Russian leaders in Kyiv have spoken out in Ukraine’s defense.
Beginning as early as 2018, Hanna Hopko, chair of the Verkhovna Rada’s Foreign Affairs Committee, urged Ukraine and other countries in the West to take action in support of non-Russian groups by imposing sanctions on Moscow for its violation of the rights not only of the Crimean Tatars on the Russian-occupied Ukrainian peninsula but also within Russia itself. In words that echo Eugene Lyons’ classic book, Our Secret Allies: The Peoples of Russia, Hopko argued that the non-Russian nations within the Russian Federation’s borders are far more important allies than are Russian liberal opposition members and therefore deserve such direct support. After a year of pressing her case, the Verkhovna Rada adopted Hopko’s resolution almost unanimously and the Ukrainian government took action (Afterempire.info, December 9, 2018; Facebook.com/Free.IdelUral, April 16, 2019; Facebook.com/hanna.hopko, May 30, 2019).
Now, after Putin launched his expanded invasion of Ukraine and his regime constantly talks about dismembering the country, increasingly more people in various countries have responded by suggesting that Russia is on the brink of collapse and that the West should assist in the process. Former Polish President Lech Walesa, for example, recently observed that the world would be far better off if Russia were dismembered and became smaller (Kasparov.ru, July 12).
Ukrainian officials are echoing his view. Aleksey Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, recently told London-based newspaper The Times that he is convinced Russia will soon end its current existence because of the impending independence of many republics, including not only those in the North Caucasus but also others in the Middle Volga and elsewhere (The Times, July 10; Idel.Realities, July 12). Given Reznikov’s remarks, it seems probable that he and other members of the Ukrainian government support Honcharenko’s efforts.
At least some non-Russian activists very much hope Kyiv will support these bills. As the Idel-Ural media outlet—which seeks the independence of the Middle Volga republics—stated, this is “an historic window of opportunity” not only for Chechnya but also for all the other republics now within Russia’s borders (Idel-ural.org, July 12). In this environment, Honcharenko’s observation that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is likely to be accepted by many more people in Ukraine and elsewhere than most might expect at present. As Iceland showed in 1991, when it became the first state to recognize the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from the Soviet Union, the most difficult step is the first one; but regardless of who takes it, that step can lead others to follow.