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Kievan Rus

Identity politics at play in the Russo–Ukrainian Crisis

22 March 2022

In central Moscow stands a towering bronze monument to a historic leader, not of Russia, but of its neighbouring Ukraine. The statue belongs to Vladimir the Great, the Prince who ruled over the realm of Kievan Rus, an ancient proto-state which capital was Kiev. The other Vladimir and current President of Russia, under whose auspice the statue was erected, stood admiring the prince at the opening ceremony. The symbolism is clear. Mr Putin aspires for a re-unified Russia with Kiev, the mother capital, as goes the old Russian proverb.


Mr Putin had given his vision for a tale of two Russian nations. His essay, titled On the Historical Unity of Russian and Ukrainians, was published on the official Kremlin webpage in three different languages – English, Russian, and Ukrainian. He makes the argument for a shared Russian and Ukrainian heritage, based on common history. Several political analysts have read the essay as a last warning ahead of launching the special operation in Ukraine. 


Often Russia’s international politics could be understood through a ‘Realist’ lens, the doctrine that describe state behaviour in terms of security maximising, self-interested, rational actors. Yet Putin’s Russia could not be fully explained from a Realist standpoint alone. His discourse on Ukraine has taken other dimensions that escape such traditionalist reading. It may be more revealing to consider a Constructivist approach to the Russo-Ukrainian crisis, as it considers cultural, historical, and social dimensions in international politics. While Realism may capture economic and security dimensions to war and peace amongst states, Constructivism enriches the understanding of state behaviour by capturing none–material and social factors missed by other international relations theories.


Slavic Unity

Russian nationalists, most prominently Mr Putin, believe in an “all–Russian” nation. The three Rus all come from the first Russian federation, the narrative goes, established in the 19th century and extended from the Black Sea to the Baltic.


Kiev is the birthplace of Russia’s cultural and religious identity, where Vladimir the Great (978 – 1015) brought his people into the Orthodox faith. The Kievan state would crumble under the havoc wreaked by the Tatar hordes. It wasn’t until the 15th century when the new state would emerge from Moscow as the new Russian hold.


Kiev Rus disintegrated into multiple principalities. The east fell under the control of the Poles and later the Austrians. The central region was heavily influenced by the Rus’ cultural and legal traditions, eventually forming modern day Ukraine. Facing sectarian rivalry in the region, Orthodox clerics popularised the exonym ‘Little Russia’. Albeit distinct from Russia proper, Little Russia formed during the Medieval times the root identity for modern Ukrainians.


The common ancestry of Ukrainians and Russians has influenced the demographic make-up of the region over the decades. Geographic proximity, and other factors such as famine, heavily modified the ethnic fabric. Nearly 5 million Ukrainian lives were lost during the Soviet famine, and settlers from Russia were brought in to repopulate the devastated countryside.


In addition, numbers of ethnic Russians increased following the transfer of the Crimean Oblast in 1954, which had been under the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Ethnic Russians remained the dominant demographic component of Crimea even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.


In the years leading up to the collapse of the USSR, Ukrainian nationalists were preoccupied with self-determination, though not necessarily political independence.  Only later during the 20th Century did the sovereignty question became more pressing on Ukraine’s political agenda. As many as 5 referendums calling for self-determination were run, which only the last in 1991 was successful when more than 50% of Ukrainians voted for autonomy and independence from Russia.


Nevertheless, several key issues were left unresolved. Upon Ukraine’s 1991 independence, over 1,700 Soviet nuclear weapons were left on its territory. Matters of energy debt and the Black Sea fleet, as well as Crimea’s transfer to Ukraine albeit its population remaining largely loyal to Russia, casted long shadows over Ukraine truly breaking away from Russian influence.


Building a Ukrainian ‘Identity’

What constitutes a Ukrainian identity? What makes it different from Russia’s? Is it an ethnicity or a nationality? Such questions loomed over Ukraine’s national identity following its independence from the Soviet Union. Indeed, Ukraine’s independence was political in the main while remaining deeply influenced by Russian culture, language, and heritage. Ukrainians could not construct a ‘Self’ without an apposition to a Russian ‘Other’.


Such crises led President of Ukraine Mr Leonid Kuchma (1994 – 2005) to publish his book Russia is not Ukraine, a title rather unheard of (one couldn’t expect the French President to write a book titled France is not Germany). The book thus spoke volumes of Ukraine’s identity crises, which took the Ukrainians years to shape and define away from Russia’s identity.


Such demographic shifts were a serious cause of worry for the Ukrainian nationalists. A loosely defined identity meant a large number the Ukrainian population could become pro-Russian at any crisis.


This was pointed out by sociologists of the time. For Ukrainian voters, the underlying motives for demanding self-determination were economic and social rather than ethnic. As Ivan Radetzky (1963) puts it, there had never been a uniform Ukrainian identity as such, especially when the successive rules of the Pole and the Russians are considered. A Ukrainian identity had to be created. Ukrainian intelligentsia promoted an identity based on ideals of social justice and cultural renaissance. Language was at the heart of this large-scale social reformation. A bespoke Ukrainian language was revived across the entire country, although other spoken languages, including Russian, were banned. 


The moulding of Ukrainian society was described by Andrew Wilson in his 1999 lecture in Ukrainian studies. He suggested Ukrainians could not construct their identity without self-reflection and away from traditionalists views of ethnicities. Therefore, Ukrainian national identity can best be understood by looking at Ukrainian society along a variety of different axes. Through a more complex model that captures the ‘dual identities’ of Russians and Ukrainians within the Slav state, a more nuanced identity could be constructed. It is this middle group, or "other Ukraine," that Wilson feels is the key to any potential majority in Ukrainian society.


He noted that the "other Ukraine" could be better captured by adjusting the census model to include the potential for dual identities or by adding the element of language to that of ethnicity. According to Wilson, surveys that are sensitive to dual identities suggest that some 27 percent of Ukrainian citizens identify themselves as both Ukrainian and Russian. Adding language as an element creates a similar middle area of 30-35 percent who consider themselves ethnically Ukrainian but whose language of preference is Russian. Wilson went on to distinguish eight possible identities within this middle group.


Pan-Slavist or residual Soviet sentiments were evident in answers regarding Ukrainian independence. Wilson illustrated that more than 30 percent of respondents considered Ukraine's independence "a great misfortune, in so far as it meant the end of the USSR," while an additional 20 percent characterized it as "an unnatural break in the unity of the east Slavic peoples." Only slightly less than 9 percent agreed that Ukraine "won its independence in 1991 as a result of centuries of national-liberation struggle."


Finally, Wilson differentiates Galician nationalism, which views Western Ukraine as an agent of national unity and keeper of the true faith of Ukraine. These groups could offer the ‘Other Ukraine’ alternative that is truly reflective of a Ukrainian identity, though points to the Donbas and southern Ukrainian identities as prevalent forces.


Second Generation Breaking from Russia

The shaping of an independent Ukrainian identity has become more prevalent with younger generations, who are increasingly in contact with the West.


In her survey Next Generation in Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan: Youth Politics, Identity and Change, Nadia M. Diuk notes the rapid social shifts amongst younger generations in the titular countries. In Ukraine, more than 60% of young people between the age of 18–29 think independence from USSR was positive for their country (whereas less than 10% of respondents at the time welcomed the Soviet collapse).


The data may not be surprising as younger Ukrainians were born following their country’s independence in 1991. In contrast to their older compatriots, young Ukrainians feel closer to the West, especially in regions farther away from Russia. Such sentiments culminated in the Euromaidan in 2013 as young protestors swarmed the streets following Ukraine’s decision not to join the EU. Such sweeping protests, popularised by world media as ‘colour revolutions’, became emblematic of anti–Russian movements.


Ukrainians’ attitudes towards Russia have changed over the past decade. Russia’s popularity amongst the Ukrainians dropped a staggering 55% per cent to 34% in February 2022 from a high 80% in 2008. In comparison, an 43% increase from a mere 7% in negative attitudes towards Russia amongst the population has been noted for the same period. In a similar vein, about 54% of Ukraine’s youth supported their country joining the NATO. And the perception of Russia is only expected to worsen as Mr Putin launches the Special Operation in Ukraine.


Religious Separation

Perhaps the most exemplary of the schism between the two neighbours is that of the split between the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the Russian Church in 2018 – provoking furious response in Russia. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church had been under the Moscow Patriarchate for centuries. More than 190 bishops alongside the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, attended the ceremony that took place at the St Sophia cathedral in Kiev where the new church leader, was selected.


“This day will go into history as a sacred day ... the day of the final independence from Russia,” Mr Poroshenko told thousands of supporters. He also said national security depended on "spiritual independence" from Russia.


The establishment of Ukraine’s independent ends many centuries long tradition since the jurisdiction of Kievan Orthodox Churches were transferred to Moscow in 1686 by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Orthodoxy remains the largest Christian denomination in Eastern Europe, where it enjoyed a strong revival in the past two decades, being in Russia or its neighbouring countries, where more than 70% of the population identify as Orthodox.


In conclusion, identity is an inherently complex social phenomenon. It is multi-vector, dynamic, hybrid, and constantly transforming. To boil down identity to one factor while excluding other equally important ones is simply playing identity politics.  The Russian–Western rift is mainly captured in the desire to influence Ukraine’s national identity to their own favour. It seems that the West may have been more successful in attracting Ukraine into their sphere, whilst Russia’s efforts to revive a long past Slavic unity is perhaps late as younger generations grow estranged to a historic narrative that may never materialise again.