Who Are These People?

One may only guess whom Mr Putin is going to ‘liberate’ and ‘protect’—and from whom? Certainly not the Ukrainian soldiers who speak mostly Russian on the battlefield writes Mykola Riabchuk

On February 24, shortly after Russia launched an all-out military invasion of Ukraine, the Ukrainian ambassador in Berlin Andriy Melnyk desperately approached the top German officials, begging for help. One of them, Finance Minister Christian Lindner, reportedly met him with “a polite smile” and talked as if the defeat of Ukraine had long been sealed.¹ “You only have a few hours,” he allegedly said at Melnyk’s request for defensive arms and more sanctions on Russia. He apparently saw little problem with a Russian-occupied Ukraine under a puppet government, insofar as a profitable business with Moscow could be resumed.

Fifty days after that conversation, Ukraine still withstands the rabid attacks of one of the presumably strongest armies in the world, to the great surprise of many Western observers and the bitter embarrassment of the others.² While the military experts point out at the glaring mistakes of the Russian commanders,³ some of them recognize that it is not the purported weakness of the Russian army that determines the war outcome but, rather, the unexpected strength of the Ukrainian army⁴ and the spectacular resilience of Ukrainian society.⁵

A popular joke on the web consists of a witty parody on the comments of the Western security analysts as they were evolving throughout the first two weeks of the Russian assault:

1st day: Ukraine will be defeated in 2-3 days;

3rd day: Ukraine is still fighting because Russia didn’t send in real units yet;

5th day: It’s hopeless, they will lose even if they put up some fight here and there; 

7th day: Russia has logistical and communication problems. They will regroup and will take Kyiv;

10th day: Ukraine is fighting well but Russia will achieve air superiority soon and then it’s over;

12th day: We don’t understand what’s going on;

16th day: Ukraine fights so well because we armed and trained them.

Certain points listed above are not completely nonsensical, especially the last one: the Ukrainian army has indeed undergone a sea change with NATO help since 2014 when the new Kyiv government had reportedly only 5,000 battle-ready troops to withstand the Russian invasion of Crimea and the hybrid takeover of Donbas. But the change in Ukrainian society within the past eight years was even more remarkable.

A Sea Change

In the wake of Euromaidan (2014), many people in the south and east of Ukraine were bewildered, frustrated and disappointed, especially those who cast their votes for the now deposed President Viktor Yanykovych. For them, he could be a “bad boy”, but he was their “bad boy”. His removal alienated many of them from the Kyiv government and made them more susceptible to Russian propaganda. The Russian invasion was seen as contingent on the domestic quarrels, their ‘side-effect’ rather than unprovoked alien aggression. Most Ukrainians in the south and east did not embrace Russian forces but only a tiny minority moved to fight them. They defended successfully Kharkiv, Odessa and other cities but they lost dramatically in the Crimea and eventually in Donbas.

Today, there is no ambiguity. No substantial internal conflicts. No doubts in the legitimacy of the Kyiv government, elected in 2019 by a clear majority in all the regions. And no confusion over who is the aggressor and what were the reasons for the attack—or, rather, a lack of any.

The scarecrows of Ukrainian ‘fascism’, of sinister NATO, of forcible ‘Ukrainization’ and “a ban on the Russian language” that worked so well in 2014, now scare nobody. They actually are so ridiculous that even some Kremlin loyalists doubt their efficiency and expedience.

Natalia Poklonska, who worked as a Ukrainian prosecutor in the Crimea and shifted sides in 2014 to become an ardent supporter of Putin’s regime, gave an extensive interview recently that revealed much confusion over the ongoing events. “Ukraine is not Russia,” she said. “Their society is organized differently… And if I were asked a year or two or a month ago whether they would greet [our troops] with flowers all over Ukraine, I would have said definitely no. [Because] I understood that it was an absolutely different society. Really different. So, I am not surprised that people in Ukraine do not behave as our media envisioned… In general, I feel like an information sabotage is going on in our country. Very strange things are said”.⁶

The interview is remarkable insofar as the speaker’s pro-Kremlin loyalism clashes here with her personal (Ukrainian) experience and with the sober analysis of events that makes her recognize, however euphemistically, the blatant idiotism of the official Putinist propaganda (though she tries to divert criticism from the impeccable führer to some unnamed “informational saboteurs” in his propaganda machine).

The societal changes, indeed, were so big that some experts were tempted to credit Vladimir Putin for the awakening if not creation of the Ukrainian nation.

His aggression not only caused a rally-around-the-flag mobilization, but also gave a powerfully enhanced Ukrainians national self-awareness and civic unity. “Putin”, a renowned author quipped, “unintentionally became the father of the Ukrainian nation. It was the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas that initially created a Ukrainian identity, one which is rooted in two principles: opposition to Russia, and opposition to Putin”.⁷

One may contend, with a similar perverse logic, that Hitler strengthened Jewish identity and contributed substantially to the creation of the state of Israel. But what we see here, is not only the authors’ fondness for paradoxes, but also a profound misunderstanding of what Ukraine and Ukrainian identity are about.

A Nowhere Nation?

The very emergence of independent Ukraine in 1991 evoked much confusion on the international scene—among both the professionals and the general public. The first reactions to the event did not bode well for the nascent state—starting from the infamous “chicken Kiev” speech of George Bush in 1991 to the ill-fated Budapest memorandum with worthless “security assurances” from Russia, USA and UK in exchange for Ukraine’s voluntary nuclear disarmament. International media greeted the birth of Ukraine with titles like “Nasty Ukraine”, “A Nowhere Nation”, or “An Unwanted Step-Child of Soviet Perestroika”. The reputable “Slavic Review” organized, in 1995, a discussion “Does Ukraine Have a History?” where the question was answered mostly in the positive but with the important caveats: Ukraine has a history but it should be retrieved and reinvigorated at the level of both popular knowledge and as an academic discipline.⁸

The renowned Canadian historian Orest Subtelny complained bitterly that “well into the 1980s, Ukrainian history was considered not only a peripheral but even intellectually suspect area of specialization by many North American historians;” the assumption prevailed that “a historian of Ukraine was, almost by definition, a Ukrainian nationalist.”⁹ Professor George Grabowicz, long-time director of the Ukrainian Research Institute in Harvard, supported the claim: “Up to the end of the 1980s the very term ‘Soviet empire’ was seen as an obvious sign that the text in which it was used was not very serious—the author being either ‘right wing’ or not all there. One can check this in the bibliographic sources: up to 1989, studies or overviews that use this term can be counted on the fingers of both hands.”¹⁰

This largely explains the reluctance of both Western politicians and academics to accept not only the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, but also the thoroughly unexpected emergence of an independent Ukraine. It took three decades to replace the colonial names of Ukrainian cities with the authentic ones in the official international usage, and to eliminate, at least from the serious scholarship, the bizarre formula “Kievan Russia” meaning Kyivan Ruś. Still, the “imperial knowledge” retained its discursive power, popping-up in myriads of falsehoods, seemingly minor and innocent if taken separately but producing cumulatively a highly distorted view of reality, harmful for Kyiv and beneficial for Moscow.

Ukraine had been voiceless and almost invisible throughout most of its modern history, represented by the colonial masters in a way and to a degree that suited and solidified their dominant position.

There is little surprise that throughout the 1990s the reputable Western papers averred that Ukrainian language was derived (sic) from Russian in the sixteenth century, that Ukraine is primordially divided between “nationalistic West” and “pro-Russian East” (as if sheer being ‘pro-Russian’ absolved anybody from being ‘nationalist’) and, of course, that Crimea had ‘always’ been Russian until drunken Khrushchev passed it to Kyiv.

The most toxic, however, was the myth of the “Kievan Russia” invented at the turn of the seventeenth century when the Tsardom of Muscovy turned into the Russian Empire by appropriating new lands and, crucially, the new name that phonetically and symbolically alluded to the Medieval entity called (Kyivan) Ruś. The real connection between the two entities was very vague, like between Ancient Rome and modern Romania, but its invention allowed Eurasian Muscovy to appropriate a few centuries of the Kyiv Ruś history and, eventually, the core lands of historical Ruś (today’s Belarus and Ukraine) that belonged at the time to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Muscovy, which evolved rather late in the north eastern fringes of Ruś under the auspices of the Golden Horde, managed not only to legitimize its claims to Ruś history and territory but also, crucially, to delegitimize the very existence of Ukrainians and Belarusians, downgraded now to the status of regional Russian ethnic subgroups.

The story is not unique since quite a few nations draw their histories on invented traditions. But hardly any invention appeared as harmful for both the dominant and subaltern groups as the Ruś=Russia myth. For an entire three centuries, it increasingly hindered development of both Ukrainian and Russian national identities (out of either local or imperial) and hampered the successful modernization of both nations. All the history of the Russian-Ukrainian relations since then can be described as a history of colonization, oppression and cooptation – on the one side, and of resistance and collaboration – on the other side.

By the end of the 1980s, most Ukrainians internalized, to varying degrees, inferiority complexes vis-à-vis the Russian language and culture seen as the vehicles of progress and social advance, and accepted, however lukewarmly, the official notion of Ukrainians and Russians as the ‘same’, or ‘almost the same’, or ‘brotherly’ (in the Soviet parlance) people—where the status of the ‘older brother’ was predictably assigned to Russians. This largely determined the low intensity of ethnic nationalism and the relative weakness of the national liberation movement in the republic during Gorbachev perestroika and, eventually, the slow pace of the professed “national revival” after political independence was attained. Ukrainian identity was deemed rather weak and fluid, though in fact its alleged weakness was not so much a sign of its low strength as of a relatively low salience. Its alleged ‘weakness’ hid from observers’ eyes a highly important phenomenon that persisted intrinsically at the grass-root level in all the Ukrainian lands and through most of its history, and came increasingly to the fore in the past decade enabling a spectacular civic mobilization today across all the Ukrainian regions.

From the Imperial Periphery to a Political Nation

It was local patriotism that survived in Ukraine in the darkest years of imperial pressure and ‘anti-nationalist’ terror, to fuel the national sentiment and facilitate the 90% vote for independence in the 1991 nationwide referendum, and to enable the gradual, smooth transition of Soviet subjects into loyal Ukrainian citizens. If there was a nationalism in Ukraine, it was primarily ‘banal’—operating at the level of daily habits and rituals, symbols and discourses. All of them were highly eclectic, a mix of the Soviet and the Ukrainian, but the active minority used the grass-root patriotism to promote things Ukrainian and demote things Soviet, diplomatically avoiding direct confrontation with things Russian. The invisible hand of the “nationalizing state” worked slowly but steadily, making ‘Soviets’ into Ukrainians primarily in civic terms and caring much less about their language, let alone ethnicity—a category that disappeared completely from all the official documents and largely faded away from the public discourse. Paradoxically, the same mechanisms that facilitated assimilation of Ukrainians into Russian language and culture, now started to operate in the opposite direction. While the linguistic Ukrainization proceeded slowly, despite some government efforts, the ethnic re-identification processed surprisingly fast, without any noticeable government interference.

The number of self-identified ethnic Russians in Ukraine in 1989 (according to the last Soviet census) amounted to 22%; then, by 2001 (the next census), it declined to 17%, and then, according to sociological surveys,¹¹ it fell to 9% in 2015 and to 6% in 2017.¹² The further downward dynamic seemed to be predetermined by the low salience of that category and the promotion of civic identity by both the state and civil society. Independent Ukraine was conceived as a political nation with a Ukrainian ethno-cultural core (which implies some entitlements to the historically oppressed language and culture) but a nation politically inclusive and culturally tolerant. This made all the citizens into “political Ukrainians” while rendering the category of ethnicity increasingly obsolete. The 2017 nationwide survey revealed that only 3% of the youngest respondents (18-29 years old) defined themselves as ethnic Russians.

The assumption that the respondents may have not dared to disclose their Russian ethnicity, being afraid of possible persecution or discrimination – as Moscow contends, – holds no water because the surveys were carried out anonymously, and the notion of ethnicity was strictly private, not indicated in any official documents. Moreover, none of the respondents tried to ‘hide’ his or her Russian language—a much more conspicuous indicator of the allegedly ‘undesirable’ Russianness than the practically invisible and undetectable (beyond self-declaration) ethnicity. The rapid re-identification of ethnic Russians as Ukrainians was remarkably not accompanied by the concurrent linguistic Ukrainization. Most of them remained primarily Russian-speaking. In 2012, as many as 42% of Ukrainian citizens declared Russian their “native language”, then, by 2013 (before Euromaidan), the figure fell down inexplicably to 37%, and again to 33% in 2015, after large chunks of predominantly Russian-speaking territories fell out of the surveys. Then, the figure gradually decreased year by year down to the current 20%—which is still much higher than the number of self-defined ethnic Russians.¹³

Questioning “Imperial Knowledge”

The Kremlin’s blatant lie on the alleged ‘oppression’ of ethnic Russians and Russophones in Ukraine is understandable as part of the hybrid war and propagandistic slandering that paved a way for the eventual military aggression. But the Western susceptibility to this lie is a more complicated phenomenon. It partly stems from the traditional tuning of all their sensors to the imperial messages as presumably the most comprehensive, ‘important’, and authoritative—rather than to the marginal voices of minor, subaltern, and ‘less important’ nations. In practical terms it means that whatever chutzpah comes from Putin or Lavrov’s mouth, it is reproduced globally by top international media and considered seriously, regardless of its falsity and mendacity. Nobody dares to call the liars the liars and the chutzpah the chutzpah.

All the alternative voices of Ukrainian experts and politicians are rarely heard and even more rarely overweigh the “imperial knowledge” disseminated by Moscow. At best, they are recognized as “an alternative view” that does not disprove Kremlin’s lie but rather implies that the truth dwells somewhere in between. 

The second problem is a poor knowledge of Ukraine in general and, in this particular case, of its linguistic and ethno-cultural peculiarities. A typical template applied to the Ukrainian situation is that of a ‘nationalizing’ state that tries to assimilate the minorities into the dominant language and culture, and of the titular majority that predictably strives to oppress minorities and variously marginalize them. It completely ignores the fact that Ukraine is a postcolonial country where the ‘dominant’ language and culture had been (and remained) that of the imperial minority, while the titular majority was (and remained) a socially disadvantaged and culturally marginalized part of the population. It ignores the even more crucial fact that an independent Ukraine emerged not as a result of the national liberation struggle and radical political turnover, but as a marriage of convenience between the old, thoroughly Russified communist elite and the nascent civil society led by an Ukrainian national-democratic intelligentsia. 

The result of this pacting was a negotiated transition—very slow, convoluted but relatively smooth, insofar as the ancient regime has largely retained its political and economic power while making important concessions to the junior partners in terms of political freedoms and civil liberties as well as the soft ‘Ukrainization’ policies. On the one hand, thirty years after independence, Ukraine does not have a single Ukrainian-speaking ‘oligarch’ (all the top richest men speak Russian as their only or primary language), and of the six Ukrainian presidents (1991-2022) only Viktor Yushchenko spoke Ukrainian at home and in private (as a joke says, he had to because his wife, a Ukrainian-American, knew no Russian). The same can be said about the huge majority of the Ukrainian political, business and military elite, predominantly Russian-speaking, so that one may only guess whom Mr Putin is going to ‘liberate’ and ‘protect’ – and from whom (certainly not the Ukrainian soldiers who speak mostly Russian in the battlefield – for both the Soviet military terminology and the imperial swearing serve them best).

Different but Unified

The conspicuous regional, ethno-cultural and linguistic differences in Ukraine have obscured for years two other phenomena that determined the development of Ukrainian society and, by and large, today’s response to the Russian invasion. First, all the differences, though broadly recognized, had rather low political salience. Society was fragmented but not compartmentalized. The borders between the groups were fluid, vague and permeable. The intergroup differences were multiple but non-confrontational, occupying a rather low place in the hierarchy of people’s concerns and priorities. There were attempts to exploit them in 2002-2012 by pro-Russian political forces but this did not result in any significant splits or cracks, until the Russian troops and mercenaries arrived in 2014 and blew them up.

The second phenomenon, as already was mentioned, was a local patriotism that provided, in the Soviet times, a safe substitute for Ukrainian nationalism and competed for primacy with the national identity in many regions throughout the 1990s, until losing the priority in the hierarchy of people’s self-identification in all Ukraine’s regions in the 2010s.

What we observe today in Ukraine is a surprisingly strong, mobilized and consolidated political nation where millions of people, including the ethnic Russians, proudly claim they are politically Ukrainian – and defend their newly acquired Ukrainianness with arms – contrary to Putin’s beliefs and expectations.

Because the political nation for them is not about language and blood, nor about a common history and religion, but about the common values and common future that Ukrainians envision as ‘European’. They fight not so much for the territory occupied by the intruders but for freedom and dignity—something that Putin and his obedient subjects barely understand.


  1. https://zeitung.faz.net/fas/politik/2022-03-27/41f792f983a7d40d510f0151b5206881
  2. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/03/russia-ukraine-invasion-military-predictions/629418
  3. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2022/03/russia-ukraine-invasion-military-predictions/629418/
  4. https://www.wsj.com/articles/ukraines-troops-fight-war-of-ambush-and-skirmish-against-russian-invaders-11647951516
  5. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/amphtml/christopherm51/videos-ukraine-heroism-russia-invasion-tanks
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2oXkDSgmybs
  7. https://www.spiegel.de/international/world/ivan-krastev-on-russia-s-invasion-of-ukraine-putin-lives-in-historic-analogies-and-metaphors-a-1d043090-1111-4829-be90-c20fd5786288
  8. https://doi.org/10.2307/2501741
  9. http://diasporiana.org.ua/wp-content/uploads/books/13743/file.pdf
  10. https://krytyka.com/ua/articles/ukrayina-pidsumky-stolittya
  11. http://www.razumkov.org.ua/upload/Identi-2016.pdf
  12. https://razumkov.org.ua/images/Material_Conference/2017_04_12_ident/2017-Identi-3.pdf
  13. https://ratinggroup.ua/en/research/ukraine/language_issue_in_ukraine_march_19th_2022.html

Mykola Riabchuk

is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Political Studies in Kyiv and a Visiting Researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Paris. His latest books (in English) are Eastern Europe since 1989: Between the Loosened Authoritarianism and Unconsolidated Democracy (Warsaw, 2020), and At the Fence of Metternich’s Garden. Essays on Europe, Ukraine, and Europeanization (Stuttgart, 2021). His last collection of essays Nationalist’s Lexicon (in Ukrainian) won the Taras Shevchenko National Prize in arts in literature in 2022.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.