Many journalistic accounts -- as well as the Kremlin's propaganda machine -- depict the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine's separatist Donbas region and the Crimea as an aggrieved ethnic minority clamoring for nothing more than greater autonomy and cultural and language rights. Seen in this light, Kiev and ethnic Ukrainians are the victimizers. The Donbas and its Russians are the victims. To put the conflict in American terms, Kiev is white America and the Russian-speaking regions are black America.
The analogy is completely false.
For starters, the Crimea has enjoyed the status of an autonomous republic since 1991. The province ran itself, and Kiev rarely meddled, so much so that it even neglected the physical needs and civil and cultural rights of the peninsula's Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians. The two Donbas provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk have also had de facto autonomy from Kiev. Since the 1930s, they've been the bastions of Ukraine's Stalinist Communist Party, which remained highly influential until the revolution and war of 2013-2014. Since 2001, both provinces have been the stronghold of the Party of Regions, which largely drew its functionaries and electorate from the Communists and which served as the springboard for Ukraine's former president, Viktor Yanukovych. Ukraine's richest man, the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, funded the Party of Regions, which, together with the Communists, ran the Donbas as its fiefdom.
Unsurprisingly, both the Crimea and the Donbas witnessed the absolute hegemony of Russian language and culture. School instruction was largely in Russian; the media -- whether books, magazines, newspapers, television or radio -- were also overwhelmingly in Russian. Ethnic Ukrainians frequently complained that, if they tried to use Ukrainian in public, they'd be told to "speak human" -- i.e. Russian. Most residents viewed Ukrainian as a "foreign" tongue and viewed the hegemony of Russian as a perfectly natural state of affairs. A supremacist minority detested all things Ukrainian.
I remember meeting one such supremacist at a conference in Kiev in 1994. He insisted that the rights of Russians were persistently being violated in the Crimea. Were there too many Ukrainian schools?, I asked. No, he answered. Did Ukrainians dominate the media? No. Was he unable to speak Russian in public? No, again. What then was the problem? He finally fessed up: the very fact that Ukrainian existed in the Crimea was an offense. Indeed, I can think of no instance of a Russian speaker being discriminated against in either the Donbas or the Crimea since 1991.
A far more appropriate analogy for understanding Russo-Ukrainian relations is the Jim Crow South, with Russians as the whites and Ukrainians as the blacks. Not only have Russians and Russian speakers ruled the Crimea and the Donbas and enjoyed complete language and cultural rights. They have also proven to be the most reactionary, intolerant and illiberal population within Ukraine.
During Viktor Yanukovych's four-year reign from 2010 to 2014, Ukraine's Jim Crow South captured Kiev and began extending its norms to all of Ukraine. "Black" Ukrainians fought back, first with the Orange Revolution in 2004 and then with the Maidan Revolution of 2013-2014. The slogans of both revolutions centered on human and civil rights, dignity and personal autonomy -- just as during the civil rights movement in the United States. The "white" Yanukovych regime fought back -- in the same manner as racist whites in the Deep South -- with violence, intimidation and the equivalent of its Ku Klux Klan, the armed fanatics that eventually formed the core of the separatist armies.
Unsurprisingly, "black" Ukrainians have divided into a variety of factions. The overwhelming majority supported, and continues to support, moderation, tolerance and inclusion, along the lines of Martin Luther King. Although there is, alas, no equivalent of Dr. King in contemporary Ukrainian politics, most Ukrainian democrats employ his rhetoric and promote his ideals. But there are also "black" Ukrainian radicals. The right-wing Svoboda party's leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, has sounded remarkably like Malcom X. The hyper-nationalist Azov Battalion resembles the Black Panthers, and its leader Andrii Biletsky could easily pass for Eldridge Cleaver.
The analogy with the Deep South breaks down because of Russia's annexation of the Crimea and its invasion of eastern Ukraine. Russia's presence in these regions ensures that they will remain as reactionary, intolerant and illiberal as they have always been. If Kiev were to reach some political accommodation with the pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas, Ukraine would face an impossible choice. If the Donbas retains the autonomy it has always had, it will remain a Jim Crow bastion that will prevent Ukraine from becoming a liberal democracy. If Ukraine attempts to spread liberal values to the Donbas Deep South, the region's "white" elites and Ku Klux Klan will, once again, rebel. Moscow will claim that their rights are being violated by the Ukrainian racists and fascists in Kiev!
The United States could eventually overcome Jim Crow laws because Washington was stronger than the Deep South. As long as Russia supports the Donbas Deep South -- and that is likely to be for a long time -- Ukraine will be too weak to grant it autonomy or to absorb it. Faced with such an unenviable choice, Ukraine would be well advised to leave the Donbas to its own devices, borrow from Dr. King's rhetoric and "dream" of a sunny future.