Identity in the current Russo-Occupied Ukrainian Territories – Realities and Misconceptions

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Due to the annexation of Crimea and the occupied territories of the Donbas by the Russian military and local separatists, it has made it difficult to be able to accurately measure collective identity perceptions in these regions. As their separations from Ukraine were forcefully undertaken through military means, the new status quo of Russian control has seemingly detached the populations away even from having a civic identification with Ukraine. It seems extremely unlikely that any of the territories will be reassigned back under the full control of the Ukrainian government in the near future. It is therefore important to understand why these regions have seemingly lost all attachment to the Ukrainian state.

Ethnic Russians have always been a majority in the Crimea and identified that way in the last available census of 2001, with over 58% of the peninsula viewing themselves as having Russian nationality (CCSoU,2001). It is difficult to know to what extent this ethnic identity outlook was objective. The Soviet ethnicity concept mentioned earlier, revealed that many approached their national identities in a subjective and unemotional way. Nevertheless, when Russian special forces took over and annexed the area in Spring 2014, limited resistance ensued from both the citizens that resided there and even from the Ukrainian government. This was a result of a combination of the Ukrainian armed forces being dilapidated, alongside Crimea’s cultural and political detachment from Ukraine, which it had exercised since 1991. The lack of struggle and welcoming by the majority of Crimean citizens for their Russian occupiers, who had never viewed themselves as part of the collective Ukrainian identity, was subsequently unsurprising (Motyl, 2015). 

Whilst the current Ukrainian government refuses to acknowledge the annexation, many Crimeans themselves have limited pull factors for the return of their territory to Ukraine. Limited cultural, political and economic reasons resonate with them towards Ukraine due to personal and historically close ties with Russia. Prior to the annexation, Crimeans were becoming less satisfied with the functioning of the Ukrainian state, with it having a poor economy, currency and lack of decentralisation; it perceived that the government in Kyiv was neglecting it. This, accompanied with the frequented exposure of Russian government controlled media with amplified discretions and numerous invented smears about Kyiv; in turn solidified the weakening of any kind of allure towards identifying with the state their territory previously belonged to (Zhurzhenko, 2014, 251; Sotiriou, 2016, 64)

However, not all of the Crimean population harbours such an outlook. The minority Crimean Tatar population always held closer civic identification with the Ukrainian state. However, due to their small numbers they were unable to influence the annexation outcome. Many have since left for mainland Ukraine, whilst those who have remained have experienced persecution for their association with the Ukrainian state (HRW, 2017).

The authorities in the so called DNR and LNR quasi-republics have also decimated Ukrainian identification through the use of Russian propaganda, coercion and the manipulation of the largely older generation, by attempting to reincarnate a miniature version of Soviet Republics. With similar grievances to that of Crimea, hoping for greater decentralisation and traditional closer associations with Russian and Soviet culture and values, those that have remained within the ‘separatist’ territories have done so due to their lack of attachment to the Ukrainian state, which they never truly resonated with. Whilst the lawlessness and foreign military presence also play a role in influencing national identity perception through the portrayal of Ukraine as a common enemy, it was the already weak connection to the Ukrainian collective identity, primarily in the urbanized areas of Donbas, thata significant part of the populationhave maintained enmity towards the Ukrainian state and its government (Schneider-Deters, 2015; Sotiriou, 2016, 64)

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