Adolf Hitler’s excuse for Anschluss or forced union with Austria in March 1938—and, half a year later, the takeover of the Sudetenland in Czechia—was ostensibly to protect ethnic Germans outside the Reich who spoke German and repatriate them to the “German World.” Inspired by the German Führer, Vladimir Putin used the same kind of hybrid operation to expand his “Russki Mir,” nearly 76 years later. In his first attack, he managed to bite off only two pieces of Ukraine: annexing Crimea and starting an unresolved conflict in the Donbas. But it’s clear he has no intention of stopping there, because he needs all of Ukraine. Reviving a concept that has driven Moscow since the days of the expansionist Grand Duchy of Muscovy, Putin sees himself as the “collector of lands” of the one-time empire, and Ukraine is key to the entire enterprise: without Ukraine, there can be no empire.
Realizing that he was in no position to fulfill his maniacal ambitions through straightforward military aggression, the new Russian tsar launched a much broader arsenal of weapons into play. Key among them continues to be taking advantage of the supposed Russian-speaking population that supposedly needs protection. With this goal in mind, Moscow started on its “new course,” which has meant correlating legislation, including rewriting the Constitution. This has meant not just strengthening the power of the government and legitimizing the permanent presidency of Putin himself. Giving the Russian language status as a “state-making” one and approving a law recognizing citizens of Ukraine and Belarus who speak Russian fluently are a clear signal that Moscow has no intentions of setting aside its determination to restore empire. In this way, Russia is trying to weaponize the Russian-speaking citizens of the two neighboring countries and to make use of them as effectively as possible. Even if they don’t actually want this.
Finding plenty of allies
Of course, the main bet is being placed, as usual, on potential allies in both countries, that is, their fifth columnists. Nor will Putin have to worry that there’s no such thing in Ukraine. Moreover, they aren’t running into any serious opposition at home lately for some reason, and so they have been free to evolve nicely. Its names are long familiar to most Ukrainians—Viktor Medvedchuk, Vadym Rabinovych, Nestor Shufrych, Natalia Korolevska—an entire cohort of individuals who have traditionally supported Moscow and were happy to sell themselves to the highest bidder.
Nor do the benches of the Ze Team lack any open members of the fifth column, ranging from those who openly support the enemy like Maksym Buzhanskiy and Oleksandr Dubinskiy, to potential helpers who might prove useful, like Serhiy Syvokho. In professing and cultivating their post-soviet values and effectively in the reserve of the Russki Mir project, these individuals are no less dangerous for the country’s sovereignty than open ukrainophobes.
For instance, it might have been possible to treat SN MP Yevhen Shevchenko’s sincere wish to persuade residents of Russia “the direct position of the Ukrainian people and their government” on the propagandist Russian program “The Big Game” on the First Channel as a gesture of goodwill. After all, there doesn’t seem to be any reason not to believe his honest intentions. But when he calls those opposed to the Steinmeier formula “radical nationalists” and accuses them of promoting enmity and war, and of disrupting the withdrawal of troops, he not only wants to report this, but also that, in order for “long-awaited peace to return, there has to be a compromise and that means both sides” and that the language issue, which he claims was “raised by ultranationalists” and “led to a split in society,” has to be “dropped.” The same is true of MP Oleksiy Ustenko (SN), who is convinced that, by withdrawing the 2014 Kolesnichenko-Kivalov language law, the Verkhovna Rada provoked Russia’s invasion of Crimea.
RELATED ARTICLE: Afterimage of the Maidan
Such individuals are surprisingly plentiful among Sluha Narodu MPs. The faction head, Davyd Arakhamia and his colleague Yuriy Kamelchuk eagerly follow the Moscow script by proposing that Ukraine should restore the supply of potable water to Crimea. The chair of the VR national security subcommittee, Iryna Vereshchuk, calmly announced that Ukraine needs to drop the idea of joining NATO. The chair of the VR social policy and veterans’ rights, Halyna Tretiakova, argues that benefits should be withdrawn for most participants in the war in the Donbas, “because they went there knowingly.”
But the biggest number of them show their real selves when it comes to the language issue. For instance, when the scandalous bill on the media was being drafted behind closed doors, members of the VR humanitarian and information policy committee, chaired by former 1+1 producer Oleksandr Tkachenko, tried to revise certain rules in the language law to return touring Russian artists to the stage and screen in Ukraine. During the drafting of Bill #2299 “On amending certain laws of Ukraine to improve educational activities in higher education,” a norm was added that allows teaching in the Russian language in post-secondary institutions. In Buzhanskiy’s permanent initiatives to get the language law cancelled, there’s no guesswork.
Indeed, “Russki Mir” has considerable potential in the Rada and, in the end, there’s nothing surprising about this. When the president himself effectively admits, in the spirit of Moscow’s propaganda, that the language issue was one of the reasons for the war by announcing that the residents of the Donbas can be permitted to officially use Russian in government documents, then what can be expected from his underlings?
VR Speaker Dmytro Razumkov also favors allowing the Donbas “deeper” usage of the Russian language. He himself on purpose uses Russian all the time, as if trolling Moscow with his rhetoric about protecting the rights of Russian-speaking citizens. This could be taken as a bit of joke, if not for a family secret that Razumkov revealed back in 2006 about the late Oleksandr Razumkov: “My father never hid the fact that he gravitated more to Russia than to the West. I can confidently say that I’m the son of a pro-Russian father.”
Facing a little reality
So, let’s go back to Putin’s novations. It’s quite obvious that what’s going on is not just the latest provocation. Time is really not on his side, in every sense of the phrase, and so in declaring all Russian speakers a matter of Russia’s state interests, he is deliberately ramping up the aggression. How soon he intends to test this theory out, time will tell. But it’s not likely to be long. The question is whether his potential “compatriots” in the Ukrainian government understand the trap they may be building for themselves today with their constant “what’s the diff?” attitude.
Of course, it would be better if all this remained somewhere in the depths of Russian politics and if no one in Ukraine ever discovered Moscow’s new plans. There is little doubt that the Zelenskiy administration is trying to do everything possible and impossible for things to turn out this way. At any rate, not one Ukrainian official has managed to comment on Russia’s covert attack. Still, this silence is unlikely to do them much good.
The time has come for people to finally decide where their values lie and what position they intend to take. Will it be the seat of the Ukrainian president, minister and MP or just the little stools reserved for the Russian tsar’s errand boys? In short, are you for “Russki mir” with all its dubious charms or are you, after all, for a decent life in a normal, free, European Ukraine?
This is not just about those in power, but also about the opposition, which needs to pull itself together and start to engage in real actions to resist the country’s roll back down the hill. Sitting in the gallery and shrugging your shoulders, saying “We’re a minority” is not a fighting stance—and does not offer a fighting chance. Nor are dramatic statements or criticisms of criminals in power.
Putin’s latest provocation is really quite serious. And it offers a powerful argument to finally confront the “Servant” administration with the fact that a policy of reconciling with the enemy and encroaching on the foundations of statehood, among which the Ukrainian language is a critical component, has to stop. This affects all of Ukrainian society. Playing around in the mud of indifference cannot continue. Putin has just proved, once again, that language is a weapon, and he will be more than happy to make use of it. Against all the citizens of Ukraine.
Working to restore Empire
Amendments to Russia’s Constitution to give the Russian language the status of “state-making” and recognizing citizens of Ukraine and Belarus as “bearers” of the language, and the latest Minsk talks that agreed to establish an Advisory Council as that recognizes the agency of ORDiLO might look unrelated, but they are both elements of Russia’s hybrid war that can have far-reaching, even fatal consequences for Ukraine. Prof. Volodymyr Vasylenko, an international lawyer, offers his analysis of the Kremlin’s initiatives and the threats they represent for Ukraine.
1. Language as geopolitical weapon
Moscow is implementing a deliberate policy of merging nations, as the Soviet Union did, but this time as the Russian Federation, and, at the same time, restoring the Russian Empire, at least within the borders of the former Soviet Union and, if the conditions are right, as it was at the beginning of World War I. This is the only way in which the amendments on the status and use of the Russian language in Russia’s Constitution and the law recognizing citizens of Ukraine and Belarus who are fluent in Russian as its “bearers.”
In the Russian Constitution, the language that defines Russia as a federation contains deliberately vague terms and definitions as to what constitutes a federal subject. The preamble begins with “We, the multinational people of the Russian Federation.” Art. 3 states that the vehicle of Russia’s sovereignty is a “multinational people,” but Russia’s Constitution does not define what this multinational people is. This formulation is a cliché from the Stalin and Brezhnev eras about the formation of a Russian-speaking soviet people who were the new social community created by the blending of nations.
Point 1 of Art. 1 of the Constitution states that the Russian Federation is the federal state of Russia, while Point 2 states that the names “Russian Federation” and “Russia” mean the same thing—in other words, the Russian Federation is the same as Russia. In short, the Russian Constitution is terminologically unclear, which makes it impossible to understand the nature of the state called the Russian Federation. Is it a federation or some kind of “multinational people” with Russia as the nucleus?
Before Russia’s armed invasion to annex Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Art. 65 of its Constitution listed 22 national republics, 46 oblasts, 2 federal cities, 1 autonomous oblast, and 5 autonomous okrugsas subjects of the Russian Federation—the autonomous okrugs serving to provide autonomy to various indigenous peoples, mostly in Siberia. The list of national republics as subjects of the Russian Federation did not mention any subject by the name of the Russian Republic or Republic of Russia. Clearly, the authors of the Russian Constitution were embodying the idea that all the parts of the Russian Federation were part of Russia as the system-forming nucleus of a unitary empire, not a federation.
After Vladimir Putin was elected president, he issued Decree #849 on May 13, 2000, establishing federal okrugsand introducing the post of presidential representative to each of them. According to that decree, the federated subjects listed in the original version of the Constitution became parts of eight federal okrugs: Central, Northwestern, Southern, North Caucasian, Volga, Ural, Siberian and Far Eastern. These “provinces” are run by official representatives of the Russian president who are appointed by him personally and are members of his administration whose powers are determined by presidential decree, not by the Constitution. Moreover, the president also has representatives in some of the federated subjects, and the Constitution gives him megapowers.
This has de factoturned Russia from a federation to a hypercentralized unitary state. The abolition of national territorial units is a characteristic development in the evolution of this state. Between 2004 and 2008, the Ust-Ordyn-Burat, Taymyr Dolgano-Nenets, Evenk, and Koriak Autonomous Okrugs and the Buriat Autonomous Oblast all lost their status and becoming mere parts of the Perm, Krasnoyarsk, Kamchatka and Zabaykalie kraisor provinces.
The new constitutional approach to the status of the Russian language is also original. Before, Art. 68 of the Constitution defined Russian as the state language throughout the Russian Federation. The new version reads: “The state language of the Russian Federation throughout its territory is the Russian language as the language of the state-forming people who are part of the multinational union of equal peoples of the Russian Federation.” This formulation is actually counter to Arts. 1, 3 and 5 of the Russian Constitution, as it defines the Russian people as the only state-forming group that is part of a multinational union of peoples. So, the author of this version permitted a little switching around of terms, since the Constitution defines Russia as a federation, i.e. a union-based state comprised of both peoples and subjects. Thus, Russian is the language of one state-making nation and mandatory for all other nations in this union.
Russian is recognized as the dominant language in the federation. While Article 68.2 offers republics the right to introduce their own official languages in their territories, it does not mention autonomous oblasts, districts and other territorial units where other peoples, ethnic groups and minorities live. This has been done intentionally to expand the use of the Russian language as a tool of a nation-absorbing policy that will eventually turn Russia into a totally Russian-speaking country. The result is a Russia that is a unitary state both de jure and de facto, despite the fact that different peoples, ethnic groups and races live in its territory. The latest amendments to the Constitution reinforce the role of the Russian language as a tool for the complete elimination of national identity in the subjects of the Russian Federation.
In 2000, Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union, the soviet empire, “the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.” He now presents himself as the collector of lands of this empire. Of course, the only way to restore it is by bringing back the former republics of the Soviet Union where many Russian speakers live. Moscow has been focusing primarily on supporting what it calls “the Russian-speaking population” of Ukraine and Belarus. Back in the day, Aliaksandr Lukashenka caved in to Russia’s pressure and introduced Russian as a second state language in Belarus. This has almost killed Belarusian while Belarus has de factoturned into a Russian-speaking region and part of Russki Mir. Ukraine is next.
Moscow now wants to create factual and judicial grounds for destroying the identity of neighboring countries using the Russian language as a geopolitical weapon with which to restore empire. Putin makes no bones about this. When he visited Kyiv during the presidency of Leonid Kuchma in 2004, he said, “This is a Russian-speaking country and we are one people that should form one state together.” This is why Russia is doing all it can to maintain the result of many centuries of russifying Ukraine and to hang on to those who were once forced to switch from Ukrainian to Russian and still speak it.
The decision to simplify the procedure for recognizing Belarusian and Ukrainian citizens who speak Russian fluently as “bearers” of the Russian language amounts to covert interference in the domestic affairs of these countries by cementing a linguistic situation that was the result of generations of forced russification. The goal is to merge the nations and recreate the soviet empire as one Russian-speaking people.
This is why Russian officials and Russia’s fifth column in Ukraine—and the international institutions where Russia has influence—, vigorously criticized the law passed by the Verkhovna Rada to ensure that Ukrainian properly functioned as the state language. The law focuses on implementing Art. 10 of Ukraine’s Constitution and strengthening Ukraine’s national identity based on the Ukrainian language as a state-forming factor.
2. Attempts to “re-boot” the Minsk process and new Minsk accords
On March 11, 2020, the Ukrainian delegation ignominiously signed a Trilateral Contact Group protocol in Minsk to set up an Advisory Council in which Ukraine and ORDiLO would be represented as equals. However, the “LNR” and “DNR” pseudo-states are components of Russia’s occupation administration and Ukrainian law recognizes this fact. The delegation representing Ukraine had no right to sign such a protocol or give consent, even tentatively, to the set up such a body, because it is a clear and impermissible violation of the Constitution of Ukraine, the Law on special aspects of state policy to enforce the state sovereignty of Ukraine in the temporarily occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts of January 18, 2018, and Ukraine’s vital national interests.
RELATED ARTICLE: From perfidy to repression
For such a council to be formed and to start working would be a step towards granting special status to parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, undermining the unitary nature of the Ukrainian state and leading to fatal consequences for Ukraine. To use such a body as a kind of model for a peaceful resolution establishes a basis for considering the conflict started by Russia’s armed aggression as an internal Ukrainian conflict in which Russia has played no role, and to treat Russia, not as the aggressor but as a mediator, an observer and a peacemaker. This approach removes the question of Russia’s responsibility as an aggressor-state and instead gives it the tools for putting pressure on Ukraine and Western countries to lift sanctions.
Those responsible for authorizing Ukraine’s delegation to sign the protocol and for signing it should be held responsible for these actions and be fired at the very least.