Japan, Ukraine, Zeleny Klin and the Future of Russian Statehood East of the Urals
Window on Eurasia
Prepared for Presentation at
The Seventh Free Nations of Post-Russia Forum, Japan, August 1-2, 2023
When observers consider the fault lines along which the Russian Federation may fall apart, they typically focus either on autochthonian ethnic or regional groups or on larger areas they believe can form federations of their own. That is entirely appropriate, but it has the effect of leading many to ignore the potential role in the devolution of the Russian Empire of groups that that empire moved into position on its own and that now represent a threat to the territorial integrity of that Empire. The most important of these are the so-called “wedges” of ethnic Ukrainians who were shifted to various parts of Russia at the end of the tsarist period, and the most important of those is the Green Wedge, or Zeleny klin, consisting of the several million ethnic Ukrainians who came to populate what is now called the Russian Far East between Vladivostok, Nakhodka and Khabarovsk. When the Ukrainians were moved there, the Russian authorities believed they would anchor the new conquests of the Empire to its center; but subsequent history has shown that they have the potential to become threats to that imperial arrangement and may even become the basis for the formation of new states and new alliances.
It is especially important that the Zeleny klin be mentioned at this conference now, not only because Russian officials are terrified of this possibility but also because Japan has played an important role in the lives of ethnic Ukrainians in the past and can do so again in alliance with Ukraine proper and to achieve its end of recovering the Northern Territories now under Russian occupation, islands where as a former Japanese defense minister has note, 60 percent of the inhabitants are ethnic Ukrainians and where Nikolay Patrushev, secretary of Putin’s National Security Council, pointed out earlier this year that “in the southern parts of the Far East, given the large share of those who resettled there already during the times of [tsarist prime minister Pyotr] Stolypin, a significant number of residents consider the culture of the Ukrainian people to be their native one.” The Kremlin thus recognizes that the Zeleny Klin is a threat to the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, and Tokyo in particular has good reason based on its own history in the region and its current geopolitical requirements to devote even more attention to it than at any point in the past.
Few know the history of the Zeleny Klin and fewer still the history of Japanese involvement with it. This is not the place to provide details: they can be most usefully found in the memoir history of a leader of the Zeleny Klin in the 1920s, Ivan Svit, in his magisterial Ukrains’ko-iapons’ki vzaiemyny (Ukrainian-Japanese Relations) (in Ukrainian, New York, 371 pp.) and in John J. Stephan’s comprehensive study, The Russian Far East (Stanford, 1994). (The author of these lines has written frequently about the Zeleny klin and other wedges on his portal, WindowonEurasia2.blogspot.com.) Here I only want to hit the high points and to provide some information about developments that have taken place since these two books were written and especially since Vladimir Putin’s moves against Ukraine since 2014, actions which led Kyiv to begin to pay more attention to the Zeleny klin as a potential ally against Moscow and Tokyo and Beijing to consider it as a security issue.
During the Russian Civil War, the ethnic Ukrainians who formed the Zeleny klin alternately pushed for their own independent government and opposed White Russian groups who supported the idea of Russia “one and indivisible” and refused to recognize the rights of ethnic Ukrainians or other non-Russian groups. That failure of most anti-Bolshevik leaders contributed to the victory of Lenin, but after 1917, the Soviet authorities behaved in an even more repressive fashion, refusing to allow Ukrainian language schools and other institutions to continue to function and forcibly re-identifying Ukrainians in the Far East. Since many of the residents of the region have been forced to declare themselves ethnic Russians, the exact number of Ukrainians among them in Soviet times and since has remained uncertain. But some scholars have estimated that as many as half of the people in the region have Ukrainian roots and suggest that these roots may become ever more important given Putin’s Russian nationalism and attacks on Ukraine.
In Soviet times, Moscow did what it could not only to suppress the ethnic Ukrainian community of the Zeleny klin but to prevent others from paying attention to it. But despite that, Japan and to a lesser extent China did focus on the region as both were convinced that the Ukrainians there could help them pursue their geopolitical goals. On occasion, others powers did as well. In the mid-1980s, as John Stephan details in his study, the United States even broadcast in Ukrainian to the region from stations in Japan, a remarkable step because it was the only time during the Soviet period that US broadcasts ignored Moscow-imposed sanctions on the peoples of the USSR! Such broadcasts not only provided information in Ukrainian but also a sense to those who listened to them that outsiders continued to care about them, a key resource for the development of national consciousness.
When the USSR collapsed, some in Ukraine began to talk about reaching out to the various “wedges” within the Russian Federation. This outreach sometimes took fanciful form as when one group of Ukrainians in Kyiv proposed recognizing the Zeleny klin as Eastern Ukraine and demanded the opening of a corridor across Russian territory. But given Ukraine’s own difficulties such interest receded until 2014 when Putin’s intervention in Crimea and the Donbass and his illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea made it critical that Kyiv find all the allies it could to impede Moscow’s moves against Ukraine and Ukrainians. Then Ukrainian analysts and politicians started to talk about “the wedges” in general and the Green wedge in particular, and Kyiv welcomed attention to them and from them as signs that Ukraine had allies in some unexpected places.
With Putin’s expanded invasion of Ukraine last year, this interest became even greater; and any support for the Zeleny klin and other wedges even more welcome. The Verkhovna Rada passed resolutions in support, and Ukrainian commentators regularly discussed the fate of Ukrainians in the Russian Federation and especially east of the Urals. Russians like Patrushev are both outraged and worried, and they will become even more of both if there are new signs that the Zeleny klin not only is taking on a life of its own but has support from foreign powers like Japan. Japan in turn has every reason to take steps such as broadcasting and focusing attention on the Ukrainians of the Far East not only because of its history of involvement with the region but because of its desire to support Ukraine as part of the international community arrayed against Moscow, its desire to secure the return of the Northern Territories, something such support may promote, and its worries about what China might do if it rather than Japan takes the lead on this issue.
Renewing the broadcasts of the mid-1980s would be a good first step to take, but there are others, including supporting research on the Ukrainians in the Far East and backing émigré activists from the region. Such things are relatively low cost but have the potential to pay rich rewards both for the Ukrainians and other peoples of the Far East and also for Japan as well.