One of the first actions taken by the interim Ukrainian government immediately after the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych on February 22 was an attempt to repeal the 2012 law recognising Russian as an official regional language. It was hardly evidence of an administration committed to establishing a unified country and it understandably alarmed anxious Russian speakers throughout the population.
About half the people of Ukraine speak Russian. It is estimated that one-sixth of Ukrainians are, in fact, ethnic Russians. In the semi-autonomous region of Crimea, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is stationed under a lease agreement, ethnic Russians constitute the majority of the population. Suffice to say, we are not talking about an insignificant component. The choice of language is highly symbolic in any culture. In Ukrainian politics, it is a hugely contentious issue. The controversial threat to remove Russian as an official language can only have been intended to insult and provoke ethnic Russians.
Western politicians and commentators are still describing the situation in Ukraine as a revolution led by ordinary people desperate for true democracy. But Oleksandr Sych, the deputy Prime Minister of the new government, is a member of the ultra-right anti-communist Svoboda (Freedom) party, elements of which have threatened to ban the Russian language completely and even strip Russian speakers of their Ukrainian citizenship. Four other members of the party hold infuential positions in the government. Svoboda’s original name was the Social-National Party of Ukraine, an intentional reference to the Nazi Party in Germany, and it chose as its symbol the Nazi-like Wolfsangel logo. Although the appointment of Oleh Tyahnybok as leader moderated some aspects of its extremist image, the party remains inimically opposed to all perceived encroachment of Russian culture into Ukraine’s national fabric. So, misguided Western support for the protests against Yanukovych fell foul of the law of unintended consequences – handing power to extremists. Sound familiar?
As the West wrings its hands over Russian intervention and the propaganda goes into overdrive, the plight of ethnic Russians in Ukraine should not be overlooked. If you deprive people of their language, their history and their identity, you can make them feel they have ceased to exist. We should not be overly sceptical if Russian President Vladimir Putin defines his country’s response in terms of a humanitarian mission.