As the Russian invasion of Ukraine ends its first year, the Kremlin might like to reflect on what this has done for Ukrainian national identity. 

Ukrainian servicemen carry the coffin of a comrade

People in Kyiv kneel as Ukrainian servicemen carry the coffin of a comrade killed in a battle with Russian forces in the Donetsk region, 8 January 2023. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP Photo)

Just one word defines the most effective nation-building force in Ukraine in its three decades of independence: Russia.

Not since Ukraine took its first steps outside the Soviet Union when the 15-republic communist monolith collapsed in 1991 has anything done more for national unity than its powerful neighbour.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Ukrainians came together as never before. Differences between the largely Russian-speaking east of the country and the more nationalist Ukrainian-speaking west were softened, even eradicated in many places.

The language split in Ukraine can be explained by the fact that the west for part of its history was under the Austro-Hungarian empire, with the provinces of Galicia and Volhynia considered Polish. Much of the centre and the east, in contrast, were under Russian rule.

Nowhere is the divide more acute than in the Donbass, the bleak coal-mining and industrial east of the country. The Donbass is considered the most pro-Russian part of Ukraine and its urban areas are generally populated by Russian speakers.

Language as a nation builder

If the Donbass is Russian-speaking, this is partly due to the unusual mix of those who live there.

Under the Tsars and the Soviets, people who needed work could find poorly paid and dangerous employment in the mines there. Prisoners leaving jail knew they could get jobs in the Donbass with no questions asked.

Workers from all over the empire or the Soviet Union settled there, united only by language: Russian.

The first talk of autonomy began during the 2004 Orange Revolution when evidence of election fraud, mostly in the Donbass, helped overturn a presidential election that had at first designated the winner as Donetsk native Viktor Yanukovych.

Separation became more of a reality 10 years later after Yanukovych — finally elected in 2010 — fled for Russia after violent protests erupted over his decision to favour a Russian-led trade alliance rather than closer ties with the European Union.

Crossing borders to stay Ukrainian

When Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, armed conflict with Ukrainian forces ended in rebels taking control of about one third of the Donbass. In the aftermath, two pro-Russian enclaves, the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘people’s republics,’ were founded.

Putin last year stressed the need to save the Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine from persecution or even “genocide.” In fact, many Ukrainians have Russian as their mother tongue, especially in eastern and central cities, including Kyiv itself. In villages, even in the east, Ukrainian is often heard.

President Volodymyr Zelensky, born in the south-eastern city of Kryvyi Rih, is himself a Russian speaker. Since his election in 2019, he has only spoken Ukrainian in public, underlining its status as the official language.

The Donbass is often painted as uniformly pro-Russian. But, in 2014, thousands fled to remain under Ukrainian rule.

“I was raised in Donetsk in a Russian-speaking family,” said a young woman working with me on an election observation mission in 2015. “I did all my schooling in Russian. We would cross the border to see friends in Russia and they would come to us in Ukraine. I never really thought about whether I was Russian or Ukrainian.”

She said that when the separatists arrived she saw how they behaved. “I knew then that I was Ukrainian,” she said.

The support Russia thought it had in Ukraine has disappeared.

If peace was the main casualty of the invasion, a secondary casualty was Russia’s own reputation.

Heralded as a modernised fighting force, the Russian Army performed astonishingly badly. Russian soldiers allegedly committed torture, rape, killing and looting against civilians.

Atrocities were reported in the Kyiv suburbs during a catastrophic attempt to march on the Ukrainian capital, in the south around the city of Kherson, and in the east, where Russia tried to extend its territory beyond the two separatist ‘people’s republics’ proclaimed in 2014.

So, if Russia does take more of Ukraine, it risks ruling over a largely resentful population with the danger of violent resistance, making any occupation hazardous. And who would be the occupiers? Could the Russian Army occupy parts of Ukraine alone?

Or would they be assisted by one of the militias now fighting alongside it, such as The Wagner Group? This paramilitary organization is headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as President Vladimir Putin’s ‘chef.’ He runs both a catering firm and a St. Petersburg Internet ‘troll factory’ — a network of anonymous Internet posters and trolls that are linked to the Russian government. Or perhaps it would call on the pro-Moscow Chechen militia led by Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic.

Both groups are renowned for cruelty. What role might they play in the post-conflict Russia?

Destabilisation of Russia’s republics

The Wagner Group bolstered its ranks early in the Ukraine invasion by offering prison inmates a pardon if they volunteered to fight. This led to the release of some notorious convicts, such as a St. Petersburg businessman who was jailed for 23 years in 2021 for ordering the murder of a family of four, including two children. After serving the six months required for a full pardon, the ex-prisoner reportedly took off for a rest in Turkey.

Michel Yakovleff, a retired French general and former deputy commander of NATO’s Strategic Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, worries that the Ukraine conflict could lead to a dangerous instability within the Russian Federation. He said that Russia risks ‘an implosion’ with one or more of its 21 constituent republics opting for self-rule.

Many of those territories, such as Buryatia in Siberia or Dagestan in the Caucasus, provided the manpower for the initial invading force, with men from the Russian centre drafted months later.

“I am much more anxious about Russia than I am about Ukraine,” Yakovleff said.

Questions to consider:

  1. Apart from peace, what was another casualty of the Russian invasion?
  2. Has war eradicated all Ukraine’s peacetime problems? If not, what remains?
  3. What is a factor behind Ukraine’s language division?
Alistair Lyon author news decoder-150x150

Julian Nundy joined Reuters in 1970 and was posted to Moscow, Paris, then Brussels, with stints in the Middle East reporting on the Lebanese civil war and the Iranian Islamic Revolution. As a staffer for Newsweek, the International Herald Tribune, The Independent and Bloomberg, he covered the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the assassination of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, conflict in Bosnia and the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. Nundy has a long association with Ukraine going back to 1968 when he arrived on a one-year British Council studentship at Kyiv University. In recent years, he has been an election observer for nine Ukrainian elections, four of them in the Donbass since conflict broke out there in 2014.

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