Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin elucidated his view of Ukrainian statehood. He said, “Modern Ukraine was entirely and fully created by Russia, more specifically the Bolshevik, communist Russia. This process began practically immediately after the 1917 revolution, and moreover Lenin and his associates did it in the sloppiest way in relation to Russia — by dividing, tearing from her pieces of her own historical territory.” Putin’s view of Ukraine contradicts the established historical narrative surrounding Ukraine’s history as an independent nation.
Although Russia and Ukraine both trace their national origins back to the Kieven Rus, an independent state in the territory of present day Ukraine existed during medieval times as the Principality of Galicia-Volhynia and Kingdom of Ruthenia, which lasted from 1199-1349. Parts of Ukraine were eventually incorporated into the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the 1659 Pereyaslav Articles put Ukrainian Cossacks under Russian dominion. The partition of the Polish-Lituanian Commonwealth led to the annexation of most of Ukraine by the Russian Empire, where it would remain until a brief stint of independence following the First World War before being annexed by the Soviet Union. A 1991 referendum led to Ukraine’s present independence and the breakup of the Soviet Union followed when the same occurred in other Soviet republics.
Despite the historical evidence detailing Ukraine’s nationhood, Putin continues to deny any separation between Russian and Ukrainian nationality. Many Russians support Putin’s view regarding Ukraine as an illegitimate state. According to a 2014 survey conducted by Russia’s ROMIR survey agency, only 16% of Russians supported Ukraine’s borders existing as they were established in 1991. This refusal to acknowledge the statehood of Ukraine reflects the tendency of nationalists to advocate for legitimizing states based on historical and ethnic characterisics. Ukraine fails to meet this criteria, therefore, due to its historic connection to Russia and large Russian population in the Donbas region and Crimea.
Russia first struck against Ukraine in 2014 by annexing Crimea after the Euromaiden protests against distancing Ukraine from western powers led to the overthrow of Ukraine’s government under President Viktor Yanukovych. Putin justified this invasion by claiming that it was to support the Crimea’s majority Russian population. Regarding the ongoing invasion that began on February 24th, Russia’s war-aims included the overthrow of the present government, “denazification” of the country, and providing support to the Russians living in Ukraine. Russia’s failure to subdue Kyiv and other major cities led Putin to shift the war-aims to supporting the independence in the Donetsk and Luhansk republics and establishing a land bridge in eastern Ukraine between these republics and Crimea. Russia has recently taken the eastern port-city of Mariupol and retreated from Kyiv in order to better support the fighting in the east.
Amidst Russian aggression, Ukraine’s heroic unwillingness to acquiesce to Russian claims over the Donbas region and Crimea showcases the moral courage of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government. The U.S. and its allies continue to support Ukraine through aid and sanctions against Russia. President Joe Biden recently asked Congress for $33 billion in additional aid, more than twice as much $13.6 billion in aid Congress passed beforehand, and sanctions continue to be ramped up on Russian oligarchs and businesses dealing with vital commodities. This support continues despite Russian attacks on railway supplies of weapons being transferred from western countries to Ukraine, indicating the U.S. and European Union’s commitment to ensuring that Ukraine’s remains sovereign over its recognized territroy.
These efforts to support Ukraine and undermine Putin’s government are commendable. The support of Ukraine through monetary and military means, while also advocating for the morality of democratic governance, assist Ukraine in the short term. To ensure that future wars of this nature do not occur, ethnonationalism must be rejected as an illegitimate ideology to morally condemn the Russian invasion and prevent future conflicts along ethnic lines.
Ethnonationalism, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, involves “advocacy of or support for the political interests of a particular ethnic group, especially its national independence or self-determination.” While ethnonationalism is usually not explicitly advocated for, it provides the basis for numerous independence movements and grants legitimacy to their sovereignty. Political commentators and historians tend to view nationalism as a uniquely right-wing phenomenon and feature of authoritarian regimes, however, nationalism was also a feature of anti-colonial movements in the 20th century. While commentators praise nationalism, specifically ethnonationalism, when anti-colonial movements use its rhetoric to garner support, this should be condemned due to the negative long-term impacts of movements built on ideas of ethnic sovereignty.
UN Special Rapporteur on racism Tendayi Achiume explained the issues surrounding ethnonationalism in a UN report. She claimed, “Citizenship, nationality and immigration status often function as the preconditions for full enjoyment of human rights for people across the world. It is thus no surprise that according to UNHCR, more than 75% of the world’s known stateless populations belong to minority groups.”
These impacts reveal themselves within the invasion of Ukraine through Putin’s rhetoric. Putin’s promotion of Ukrainian-Russian unity through historical origins should be regarded as insufficient reasoning for any contemporary political connection between the two nations. Ukraine should be respected as a democratic nation-state no matter what ethnicities live within its borders. The idea that a single ethnicity deserves its own nation-state, thereby denying other ethnicities within those borders equal say in its governance, should be regarded as abhorrent.
Vladimir Putin’s claim that the purpose of Russia’s invasion is to defend the rights of ethnic Russians should be condemned. Putin’s government, due to its authoritarianism and violations of human rights, has no claim of sovereignty over the Russians within Russia, let alone those in Ukraine. Any government that respects the democratic and human rights of its citizens deserves sovereignty of its state, regardless of the ethnic makeup of that state. While it could be argued that the nationalism of Ukrainians has fueled their resistance against the Russians, this critique is misguided. Ukraine enjoys the support of much of its ethnically Russian population according to Associate Professor of International Security Studies Anna Batta. She stated regarding the Donbas region that “we still see a large number of the population who consider themselves Ukrainian, despite the fact that they live in the Donbas and may have voted for President Viktor Yanukovych in multiple elections.”
As the war in Ukraine continues as a stalemate in the east, western governments must continue to provide humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, while also continuing their sanctions against Russia. These measures have been effective at disrupting the Russian war effort presently, however, the political rhetoric surrounding the link between statehood and ethnonationalism must be contested to prevent similar conflicts from arising in the future. As immigration, travel, and trade flourish throughout the world, multi-ethnic and multicultural societies will continue to develop. This change should be encouraged as different cultures bring unique customs and innovations that can benefit each other when shared.
To support these changes, ethnonationalism must be condemned and any inherent link between it and the sovereignty of a government should be denied. The basis of a legitimate government must follow the principles of democracy and liberalism, and governments should be judged as effective based on how these principles are upheld. Government based on ethnicity must be regarded as barbaric and claims of unity due to abstract, trans-national ethnic connections, such as those Putin has made, must be disregarded in favor of governmental sovereignty based on human rights.