How Putin's Justification for Invading Ukraine Backfired

How Putin's Justification for Invading Ukraine Backfired

Vladimir Putin's claimed protection of the Russian language and rights of Russian-speaking Ukrainians were his key justifications for the invasion of Ukraine.

Yet In response, many Ukrainians in Russian-speaking regions took up arms to expel Russian tanks and soldiers from their land.

For centuries, Russian has dominated Ukrainian culture: movies, music, TV shows, and politics. But recent Ukrainian legislation—criticized by some commentators—and a growing number of influencers increasingly seek change.

Ukraine's 2014 Maidan Revolution—the pro-Western uprising deposing a Moscow-aligned administration—and subsequent Russian invasion gave fresh impetus to those advocating for the primacy of the Ukrainian language. Russia's February invasion may have supercharged this shift.

A 2017 education law put Russian in a third tier of language learning. Two years later, a law to be enforced in phases over several years enshrined Ukrainian as the state language, obligating civil servants to use Ukrainian and Russian-language print media to publish Ukrainian versions.

A pro-Russian opposition group of MPs voted against the bill, claiming it would be divisive. That group was among those banned after Russia's full-scale invasion. The Venice Commission, the European advisory body, also expressed concern; while recognizing the importance of protecting Ukrainian, it feared it "raised issues of discrimination."

In June, Ukraine's Parliament voted to ban the distribution of Russian books and the the sound of Russian music by post-Soviet-era artists.

Julia Sydorenko and her husband tie up stacks of Russian language books which they brought to the Siayvo bookstore, where they are being collected and prepared for recycling, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on September 18, 2022.

A poll last month, commissioned by Ukraine's state broadcaster, suggested more than half (57 percent) speak more Ukrainian since Russia's troops stormed over the border on February 24.

Pop diva Olya Polyakova, who has earned fame across the post-Soviet space for her Russian-language hits, ceremoniously burned her trademark kokoshnik, a traditional Russian headdress, and now performs exclusively in Ukrainian, campaigning to advance use of the language.

"I love challenges. I've been a fighter all my life, first to get into a spotlight, and then to stick around. Time will show what happens next, but I'm doing this with my heart wide open," she told Newsweek.

Ukrainian singer Olya Polyakova performs on stage for a few hundred fans at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, Massachusetts, on May 24, 2022. Polyakova embarked on a multi-city US tour to raise money for the people and military of Ukraine during the war against Russia.

Ukrainian travel vlogger Anton Ptushkin, from the eastern city of Luhansk, abandoned his Russian-language YouTube channel—with more than 5.6 million subscribers—immediately after Russia's incursion.

"I'm done with travel blogging in Russian, and now I want to make use of what I do best to tell the world about the war Russia is waging on us," Ptushkin told Newsweek.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a native Russian speaker elected in 2019, addressed Russian speakers in Ukraine weeks after the latest invasion.

"I am talking to you calmly [in Russian]. And when someone speaks Russian to me in Ukraine, I calmly switch to Russian. I am the president, and I believe that the way the president behaves, it means that the people support [this behavior] Take it easy.

"But hatred of everything Russian will grow, unequivocally. Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin did the worst for the Russian language. I think it's irreparable damage."

Ukraine has accused invading Russian troops of abuses to suppress the Ukrainian language in occupied regions. Ukraine's language ombudsperson, lawmaker Taras Kremin, dubbed it "linguicide."

"By burning our historical archives and libraries, shutting down Ukrainian TV channels, abducting teachers, and threatening student's parents, the Russians are trying to intimidate people into refusing their language and to hinder national resistance," Kremin said.

The Russian government has been contacted for comment.

Ukrainians remain free to use Russian in everyday life, though for many it is tinged with the horror of invasion.

"The language is suddenly seen in Ukraine as a 'friend-or-foe' marker," believes entertainment expert Mike Yasinsky. "There've been no wars in history where language would have such a cultural, ideological, and technical significance."

The shift is happening in the Ukrainian diaspora, too. London-based journalist John Ashmore teaches English to Ukrainian refugees and also speaks Russian. He recalls one Russian-speaking woman from Odesa telling him he is now the only person she speaks Russian with. "It's also striking that Ukrainians I've met in London who were in the UK before the war started using Ukrainian," he told Newsweek.

'Shouldn't Involve Bans'

But the shift is not universal. Yan Monastyrskyy, the man behind a network of legendary Kyiv hot dogs, has remained Russian speaking throughout, despite criticism he believes is unfair.

"My generation comes from the Soviet Union, and for my family and friends, Russian has been the main language forever," Monastysrkyy said.

"I still speak Russian as I'm not comfortably fluent in Ukrainian, but I do believe that the tilt toward Ukrainian will prevail. However, this shouldn't involve bans of any sorts. It should be a natural process... my kid will probably speak Ukrainian, too, and I'll be supportive."

Some westerners are trying to help their eastern compatriots. A café in Lviv recently made headlines over a sign declaring: "Russian speakers trying to speak Ukrainian: You aren't ridiculous, you're awesome!"

As Kyiv street cuisine guru Monastyrskyy says: "It's up to the next generation to decide what language they are willing to speak and promote." But, he adds, the ongoing war is shaping that choice.

Ievgen Matiushenko

The piece was originally published by Newsweek

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