Who are the compatriots Russia strives to protect in Ukraine?

Russia has invoked the need to protect its citizens and kinfolk in troubled foreign lands.

Emilio Morenatti/AP
Ukrainians Maria (r.) and Vanui protest Russia's military intervention in Crimea during a Mar. 2 demonstration in Kiev. The poster on the right reads, 'I am Russian, please protect me and call back the troops from Ukraine.'

Why are Russian troops mobilizing in Crimea? According to President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials, they are there to defend Russia's "citizens and compatriots" in Ukraine whose human rights are in grave danger. 

The Kremlin's messaging has been peppered with references to these two groups. In a Saturday phone call with President Obama, Putin spoke of “a real threat to the lives and health of Russian citizens and the many compatriots who are currently on Ukrainian territory,” according to the Kremlin’s readout. Putin used a similar phrasing during a call with France’s President Francois Hollande that same day.

But who, exactly, are those people? “Russian citizens” is straightforward: if you hold a Russian passport, you’re a citizen, regardless of where you live. Ukraine had 96,000 Russian citizens the last time the country held a national census in 2001. 

“Compatriots” is more nuanced, and far broader. And that's why Putin's "humanitarian mission" in Ukraine opens the door to other future interventions, subject to the Kremlin's strategic interpretation. 

You don't have to be an ethnic Russian to qualify as a compatriot. Ukrainians and any other ethnic group from the former Soviet Union can lay claim to the title if they assert an affinity with Russia.

Like the English word “compatriot,” the Russian word sootechestvennik is comprised of two parts meaning, roughly, “together” and “fatherland.” But since the break-up of the Soviet Union, it has also served as a term that binds together former Soviet citizens, as well as a legal term used to obtain Russian citizenship.

Under Russian federal law, compatriots are individuals who once lived in Russia or the Soviet Union. Ethnicity isn't a factor. A Tartar, a Kyrgyz, or a Ukrainian who freely identifies with the Russian Federation and previously lived in the Soviet Union is as much a compatriot as an ethnic Russian living in Latvia.

Additionally, those “who’ve made a conscious choice in favor of spiritual, cultural, or jurisdictional bond” with Russia can be considered compatriots. These people, along with former USSR citizens, can voluntarily resettle in Russia under a state program signed by Putin.

Still not sure if you qualify? Try this: Any direct descendants of the above also is in the roomy compatriot tent. So are those who sought refuge overseas from the Soviet system. Come back to Mother Russia, if you please. 

In fact, Moscow has been actively reaching out to descendants of great cultural figures and noble families of the Romanov era that ended with the Russian Revolution. These offspring have been invited to take up the compatriot title and become cultural ambassadors for Russia. Bygones will be bygones. 

So, back to Ukraine. How many people fall under this broad definition?

According to the 2001 census, Ukraine had about 8 million ethnic Russians, from a total of 48 million. About 30 percent of the population identified Russian as their mother tongue. But this percentage likely fell in the last decade; state-owned TV channel RT reports that around 7 million ethnic Russians live in Ukraine now. 

Crimea was home to 1.2 million ethnic Russians, or 59 percent of the peninsula’s population, at the time of the last census. Very few Crimea residents speak Ukrainian natively, and the area is bound to Russia through deep and often bloody historical ties.

There is no doubt that an overwhelming share of Crimea residents falls under the compatriot definition and is eager to seek Putin's protection. An example is a petition by members of the Russian community in Sevastopol that calls on Moscow to intervene.

But not every compatriot shares this sentiment. Some of the ethnic Russians living in Ukraine reportedly circulated a counter-petition to “thank” Putin for his concern but ask that he respect the country’s borders. And this young woman in a Twitter image posted by the protest movement’s organizers echoed this view. Standing next to a man holding a newborn child, the woman displays a poster saying, “I'm a Russian citizen. Nobody is threatening me. Putin's lying!”

Then there's this Internet meme that recently spiked on Ukrainian social media: “Tsss! Speak Russian very quietly. Or Putin will hear you – and send an occupational force into your country.”

Compatriots, you have been warned. 

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