Friday, May 2, 2014

2/5/2014: Ethnic Russians in Ukraine are Centuries-Old, Not Decades-Deep...

As someone just remarked on twitter, the proverbial sh*t just got real in Ukraine. And mightily it did - Ukrainian authorities report 31 dead in clashes in largely Russian-speaking Odessa. Other sources report 'dozens killed' - e.g.

Here are two stills from the live broadcast by a Ukrainian channel of events in Odessa, showing the civilian firetruck being used by the pro-Kiev forces to attempt to break through opposition barricades. The broadcast showed personnel with what appeared to be field helmets on hiding under the cover of the truck.

Odessa is a serious flash point for three major reasons:

  1. It is largely Russian-speaking and highly ethnically diverse. The city has a very old Jewish diaspora (greatly reduced by the nazis during the WWII) and of its large (1 million) population, roughly 60% are ethnic Ukrainians, followed by 29% of Russians. It also has Armenian, Albanian, Azeri, Crimean Tatar, Bulgarian, Romanian etc diasporas. Even a Greek diaspora. The city is very much reflective of the current ethnic tensions - although majority of population is not ethnically Russian, main spoken language remains Russian, despite the language not being recognised as official. Historically, like most of Eastern Ukraine, Odessa was Russian - it was Russian in the 19th century when the city was the fourth largest in the Russian empire after Moscow, St Petersburg and Warsaw. Crucially to its history, Odessa was Russian ethnically all the way until mid 20th century. Notice that this is a direct contradiction to the extreme nationalist views being propagated in Ukraine that Russian population of Eastern and Southern Ukraine represented 'new colonisers' who arrived there after Stalin-induced Soviet Union-wide famine of the 1920s.
  2. Odessa is culturally and strategically aligned with Crimea (via sea linkages) and its Oblast borders Transnistria region of Moldova.
The push point in the conflict is, in my view, moving closer and closer to an open confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. 

And here is a voting map from the last elections, showing just how closely the South-Western Ukrainian area - including Odessa region - is aligned with the Eastern Ukraine:

Here is a handy map showing movements of Russian and Ukrainian troops (

How did the Russians get into Ukraine, you might ask? Well, here is a handy guide (see note below):
  • Eastern Ukraine was added to Russian Empire in 1654-1667 with western border defined by River Dniper. These parts were first incorporated into the Ukrainian territories in 1919-1920 and then in 1922 Treaty that created the USSR. Here are the lands lost in the Polish War by Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and gained by Ukraine via Russia:
  • Today's Western Ukraine was formed during one of the subsequent three partitions of Poland: which also added significantly to the Ukrainian territories claimed today.
  • In 1783 Russia added Crimea and other parts of Tatar Crimean khanite, including Odessa.
  • Irony has it, as points, it was Russian imperial control that allowed Ukrainians to settle into Crimea and Southern Ukrainian territories. 
  • After WW2, Soviet Union largely expanded Ukrainian territory adding over 65,000 square miles and 11 million population (an increase of over 1/3 on pre-war period. The main expansion took place along the Curzon Line at the expense of Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia.
  • Lastly, in February 1954, Russian Republic (RSFSR) 'gifted' Crimea to the Ukraine - from legally Russian territory (sub-part of the USSR). Only 22% of Crimean population at the time was Ukrainian (the rest were Tatars, other ethnic minorities and those, who Kiev supporters today frequently call post-genocide occupants of Ukraine coming from Russia, but in reality are Russian ethnicity residents of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine since 17th century).
Here is a summary map of what shaped the territory of the Ukraine prior to 2014:

These changes in the territories clearly indicate that ethnically Russian population is not a phenomena of colonisation post 1922 famine, but an outcome of centuries old movements of people with changes and reshaping of national, political, economic and cultural boundaries.

In my view, nationalist Kiev position resisting the initiation of the democratic process on federalisation of Ukraine is not sustainable. Ukraine now has to move fast into securing a roadmap to
  1. Orderly elections in May (the timing is unfortunate, but the commitment is irreversible); 
  2. Followed by pre-committed regional referenda on membership in the Ukrainian Federation (respecting any region that votes to exit); and
  3. Pre-committed process of democratic federalisation post exits of the secessionist regions.
I would have preferred to see Ukraine remain fully unified, territorially unaltered state with greater autonomy extended to the regions that wish to have it. I think that such Ukraine was possible under February 21st agreement, violated by the Maidan forces and by the current leadership in Kiev.

Alas, with every day passing, this hope of a unified Ukraine is becoming less and less feasible in the longer run and Kiev's insistence on avoiding orderly, democratic federalisation now threatens to lead to a civil war in the short run.

I hope I am wrong in this assessment...

Note: I do not care to make any of the above points to justify territorial break up of Ukraine. I never supported such a break-up in the first place. I am, however, interested in pointing out that nationalist rhetoric treating ethnic Russians (or any other ethnic group living in Ukraine) as being 'foreign' presence in the country is absurd, vile and does not contribute to the cause of unifying Ukraine and helping it preserve its own territorial integrity.

And, I am no less concerned about emerging Russian nationalism - not only in Ukraine, but also in Russia proper. This, however, is a matter for separate posts, maybe in some near future.
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