Putin’s war and Ukraine’s nation-building journey

Peter Dickinson,
Business Ukraine magazine,

Atlantic Council,

Ukraine is Europe’s largest country. It is also the continent’s greatest historic blind spot. Indeed, if we accept the notion that history is written by the winners, then Ukraine must rank high among the losers. For centuries, the world has viewed Ukraine almost exclusively in terms of the country’s imperial relationship with Russia. This has led to the widespread misconception that Ukraine is actually a core component part of Russia, “accidental independence” of 1991 notwithstanding. Such thinking is particularly popular among contemporary Russians, but it also enjoys considerable currency throughout the wider international community. This regrettable reality has done much to cloud outside understanding of today’s Ukraine. Crucially, it prevents observers from grasping the full geopolitical significance of the events currently unfolding in Europe’s great eastern borderlands.

Ukraine’s low international profile is no accident. It is the product of longstanding and remarkably successful Russian efforts to suppress Ukrainian identity and prevent the emergence of a separate Ukrainian polity. Russia’s motives are not hard to grasp. After all, Ukraine’s closeness to Russia goes far beyond geography, culture, religion and ethnicity. It extends to a common foundation myth that sees both nations trace their roots back to the early medieval Kyiv Rus state. This makes possession of Ukraine, along with Kyiv as the “mother of all Russian cities”, central to Russia’s own sense of national identity.

Russia’s need to assert this claim has meant denying Ukraine’s right to independence. Since the seventeenth century, this has involved everything from language bans and rigorous russification policies to mass deportations, population transfers and forced famines. The drive to absorb Ukraine reached a tragic crescendo in the 1930s, when the Soviet authorities starved millions of Ukrainians to death while systematically executing the moral and intellectual leadership of the Ukrainian nation.

Incredibly, Ukraine survived. Nevertheless, evidence of this grim inheritance is all too easy to identify in the complex political divisions of the Ukraine that emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union. Post-Soviet Ukraine spent the first quarter-century of its existence wrestling with a national identity crisis that was the direct outcome of Tsarist and Soviet policies designed to deny Ukraine the ability to self-govern. Traditional notions of Ukrainian identity rooted in ethnicity and language meant little to the many millions of post-Soviet Ukrainian citizens who neither spoke Ukrainian as their mother tongue nor counted Ukrainians among their ancestors. This made progress towards a national consensus slow.

Efforts to address the crimes of the Soviet era rendered this transition even more difficult, with large portions of the population alienated by attempts to demonize the USSR or place the Soviet authorities on a par with Nazi Germany. With no Nuremburg Trial to expose Soviet crimes against humanity, many rejected the worst of the revelations. Meanwhile, the chaos of the early 1990s fueled nostalgia for the modest certainties of the communist era.

Nevertheless, Ukraine gradually began to make progress towards a more inclusive national identity. Landmark events such as the 2004 Orange Revolution served to differentiate the country from Russia, which under Vladimir Putin was then lurching back towards authoritarianism. The emergence of a post-independence generation also contributed, with young Ukrainians who had no personal experience of the USSR gradually making their mark on the country’s sense of self.

This glacial shift received a massive jolt in 2014 when Russia attacked. The Kremlin seizure of Crimea and Putin’s hybrid war in eastern Ukraine forced Ukrainians to address identity issues as a matter of urgency. Moscow clearly expected a majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians to side with them, but in fact, the opposite happened. Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the south and east of the country had consistently given their votes to pro-Russian parties ever since 1991, but with Ukraine’s continued independent existence in the balance, there was no rush to join the Russian invasion. On the contrary, tens of thousands mobilized to support the Ukrainian resistance, joining hastily created volunteer battalions or collecting essential supplies for the ramshackle military. A wave of activism swept across the nation, overwhelming the political divisions of the post-Soviet era and answering many of the most fundamental questions about the loyalties of the diverse Ukrainian population.

Since the historic days of spring and summer 2014, Ukraine’s nation-building journey has continued at an accelerated pace. The shock of Russian aggression has challenged long-held notions of fraternal ties between the two Slavic nations, while nonstop anti-Ukrainian propaganda in the Russian state media has exposed the ugly chauvinism behind the brotherly veil. This has encouraged Ukrainian citizens to reflect on their nationality in ways that would have seemed outlandish prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 2014.

The once indivisible cultural worlds of Russia and Ukraine have also grown apart. Whereas Russian TV shows, movies and pop stars once dominated Ukraine, there are now increasingly vibrant Ukrainian cinema, TV and music industries taking their place. Fewer Ukrainians use Russian social media platforms. Instead, Ukraine has one of the world’s fastest-growing Facebook user communities. In the business sphere, the economic aspects of Putin’s hybrid war mean that trade with Russia has plummeted to record lows. In Russia’s place, India, China and the EU are now Ukraine’s primary markets. Throughout Ukrainian society, old ties with Russia are giving way to a new Ukraine seeking its place in the wider world.

Perhaps the greatest single change has been in the rise of a civic Ukrainian identity that goes far beyond the narrow old confines of blood and soil. Many of the troops defending Ukraine are native Russian-speakers, while the Muslim Crimean Tatars have emerged as vocal champions of Ukrainian statehood. Nowhere was this trend more evident than in the 2019 electoral successes of the Jewish Russian-speaker Volodymyr Zelenskyy. His twin triumphs in presidential and parliamentary elections illustrate the growing acceptance within Ukrainian society that language, religion and family ties are not decisive in determining who qualifies as a Ukrainian.

It is possible that the country would have eventually arrived at this point of its own accord, but the speed of the progress made in recent years is a direct result of Putin’s war. While the conflict continues, it is already evident that Russian efforts to reassert imperial influence in Ukraine have backfired spectacularly. Rather than derail Ukraine’s bid to create an independent identity, the war has supercharged Ukraine’s nation-building efforts and transformed the geopolitical balance in the entire region.

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