Ukrainian Identity in Time of War: More Salient and Radical

IWMPost Article

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had a significant impact on Ukrainian identity. While the most vivid shift is the strengthening of civic attachment of members of different ethnic, linguistic and regional groups, the invasion has also radicalized ethnocultural components of Ukrainian identity.

On the eve of Russia’s full-blown invasion of Ukraine, most politicians and analysts in the West believed that if President Vladimir Putin decided to invade, Ukraine would be unable to withstand this as its army was weak, its society was divided, and many citizens would welcome the Russian troops. Therefore, they were much surprised when the Ukrainian army pushed the invaders far from Kyiv, millions of citizens went to the frontline or actively supported those there, and in the occupied cities many more people protested the occupation than welcomed it.

One important source of Ukraine’s resilience is a strong national identity—the overarching attachment to one’s homeland above ethnic, linguistic, or regional ties. This was long overlooked by most analysts who emphasized ethnolinguistic or regional divisions and thus believed that a Ukrainian civic nation had not yet developed. They painted the picture of a country divided between the Ukrainian-speaking west and the Russian-speaking east, while failing to notice the large-scale reidentification of ethnic Russians as Ukrainians and the embrace by many Russian-speakers of Ukrainian as their national language.

In fact, Ukrainian national identity was strong already before the full-blown invasion, and it became an important source of Ukrainian society’s remarkable resilience in the confrontation with a mighty aggressor. At the same time, the invasion enhanced the salience of national identity and changed its meaning for many people calling themselves Ukrainians. While the most vivid change is the strengthening of civic attachment, the invasion has also radicalized the ethnocultural content of national identity; that is, attitudes that were traditionally associated with Ukrainian ethnic identity but now are being embraced by many people of other ethnic origins.

The most important component of national identity in terms of its contribution to societal resilience is a strong civic attachment of members of different ethnic, linguistic, and regional groups. Survey results demonstrate that most people prioritize their identity as citizens of Ukraine—or as Ukrainians, which now is seen as meaning the same—over their ethnic, linguistic, regional, and other attachments. The growth of civic identity was particularly noticeable after the Euromaidan, which gave many Ukrainian citizens a strong confidence in their power to change the situation in the country, even if that meant rising against the government. The popular response to the full-scale invasion clearly manifested the strength of civic attachment and, at the same time, further enhanced it. While hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens volunteered to join the army or territorial defense units, millions contributed to the resistance by digging trenches, weaving camouflage netting, and—the most widespread of all kinds of help—donating money to buy military equipment, vehicles, medical, and other supplies for military units. Apart from helping the military, very many people helped civilians who found themselves close to the frontline or who had fled the areas of fighting to other parts of Ukraine or abroad.

This impressive national solidarity contributed to the growth of national identity and national pride, which were also boosted by the military prowess of the Ukrainian army. Actually, most Ukrainians declared from the very first days of the invasion that their country would prevail in the war, even if then this was more a demonstration of solidarity than a confident expectation of victory. Victory became realistic only in April 2022 when the invaders were pushed out of the north of Ukraine, and even more so in the fall when the Ukrainian army reconquered large territories in the east and the south, not least due to conaiderable military help from the West. As often happens in a time of war, most Ukrainians have expressed strong support for their leadership and the conviction that things are moving in the right direction. Most remarkably, they are also strongly convinced that their country needs democracy rather than authoritarian rule.

While Ukrainian national identity is inclusive in that it is open to all citizens regardless of ethnic origin, language practice, or religious denomination, it is not strictly civic but also includes prominent ethnocultural elements. The most obvious change in the ethnocultural content of Ukrainian identity brought about by the full-scale war is the increased alienation from and hostility toward Russia, which most Ukrainians view as the aggressor. Survey data demonstrate a radical change in Ukrainians’ perceptions of the Russian state and the Russian people. In 2014, after the illegal annexation of Crimea and the start of the conflict in Donbas, the change was largely limited to the Russian state. While the majority of respondents described Russia’s policy toward Ukraine as “clearly unfriendly,” they still said Ukrainians and Russians were “friendly” or even “brotherly” peoples. This changed in 2022 when outrage at the Russian state’s brutal aggression against Ukraine was extended in public opinion to the Russian people, whom most Ukrainians view as supporting and enabling it. Already in March 2022, less than a month after the full-blown invasion, 98 percent of respondents said they considered Russia a hostile country, 56 percent that its goal was the “complete extermination of the Ukrainian people,” and 66 percent that ordinary Russians were “fully to blame” or “rather to blame” for the aggression.

Another ethnocultural aspect of national identity pertains to views of the past. A nation’s war with an external aggressor tends to boost among its members the perception of the past as characterized by being oppressed by and fighting against the current aggressor. In the case of Ukraine, this is vividly reflected in a more positive attitude toward the nationalist fighters of the first half of the twentieth century: the underground Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and its guerilla arm, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). While long demonized by Soviet and Russian propaganda as Nazi collaborators, now they are predominantly embraced as fighters for national independence against Russian imperialism. Not surprisingly, the share of respondents reporting a positive or rather positive attitude toward the UPA jumped from 32 percent in 2017 to 69 percent in 2022.

Finally, Russia’s aggression has boosted citizens’ attachment to the national language and their support for its prevalence in society. Since the early years of independence, Ukrainian politics has been a site of contestation between two visions of the titular language’s role in society, one of which wanting to make it the main language of all social domains and the other preferring to keep Ukraine a bilingual country with Ukrainian having only a symbolic primacy. As Ukrainians increasingly consider the titular language an important element of national identity, the threat to the nation posed by a military intervention by the former imperial power leads them to more strongly embrace that language in their own practice and to support its spread in society. Ever more people who used to speak only or mostly Russian started using Ukrainian more or even switched to it exclusively. In a 2022 survey, 80 percent of respondents chose the predominance of Ukrainian in all domains as the desirable language situation in the future, a significant change from 60 percent five years earlier, while only 15 percent said that Ukraine should be a bilingual country.

It thus looks like inclusive membership in the Ukrainian nation now coexists with rather radical ethnocultural attitudes that members are expected to share. While most Ukrainian citizens of different ethnic origin seem to have no problem embracing these attitudes, these may turn out to be problematic for some people in view of their family history, cultural practices, or other reasons. The de facto exclusion of such people from the new national identity is the price Ukraine is paying for national mobilization in the time of war, and it is a problem it will have to deal with after its eventual victory.

Volodymyr Kulyk is head research fellow at the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and recurrent visiting fellow at the IWM.