The Rise and Role of Ukrainian Ethnic Nationalism

The Rise and Role of Ukrainian Ethnic Nationalism

The Rise and Role of Ukrainian Ethnic Nationalism

How it may endanger Ukraine’s entry into the EU.


When I traveled to Ukraine for research in April, I expected to see a great surge in nationalism as a result of the Russian invasion, and I was not disappointed. As in all wars, public rage has fused with the need of the Ukrainian state and its propaganda machine to motivate and mobilize the population to fight. It is also both traditional and understandable that mendacious Russian propaganda claiming the nonexistence of Ukraine as a genuine nation should be met with the wholesale rewriting of history along Ukrainian nationalist lines; nor was it unexpected that the hatred of Ukraine spewed by much of the Russian media should be met with hatred directed not only at the Russian government and military but also at the Russian people in general.

On my first day in Kyiv, I saw a very traditional but nonetheless depressing (in the context of Christianity) example of this when I visited the St. Sophia Cathedral, a remarkable and beautiful 11th-century Byzantine structure with baroque additions. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is clearly matching the Russian Orthodox Church in its commitment to supporting state nationalism. The narthex contained a set of displays on Ukrainian history intended to show Ukraine as both the true heir of early medieval Rus and permanently and innately European, while Russians are portrayed as innately and permanently cruel Asiatic savages. Of the reconstructed features of Andrei Bogoliubsky, prince of Vladimir in what is now Russia, it is written, “Just look at that face carefully!… the facial skeleton has indisputable elements of Mongoloidity.”

Since the Russian invasion, anti-Russian ethnic nationalism has become dominant in Ukrainian public discourse (for a taste of this, see the public statements and interviews of presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak). Old insults and new epithets like “Rashist” (a fusing of “Russian” and “Fascist”) are hurled at the Russian people as a whole.

Once again, every day on Russian TV you can see hate-filled ethnic insults directed at Ukrainians (for example, portraying them as descended from miscegenated Polish serfs). There are, however, two significant differences between Russia and Ukraine when it comes to chauvinist nationalism.

The first is that even without Crimea and the Donbas, Ukraine continues to contain a large minority of Russians and of Russian-speaking Ukrainians heavily intermarried with Russians; and as I found during a stay in the mainly Russian-speaking southern city of Zaporizhia, while these are now bitterly hostile to the Kremlin and the Russian armed forces, many in private are not at all happy with portrayals of Russians as a whole as racially inferior savages, nor with Ukrainian state attempts to obliterate Russian language and culture in Ukraine. This approach by the Ukrainian state also obviously makes it quite impossible to make any sort of appeal to the population of Crimea and the eastern Donbas to support a return to Ukrainian rule.

The other big difference is that Russia is not a candidate for membership of the European Union and NATO. The presently dominant strain in official Ukrainian nationalism is radically incompatible with the traditionally anti-nationalist core mission of the EU. Admittedly, nationalism has always played a central but unacknowledged role in the expansion of the West since the collapse of Communism and the Soviet bloc. More recently, it has become a key ally of Western strategy against Russia.

This is not really a problem for NATO, which has always accepted states ruled by authoritarian and chauvinist regimes as long as they were anti-Soviet. For the European Union, however, it represents a critical challenge. With the new possibilities for Ukrainian and Georgian EU membership opened up by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this issue is becoming increasingly urgent. Already, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has greatly strengthened the power of Poland and the Baltic States within the EU.

Nationalism was crucial to the acceptance by East European populations both of the EU’s neoliberal economic and social programs and of its revolutionary (by the standards of societies frozen in cultural conservatism under Communism) cultural changes. Both of these agendas were deeply unpopular with large sections of East European populations.

One key reason for the (temporary) acceptance of Westernization was the tremendous cultural and ideological hegemony of the West after the fall of Communism. Another, however, was that populations were persuaded that this was the price of membership of NATO and the European Union, without which (it was feared), they would eventually fall back under the hated hegemony of Moscow.

For many years, the role of nationalism in EU and NATO expansion was blotted out in the Western discourse of “transition to democracy and the free market.” This was partly because of the need to support the argument made by the West to Russia that when Poland and other states joined NATO and the EU, they would feel safe and their traditional hostility to Russia would vanish (as if).

More importantly however, a recognition of the role of nationalism would have challenged the overwhelming Western hegemonic discourse of the time, of the “end of history,” whereby Western liberal values were self-evidently, unquestionably, and universally valid, and all other societies would accept them naturally and without question. If it turned out that the great Western liberal expansionist project had nationalist worms at its heart, this unquestionable ideology would turn out to be subject to question after all.

This process always required a certain amount of conscious deceit. Thus, a Western diplomat tasked with reporting for the OSCE on the compliance of Latvia’s education laws with minority rights admitted to me that he deliberately lied, in order that Latvia should be able to join the Council of Europe, an essential step on the path to EU membership. Western liberal governments and the media ignored promises made by the Latvian and Estonian governments to their Russian minorities before independence, and have tolerated restrictions on minority rights that they would have vehemently denounced anywhere else.

Western establishments and the mainstream media as a whole turned a blind eye to the chauvinist character of the movement led by Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian leader who took power as a result of the “Rose Revolution,” and deliberately ignored or falsified incontrovertible evidence that in August 2008 it was Georgia that first attacked Russian troops in South Ossetia, and not the other way round (as recognized by present CIA director William Burns in his memoir The Back Channel, in the section about his time as ambassador to Moscow). The issues of South Ossete and Abkhaz separatism were presented in the West purely as outgrowths of Russian aggression and imperialism, with no attention at all to the element of minority reaction against Georgian ethnic nationalism.

With the reelection in Poland in 2015 of the Law and Justice party, on a platform of nationalism and religious conservatism, and the triumph in Hungary of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, the persistence of illiberal ethnic nationalism in Eastern Europe, and the internal threat this posed to the EU, became impossible to ignore.

As Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev have written, these movements were reactions against Western neoliberal policies and the arrogance with which they were imposed. But they also reflected old patterns in local political culture that had been temporarily held in check as part of the effort to join NATO and the EU and now, with membership secured, could be let free again. The EU previously directed strong condemnation of both Polish and Hungarian policies. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine however, Western criticism of the Polish Justice Party in the West has largely vanished, because Poland is bitterly anti-Russian, while criticism of Orbán continues at full force, since his government is pro-Russian.

As far as Ukraine and Georgia are concerned, the character of their nationalism was not a key issue for the EU as long as their membership was an impossibly distant prospect. However, with the mixture created by the Ukraine War in Western Europe of genuine sympathy for these countries, the new centrality of anti-Russian geopolitical agendas, and perceived total security dependence on the United States, accelerated membership could become a real possibility.

In the case of Georgia, the present government is moderate and pragmatic, skeptical (with good reason) of Western promises of support, and anxious not to start a new war with Russia. It is, however, facing a strong nationalist movement on the streets, focused on hostility to Russia, allegiance to the West, and the release of Saakashvili from jail.

In Ukraine, ethnic nationalist forces have long been more powerful than has been reflected by most Western reporting and analysis. As Ivan Katchanovski and others have written, while the Maidan Revolution of 2013–14 began as chiefly a mass protest of younger Ukrainians eager for Ukraine to progress toward the West and away from its grim and corrupt post-Soviet condition, in its final, violent stages the lead was taken by extreme nationalist elements.

Since then, Western reporting and analysis has focused on the issue of whether particular extreme nationalist groups (like the Azov Regiment and the Svoboda political party) can be described as fascistic, and on their very limited electoral support. This is fair enough as far as it goes, but it ignores the degree to which even before the war, ethnic nationalism had come to predominate in much of the Ukrainian political mainstream—as witness the slogan of former President Poroshenko in the 2019 elections: “Language, Army, Faith,” and the laws aimed at eliminating the role of the Russian language in government, the media, and higher education (measures that flatly contradicted Ukrainian commitments under the Minsk II agreement).

The Ukrainian official swing to ethnic nationalism represents a failure on the part of President Volodymyr Zelensky. He is, after all, himself a Russian-speaking Jew, and defeated Poroshenko on a platform of national reconciliation. Moreover, at the start of the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian government (correctly) made a great point of celebrating and publicizing the fact that the Russian and Russian-speaking minority in southern and eastern Ukraine, far from supporting the invasion as the Kremlin hoped, generally remained loyal to Ukraine—and continue to be, as I found during my travels. This could, therefore, have been a great opportunity for Zelensky to declare that Ukrainian civic nationalism had proved its strength, and that Ukraine is a country for all its peoples.

In a 2014 television appearance, Zelensky declared, “In the east and in Crimea, people want to speak Russian. Leave them alone, just leave them alone. Give them the right to speak Russian. Language should never divide our country…. We have the same skin color, the same blood, regardless of language.” If Ukrainian nationalism remains on its present path, then two outcomes are possible as far as EU membership is concerned. The first is that forces in Western Europe that are already deeply skeptical of further enlargement will use this to block Ukraine’s moves toward membership. As one European official told me in Brussels last autumn, “The last thing we need is more countries that are as chauvinist as Poland and Hungary, and as corrupt as Romania and Bulgaria.”

The other possibility is that under intense pressure from the United States and from its own East European members, the EU will grant early membership to Ukraine. This would essentially end the EU’s core ideological mission, and hollow out the EU from within. Rather than an “ever closer union,” the EU would become something more like de Gaulle’s vision of a “Europe des patries,” a loose congeries of very different states and cultures held together largely by fear of Russia and dependence on the United States.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy