Different Faces of War: reinventing the Ukrainian nation7 min read
“Although the Russian President tried to destroy Ukraine, Putin was paradoxically helping to reinvent it”. In this statement British academic Andrew Wilson perfectly surmises a different interpretation of the war, which has been ongoing since 2014. Since its independence in 1991, which was peaceful and largely uncontested, the nature of Ukrainian identity has been ambiguous and its geopolitical interests undefined.
Although there was no “restalinazation” in Ukraine, as in Russia, the decommunization process was very slow and seemed to be never-ending, with successive leaders deliberately preserving the communist legacy as part of the national narrative. This all changed with the outbreak of war in 2014. Ironically, Wilson is correct in considering Putin as an unintentional “nation-builder” and creator of modern Ukrainian history.
In this context, Ukraine is not a unique case and its political identity and nation-building aspirations have been substantially influenced by the current military conflict. Ukrainian realities demonstrate how over a short period of time war can be a powerful tool to unify the nation as well as help accelerate construction of national identity. The Ukrainian independence narrative, in some hundred years from now, will be no different from those of other states, whose stories of tireless defence of their territory against external oppressors are a familiar sight in school history lessons.
The role of war in the nation-building process in the 21st century remains as relevant as it was in the nascency of the “nation state” during the 19th and 20th Centuries. “War” as a concept has, throughout history, been normally perceived as something detrimental and threatening to national security of involved countries and well-being of their citizens. Considering the Second World War alone, the death toll stands near to ninety million, not to mention the First World War, religious wars, or brutal civil wars in the previous centuries. However, our history is full of many convincing examples, where war has proved a positive catalyst for the emergence of a number of nations, uniting different peoples and ethnicities against a common enemy, thus nurturing a sense of common identity.
One of the most important developments over the period of independence was a common understanding of “Holodomor”, inflicted by Stalin against Ukrainians, which was perceived as genocide by most Ukrainians, regardless of the region. Since 1991, however, the state is still divided between regions, languages and political ideologies. These divides have been used and worsened by Ukrainian Russia-allied politicians, who started dividing the regions artificially into West, South, East, starting with the creation of the pro-Russian “Party of Regions” and culminating during the Yanukovych presidency. On top of these imposed differences, were the continued ambiguous geopolitical interests of the state, which were mostly dictated from the “northern neighbor”.
Prior to 2013, successive Ukrainian presidents attempted to achieve balance, shifting the state back and forth along the Russia-West trajectory, making the state’s geopolitical goals deliberately vague. Although brutal and devastating, the genuine irony of the war is that it has brought the unintended positive consequence for Ukrainian identity as well as the geopolitical developments for the state, regardless of the miseries it brought into the lives of every citizen.
First and foremost, it forced millions of Ukrainians to reconsider their political future in the state. Never before in Ukrainian history was there such an overwhelming majority of citizens who would support the membership of the state both in NATO and the EU at the same time. In addition to this, since 2014 the Ukrainian Parliament has had the biggest pro-Western coalition, with pro-Russian MPs being a minority, and the “Party of Regions” as well as “Communists Party” vanishing from the political stage where some parties almost perished. The state has experienced a massive collapse of Ukrainians supporting integration with Russia.
The other positive development, as a result of the conflict, can be found in the Ukrainian security sector. The aggressive actions of the Russian President, has made the Ukrainian government rethink its investment in the national military forces and subsequently made the Ukrainian army the third largest in Europe after Russian and French armies, by investing 6% of its GDP annually into the military.
Apart from major internal and geopolitical developments, the most important transformations were the ones that occurred in the minds of the people. Although the Russian project presupposed the separation of Ukraine, the subsequent creation of the “Novorossiya” project was Putin’s main geopolitical miscalculation. He was firmly convinced that most of the Russian-speaking Ukrainians would support Russia, which did not prove to be the case. Conversely, millions of Russian speaking Ukrainians supported the country’s territorial integrity. Moreover, a large number of soldiers protecting Ukraine on the East came from the Russian-speaking regions and cities, such as Dnipro, for instance.
Furthermore, after 2014 the growing popularity of the Ukrainian Orthodox church gained momentum and in 2018 it received autocephaly, separating it from the Moscow Patriarchate (see “Ukraine’s Religious Scene: in quest for an independent Orthodox Church” by Sasha Mishcheriakova). The war helped to unite Ukrainians from all over the country, which was the opposite of what Putin intended to achieve in Ukraine. Had it not been for the common understanding and awareness to fight for your own land and massive self-organization of all Ukrainians, including the Diaspora, this war would most likely have been lost.
Throughout the years of war, one could see a large scale mobilisation of self-organised volunteers, civil-military battalions and civil activists who aided the soldiers in Donbas by providing provisions or fighting themselves against separatists. American Political scientist, Timothy Snyder also argues that after the Maidan period, there has been constant political nation building in Ukraine, which is natural. To that he adds, that the “nation is being built not due to the history, but rather due to the common actions and experiences”.
One can see that the political atmosphere in Ukraine has changed over the last six years and the war in Donbas helped to speed up this process. Importantly, the war substantially contributed to the question of self-identification among millions of Ukrainians, with 90% now considering themselves as Ukrainians. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians support the country’s integration with the EU and only a small minority sees itself in the Customs Union with Russia, which is completely off the table in today’s reality.
This dramatic experience helped a lot of Ukrainians rethink their political identity, values and understanding of self, as well as laid the basis for the political nation-building and national identity that many Ukrainians lacked. It helped to unite the people around the state, even Ukrainians in the diaspora, in spite of the language they spoke or the ideology they followed. Geopolitically, the political debate in parliament is over regarding the trajectory of Ukrainian development,with the overwhelming majority of parties supporting the country’s integration with NATO and the EU, with both being engrained in the Ukrainian constitution. Paradoxically, this would not have happened, had the war not happened in spite of the casualties, destruction and huge economic loss for the country.
Nevertheless, the Ukrainian trajectory of development is not linear, but rather discontinuous. The unprecedented victory of Zelensky has somewhat shattered the post-2014 trend. The latest developments in the state are troubling, and the new political elite seems to avoid the discussions regarding the identity and nation-building, which may prove to be dangerous in today’s reality, and with unresolved issues on the ground.
One year into his presidency, it is unclear how far President Zelensky will go in compromising on some of the nationally important issues and how exactly will he engage with Russia, pro-Russia forces in Ukraine and identity issues at large. What is clear, however, is whoever the Ukrainian president is, he or she will deal with a sizeable and vocal minority, if they dare to cross some key national red lines.
The construction of identity and nation-building is a long-term process; in many Western states, numerous revolutions and conflicts were needed in order to cement the identity-related questions and delineate the mental and physical borders between countries. The difficult part in the Ukrainian context is the ability to raise nation-building questions, whilst being a fragile democracy. Too many interested parties are seeking to build their own narrative and those who seek to backslide on cultural and political reforms are granted too great a platform.
For Ukraine, with its 40 million strong, ethnically complex population, it will take generations to lay down the basis of a common national identity. What is obvious, however, is that Ukraine has embarked on this path, although unexpectedly, and is beginning to write its own national narrative. Thanks to the conflict in the Donbas, the Ukrainian nation has never been so united in its modern history, as it is now.