How the Russian Invasion Strengthened Ukrainian Identity
“Tomorrow is an important day for all of us,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said. said tuesday. “And that is why this day, unfortunately, is so important to our enemy. We must be aware that hideous Russian provocations and brutal strikes are possible tomorrow.
President Vladimir Putin and the Russian elites and ideologues who support his war see Ukraine as an artificial state and an integral part of “Russkiy Mir” – or the “Russian world”, a concept of revenge on Russia’s imperial domains – which should be re-wrapped in the Russian bosom. It is believed that the Kremlin even planned a military parade through the heart of Kyiv after completing what it expected to be an easy conquest. Instead, there is only a parade of burnt-out Russian tanks lining a central boulevard in the capital, as residents waving Ukrainian flags pose for photos in front of their charred turrets and steps.
Kyiv is far from within reach of the Kremin after the Ukrainian army repelled a first Russian attempt on the capital. Ukrainian forces are mobilizing to retake land in the south of the country captured by earlier Russian advances, though analysts predict a long and fierce battle ahead. The war has cost Ukrainians lives, resources and physical infrastructure. But it underscored the separation between Ukraine and its larger neighbor. The former has won European Union candidate status and widespread solidarity abroad, while the latter has been hampered by Western sanctions and deepening international isolation.
Western sanctions are hurting but not yet crushing the Russian economy
In the country, six months of war have reinforced Ukraine’s sense of national identity. “We are stronger in spirit, in unity, as a society, as a nation,” Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, a Ukrainian parliamentarian, told me. It is a consequence, she added, of having an “intimate and visceral understanding of an existential enemy and threat.”
Klympush-Tsintsadze, speaking by phone from Kyiv, said the anti-Ukrainian rhetoric coming from the Kremlin and its propaganda mouthpieces – not to mention the documented atrocities committed by Russian forces on Ukrainian soil – has left its compatriots face “a Hamletian question: to be or not to be?
In the shadow of war, enthusiasm for Ukrainian identity only exploded. My colleagues reported in April that many bilingual Ukrainians were giving up speaking Russian after the trauma of seeing their homeland invaded by Russian soldiers. This has held true even for many Ukrainians who grew up in predominantly Russian-speaking communities.
“A lot of people started switching to Ukrainian, realizing that they were forcefully Russified,” Klympush-Tsintsadze said, stressing that the distinction was less about ethnic difference and more about political values. “I think it’s about understanding what part of civilization we belong to, what matters to us, how do we value human life. Many people, regardless of the language they speak, do not want to be associated with the “Russkiy Mir” who [Putin is] try to bring to our country.
Return by train to Ukraine: fear, tears and romance
Ukraine has a deep and complex political history. Ukrainian nationalism has been shaped, repeatedly, by left and right factions. Its current wartime form, however, is marked by its inclusiveness, Ukrainian political philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko explained in a recent interview.
“Ukraine is a very plural country. … It is totally wrong to think that Ukraine is divided between some of its identities,” he said, pointing to a “remarkable consolidation” between Ukrainian Christians and Muslims, mainly Crimean Tatars, as well as Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers.
“This diverse and inclusive sense of Ukrainian identity is personified in … Zelenskyy – a Jew who grew up in a Russian-speaking community, but whose powerful wartime leadership rests on his uncanny understanding of how to bring together the many streams that make up the modern world. Ukrainian nation,” wrote Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council last month.
Yermolenko added that there has been a convergence of liberal and “conservative, patriotic” agendas, and that Ukrainian identity at the moment is not about cultural or ethnic factors but about the country’s quest for democracy. “The struggle for Ukraine’s independence goes hand in hand with the struggle for individual freedom,” he said.
This feeling is confirmed in recent survey of the Institute of Sociology of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Three-quarters of Ukrainians polled in July said they believed democracy was the best form of government, a 15-point increase from a year ago. Support for Zelensky has grown: 88% of respondents said they trust the president “mostly” or “completely”. Only 20% felt this in a poll in December, before the war started.
More tellingly, when asked what they believe unites Ukrainians, 76% of respondents named ‘belief in a better future’. This was more than double the same level of response in December 2021.
“This surge in collective optimism suggests that Western aid can bolster the hope Ukrainians feel for their future, as well as their resolve to fight Russian aggression,” researchers Mikhail Alexseev and Serhii Dembitskyi wrote.
The United States is trying to do its part. The Biden administration is expected to announce an additional $3 billion in aid to Ukraine to help train and equip Ukrainian forces. Officials in Kyiv still believe the West needs to increase its pressure on Russia even further.
Ukrainian defenders may have avoided “Russia’s goal of crushing the Ukrainian state and extinguishing the Ukrainian nation”, wrote Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, but “there is no doubt that Russia has not abandoned its plans to destroy Ukraine. On the contrary, Moscow seems more determined than ever to pursue its genocidal program, whatever the cost.
“Every day we are losing people, our cities are being destroyed, new families are fleeing their homes,” Klympush-Tsintsadze told me. “We have no choice but to fight to survive.”