Ethnic Russians: Pretext for Putin's Ukraine Invasion?

Does a "New Russia" include eastern Ukraine? Putin thinks so.

Pro-Russia separatists burn the Ukrainian coat of arms outside the state prosecutor's office in the city of Donets'k on May 1, 2014.


"Novorossiya" or "New Russia": Putin only briefly mentioned that term during a five-hour, televised question-and-answer session this month. But his revival of that geographic title for southern and eastern Ukraine—territory won from the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century by Catherine the Great—is resonating among Russians today.

"I would like to remind you that what was called Novorossiya back in the tsarist days," said Putin, listing what are now the Ukrainian regions of Kharkiv, Luhans'k, Donets'k, Kherson, Mykolayiv, and Odesa—"were not part of Ukraine back then." He added, "Russia lost these territories for various reasons, but the people remained."

Those former swaths of the Ottoman Empire, called New Russia or Novorossiya when they were conquered some two centuries ago, comprise what is now much of present-day Ukraine's southern agricultural and eastern industrial heartland, where Russian is still widely spoken.

Putin's interest in Russians in the near abroad isn't new. In 2005, he described the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as "a major geopolitical disaster of the century" with a particularly disturbing result: "Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory."

Nearly a decade later he now appears eager to reverse what he considers the geographical missteps of his predecessors, as he most notably did recently in Crimea, which was part of Russia until 1954, when it was handed over to Ukraine—arbitrarily, in the view of many Russians.

The ever-shifting borders of the Russian Empire, followed by the Soviet Union and then the chaotic dissolution of the USSR, has made Russian identity a murky concept. The growing acceptance of intermarriage between ethnic groups, especially with the greater secularism that came after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, further complicated the question of who was and was not a Russian. But that hasn't stopped Putin and many other Russian politicians from making their treatment a hot domestic issue and vowing to protect them at all costs.

Wearing riot police helmets and shields, pro-Russia separatists stand guard at the entrance of the prosecutor's office in Donets'k on May 1, 2014.


Who Are the Ethnic Russians?

Estimates vary on the number of what Putin calls "co-citizens and compatriots" in the far reaches of the former Soviet empire in part because of disparate views on what qualifies someone to be called ethnic Russian.

"First of all, what constitutes 'ethnic Russians' in Ukraine?" asks Stephen Blank, a senior fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council. "The Russians have played fast and loose with this: Sometimes they mean Russian speakers. Or there is also the new Russian citizenship law that says if your grandparents lived in Russia and Russian is your native language, you can be a Russian citizen."

Adds Blank with acerbic humor: "This would make me a Russian citizen—they can invade Brighton Beach to rescue the Russian Jews who are oppressed by the city government of New York."

However you define a Russian "compatriot," their numbers seem poised to grow. The new citizenship law Blank was referring to, a fast track to Russian citizenship, came into effect just last week, along with a new law requiring people to prove they can speak Russian to acquire residency.

And with last month's annexation of Crimea, ethnic Russians there—a majority of the peninsula's population after the wholesale deportation of the region's Crimean Tatars in 1944 by Stalin—are already back in the Russian fold. (Related: "How Should Crimea Be Shown on National Geographic Maps?")

Russian Ties

In so-called New Russia, the ties to Russian leadership in the north also run deep.

In the late 18th century, when Empress Catherine the Great won New Russia from the Tatar Khanate and the Ottoman Empire, she swiftly made it as Russian as possible through fostering the use of the Russian language and encouraging settlement. (Related: "Behind the Headlines: Who Are the Crimean Tatars?")

Alexei Miller, a Moscow-based historian and author of The Ukrainian Question: Russian Nationalism in the 19th Century, says that in the late 18th century, southern Ukraine "was more or less empty because it was contested borderland between different empires—there were raids, nomads, slave taking, and so on. So not many people lived there. After it was annexed to the Russian Empire, they made the region the main target for agricultural migrations."

The empress famously invited European foreigners to settle in New Russia, and ensured that land was made available to Russian nobles to establish serfdoms. Millions arrived from all over the Russian Empire in the years before the Bolshevik Revolution.

"After the revolution, you have further industrialization of these regions and influx of some Russian workers. You also have, after the famine of 1932 and 1933, some—but not very big—import of Russians as kolkhoz [collective farm] workers," adds Miller. The man-made famine, called the Holodomor, was orchestrated by Stalin to force Ukrainian peasants into collective farms, and was a key moment in history that embittered Ukrainians against Moscow. (Related: "Is Putin Reassembling Soviet Union? Q&A With Nina Kruscheva, Nikita Kruschev's Granddaughter.")

While the south was more agricultural, eastern Ukraine was more industrial. "Ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, the Donbass area, started arriving at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century when coal and iron were discovered there," says Miller. Workers, many of them Russian, flooded what became "a huge industrial base."

But a few short years after the Bolshevik Revolution ended the reign of the tsars, the land that had been known as Novorossiya was folded into the new Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922, part of a nascent entity that would be called the Soviet Union. Putin recently expressed dismay over the Soviet leadership's decision to give New Russia to Ukraine. "Why? Let God judge them."'

After storming government buildings in Donets'k, pro-Russia separatists took over the prosecutor's office on May 1, 2014.


Shifting Borders

Once again, the region and its people appear to be up for grabs. Complicating the matter is the fact that Ukraine's population has "always been mixed," says M. Steven Fish, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley who specializes in post-communist countries.

"Ukraine, as we know it today, as an independent state shaped the way it is now, is pretty much a post-Soviet phenomenon, and that's true for all countries of the former Soviet Union. These countries were all parts of larger empires over different centuries," Fish says.

Because of these shifting empires and borders, large Russian populations can be found not just in Ukraine, but also in many former republics. It's a result of a range of factors, from the 18th-century doctrine of developing areas by settling them, to a 19th- and 20th-century world of "industrial development, gulags, those fleeing World War II, and Stalin's deportations," says Blank. "There have been all sorts of mass movements over hundreds of years."

In countries like Kazakhstan, large Russian populations are living relatively harmoniously, whereas the Russian speakers of Latvia (who make up 26 percent of the population) have struggled to find their financial and professional footing since the Soviet breakup. Latvian officials last week said Russian "provocateurs" are attempting to foment unrest as they have in Ukraine, and NATO officials say Russian troops are well placed to move into Moldova's breakaway Transdniestria region (also part of New Russia), whose ethnic Russian majority is allied with Moscow. (Related: "Is Past Russian Meddling in Former Soviet Bloc an Omen for Crimea?")

A Ukrainian soldier looks on at a Ukrainian checkpoint near the city of Slov''yans'k on May 2, 2014. In a sharp escalation of the conflict, Ukrainian forces attacked the pro-Russia forces in Slov''yans'k before dawn on Friday, and the pro-Russia separatists reportedly shot down a Ukrainian attack helicopter, killing a pilot.


A Difficult Breakup

It's been more than 20 years since the disintegration of the U.S.S.R., but the effect of that breakup on its people remains a daily reality for many. Almost overnight, some 25 million ethnic Russians became a diaspora. By 2003, about eight million of them were reabsorbed by Russia. About half of that number came from Central Asia, where relations between Russians and the indigenous Turkic nationalities were often strained.

Relations have also been fraught with difficulty in the Baltic countries where ethnic Russians have been particularly vocal about feeling disenfranchised after independence. About one-third of ethnic Russians living in Latvia are considered "non-citizens" and not allowed certain rights, including the right to vote or hold office. The country has been reprimanded by the UN for failing to encourage integration, yet, at the same time, intermarriage between ethnic Latvians and Russians has increased after independence despite official tensions. Intermarriage has long been common between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians as well—yet another factor that could complicate identity issues as parts of Ukraine vote on whether to secede.

Are there other post-Soviet countries with large Russian populations that could soon face the kind of upheaval that Crimea and eastern Ukraine are experiencing? Historian Miller says the answer doesn't just lie in where you can find ethnic Russians on a map—but also on whether the Kremlin might benefit from becoming entangled in yet another crisis.

"What Putin is doing in Ukraine is not caused by the wish to save Russians but by geo-strategic motives," Miller says, adding that Russia's motivations may be much like those of the U.S. when it says it is fighting for democracy—in countries that happen to have oil riches. The question other former republics must ask, he says, is, "Do we really treat Russians fairly enough, and does Putin have enough important strategic interests in our country to use discrimination of Russians as an instrument of his involvement?"