Russian military aggression has led to a reevaluation of traditional Ukrainian political-geographical identities and to the disappearance of political parties and platforms that once represented the Russian-speaking residents of the southeast. In the face of the enemy, Ukrainian society has united above and beyond traditional ethno-linguistic differences. However, as the war drags on and the mobilisation potential of Ukrainian public opinion weakens, the question of political representation for the Russian-speaking segment of Ukrainian society is once again on the agenda.
Unlike the situation a decade ago, Russian-speaking Ukraine is no longer pro-Russian, but it has retained many attributes of its distinct identity. Solidarity in the face of aggression does not imply agreement with the concept of Ukrainian linguistic and cultural homogeneity in the southeast. The inevitable 'return of politics' will require Ukrainian society and the political class to strike a delicate balance between the fear of the 'fifth column', towards which Russian propaganda efforts will be directed, and a more inclusive form of political 'Ukrainian unity' that takes into account Ukraine's linguistic, cultural, and geographical realities.
Southeast: From 'pro-Russian' to 'Russian-speaking'
The transition of the Russia-Ukraine conflict into a protracted war that could last for years, and the gradual waning of the 'rally around the flag' effect in Ukrainian society, raises questions about how Ukraine's political life will be organised and structured in these new conditions, in particular, how support for the country's leadership in countering Russian aggression can gain a more robust institutional foundation while preserving the space of political competition and democratic norms.
Even though Ukraine has decided not to hold presidential elections during wartime, parliamentary elections, which would be expected to take place next year under normal circumstances, are likely to proceed. As a result, the issue of the multiplicity of 'Ukrainian identities' will inevitably return to the Ukrainian political agenda, prompting Ukrainian politicians to seek their political niches in these new conditions, political analyst Konstantin Skorkin notes in his report 'The Return of Politics' on Carnegie Politika.
Indeed, the political-geographical divide between the southeast, with its pro-Russian sympathies and Soviet resentments, and the northwest, oriented toward Europe and the project of a national Ukrainian state, has permeated Ukraine's post-Soviet political history. For example, a survey in early February 2014 showed that only 12% of Ukrainian respondents supported the idea of integration with Russia into a single state, but in the east, this was one in four of those surveyed (26%), and in the south, one in five (19%), whereas in the central and western regions, it was a negligible percentage.
After the Russian aggression of 2014, the question of integration with Russia became irrelevant and taboo in Ukraine's public political discourse. According to a Gallup survey conducted in the fall of 2014, 59% of respondents supported Ukraine's membership in the EU, while only 17% expressed support for membership in the Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. In contrast, in the autumn of 2013, the support for these projects stood at 42% and 37%, respectively. In 2014, pro-Western parties garnered more votes in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine than pro-Russian ones, and this dominance was not linked to nationalist radicalisation. The far-right parties like 'Svoboda' and the 'Right Sector,' despite playing a significant role in the Euromaidan movement, collectively received only 6.5% of the votes in the elections.
In other words, after the 2014 invasion, the southeast of Ukraine as a political community which had been oriented towards its Soviet past and Russian present effectively ceased to exist. The residents of these regions redirected their expectations and aspirations toward a pan-Ukrainian future. Historian David Marples metaphorically articulated this idea, stating that the Soviet legacy, which had influenced previous elections, is now consigned to oblivion, much like statues of Lenin. However, in reality, the distinct identity of eastern Ukraine did not disappear but merely lost its previous forms of political representation.
Researchers have noted that the everyday use of the Ukrainian language significantly expanded across the entire territory of Ukraine after the onset of the conflict with Russia in 2014. Nevertheless, the issue of language rights and political opportunities for Russian-speaking citizens became more pronounced after the departure of the country’s traditionally 'pro-Russian' parties. This ultimately influenced the outcome of the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. An analysis of pre-election statements by politicians revealed that the rhetoric of Petro Poroshenko and parties oriented towards Ukrainian-speaking voters in the northwest revolved around the radicalisation of questions concerning the status of the Ukrainian language, consistent de-Sovietisation, and the 'reduction of space for the functioning of the Russian language.' In contrast, the campaign of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his party, 'Servant of the People,' aimed to smooth over linguistic and cultural-historical divisions within the country. Their rhetoric of consensus on cultural and, especially, linguistic matters, based on the unity of the Ukrainian 'political nation', played a significant role in their overwhelming electoral success.
Nationalist mobilisation in search of 'inclusive populism'
However, the full-scale Russian invasion has reignited linguistic issues, ethnonationalist rhetoric, and attitudes toward everything 'Russian' in Ukraine. Nationalist mobilisation became a natural response to the invasion, shifting mainstream 'Ukrainian identity' from the political sphere to the ethno-linguistic one, making it impossible to replicate the previous election agenda within this new context. The Verkhovna Rada excluded the 'language of the aggressor country' from the protection of minority rights during martial law and for an additional five years after it comes to an end. The Kyiv City Council has effectively banned the public use of Russian-language cultural products in the capital. The conflict surrounding the Ukrainian Orthodox Church also continues. While Ukrainian society as a whole perceives de-Russification positively, as Skorkin notes, 'significant divergences emerge in the details': 40% of respondents in nationwide surveys oppose the removal of monuments related to World War II, and 30% are against the exclusion of Russian literature from the school curriculum.
Furthermore, the war has brought with it an additional factor of politico-geographical division. As Re: Russia has highlighted, recent polls demonstrate a substantial difference in attitudes towards the war and its prospects for resolution between the centre and west, on one hand, and the southeast on the other. Residents of the southeast, which is closer to the frontline and suffering the immediate hardships of the war, show signs of greater fatigue and readiness for compromise to bring the conflict to an end. This situational but significant circumstance is compounded by the persistence of linguistic and cultural differences and the proximity of the southeast to the occupied territories.
According to Skorkin, the unifying platform through which Ukrainian politicians could garner the votes of Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine may be pro-Ukrainian patriotic populism – mobilising Russian-speaking voters under the banners of national unity in the face of the aggressor, in other words, a reactivation of the concept of the 'political nation'. On this flank, there is a plethora of politicians and groups ready to represent the interests of Russian-speaking residents of Ukraine and promote their agenda on a national scale. This includes the ruling party 'Servant of the People', Alexey Arestovich, and a long-time advocate for the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine, Dmitry Razumkov. Local-level politicians from the southeastern regions of Ukraine are also capable of advancing an agenda tied to the interests of the Russian-speaking population; among them, Skorkin mentions Igor Terekhov, the mayor of Kharkiv.
The old model of political representation for the Russian-speaking and eastern Ukrainian population, embodied by the 'Party of Regions', is a thing of the past. However, a new model is inevitably emerging, the contours of which are not yet fully clear. The Ukrainian political mainstream must, in the conditions of war, strike a balance between the fear of the 'fifth column', which Russian propaganda efforts will target, and a more inclusive political project of 'Ukrainian unity' that takes into account Ukraine's linguistic, cultural, and geographical realities.