Four million-plus ethnic Ukrainians in Russia becoming a problem for Moscow

The regional distribution of self-identified ethnic Ukrainians in the Russian Federation, as percentage of population (Source: 2010 Russian Federation census)

The regional distribution of self-identified ethnic Ukrainians in the Russian Federation, as percentage of population (Source: 2010 Russian Federation census) 

Opinion

Even before flight to the Russian Federation in 2014 and earlier this year swelled their numbers, Ukrainians were the third largest nation inside the current borders of that country. Now, they are almost as large as the second largest nation there – the Tatars – and Putin’s war in Ukraine may be transforming them into a serious problem for Moscow.

On the one hand, the Kremlin leader is conducting a horrific campaign against the place from which many of them have come or continue to identify with; and on the other, Moscow’s increasingly nationalist and imperialist propaganda is intensifying the national feelings of the Ukrainians inside Russia just as it is doing among Ukrainians in Ukraine.

Related: Ukrainian ‘wedge’ regions in Russia east of the Urals declining in size but still numerous

This is not to say that all or perhaps even an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians in the Russian Federation are more Ukrainian in their national identity than they were six months ago. Some of them accept Putin’s line that Ukrainians aren’t a separate nation at all. But there is mounting evidence that a growing number of them are.

Such people may have been quite prepared to speak Russian and live in peace with Russia and Russians in the past; but now their attitudes are changing. A clear example of this is one ethnic Ukrainian whose family moved to Russia in 2014 but now is making his way via Turkey back to Ukraine in order to fight Russia.

Related: A real ‘wedge’ issue: Ukrainian regions in the Russian Federation

His commitment to doing so has led to a break with his mother who has gone so far as to take Russian citizenship; but it is likely that he is far from alone, not only among the recent Ukrainian immigrants in Russia but also among the so-called historical “wedges” of Ukrainians who have lived there for decades or even centuries.

Number and share of Ukrainians in the population of the regions of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, according to the 1926 Soviet census. Graph by Olegzima, Wikimedia Commons.

Number and share of Ukrainians in the population of the regions of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, according to the 1926 Soviet census. Graph by Olegzima, Wikimedia Commons.

To the extent that is the case, Putin is creating yet another problem for himself and his country by his war against Ukraine and Ukrainians, one likely to be exploited by Kyiv and to fester for decades regardless of what happens on the battlefield in the future.

Related: One century ago, rebellious Khabarovsk dreamt of becoming a Ukrainian colony

Moscow has long been concerned about this but besides understating ethnic Ukrainians inside Russia, it has not come up with a strategy to cope with shifts in Ukrainian attitudes there.

For background on this issue, see Moscow Deliberately Undercounting Ethnic Ukrainians in Russia, Kyiv Official Says and the sources cited therein.

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