Most of our media narratives about Ukraine have been of a country firmly united against Russia’s aggression. As anyone would readily acknowledge, President Vladimir Putin’s actions, contrary to his goals, have greatly consolidated a previously fractured Ukrainian identity. The courageous conduct of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has become an inspiration for much of our rudderless, leaderless world, has further rallied people around the blue-and-yellow flag. According to some polls, his approval ratings, quite feeble before the war, have jumped to over 90 percent. Many ethnic Russians in Ukraine as well, who may have previously looked at their government in Kyiv with resentment and suspicion, have changed sides after Moscow’s “liberation” missiles destroyed their own homes.
Though it’s true that the war has healed long-standing social and political divisions in the country, the story on the ground remains more complicated, as I found out on a recent trip to a remote and still peaceful region of Ukraine known historically as southern Bessarabia or alternatively Budjak (I will use simply Bessarabia here in accord with local preference and for the sake of brevity). Our media, understandably, has tended to focus on the places engulfed by terror, death and ruin, cities like Mariupol, Kharkiv and Bucha. But what happens on the “quiet front,” far from the explosions, may prove just as consequential.
Southern Bessarabia—the name “Budjak” comes from the Turkish word for “borderland”—is a swath of outback territory in the southwesternmost corner of Ukraine and is administratively part of the Odesa district. Bounded by the Dniester, the Black Sea, the Danube and Moldova, it dangles like an appendage on the map—Crimea’s less glamorous cousin. It is the country’s most ethnically diverse region, inhabited by Ukrainians and Russians, as well as large communities of Bulgarians, Moldovans, Gagauz (Turkic-speaking Orthodox Christians), Albanians and Lipovans (eighteenth-century religious dissenters from Russia, also known as Old Believers). Though each group has carefully preserved its own culture and language, Russian has established itself as the lingua franca over the last two centuries.
The history of Bessarabia is convoluted, to put it mildly. It was first conquered by the Russian Empire in the early nineteenth century, following a war with the Ottomans, and was officially named Bessarabia, which also included most of today’s Moldova. The population of Nogai Tatars was expelled and replaced by Christian settlers, many of whom came from territories under Ottoman rule. In 1918, in the chaos after the Bolshevik Revolution, the region was claimed by Romania, which harbored its own expansionist dreams. At the beginning of the Second World War the Soviets briefly annexed it, the Romanians reclaimed it, and the Soviets took it back a year later. Upon the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, southern Bessarabia stayed within the borders of modern-day Ukraine (the rest of the region went to Moldova).
Bessarabia’s existence within independent Ukraine hasn’t been without difficulties. Like other regions in the country—as in most places in the former Soviet Union—it was devastated by the economic meltdown of the post-socialist years, but to an even greater degree. The closure of industries like fish-canning and the dissolution of collective farms left much of the population impoverished and resentful. Shady entrepreneurs, often with links to the former Communist Party and the KGB, turned the region into their personal fiefdom, businesses and communities. Far away from Kyiv’s concerns, Bessarabia was left to survive on its own, abandoned and neglected.
It’s in this context that nostalgia for the Soviet Union has taken hold, compounded by the social and political disconnect from Kyiv. Pro-Russian parties have consistently dominated elections in the region, much like in the east of the country, and Russian mass media has established itself as the main source of information. The Maidan revolution in 2014 was met with some hostility, and Putin’s annexation of Crimea was cheered by more than a few. The recent removal of Russian as a regional language, and an education reform bill that requires schools to teach in Ukrainian, have become galvanizing issues as well, fanned by Kremlin propaganda. In fact, encouraged by Russian intelligence, Bessarabia had its own separatist movement in 2014 and 2015, which aimed to establish “a people’s republic” on the model of those in Donetsk and Luhansk, but the messy war in the Donbas considerably dampened the enthusiasm. Not to take any chances, the Ukrainian security services acted quickly and nipped the conspiracy in the bud.
Two weeks into the current war, I took a ferry across the Danube from Romania into Bessarabia. My initial contacts there were pro-Ukrainian locals, some of whom I’d met on previous visits in the area. They were all seized by a newfound sense of patriotism and determination to resist Russia’s aggression at any cost.
A friend of mine, Ivan Rusev, a Ukrainian of Bulgarian descent and one of the bravest and most dedicated environmentalists I know, together with his colleague Iryna Vykhrystyuk, the director of Tuzlovski Lagoons National Park (on Bessarabia’s Black Sea coast), had switched from fighting local poachers to helping in the fight against a foreign invasion. Yaroslav Kichuk, the rector of Izmail’s State University for the Humanities, the only institution of higher learning southwest of Odesa, had turned the student dormitories into a refugee camp and was working round the clock to help the needy. “Only now we’re starting to become a single political nation and to understand and value a free and independent Ukraine,” Kichuk told me. “The current Russian leadership did quite a lot—in quotation marks—to help us abandon the Soviet allegiances and quicken the formation of Ukraine’s statehood.” There were many others I met in Bessarabia, of various professional backgrounds—teachers, students, artists, janitors—who were doing their best to contribute, in one way or another, to the common war effort.
Yet beyond those groups of patriots, Bessarabia shows another, less attractive face. “There is a danger remaining, especially in villages, where the presence of the Ukrainian state has been weak and other forces have been at work,” Kichuk warned me, admitting that even today, with the war raging, quite a few people in the region continue to profess pro-Russian sympathies. Neither are local politicians, who may have taken a pro-Ukrainian stance since the start of the war, to be completely trusted. “A lot of the politicians here are opportunists,” Iryna Vykhrystyuk said. “They try to feel who is the strong of the day, where the wind blows from, and they adapt accordingly.”
Considering the ever-shifting situation, it’s hard to assess the current degree of political division, but the locals I spoke to all agreed it’s not insubstantial. Often, the conflict runs within the same family, pitching younger against older generations. Those sentiments have been especially prevalent in towns like Izmail, a river port on the Danube which has a lot of retired Soviet army officers, as well as among rural communities. “Many people prefer to keep quiet about it right now, but if thousands have held pro-Russian views up until yesterday, it’s very hard to imagine they’ve all been suddenly converted,” Vyacheslav Todorov, an academic specializing in the region’s ethnic geography, told me.
Indeed, it’s a whole different world in the countryside. I drove there by myself, in my ancient Ford Fiesta, over roads that were in such terrible condition they looked as if Russian artillery had already passed through. In places the tarmac was so gnawed and gutted that vehicles avoid them, and over time have created dirt roads offering a smoother ride. Many of the villages, when they could be reached, were nineteenth-century islands of dilapidation: unpaved streets, poorly dressed inhabitants and geese and chickens roaming freely about. Some of the single-story houses were pretty, with window frames painted the traditional Ukrainian blue, but others were abandoned husks, with missing doors and caved-in roofs. There had been a disaster here before the war. I had seen similar places in the northwestern part of my native Bulgaria, the poorest region in the EU, but this looked worse.
Perhaps it is not surprising that in a remote periphery like Bessarabia, the savage battles being waged on the front lines feel like a distant rumble. People with roots or relatives in the region have come back from other parts of Ukraine for reasons of safety (even in the most remote villages the population has doubled), and while some of them have certainly shared firsthand accounts of the horrors of war, I was troubled to hear that the attitude among parts of the local communities remains, if not supportive of the Russian aggression, ambivalent toward it. Though Ukraine has banned Russian news channels, many people continue to faithfully follow them via satellite dishes or relay broadcasts from nearby Moldova. On a number of occasions, I heard the same talking points: diplomats in Kyiv should yield to Russian demands; “a bad peace is better than a good war”; life in the Soviet Union was so much better. Some statements were less guarded. “Why not organize a referendum for our own republic here?” mused Ivan, a retired police investigator from Odesa. “Ninety percent in my village think like me. Maybe the republic could include the whole of the Odesa region.”
“I’ve witnessed people here arguing about their political views, each side trying to prove they are right,” Sergei Dimitriev, the mayor of Bolhrad, the main town of the Bulgarian ethnic community in Bessarabia, told me during an interview. “They start to fight and curse at each other, neighbors who live right next to each other. This could prove disastrous.”
It may seem hard to comprehend such divisions, especially at a time when one’s own country is the scene of a horrific attack, but decades of social and political isolation, coupled with the geographical remoteness of Bessarabia from Kyiv, have certainly contributed. On the other hand, whenever the government has tried to intervene directly, its actions have been perceived by the majority of locals, justifiably or not, as heavy-handed. It’s perhaps one of the reasons, apart from the region’s economic marginalization, that Moscow has succeeded in making such deep inroads: in a multiethnic region, the rule of empire has always held more appeal than that of the centralizing and homogenizing nation-state.
I think it’s important to talk about places like Bessarabia at this moment, though they may seem to be off topic. Media coverage of the war has focused on the astonishing unity of Ukrainians in the face of a common enemy, but there are parts of the country where strong if silent sympathies for Moscow are still simmering underneath. Western editors and journalists tend to ignore such stories because they complicate the mainstream narrative, and any such complication, in the current climate of moral outrage and clearly delineated sides, is ideologically suspect and could even be branded as Russian propaganda. The very idea of complexity has become unwelcome because it’s been used so often as a tool by the Kremlin to thicken the fog of war; at the same time, however, the disappearance of complexity from public debate exposes us to the dangers of a positive feedback loop—the very same danger that Putin, surrounded by yes-men afraid to pierce the bubble of his wishful thinking, seems to have fallen victim to.
There’s also, I think, a market factor that nobody in Western media likes to talk about: regions like Bessarabia feel bland and inconsequential, unspectacular in the context of the ongoing destruction and slaughter. We ignore them, however, at our own peril. As the Russian armies suffer tactical defeats on the battlefields around Kyiv and the focus of the fighting shifts to the east and south of the country (cutting Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea has been generally seen as one of Putin’s main objectives), weak links like Bessarabia could become a real liability for Kyiv. The various ethnic communities there have been living in relative peace so far, but peace (as war has taught us once again) should never be taken for granted. And any contagion in that part of the country could spread to neighboring Moldova, which has its own problems with the breakaway Transnistria (a de-facto suzerainty of Moscow), as well as the autonomous and heavily pro-Russian region of Gagauzia. That would be disastrous enough.
Even if Russia refrains from nuclear escalation, divide and rule will certainly remain one of its most pernicious strategies, not only in Ukraine but in other parts of Europe too. In Bulgaria, for example, divisions on the issue of the war remain high, driven by mainstream-media accounts that exploit the country’s historic attachment to Russia and the growing resentment against the West among the more impoverished sections of society. Hungary and Serbia, whose autocratic leaders, Viktor Orbán and Aleksandar Vučić, were just overwhelmingly reelected, present an even bigger security risk, for they have so far maintained rather warm ties with Russia, refusing to support harsh sanctions against it. For their part, Bosnian Serbs have been stirring trouble in Bosnia, reviving fears that the old nationalist conflict in former Yugoslavia could be reignited. Such talk could be mere political posturing, an attempt to extract concessions from the EU, but that does not mean it is without dangers.
We often talk about Russia’s imperial ambitions, but this view is rooted, I think, in a basic misapprehension. Putin’s Russia doesn’t have the traits of an empire, like the former Soviet Union, but instead is a revanchist nationalist state, trying in its turn to stir up the nationalist ghosts of Europe in order to divide and shatter it. In that sense, Ukraine’s Bessarabia, with its multiethnic character, could be considered a scale model of Europe and perhaps one of its crucibles. As Yaroslav Kichuk told me: “The most important thing right now to preserve our unity and not to allow war or conflicts on national grounds in our region. Though there’s [ethnic] unity and tolerance, the situation could be explosive.”
Photo credit: Dimiter Kenarov