By Taras Kuzio
December 21, 2022
Ever since Ukraine regained independence in 1991, Western coverage of the country has tended to exaggerate regional differences, creating the impression of a weak state with divided loyalties. Misleading portrayals of Ukraine as a nation split between pro-Russian east and pro-European west have had a profound impact on outside perceptions, leading many international observers to believe that much of the local population in eastern Ukraine would actively support Russia’s 2022 invasion or at least remain neutral.
Such thinking can be traced back to Russia, which has long promoted the idea of modern Ukraine as an artificial state with a large ethnic Russian minority in need of Moscow’s protection. For years, Vladimir Putin denied Ukraine’s right to statehood while insisting Ukrainians were really Russians (“one people”). He openly accused Ukrainians of occupying historically Russian lands and declared Ukraine to be “an inalienable part of Russia’s own history, culture, and spiritual space.”
These distorted perceptions of Ukraine’s history and national character meant that few expected the country to survive against the full might of the Russian military. On the eve of this year’s invasion, there was general agreement in Moscow and most Western capitals that Ukraine would be defeated within a matter of days. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was not seen as a credible wartime leader and was widely expected to abandon Kyiv. Likewise, the military prowess of the Ukrainian army and fighting spirit of the Ukrainian nation were also underestimated.
Inside the Kremlin, it appears that Putin’s decision to invade was influenced by a combination of faulty intelligence and over-consumption of his own anti-Ukrainian propaganda. The Russian dictator seems to have genuinely believed myths about an oppressed pro-Russian minority in Ukraine who would welcome his invasion and rise up in support of the advancing Russian army. Rarely in international affairs has anyone ever been so mistaken.
In fact, no Ukrainian region welcomed Putin’s invading army. While instances of collaboration have been recorded throughout the occupied regions of southern and eastern Ukraine, these have proved to be the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, the number of people prepared to collaborate has been dwarfed by the sheer scale of Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian occupation. Russian troops who were told they would be treated as liberators have been shocked and distressed to find themselves acting as occupiers in hostile territory. Meanwhile, Ukrainians from all regions have been brought together by the common cause of defeating Russia. An invasion that was meant to extinguish Ukrainian statehood has inadvertently united the country.
Ukraine’s nation-building journey did not begin overnight with the advent of this year’s Russian invasion, of course. A modern Ukrainian national identity has been gradually evolving throughout the three decades following the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Key milestones in this journey include the 2004 Orange Revolution, the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, and the shock waves caused by the subsequent Russian invasions of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Nevertheless,
the significance of the changes that have taken place within Ukrainian society since February 24 cannot be overstated. Crucially, attitudes toward key issues of national identity and foreign policy have become aligned throughout the country.
The biggest changes have taken place among Russian-speaking Ukrainians living in regions of southern and eastern Ukraine that have suffered most from Russian aggression. It is one of the bitter ironies of the invasion that the devastation inflicted by Putin’s troops has fallen disproportionately on the regions of Ukraine that Moscow claims to be protecting. The Russian army has reduced dozens of towns and cities throughout southern and eastern Ukraine to rubble and killed thousands of civilians. Millions more have been subjected to a brutal occupation regime marked by executions, abductions, terror tactics, and forced deportations.
Until 2022, these Ukrainian regions had traditionally been more sympathetic to the Soviet past and tended to favor pro-Russian politicians. Many openly embraced Soviet myths of Russians and Ukrainians as “brotherly peoples.” However, the horrors of the invasion have forced a radical rethink and led to the widespread rejection of Russia.
The rift caused by the current invasion has moved beyond far politics. Following the 2014 Russian seizure of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, most Ukrainians expressed negative views of Russia’s leadership while remaining largely positive toward the Russian people. This is no longer the case. Ukrainians have noted that the vast majority of ordinary Russians appear to support the war or at least refrain from criticizing it. Millions of Ukrainians with Russian relatives have experienced this phenomenon for themselves in painful telephone conversations.
As a consequence, most Ukrainians no longer draw any meaningful distinction between the Russian state and the Russian people. An August 2022 poll conducted by Ukraine’s Rating Agency found that only 3% of Ukrainians held positive views of Russians while 81% regarded Russians negatively. This negative rating was almost double the 41% recorded just four months earlier. Ukrainian antipathy towards Russians will only deepen as the war takes a greater toll in civilian lives, military casualties, and physical destruction.
Ukraine’s fundamental break with Russia has impacted every aspect of the country’s social, cultural, and religious life. The Russian language is now noticeably in decline among Ukrainians because it is negatively viewed as the language of military aggression. Many Ukrainians who grew up predominantly speaking Russian are becoming bilingual or switching to speaking Ukrainian.
There is growing public support across the country for policies of de-Russification. Almost three-quarters of Ukrainians (73%) back the idea of renaming streets and public places commemorating Russian historical figures and events, including two-thirds of respondents in eastern Ukraine. By weaponizing Russian history and using it to justify the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has convinced millions of previously sympathetic Ukrainians to view symbols of the Russian imperial past as part of the Kremlin’s ongoing attack on Ukrainian statehood.
Support for the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine has also plummeted, with recent polling indicating that only 4% of Ukrainians currently identify as adherents. This is hardly surprising, given the role of the Russian Orthodox Church as one of the principal cheerleaders of Putin’s invasion. Recent searches of Russian Orthodox Church premises in Ukraine have netted an array of Russian passports, imperial symbols, and literature denying the existence of Ukraine and Ukrainians.
Converging Ukrainian attitudes toward Russia are immediately apparent in relation to the peace process and foreign policy. A Kyiv International Institute of Sociology survey conducted in July 2022 found almost no difference of opinion between Ukrainians who identified as Ukrainian-speaking or Russian-speaking on the issue of a potential land-for-peace deal to end the war, with 85% of Russian speakers opposed compared to 90% of Ukrainian speakers. Likewise, there was no longer any evidence of a significant regional split, with 83% in eastern Ukraine and 85% in the south opposing any territorial compromises with the Kremlin.
The same shift toward greater national consensus is evident on foreign policy matters. Regional differences over the country’s future geopolitical direction were long seen as the most obvious indication of a divided Ukraine. However, since the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion, successive surveys have found that clear majorities in all regions of Ukraine now support Ukrainian membership of NATO and the European Union. Meanwhile, enthusiasm for deeper integration with Russia or membership of the Moscow-led Eurasian Union has evaporated.
By invading Ukraine, Putin hoped to reverse the verdict of 1991 and bring Ukrainian independence to an end. Instead, Russia’s attack has backfired disastrously. The full-scale invasion which began on February 24 has served to accelerate Ukraine’s nation-building progress and unite the country in ways that would have been difficult to image just one year ago. The trauma and sacrifices of the past ten months mean that these changes are in all likelihood irreversible and will continue to shape Ukraine’s development for decades to come as the country strengthens its sovereignty and moves further away from Russia.
Kuzio is a professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and author of the forthcoming “Fascism and Genocide. Russia’s War Against Ukrainians.”