Ukraine will put in place new measures to safeguard the "national identity of Ukrainians" living in Russia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday, hitting at the heart of Moscow and Kyiv's competing claims on identity and territory.
The Ukrainian leader said on Monday that he had signed a decree, "On the Territories of the Russian Federation Historically Inhabited by Ukrainians," which he said would see the "restoration of truth about the historical past" of Ukraine.
The decree lists several regions of Russia as "historically inhabited by Ukrainians," including the border regions of Bryansk, Kursk and Belgorod, and Russia's southern Krasnodar region, from which Moscow has launched attacks on Ukraine and which is linked to the annexed Crimean peninsula via the key Kerch Bridge.
"We must take steps not only to strengthen the unity of Ukraine and our people, but also to act for the unity of rights and freedoms, the truth about Ukrainians, the truth about us, and the truth about our history," Zelensky said in an address.
Ukrainian officials will develop a "plan for preserving the national identity of Ukrainians in the Russian Federation, including in lands historically inhabited by them," Zelensky said.
Newsweek has reached out to the Russian Foreign Ministry for comment via email.
Former Russian President and current head of the country's security council, Dmitry Medvedev, said on Monday that there was "nothing to comment on" about Zelensky's decree, adding: "Ukrainians are Russians, and Little Russia is part of Russia."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the Kremlin views Ukraine as a historically Russian territory.
Medvedev called Ukraine "an independent state on the historical Russian territories" in a statement posted to social media earlier this month, adding that conflicting claims would be a constant source of conflict.
Russia has backed separatist movements sympathetic to Moscow in eastern Ukraine for more than a decade, and declared in September 2022 that it was officially annexing the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions covering chunks of southern and eastern Ukraine. Russia also annexed the Crimean peninsula, internationally recognized as part of Ukraine, in 2014.
Cultural identity has long been a weapon Russia has used against Ukraine. For example, experts told Newsweek in March 2023 that Moscow has maintained a strong cultural presence on the Crimean Peninsula, engaging in ethnic cleansing for centuries to cement its claim to the territory through "Russification."
Zelensky said on Monday that the new "plan" will include collecting testimonies about crimes committed against ethnic Ukrainians, political repression, deportation, and "forced Russification."
Kyiv will "conduct events aimed at debunking Russian myths about Ukraine," and schools will teach the "true history of ethnic Ukrainians in the lands historically inhabited by them within the borders of the Russian Federation," he said.
The Ukrainian leader also announced draft legislation proposing that "all ethnic Ukrainians and their descendants from around the world" would have access to dual Ukrainian citizenship, apart from those with Russian citizenship.
Earlier this year, Putin signed a decree speeding up the process of granting Russian citizenship to foreign nationals and stateless people. Moscow also made it easier for authorities to confer Russian citizenship on Ukrainian children, something Ukraine denounced as illegal.
In mid-November, an investigation found that Ukrainians in Russian-controlled territories were obliged to take up Russian citizenship in exchange for access to basic services.
"Pensions are not provided without Russian passports, food is not provided without Russian passports, and medical services are out of the question," one Ukrainian refugee, named as Larysa, told the European Broadcasting Union.
In an extensive essay published before the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin said "Ukrainization was often imposed on those who did not see themselves as Ukrainians" throughout the early part of the 20th century.