This isn't tribalism, it's politics
This post first appeared on Russia Insider
Have you noticed how the English-language media describes the rebels in Donbass?
Most of the time it deems them “pro-Russian rebels” which is a little bit like describing the Patriot faction of the American Revolution the “pro-French rebels”. Surely the rebels see Russia in a positive light, but surely that is tangential to what really makes them tick.
However, a designation of this sort must at least be commended in the sense that it is an admission on the part of the English-language press of how little it is certain of. Most of the time all it knows is that the rebs like Russia, and does not to try to guess at the rest.
It is at other times that the media has feigned knowledge where they could have done real damage. In a minority of cases, reports and commentary have designated the rebels the “ethnic Russian rebels”. This seems convenient, and doubtless gives the outsiders a sense of clarity and certainty, but that is precisely what is so dangerous about this extraordinarily misleading characterization.
Once the anti-government faction is deemed to be made up of “ethnic Russian rebels” the story becomes a familiar one. The rebels are Russians and they are fighting because they are Russians. It is an inter-ethnic conflict between Russians and Ukrainians. Only, it is not.
Regardless of how great or important one thinks the differences between Ukrainians and Russians are, the fact is that in the limited geographic space of south-eastern Ukraine, and particularly in Donbass, this distinction is neither great nor significant to the people who live there.
Ukrainians and Russians in south-eastern Ukraine are part of the same ethnic coalition, and have been amalgamating into one body ever since these lands were first opened to colonization from historic Ukraine and Russia proper. The British-Ukrainian historian Taras Kuzio put it this way:
“Identities in eastern-southern Ukraine are a mixture of local, east Slavic and Soviet. While recognising that they are different to Russians living across the former Soviet internal administrative, now Ukrainian-Russian, interstate border they do not differentiate between Russians and Ukrainians within eastern-southern Ukraine. They are all, after all, Russian-speakers in a region where all national cultures had largely been eradicated in urban centres and where few people are religious. Linguistic, religious or cultural markers of separate identity between Ukrainians or Russians in eastern-southern Ukraine do not therefore really exist.”
The peculiarity of identity in south-eastern Ukraine actually goes further than that. The identity of many people in the region appears fluid and ambiguous. When asked whether they are Russian or Ukrainian they are not necessarily in a position to give a simple answer, and may resent being pressed to do so.
Numerous people regard themselves at least somewhat Ukrainian and at least somewhat Russian at the same time.
Thus a poll carried out in Ukraine in 1997 found that if given a range of choices a quarter of respondents across the country gave their identity as both Ukrainian and Russian at the same time. 56% of those asked declared themselves to be Ukrainians, 11% to be Russians, but 27% opted for some variant of Russian-Ukrainian and Ukrainian-Russian. Indeed, the last Soviet population census found Ukraine to be inhabited by 37.5 million Ukrainians and 11.3 million Russians, but the first and only population census carried out in independent Ukraine found 37.5 million Ukrainians and 8.3 million Russians instead.
The reason the number of census Ukrainians could stay constant while the number of census Russians fell by 25% is clear. Upwards of 2 million people had transferred their census nationality from Russian to Ukrainian.
It should be understood that there is no sharp Russian-Ukrainian ethnic dichotomy across large swathes of Ukraine, and furthermore it is precisely in the Donbass region that has risen up in rebellion to the government in Kyiv that this dichotomy is the weakest.
Instead of a sharp delineation between the two ethnic communities there is an amalgamated Russian-Ukrainian community and a great deal of fluidity and ambiguity between the two nationalities. Numerous people are comfortable identifying as both Ukrainian and Russian at the same time, and furthermore do not believe there is, or should be, any great difference between the two.
The fight then is clearly not between Russian and Ukrainian. The war is not about who the rebels in the south-east are, but what they believe in.
The rebels and their most ardent supporters no longer believe in Ukrainian nation-building. They do not conceive of the Ukraine as the proper political unit for them.
This is apparent from their rejection of Ukrainian national symbols and ambition to build up local people’s republics.
Many may have considerable, or even mainly, Ukrainian ethnic ancestry, but do not consider themselves part of the Ukrainian political nation. Some are happy to concede that they are Ukrainian, but do not want Ukrainians as a separate political nation from other East Slavs.
Just as numerous citizens of Ukraine between 1989 and 2001 transferred their census nationality from Russian to Ukrainian, so numerous Ukrainians (particularly Russians-Ukrainians) can transfer their allegiance away from Ukrainian nation-building and decide that their proper political community is not the Republic of Ukraine, but the People’s Republic of Donetsk/Lugansk or the Confederation of Novorossia.
The Donbass rebellion is not a war of the kind we have seen in the Balkans with its sharp ethno-national divisions. It is more like the American Revolution, or the American Civil War.
It is a rebellion of people who no longer subscribe to the Ukrainian national project, but who are not necessarily ethnically distinct from those who continue to do so.
It is neither a rebellion of Russian-speaking Ukrainians nor of ethnic Russians. It is a rebellion of those Ukrainian citizens who want to remove themselves from the project of Ukrainian nation-building.
 Taras Kuzio, Ukraine: State and Nation Building (London: Routledge, 1998), 73-74.
 Oxana Shevel, “Nationality in Ukraine: Some Rules of Engagement,” East European Politics and Societies 16, no. 2 (2002): 387-417. citing Andrew Wilson, The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 219.
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