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Minority Rights on the Frontlines: Russia and Ukraine

Pictured: A Russian waves the flag of Crimea in the aftermath of Russia's occupation.
Pictured: A Russian waves the flag of Crimea in the aftermath of Russia's occupation.

In February 2022, the war between Russia and Ukraine erupted. Since then, the world has witnessed a brutal, stalemated fight with accusations of human rights abuses, war crimes, and genocide levied at either side. In examining the conflict through the lens of minority rights, the intensity and complexity of the conflict, and the direct consequences for local populations, is apparent. Moreover, minority rights has also served as a catalyst, or at least a justification, of war, violence, and associated human rights violations. Focusing on this angle is crucial to fully understanding past, present, and future developments in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Soviet legacies and heterogeneity
Pictured: Approximate map of ethnic distribution in the Soviet Union.
Pictured: Approximate map of ethnic distribution in the Soviet Union.

Looking back at 1991, the former Soviet Union states were divided up into 15 republics with, more or less, a majority ethnic group apiece. The USSR, while still about half Russian, included several considerable ethnic minority groups from the Baltics, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe. Post-breakup saw a rise in potential ethnic conflicts, as evidenced by the Chechen-Russian Wars, Tajikistani Civil War, Karakalpakstan conflict, numerous Fergana Valley flare-ups, Azerbaijani-Armenian conflicts, Crimea, and many more examples. Post-1991 brought about questions for new republics about how to administer minority groups while also dealing with complicated histories, jagged borders (meant to be internal divisions in the first place), and geopolitics. 1 In many cases, the mere existence of minority groups challenged infant state apparatuses. These assertions are thoroughly accurate in the cases of Russia and Ukraine.

The historical policies of the USSR have strong legacies in how former Soviet states consider minority groups. Firstly, an inherent hierarchy of language and culture was imposed over every ethnic group. Categorization was based on perceived development levels and cultural biases. Titular groups held the highest status, followed by regional ones, and so on and so on in terms of size and influence. 2

Another seminal aspect of ethnic policy came in the form of ‘korenizatsiia’, where Soviet officials encouraged local institutions and nation-building for non-Russian and non-Slavic groups as a means of spreading ideology and a pushback on imperial policies of Russification. 3 In many ways, korenizatsiia and other related policies were responsible for specific ethnic identities arising around a state, especially in regions where this was not previously the case. While it is true that historical precedent has existed for many former Soviet republics’ statehood, notably Ukraine, this was nonetheless the start of modern ethnic relations.

Russia and Ukraine are home to undoubtedly heterogeneous populations with layers of complex history, policy, and interethnic relationships. The two have existed as part of the same state for much of the recent past, and notably among various Slavic, Turkic, Caucasian, Uralic, Far East, Far North, and other groups. Modern Russia, given its expansive geography, is incredibly ethnically diverse in spite of the Russian-centrism the rest of the world sees. Ukraine is also home to sizable populations of Rusyn, Crimean Tatars, Jews, Bulgarians, Roma, and Russians. In both states, minority groups - understandably given the precedent - are not afforded equal cultural status and often face difficulties when it comes to proliferation of language, lifestyles, histories, and other cultural elements.

In the context of the current war, the main areas of concern lie with non-Russian and non-Ukrainian ethnic groups in Russia and Ukraine (namely how they are being treated by governments) and, separately, Russians in Ukraine and Ukrainians in Russia, who have played a unique role at a time when relations between either state could not be worse.

Recent developments and outlook

The current era of the Russian-Ukrainian relationship that has existed since the fall of the USSR has amounted to Ukraine vacillating, not without Russian influence, between the Russia-sphere and the West. The key turning point was inherently 2014, when leader Viktor Yanukovych was removed from power by popular protest and Russia subsequently occupied and annexed the disputed territory of Crimea.

On the other hand, cultural and ethnic policies saw changes immediately post break-up, usually coinciding with nationalist sentiments and/or swings in the diplomatic relationship between Russia and Ukraine. 4 Both states ardently proclaimed their respective titular languages as the official one for each state despite possible plurality. Minority groups were the ones most affected by such policies: in Ukraine, Rusyn people have been pushed to identify as ethnically Ukrainian; in Russia, Tatars have routinely been pushed aside in favor of Russian-centric policies, even in Tatarstan itself. Such examples are commonplace and subtle violations of minority rights.

Most notably, especially central to Crimea in 2014 and also the current war, is the weaponization of the Russian minority in Ukraine by Moscow. 5 On the surface, it makes sense; why shouldn’t Russia take up arms in defense of oppressed Russians next door? In Crimea, a majority of the population are Russian speakers - why shouldn’t it be a part of Russia?

Even under the assumption that Russia’s claims have merit, the human rights consequences of the war are truly devastating. And, moreover, are these conditions sufficient in justifying war from the perspective of the international community? And, if so, why wouldn’t states use this to their advantage in conjunction with other geopolitical dealings, or even manufacture crises when beneficial? What constitutes an oppressed minority? Regardless of perspective, it opens an entire can of worms.

Russia’s official stance on the war and build-up focuses on a few key strategic and ideological points. Mainly, from a national security perspective, Ukraine poses a unique threat as an unfriendly border and therefore cannot be permitted to join NATO. 6 In line with prior Russian/Soviet actions, buffer states between Western Russia and historic threats in West and Central Europe are highly coveted. Putin and Moscow see the removal of Yanukovych as illegitimate, and the seizure of Crimea as the reunification of a core oblast of the Russian Federation. 7 Moreover, the Russian government views the ethnic Russians located primarily in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine as under threat from increasingly nationalistic policies who need to be reunited with Russia. 8 To take it a step further, Ukraine’s sovereignty as a whole can be questioned for the aforementioned reasons.

In examining the validity of Russia’s policies, their concerns are legitimate to some extent but not overwhelmingly accurate as of yet. The response, however, is wholly disproportionate and has in turn created new humanitarian issues in both countries, both overall and when it comes to minority rights. Russia’s military approach has so far affected soldiers from Eastern, Asian republics and oblasts relatively much more than ethnic Russian areas. Chechen troops and mercenaries have also mobilized heavily as an alternative to politically costly drafts and conscription efforts. 9 Ethnic minorities from the interior of Russia are put on the frontlines, a tactic which has received much criticism worldwide for its nationalistic undertones. 10 All in all, Russian operations have created difficult on the ground situations for ethnic minorities on the frontlines, in the name of protecting the minority group of Russians in Ukraine. On the other hand, Russians in Ukraine are generally integrated and do not face widespread discrimination, despite some complications with Russian language, culture, and identity emerging prior to the outbreak of the war. 11

The situation in Ukraine is contentious in some aspects, but mostly for the ethnic minorities in pockets around the country’s more rural areas and in much smaller numbers. Ukraine has worked towards using the Ukrainian language as the de-jure choice in public and government matters. New language laws, while not directly prohibitive, do provide more obstacles for languages of minority groups. In 2017, for example, it was declared that Ukrainian must be the educational language of instruction in schools, with concerns being voiced by the Venice Commission and amendments being made subsequently. 12 A 2019 law regarding public knowledge and use of Ukrainian has also faced criticism from numerous international organizations. 13 For the Zakarpattia Oblast, town of Bolhrad and surrounding area, Crimean peninsula, and elsewhere, the necessity of using Ukrainian as the only true first language will harm minority languages. Furthermore, the Russian language is already well-established and wide reaching in much of Ukraine. Obviously, there is some genuine concern for anti-Russian policies enacted as a pushback to Russia’s invasion, but other, smaller and less widespread ethnic groups are caught in the crossfire too. 14

Pictured: Crimean Tatars protesting and waving their ethnic flag.
Pictured: Crimean Tatars protesting and waving their ethnic flag.

In addition, having Crimea as a battlefield for such an extended period of time, especially given the weaponization of language, has harmed the Crimean Tatar community immensely. Crimean Tatars specifically have been recognized as an indigenous people of Ukraine, but historically have faced repression. 15 Under Russian administration, they are classified as a national minority group but do not hold a titular status over any Crimean territory. The volatile nature of the Crimean peninsula politically and militarily has not helped their situation, coupled with issues of Russian forces detaining Crimean Tatar citizens. 16

Overall, minority rights have been weaponized by Russia in justifying a military invasion, with questionable levels of truth with respect to the on the ground situation. In reality, the actual minority rights concerns lie with smaller ethnic groups which are disproportionately affected by the conflict zone and all the secondary effects from it. Increased nationalistic sentiments also present potential repressive or discriminatory conditions.

Although Russia and Ukraine are generally accepting of minority ethnic groups, as well as their cultures, languages, and religions, in various capacities, the full picture is less positive. As spelled out in the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, states have certain obligations when dealing with minority populations. This includes, in addition to baseline protections, the requirement of proliferating public knowledge of minority groups and encouraging their representation in education, politics, and other areas of public life. 17 Moreover, minority groups in both countries but also around the world are often located in less developed, more rural subdivisions and lack economic parity compared to the majority. These are complex issues to address, and wartime realities have only exacerbated them. In a struggle between Russians and Ukrainians, many ethnic minorities have been and will continue to be caught in the crossfire, or at a minimum, suffer indirectly. Footnotes 1 Light, Margot. “Nationalism and identity in the former Soviet Union.” METU Studies in Development, 27 (2000): 301-319. 2 Shelestyuk, Elena. “National in Form, Socialist in Content: USSR National and Language Policies in the Early Period.” SHS Web of Conferences. 2019.

3 Chevalier, Joan F. "Russian as the National Language: An Overview of Language Planning in the

Russian Federation." Russian Language Journal, 56 (2006). 4 Light, “Nationalism and identity in the former Soviet Union.” 5 Dandolov, Philip. “The Weaponization of Minority Rights and Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine.” Geopolitical Monitor. August 19, 2022. 6 Isachenkov, Vladimir. “Putin demands NATO guarantees not to expand eastward.” AP News. December 1, 2021. 7 Free, Anya. “Putin’s Crimea Mythmaking.” Wilson Center. November 28, 2023. 8 “How the Kremlin Distorts the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ Principle.” United States Institute of Peace. 9 Luna, Nathan, Leah Vredenbregt, and Ivan Pereira. “What is the Wagner Group? The 'brutal' Russian military unit in Ukraine.” ABC News. August 23, 2023. ;

“Chechen forces sign contract with Russia after Wagner’s refusal.” Al Jazeera. June 12, 2023. 10 Petkova, Mariya. “‘Putin is using ethnic minorities to fight in Ukraine’: Activist.” Al Jazeera. October 25, 2022. 11 Afanasiev, Ievgen, Brian Mann, Alina Selyukh, and Elissa Nadworny. “Ukraine agonizes over Russian culture and language in its social fabric.” NPR. June 2, 2022. 12 “Ukraine - Opinion on the provisions of the Law on Education of 5 September 2017, which concern the use of the State Language and Minority and other Languages in Education.” European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission). December 8-9, 2017.;

Sasse, Gwendolyn.“Ukraine’s Poorly Timed Education Law.” Carnegie Europe. October 2, 2017. 13 “Ukraine - Opinion on the Law on Supporting the Functioning of the Ukrainian Language as the State Language.” European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission). December 6-7, 2019. 14 Dinnyés, Ágnes.“Caught in the crossfire: Minority languages in Ukraine.” Minority Rights Group International. October 11, 2023. 15 “Who are the Crimean Tatars?.” The Kyiv Independent. October 16, 2023. 16 “Crimea: Persecution of Crimean Tatars Intensifies.” Human Rights Watch. November 14, 2017. 17 United Nations. 1992. Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.


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