Russia’s weaponization of ethnicity in Ukraine: Lesson Learned for Washington

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has revitalized the question of ethnicity in the former USSR.  The rhetoric and the actions of the Kremlin have indicated the adoption of a new doctrine, the Putin Doctrine, which requires the protection of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers. In effect, the Putin Doctrine is the Russian equivalent of the U.S. Monroe Doctrine; the former Soviet space is to become a Russian sphere of influence. Therefore, it is vital to understand how the Kremlin has explored inter-ethnic relations in Ukraine as a pretext to launch a full-scale attack.

Ukraine has been a multi-ethnic country, with Russians being the largest minority. Nevertheless, high rates of intermarriage, a common religion, and strong historical bonds have created a unique relationship between Ukrainians and Russians that probably has no parallel in modern European history. In fact, the break-up of the Soviet Union did not lead to a massive exodus of ethnic Russians from Ukraine like it happened with those living in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. In contrast, most Russians even supported Ukrainian independence. Despite the occasional outbursts of Ukrainian nationalism, ethnic Russians have been well-integrated into the society. Moreover, Russian has been the second official language since it is widely spoken throughout the country.

Yet, Moscow has been able to mobilize many ethnic Russians against the Ukrainian authorities. Putin and his local allies have capitalized on eastern Ukraine’s grievances about the highly centralized nature of the state and the parliament’s hostile attitude toward the Russian language. During April and May 2014, many pro-Russian protests ended up in occupying public buildings in eastern Ukraine. It is open to speculation the role of Russian secret agents in these events, but it is clear that there was some coordination between secessionist leaders and the Kremlin. 

Moscow has probably drawn valuable lessons from its experiences in Moldova and the South Caucasus during the 1990s. It was the time when the Russian army was covertly involved in ethnic conflicts supporting secessionist movements in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno Karabakh and Transnistria. Ethnic mobilization often leads to confrontation with state authorities. If there is a military response, the civilian population will suffer enormously. The victims would be turned into heroes and the perpetrators would be accused of being inhuman. As a result, a cycle of violence is then unleashed that would fuel a campaign for secession and would eventually provoke a Russian intervention. This process can be summarized as follows: 

Ethnic mobilization state military response  violence against civilians

        glorification of victims and demonization of perpetrators more violence and campaign for secession Russian intervention

Eastern Ukraine clearly fits this model: it is an ethnically diverse region with a large Russian community that has been mobilized against state authorities. During 2014-2016, the Ukrainian government escalated the crisis by sending troops to defeat the separatist forces. Many locals rallied around the separatist leadership which blamed Kiev for the violence. As a result, the logic goes, Russia has a moral obligation to assist ethnic Russians and enforce peace. 

Simultaneously, the Kremlin has initiated a process of new identity formation among Russians living in Ukraine. Thus, Putin has frequently mentioned the term Novorossiya (New Russia) to describe the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine. It was first used during the tsarist rule to describe Russian-controlled territories of Ukraine that had been liberated from the Crimean Khanate at the end of the 18th century. The renaming of Ukrainian territories indicates a long-term strategy to reinforce a sense of ethnic consciousness among the local population. It is not coincidence that the pro-Kremlin separatists have invented a flag and other state symbols for this new entity.

The Russian strategy of weaponizing ethnicity is deep-rooted, embedding a sense of injustice about the disintegration of the Soviet Union. While it is difficult to predict whether the Kremlin would intervene in another country, there is one former Soviet republic that already feels the heat of the war in Ukraine. Kazakhstan is the largest country of Central Asia, with a multi-ethnic population of 19 million and significant energy reserves. The Russian minority resides in the northern part of the country which shares a 7,644 km border with Russia. While its percentage has fallen since the early 1990s, the Russian minority still constitutes around 18 percent of the total population. Not surprisingly, Kazakhstan has increasingly attracted the attention of Moscow.

In early January 2022, following social unrest sparked by rising energy prices, a Russian-led peacekeeping force was deployed to stabilise Kazakhstan. Yet, President Tokayev has frequently mentioned the principle of territorial integrity in his speeches since the beginning of the Russian-Ukraine war. This is hardly a coincidence. For many years, the Russian far right has made territorial claims against his country. The Kremlin had never openly embraced such rhetoric because Kazakhstan was viewed as a loyal ally. However, last August, former president Dmitry Medvedev called Kazakhstan “an artificial country” and claimed that “Kazakhstani authorities implemented resettlement policies of various ethnic groups inside the republic, which can be qualified as the genocide of Russians”. While Medvedev later denied that he made the comments, part of the Russian political elite harbours some territorial claims against Kazakhstan. If the Putin doctrine is to be implemented again, Kazakhstan would probably be the next victim of Russian revisionism.

In conclusion, the invasion of Ukraine has produced fear and uncertainty among Russia’s neighbours. Putin’s weaponization of ethnicity could ultimately lead to more interventions. The United States has been viewed as a stakeholder in the former USSR because it is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. While a U.S. military intervention in the region is highly unlikely, Washington could send a message of reassurance to former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan. The creation of a greater Russia, in which all ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking would live, cannot be written off as “a thing of the past”. Hence, the Biden administration needs to be more proactive and prepare for more crises like Ukraine. Ethnicity has become a factor of division and irredentism in the former USSR.

*Dr Emmanuel Karagiannis is a Reader in International Security at King’s College London