One of the aspects of Russia’s claims about the Ukraine that has struck me as being particularly unrealistic is their denial of Ukrainian as a genuine identity. There has long been a habit of thinking among Russian leaders that those nations that were once a part of the Kievan Rus that have remained outside of central control exist to be gathered by some powerful central government and that they have no legitimate separate existence that cannot be terminated at will. So it was that as soon as Moscow became a powerful enough state to resist the overlordship of the Mongol successor states starting in the late 1300s and continuing on for the next several centuries, that Russia sought to gather these various independent states under Muscovite control.
Yet whatever can be said for East Slavic identity during the Middle Ages, a lot has happened since then that has allowed for new identities to form among those areas. The response of Ukrainians to the Russian invasion seems mythic in nature. Not all of these myths are true, of course but it hardly matters when one comes to the formation of identities. Whether one is looking at refugee boys fleeing Kyiv and trying to put on a brave face as they talk to people driving them to safety after having thought that they would need to be walking for days while their father stays in the city to fight the invading Russians, or whether one is talking about ghost ace pilots or mythical soldiers on a Black Sea island or a grandmother telling doomed Russian cannon fodder to put seeds in their pockets so that something will grow, or any other number of war myths we have so far, it is clear that this war is serving the purpose of strengthening the national identity of Ukraine separate from Russians and hostile to them. In that sense it appears to be much like the response of Canadian identity to the American invasions during the War of 1812, or the American response to British invasions of New York, the Chesapeake Bay area, and New Orleans in that same conflict.
I must admit that I do not know when it is that Ukrainians first felt themselves to be a different people than Russians. At some point over the past few hundred years Ukrainian has developed a separate language that is recognizably different (and it must be admitted in this context that Belarus shares this difference from Russian that gives it a recognizable identity, even if Belarus appears far different than Ukraine in terms of its separateness from Russia’s influence). Whatever cultural influence Russia has exerted over the past thirty years of independence, the present conflict seems destined to make Ukraine far more negative in its response to Russia than has been the case in the past. It is well worth wondering what Russia’s goal was, and what they expected out of Ukraine. Did they really expect to be welcomed with open arms after having deliberately and frequently targeting civilians and threatening to use nukes of conventional weapons fail, as they are failing at present? Did they really fail to consider that their attack on Ukraine would not only sabotage their own economy and their own reputation but also strengthen the separateness of Ukraine’s identity vis-a-vis Russia, and make Ukrainians (and possibly other peoples with a history of Russian domination and oppression who form part of Russia’s near abroad) feel even more negatively about the thought of cooperating with Russia at all? How does this serve Russian interests if indeed Russia is concerned about NATO making inroads and endangering their own strategic depth. If Moscow indeed wants Ukraine as a neutral buffer state from the threat of Western domination, is it not better to treat Ukraine as a friend or a potential friend rather than attempt to either rule or ruin it?
It is not as if Ukrainians who are students of history lack stories about the wickedness of Russia’s behavior in the past to fit along with present conduct as part of a black tale about Russia’s malign influence on its neighbors. Ukraine’s identity as a separate group of Cossack groups goes back to the period where it was a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and Russia refused to accept the independence of these groups and sought to dominate the area throughout the 1600’s and 1700’s. For centuries Ukraine has been contested territory fought over between various armies who have seen the Central European plain that runs through the country as an access point for invasion from both sides, with terrible results over and over again. Perhaps most horrific was the experience of Ukraine during the horrors of the political famine of the 1930’s under Stalinist oppression and then the bloodbath of World War II when the territory was fought over by Nazi and Soviet troops, neither of whom had the best interests of Ukrainians at heart. The contemporary situation in Ukraine simply falls under the pattern of previous attempts by Russia to dominate the region, deny its separate identity, language, and culture, and kill and oppress its people all for the selfish and narrow-minded interests of corrupt and evil rulers. And if Ukraine’s government has its own well-known issues of corruption and incompetence throughout its period of independence, it clearly would rather struggle and suffer on its own rather than be ruled by puppet regimes established by Moscow. And who can blame them?