The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Russia’s invasion strengthened Ukrainian identity

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This year, Ukraine’s Independence Day falls on the same day that marks six months since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. The two events feel inextricably, indelibly linked: Ukrainians will celebrate more than three decades of independence from the Soviet Union while remaining on high alert for a military escalation by the Kremlin.

“Tomorrow is an important day for all of us,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Tuesday. “And that is why this day, unfortunately, is also important for our enemy. We must be aware that tomorrow hideous Russian provocations and brutal strikes are possible.”

President Vladimir Putin and the Russian elites and ideologues who support his war view Ukraine as an artificial state and an integral part of “Russkiy Mir” — or the “Russian world,” a revanchist concept about Russia’s imperial domains — that ought to be wrapped back into the Russian fold. The Kremlin is believed to have even planned a military parade running through the heart of Kyiv after completing what it expected would be an easy conquest. Instead, there’s only a parade of burned-out Russian tanks lining a central boulevard in the capital, as residents waving Ukrainian flags pose for photos by their charred turrets and treads.

Kyiv is far from the Kremlin’s reach after Ukraine’s military repelled an initial Russian attempt on the capital. Ukrainian forces are mobilizing to take back lands in the country’s south captured by earlier Russian advances, though analysts foresee a long, grinding battle ahead. The war has come at hideous cost in lives, resources and physical infrastructure for Ukrainians. But it has underscored the separation between Ukraine and its larger neighbor. The former won candidate status for the European Union and widespread solidarity abroad, while the latter has been hobbled by Western sanctions and deepening international isolation.

Western sanctions are wounding but not yet crushing Russia’s economy

At home, six months of war have solidified Ukraine’s sense of nationhood. “We are stronger in spirit, in unity, as a society, as a nation,” Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, a Ukrainian parliamentarian, told me. That’s a consequence, she added, of having an intimate and visceral “understanding of an existential enemy and threat.”

Klympush-Tsintsadze, speaking on the phone from Kyiv, said the anti-Ukrainian rhetoric coming from the Kremlin and its propaganda mouthpieces — not to mention the documented atrocities carried out by Russian forces on Ukrainian soil — have left her compatriots to face “a Hamletian question: To be or not to be?”

In the shadow of war, enthusiasm about Ukrainian identity has only boomed. My colleagues reported in April that many bilingual Ukrainians were forsaking speaking Russian after the trauma of seeing their homeland overrun by Russian soldiers. This has proven true even for many Ukrainians who have grown up in predominantly Russian-speaking communities.

“A lot of people have started to switch to Ukrainian, understanding that they have been forcefully Russified,” Klympush-Tsintsadze said, stressing that the distinction was less about ethnic difference than political values. “I think it’s about understanding what part of civilization we belong to, what we care about, how do we value human life. A lot of people irrespective of which language they speak are not willing to be associated with the ‘Russkiy Mir’ that [Putin is] trying to bring to our country.”

A train ride back to Ukraine: Fear, tears and a romance

Ukraine has a deep and complex political history. Ukrainian nationalism has been shaped, at various times, by factions from both the left and the right. Its current wartime form, though, is marked by its inclusiveness, argued Ukrainian political philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko in a recent interview.

“Ukraine is a very plural country. … It’s totally wrong to think that Ukraine is divided between some of its identities,” he said, pointing to a “remarkable consolidation” between Ukrainian Christian and Muslims, primarily 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 currents that make up the modern Ukrainian nation,” Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council wrote last month.

Yermolenko added that there has been a convergence of liberal and “conservative, patriotic” agendas, and that Ukrainian identity right now is located not around cultural or ethnic factors but in the country’s quest for democracy. “The struggle for Ukrainian independence goes hand-in-hand with the struggle for individual freedom,” he said.

That sentiment bears out in recent polling from Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology. Three-quarters of the Ukrainian respondents in July said they believe democracy is the best form of government, a 15 point increase from last year. Support for Zelensky has surged: 88 percent of respondents said they trust the president “mostly” or “completely.” Only 20 percent felt that way when surveyed in December, before the war began.

Most tellingly, when asked what they believe united Ukrainians, 76 percent of respondents named “belief in a better future.” That was more than double the same response level in December 2021.

“This surge in collective optimism suggests Western assistance can boost the hope that Ukrainians feel about their future, as well as their determination to fight against Russia’s aggression,” wrote researchers Mikhail Alexseev and Serhii Dembitskyi.

The United States is trying to do its part. The Biden administration is slated 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 ratchet up its pressure on Russia far more.

Ukrainian defenders may have staved off Russia’s “aim of crushing Ukrainian statehood 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 appears more determined than ever to proceed with its genocidal agenda, whatever the cost.”

“Every single day, we are losing people, our cities are being destroyed, new families are fleeing their homes,” Klympush-Tsintsadze told me. “We don’t have any other choice but to fight in order to survive.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.

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