Russia’s war in Ukraine: identity, history, and conflict

Military operations War International relations Russia (Federation) Ukraine

Throughout Putin’s time in office, Moscow has pursued a policy toward Ukraine and Belarus predicated on the assumption that their respective national identities are artificial—and therefore fragile. Putin’s arguments about foreign enemies promoting Ukrainian (and, in a more diffuse way, Belarusian) identity as part of a geopolitical struggle against Russia echo the way many of his predecessors refused to accept the agency of ordinary people seeking autonomy from tsarist or Soviet domination. The historically minded Putin often invokes the ideas of thinkers emphasising the organic unity of the Russian Empire and its people—especially its Slavic, Orthodox core—in a form of what the historian Timothy Snyder calls the 'politics of eternity,' the belief in an unchanging historical essence.

The salience that Putin and other Russian elites assign to the idea of Russian-Ukrainian-Belarusian unity helps explain the origins of the current conflict, notably why Moscow was willing to risk a large-scale war on its borders when neither Ukraine nor NATO posed any military threat. It also suggests that Moscow’s ambitions extend beyond preventing Ukrainian NATO membership and encompass a more thorough aspiration to dominate Ukraine politically, militarily and economically.

The past three decades—and especially the years since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and ensuing Russian annexation of Crimea and intervention in Donbas—have witnessed a significant consolidation of Ukrainian civic identity. This Ukrainian civic nation encompasses not just Ukrainian speakers in the western part of the country, but much of the Russian-speaking but increasingly bilingual east as well. A generation has grown up in an independent Ukraine that, for all its flaws, has maintained a robust democracy and is becoming increasingly European in its outlook (thanks in no small part to Russia’s aggressive meddling), even as Putin’s Russia remains fixated on quasi-imperial great-power aspirations. If anything, the current war has further united Ukrainian citizens from all regions and linguistic and religious backgrounds while reinforcing the split between Ukrainian and Russian identities. Thus, whatever happens on the battlefield, Russia is almost certain to fail in its bid to establish lasting control over its neighbour.

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