Russia met no military resistance when it annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula following its 2014 invasion. And when the Kremlin seized a large part of the Donbass region via proxies for many months, there was only a disorganized military challenge from Kyiv.
With the recent invasion, however, it was a different story — and not just because of the influx of overseas military supplies, Western tactical training and combat experience gleaned from eight years of low-intensity warfare in eastern Ukraine.
All of that was important. But the crucial difference was the Ukrainians’ stubborn refusal to give up or be intimidated, even when outnumbered and outgunned.
Whether in the cities north-west and east of Kyiv or in Kharkiv – the second largest city in the country that has disappeared unrelenting bombardment – or in the southern port city of Mariupol, where around 3,000 defenders have been staying stayed Hidden in a cavernous steelworks, the Ukrainians refuse to give up.
In Mykolaiv, near the Black Sea, the Ukrainian military withstood successive waves of Russian attacks and, despite nighttime shelling, managed to push the attackers back towards the city of Kherson, where they were based they have faced grumpy, protesting locals.
There have been many frustrations and setbacks for Moscow on the Ukrainian battlefield, but it’s a stoic defiance and fortitude that has made all of this possible — turning Russia’s plan to quickly invade Kyiv or seize the country’s Black Sea fringes on its head to have. It also disrupts the Kremlin’s plans for an offensive in eastern Ukraine to establish a land corridor between Moscow’s breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk with Russian-controlled Crimea.
Few Western military strategists expected Ukraine to withstand a massive Russian attack for more than a few days. And judging by what Russian POWs told their Ukrainian kidnappers, neither did the Kremlin.
“We are showing the whole world that we are a nation capable of uniting, capable of fighting; and since February 24, we have been proving every single day that we are something Putin says does not exist – a political nation,” said Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, a former Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister and now opposition MP.
“Putin says that our nation has no right to exist and that we are little Russians: but here we are neither new Russians nor little Russians; but Ukrainians,” she adds. “We’re reclaiming our history,” she says.
If you ask almost any Ukrainian whether the war is changing the country, and if so how, they will inevitably answer that it is a collective experience that has brought people together, helped to overcome ethnic and regional differences and shaped a new national consciousness — one that empowers Ukrainians to resist Russia, but also to denounce Western powers for not doing enough to fight for liberal values.
“I’ve never seen my country so united,” says Anna Mosinian of Odessa, Ukraine’s third most populous city and a major port city that may have escaped a Russian attack thanks to Mariupol’s stubborn resistance.
Mosinian was a ship’s purser before the invasion and says that during the 2014 Maidan uprising that toppled Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ally Viktor Yanukovych, deep-rooted divisions emerged between Ukrainian-speakers in western and central Ukraine and Russian-speakers in the south and east tightened. including their city of Odessa – the war has done much to shape a new national pride.
The Russian speakers among their friends and family never thought that Moscow would invade at all. They expected Putin to be content with a major land grab in the eastern Donbass region. When the invasion came and civilian infrastructure was attacked, leaving towns and villages in smoldering ruins, they were shocked. Disgusted, many Russian speakers switch to Ukrainian as a personal protest.
“It’s the predominantly Russian-speaking cities and communities that are suffering the most — Kharkiv, Melitopol, Mariupol, Luhansk — that are feeling the full impact,” says Yaroslav Azhnyuk, an entrepreneur and co-founder of Ukrainian startup Petcube. “A few years ago it was still relatively rare to hear the Ukrainian language on their streets. And now in these cities citizens come out and protest and sing in Ukrainian and speak in Ukrainian. I bet these cities have never spoken as much Ukrainian as they do now.”
While initial reports of the rape and murder of civilians by Russian soldiers in the towns and villages north of Kyiv initially raised skepticism, those doubts have since faded and been replaced by cold anger.
“There is no man who did more to create the Ukrainian nation than Putin,” says Azhnyuk. “Previously, people in eastern Ukraine couldn’t understand us in western Ukraine and why we hated Russia for all the atrocities of World War II. Now they understand,” he adds.
According to Azhnyuk, the war is making Ukrainians more confident about who and what they are and about their place in a post-war world. “Ukrainians have agreed on a geopolitical perspective – this is a war over a civilizational choice between freedom and authoritarianism,” he says.
“The war definitely changed Ukraine,” says Mykolay Danylevych, a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate, an autonomous church subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church. “This is a national war and when it is over there will definitely be a new Ukraine in terms of identity and the form of society,” he adds.
The transformation of the Ukrainian society is already play out between the two rival Orthodox Churches of Ukraine. Since the invasion, more than 150 congregations have defected from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate to the smaller Kyiv-based Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The defectors are a response to weekly broadcasts by Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, which justify Putin’s invasion and portray the war as an apocalyptic struggle against evil forces determined to break the God-given unity of Holy Russia.
Danylevich anticipates more defections, but also suspects an even greater religious and cultural schism, as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church “could loosen its ties with the Moscow Patriarchate, or perhaps even sever it altogether, independently.”
“Priests and bishops talk about it; The trend is going in that direction,” he says.
However, there are risks if Ukraine rejects everything Russian, Danylevych warns. Because of its confused history, the Russian language and culture are also part of Ukrainian identity, he says. He added: “When the war is over, we should all draw conclusions about our lives before the war and learn from our mistakes. And the government will have a golden opportunity. [Ukraine’s president Volodymyr] Zelenskyy said that before the war there were no real Ukrainians or fake Ukrainians; we are all Ukrainians; and he must uphold that message after the war.”
There is still a long way to go and in the coming months the price to be paid for refusing to surrender may be even higher than it has already demanded. The Russian offensive is now taking shape in the Donbass commanded by Aleksandr Dvornikov – the general who oversaw Russia’s destruction of Grozny in Chechnya and Aleppo in Syria.
Ukraine’s strengthened national sentiment was formed on the anvil of war – but the blows to come are likely to test its resilience even more.
https://www.politico.eu/article/forged-by-war-ukraines-new-sense-of-nationhood/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication The new national feeling of Ukraine – POLITICO