Language and War in Contemporary Ukraine

Language and War in Contemporary Ukraine

by Francis Scarr

The author is a Research Assistant Intern at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. 

Since Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991, the country has grappled, at times clumsily, with the task of establishing consensus over the precise nature of its national identity. Protracted periods as an imperial subject divided between Russia and Austria-Hungary, with large swathes previously ruled by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, have rendered Ukraine not only an ethnically heterogenous state, but also one in which language and culture do not always map directly onto a perceived belonging to a specific ethnic group.

Understandings of Ukrainian national identity

Received wisdom has it that those from the country’s western regions champion the development of a state along exclusively Ukrainian linguistic lines accompanied by an aggressive process of ‘derussification’ in the east and south. By contrast, it is often considered that many in the east and south have called for the preservation of a hybrid East Slavic identity more at ease with the Soviet Union and Russian Empire’s policy of linguistic and cultural ‘russification’.

When this simplistic dichotomy is put to scrutiny, however, Ukrainian self identification becomes far more complex, since vast numbers of Ukrainian citizens find themselves somewhere between these two cultural and linguistic poles. Many Ukrainians are comfortable using both languages and often use one professionally and the other domestically.[i] Many of those self identifying as ethnic Ukrainians predominantly use Russian, and this is in no way perceived as a refutation of Ukrainian patriotism.

This spectrum is further complicated by the presence of small minorities of Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians and Crimean Tatars (at least until Russia’s illegal annexation of the peninsula in 2014). The overwhelming majority of those identifying as members of these minorities have preserved domestic use of their native language rather than wholly introducing Ukrainian into everyday life.[ii]

Against the backdrop of this diverse ethnocultural and linguistic palette, Vladimir Putin’s public efforts to reformulate an institutionally countenanced understanding of Russian nationhood following his reelection as president in 2012 have had profound consequences for Ukraine. Putin has resurrected the notion of the ‘russkii mir’ (Russian world), a term long used in ultraconservative Russian circles to describe a culturally and linguistically Russian space reaching beyond the borders of today’s Russian Federation.

‘Defending’ the ‘russkii mir’ has served as a pretence for annexing Crimea and invading the Donbas region of south-eastern Ukraine. The idea itself seeks to undermine Ukraine by dividing the country between Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers.

Inadvertently, however, Russia’s military actions alongside this narrative have arguably accelerated the incomplete process of Ukrainian nation building. As such, large swathes of the country have chosen to reject long-held notions of ethnic identity based on the perception of a shared ancestry, culture and language in favour of a more inclusive civic identity. This identity, by contrast, is grounded in a respect for shared values, rights and the possession of a common state citizenship.

As the sociologist Stuart Hall has written, ‘it is only through the relation to the Other, the relation to what it is not, to precisely what it lacks, […] that the “positive” meaning of any term — and thus its “identity” — can be constructed.[iii] Centuries of imperial Russian assimilation have sought to reduce Ukrainian culture from an independent entity to a mere regional denotation. The consequences of this are seen to this day in the struggle faced by Ukraine’s politicians in engaging effectively with all parts of the country’s diverse population.

Arguably, though, Russia’s aggression in the Donbas has provided the ‘Other’ against which Ukraine can now define itself. Irrespective of what Russian-language news might be telling people in Eastern Ukraine, it is has been impossible for those affected to ignore the unfolding humanitarian crisis. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the conflict had resulted in Ukraine’s number of IDPs reaching 1.65 million as of 2016.[iv]

Narratives of Ukrainian Russianness

Prior to Putin’s third term, Russian leaders (including Putin himself) had primarily used the civically understood term of ‘rossiyane’ to describe Russian citizens irrespective of their ethnic self-identification. This helped to ease Russians out of the ideological debris left by the Soviet Union’s demise.

However, in an article written in 2012 for ‘Nezavisimaia gazeta’ entitled ‘Russia: The National Question’, Putin embarked on his redefinition of Russian national identity. In this article Putin shifted the focus onto Russia’s ‘russkost’’, that is, its ‘ethnic Russianness’. He conceived of the ‘russkii narod’ (ethnically Russian people) as a ‘core, holding together the fabric of this unique civilisation’ .[v] Whilst eschewing pure ethnonationalism, he emphasised the role of the ‘russkii mir’  and this trope appeared again in his March 2014 speech welcoming Crimea and Sevastopol into Russia. Here, Crimea’s ‘russkoiazichnii’ (Russian-language) character was stressed, and Putin also referred to the peninsula as a ‘natively Russian land’, again using the ethnically loaded ‘russkii’ over the more neutral ‘rossiiskii’.[vi]

As the Romanian political analyst Vladmir Socor has commented, Putin’s propagation of the ‘russkii mir’ narrative can be viewed as a revanchist measure designed to counter a perceived increase in pro-European sentiment across Ukraine following the Revolution of Dignity.[vii] According to the binary model of Ukrainian society, it followed that wider dissemination of the ‘russkii mir’ narrative would split Ukraine in two, between its culturally and linguistically Ukrainian West and its ‘russkii’ East. Conversely, the outcome is rather a protracted conflict in the Donbas with no clear signs of conclusion. Putin has reaped success insofar as the war is hindering Ukraine’s economic recovery and any efforts at further European integration, but it is also clear that the war is costly for Russia and has not brought about the undisputed foreign policy coup that Crimea did.[viii]

Rejecting the ‘russkii mir’

Where family ties and shared culture may previously have brought Ukraine’s ethnic Russians closer to Russia than to Ukraine, Russia’s military actions have violated Ukrainian sovereignty and represent an act of aggression rather than one of defence.[ix] This, in turn, has encouraged a significant number of these Ukrainian citizens to repudiate their once held East Slavic identity rooted in the notion of fraternity with Russia. The withering away of this East Slavic identity has been accompanied by the development of a nascent civic Ukrainian identity.

This is apparent from a comparison of parliamentary election results from October 2012 (before Crimea’s annexation and the beginning of the Donbas conflict) and October 2014 (after both those events). In 2012, the far-right ‘Freedom’ party received 10.44% of the popular vote with the far-left Communist Party collecting 13.18%.[x] By contrast, in 2014, ‘Freedom’ and the Communists, together with the newly formed far-right ‘Right Sector’ amassed a mere total of 10.39% with none of the three parties surpassing the 5% threshold required to enter parliament.[xi]

These three parties all fall outside of the political mainstream and reject an inclusive Ukrainian identity based on civic values. The two far-right parties rest on an exclusive ethnic understanding of Ukrainian national identity.[xii] The Communist Party’s ideological framework, by contrast, is grounded largely in an ethnically formulated East Slavic ‘brotherhood’ with Russia which denies the existence of Ukraine as an independent sovereign state. The manifest decline of these three parties seems to represent the rejection of ideologies traditionally grounded in opposition to a large section of Ukraine’s population. In tandem with this, increasing support for mainstream parties seems to indicate a greater willingness to support the government in its (at least asserted) intentions to reform the country’s economy and unite Ukrainian citizens.

The tight rope of language policy

Since declaring independence in 1991, language policy has always remained at the forefront of Ukrainian political debate. Politicians have wavered between asserting the primacy of Ukrainian as the sole official language and giving more rights to Russian and minority languages such as Hungarian, Romanian, and Bulgarian inter alia. In this historical context, a recent law signed by President Petro Poroshenko has arguably tipped the delicate balance of Ukrainian language policy beyond what is considered internationally tolerable. 

Seeking to assert influence across its former empire, the Kremlin has frequently exploited Ukraine’s diversity by depicting its language laws as an affront to the rights of Ukraine’s Russian speakers. In a speech made by Putin in the wake of Crimea’s annexation, he insisted that ‘time after time, attempts have been made to deprive Russians of their historical memory and occasionally even their native tongue, to make them the target of forced assimilation.[xiii]

Despite the Kremlin’s intentions of offering ‘protection’ to Ukraine’s Russian speakers, the war in the Donbas has actually alienated a large proportion of those whom Putin wished to envelope in his ‘russkii mir’. The war, and the emergence of a specifically Ukrainian Russian-language identity have exposed official Russian rhetoric as an awkward attempt to map Russian linguistic identity directly onto Russian ethnic identity. As Mykola Riabchuk, an esteemed Ukrainian public intellectual, has remarked, official status for the Russian language in Ukraine, a measure perennially demanded by the Kremlin, is actually far from progressive: “They are demanding not the right of Russians to speak Russian, but their right never to learn Ukrainian.”[xiv]

Evidence for the counter-productivity of the Kremlin’s actions lies in the increasing numbers of Russian-speaking Ukrainians introducing the Ukrainian language into their homes as a means of cementing their Ukrainian citizenship.[xv] In addition to fostering a greater sense of national unity, this has the benefit of improving social mobility across the country and citizens’ ability to work and study all over the country, unburdened by the restriction of not knowing Ukrainian. The Kremlin’s notion of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers as a cohesive and homogenous whole should be seen for what it is: a narrative obscuring the imperialist and assimilatory language policies dating back to Catherine II.

The Polish political scientist Tadeusz A. Olszánski posits that “the constant pressure from Russia, which considers language to be an instrument of symbolic and political reintegration of the former Empire, forces Kyiv to pursue and active language policy.”[xvi] Whilst it would be reductive to apply this notion unreservedly to the historical oscillations of independent Ukraine’s language policy, the aforementioned language law recently signed by President Poroshenko does indeed represent a case of ‘active language policy’. This law, confirming Ukrainian as the required language of study in state schools from the fifth year upwards,[xvii] has provoked the wrath of several European governments including those of Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. Their opposition is connected with an assumed responsibility for the protection of rights of ‘their’ national minorities abroad.

However, the law has also caused concern amongst more senior European politicians such as Thorbjorn Jagland, the secretary general of the Council of Europe. In an article written in response to news of the law Jagland had the following to say: “Minorities in Europe must of course be fluent in their state’s official language. This is vital for their full participation in society […] At the same time, the state must also provide the right and the ability to use the their mother tongue both culturally and in official exchanges.”[xviii]

In pursuing a policy of affirmative action against imperial and Soviet Russification, it would appear that Poroshenko has in fact neglected to safeguard the language rights of non-Ukrainian speakers. The law is undoubtedly a reaction to perceived Russian influence in Ukraine, but it is also likely to alienate speakers of other languages in the country. Given that the war in the Donbas is demonstrably diminishing support for Russia in Ukraine, the law seems unnecessary and even politically harmful. Indeed, the law has provoked a very negative reaction from several governments of the titular nations of the minority groups affected. Hungary, for one, has promised to block any further European integration for Ukraine.[xix]

Russian pressure on Ukraine intends to divide the country, and in introducing the new law, Poroshenko might just be inadvertently acquiescing in this. As Jagland comments, “it would be reckless to ignore the threat to peace and stability posed by the politicisation of inter-ethnic relations and lack of compliance with internationally-agreed standards on minority protection.”[xx] Since Ukraine has remained linguistically so diverse even after twenty six years of independence, aiming for what amounts to almost the entire Ukrainisation of education is unrealistic and counterproductive. If all Ukrainians were to wholeheartedly embrace the Ukrainian language, it is likely that they would already have done so.

The role of war in nation building

Seeing Russian speakers go to war to defend Ukrainian sovereignty has inspired a greater sense of trust between Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers in Ukraine.[xxi] As such, the resultant marginalisation of ethnically focused Ukrainian nationalism has exposed the notion of a ‘russkii mir’ as no more than the remnants of imperial discourse produced by a Russian state ill at ease with its post-Soviet borders and diminished global influence.

Despite the Ukrainian government’s failure to implement its promised post-Maidan reforms,[xxii] the Ukrainian army has fought much more competently than was expected in the Donbas, and Ukrainians of all persuasions have embraced their flag as a symbol opposed not to Russian ethnic identity, but to the aggression and intolerance propagated by the Kremlin.

The results of two surveys conducted by Rating Group, a sociological research centre based in Kyiv, demonstrate the increased willingness of Ukrainians to rally behind their shared citizenship, irrespective of ethnic or cultural affiliations. In 2013, survey respondents were asked whether they would vote in favour of Ukrainian independence if a hypothetical referendum were held again. In the country’s south and east, regions with a higher proportion of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers, 35% and 40% respectively of those asked declared that they would vote against Ukraine’s independence.[xxiii] By 2017, however, when the same question was posed, the figures had fallen to 22% and 22% respectively, thus indicating a significant shift in favour towards Ukraine’s existence as a state independent of Russia.[xxiv]

Concluding remarks

Russia’s campaign of military aggression in eastern Ukraine has had a wide variety of consequences, both predictable and not. Whilst Ukraine has been forced to increase military spending to above 6% of its GDP,[xxv] and over 10,000 lives have been lost since the start of the conflict,[xxvi] the war has led to a demonstrable acceleration in the process of Ukrainian nation building. The Ukrainian people are displaying greater signs of solidarity than perhaps at any time since the declaration of independence in 1991, and the country’s politicians now only have themselves to blame for the failure to enact reforms.

The war in the Donbas has pushed ethnic conceptions of the Ukrainian nation to the margins of discourse. As a result it has also given the lawmakers of Ukraine’s moderate parties a genuine platform from which to push onwards in modernising their country and purging it of corruption

Nonetheless, pride in Ukraine’s flag does not translate directly into support for the current ruling elite, and Poroshenko would be wise to heed the demands of his people. The recent language law along with the Ukrainian parliament’s reluctance to pass key economic reforms have not served the wider interests of the Ukrainian people. Whilst far-right Ukrainian nationalists were prominent during the Revolution of Dignity, the vast majority of Ukrainians there were protesting Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the EU association agreement and the perceived rejection of European values that this entailed.[xxvii]

Putin’s war has perversely helped Poroshenko to gain the support he needs for reform. Yet if he abuses this support by ignoring the advice of EU politicians such as Thorbjorn Jagmar and the calls of Ukrainians desperate for reform, he may invite yet another revolution, only this time with the potential of widespread violence.

Francis Scarr holds a BA in Modern and Medieval Languages from the University of Cambridge and is currently a Research Assistant Intern at the IIR.





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[iii] Hall, Stuart ‘Introduction: Who Needs “Identity”?’ in Questions of Cultural Identity, Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay, eds, p4/5


[v] Putin, Vladimir, ‘Россия: национальный вопрос’,

[vi] Putin, Vladimir, ‘Обращение Президента’,

[vii] Socor, Vladimir ‘Putin Inflates “Russian World” Identity, Claims Protection Rights’, The Jamestown Foundation,


[ix] Finnin, Rory and Thomas D. Grant,

[x] 2012 Verkhovna Rada Election Results:

[xi] 2014 Verkhovna Rada Election Results:

[xii] Ramani, Samuel, ‘Ukraine’s Far-Right: Sifting Facts From Fiction’,

[xiii] Putin, 2014

[xiv] ‘Ukraine’s Orange Blues’ – Interview with Mykola Riabchuk –

[xv] ‘Украинцы стали больше говорить на украинском’

[xvi] Olszánski, Tadeusz ‘The language issue in Ukraine’, Ośrodek Studiów Wschodnich im. Marka Kapia / Centre for Eastern Studies


[xviii] Jagmar, Thorbjorn ‘Ukraine’s new language law is “walking fine line” ‘,


[xx] Jagmar


[xxii] Dickinson, Peter ‘Parliament is the Problem in Ukraine’ (5.9.2017)

[xxiii] ‘Динаміка патріотичних настроїв’ (August 2014)

[xxiv] ‘Патріотичні настрої українців’ (August 2017)