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The Ukraine war of words that heralds ethnic cleansing


AS THE Ukrainian forces and their Western backers celebrate their recent military advance, the fate of ethnic Russians in the reclaimed territories looks bleak now that local and national leaders have declared a reckoning against those whom they consider to be collaborators and traitors. 

It’s a policy that originates from the early stages of the conflict based on a law passed in March that threatened anyone who co-operated with the occupying Russian authorities with up to 15 years of imprisonment together with the confiscation of property. Hitherto there have been many arrests of those accused of pro-Russian collaboration, including the leader of Ukraine’s official parliamentary opposition Viktor Medvedchuk, and assassinations of officials such as Alexei Kovalev, deputy head of the military and civil administration in the Kherson region. But as the Ukrainian forces wrest back territory from Russia, a wide net is being cast against alleged collaborators that extends well beyond officials to include teacherssocial media warriors and victims of unsubstantiated claims of snitches, shedding light on the intentions of Ukrainian authorities in the unlikely event of total victory.

Ukraine is a culturally heterogenous population in which linguistic affiliation is complex, being governed by both cultural and social situations.  At least 17 per cent of Ukrainians claim Russian heritage, with about 14 per cent declaring Russian as their main language and a further 17 per cent Russo-Ukrainian bilingualism, with an unknown number opting to converse in a hybrid Surzhyk dialect. Russian speakers are overwhelmingly concentrated in the eastern and southern regions of the country. It’s a situation, moreover, that has reflected the electoral geography of the country of both parliamentary and presidential elections with the eastern and southern parts of the country exhibiting close affinities with Russia.

Starting as a reasonable initiative at nation-building that intended to correct the inequalities of institutional Russification of the Soviet era, language policy came to be weaponised by nationalist political forces that sought to use it to marginalise Russian culture. Although a cultural reset was inevitable after the collapse of the Soviet Union to redress years of Russification, its initial steps were measured, such as the Law of Languages of 1989, which extended legislative protections to Russian as well as other languages. For Ukraine’s increasingly influential nationalists, overwhelmingly located in the West of the country, the Law was intolerable and unsurprisingly fell victim to the Maidan coup of 2014, that replaced the Russophile President Viktor Yanukovich with Petro Poroshenko.

While its provisions were maintained by Ukraine’s subsequent leadership, following international condemnation of its revocation, the decision of the Constitutional Court to deem the Law unconstitutional was viewed by the Russian minority as a sign of a broader assault on Ukraine’s Russian heritage and served to fuel separatist sentiment in the Crimea and the Donbas. It also played into the hands of Vladimir Putin who could now claim to be the champion of Ukraine’s oppressed Russian speakers, by military means if necessary. Such fears were not unwarranted as in 2019 a new language law sought to end the hitherto ad hoc implementation of existing legislation and subject transgressors to severe fines. Poroshenko, who was campaigning for re-election, weaponised Ukraine’s language policy with his election slogan ‘Army, faith, language’, declaring that ‘the only opinion that we weren’t going to account for [in drafting the legislation] is the opinion of Moscow’. Salt was further rubbed into the wounds of the third of the country which rejected it by its being signed off by the Speaker of Parliament, Andrei Parubiy, a former activist in the neo-Nazi Social-National Party, who warned chillingly that ‘those people who try to revise the language law . . . will soon feel the whole anger of the Ukrainian people’. Remaining loopholes were filled in January 2022, just before Russia’s military incursion, which for instance compelled Russian language print media to produce Ukrainian translations for all publications in a move that de facto targeted Russian for discrimination.

To indigenous Russian speakers, such rhetoric marked the creation of an ethnic state in which they were not welcome. The escalation of the war in 2022 seemed to confirm their worst fears as not only did Russian become ‘the language of the enemy’ but things Russian, political parties, music, literature were officially shunned, banned or marginalised in a policy that hitherto had been executed only by the far right nationalists of Lviv City Council in West Ukraine. Whereas then the likes of Canadian and British ambassadors joined Moscow in condemning such action as ‘just plain dumb’ and intolerant, now such nationwide ‘de-Russification’ initiatives were met with silence.

International opinion recognised Ukraine’s language policy as conflict-bearing due to its increasingly divisive and discriminatory nature. The scrapping of minority language provisions by Ukraine’s Constitutional Court in 2014, for instance, raised concerns in the European Parliament which deemed it as ‘undermining any notions of justice, freedom, civilisation, progress and democracy’ and called for the EU Commission to ‘condemn the action of the Ukrainian Parliament and the nationalistic attacks on minority communities in Ukraine’. The 2019 law came under similar criticism from the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional affairs, which declared that it threatened to become ‘a source of inter-ethnic tensions within Ukraine’. It reiterated its conclusion following the passing of the January 2022 Law, noting that ‘historical oppression of Ukrainian . . . may lead to the adoption of positive measures aimed at promoting Ukrainian, but this cannot justify depriving the Russian language and its speakers of the protection granted to other languages’.

Both the intra-parliamentary brawls and street standoffs between Ukrainian and Russian speakers during the passage of the language legislation were chilling portents of what was come. Although the escalation of the war in 2022 has seen some ethnic Ukrainian Russian speakers distance themselves from ‘the language of the enemy’ and embrace Ukrainian as their main language, it has also seen ethnic Russians fortify their Russian identity. While this in itself has demonstrated the complexity and malleability of identity in Ukraine, it has also reinforced pre-existing cultural fissures, leaving ethnic Russians with no option other than to embrace Mother Russia as their homeland. 

While the conflict in the Donbas since 2014 rendered reconciliation between the Ukrainian authorities and the Russian minority problematic, as the failure of the Minsk agreement testifies, the escalation of the conflict has entrenched pre-war hatreds. With the national conversation decisively turning against the reintegration of Russian culture and language into Ukraine’s social fabric, it is difficult to see how a status quo ante bellum with even rudimentary cultural and linguistic protections for ethnic Russians is possible were the Ukrainian state reconstituted within its pre-war borders. In fact, everything points towards mass retribution and ethnic cleansing on a scale not witnessed in Europe since the Second World War, in a scenario that is likely to overshadow the grim events of the conflict itself. Ukraine’s Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, certainly didn’t mince his words on a recent Ukrainian talk show in calling for the ‘complete disappearance of the Russian language from our land’ in what sounded like incitement to ethnic cleansing.

Nothwithstanding the difficulty such actions would present for social reconstruction, the questionable legality of extra-judicial killings of officials and political persecution of ‘collaborators’ threatens to draw attention to atrocities committed by Ukrainian paramilitary forces during the Second World War against Russians, Jews, Poles and other minorities. These crimes, together with the ritualistic celebrations by Ukraine’s highest political authorities of those who perpetrated them like nationalist leader and Nazi collaborator, Stepan Bandera, have been conveniently whitewashed so as to not tarnish the image of a virtuous Ukraine that has been carefully cultivated over the past few months. The sources which once regularly condemned Ukraine for not only celebrating wartime collaboration but also tolerating a revival of neo-Nazi paramilitarism now declare similar condemnation by Russia as hostile propaganda. A Ukraine seen to be persecuting minorities again would be a propaganda disaster for its Western backers.

Dividing Ukraine’s population into ‘the people’ and ‘the rest’ where the latter were made to feel subordinate in their ancestral lands to the former was always going to lead to conflict. Yet just as wise counsel of the likes of George Kennan, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski warned of the grave risks of Nato’s expansion to Russia’s borders, so warnings came aplenty of the dangers of a divisive language policy. To Ukraine’s detriment, however, neither was heeded and now a reckoning against ‘the rest’ will be as useless in knitting back together shattered communities as the pre-war language policy was in solving peaceful coexistence between Russian and Ukrainian in a single public space.

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Dr Gregory Slysz
Dr Gregory Slysz
Dr Gregory Slysz writes and lectures on history and current affairs. He is currently working on his second book, ‘The bigger picture and the case for Christendom’.

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