‘Birth of a new Ukraine’: How Russia’s war is uniting the nation

Old ethnic and linguistic splits dissolve in community action and hatred for Putin

At an aid distribution centre in Ukraine's embattled capital Kyiv this week, people were collecting and dispatching donations of emergency food, medicines, clothes and children's toys for cities under attack by Russian troops, missiles and bombs.

While about half the donations came from abroad, where Russian president Vladimir Putin's invasion has created a groundswell of global support for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his people, the rest came from quieter parts of Ukraine.

"Look at these boxes," says Oleksandr Horbach, an activist, pointing to food packages from Bibrka in western Ukraine. A box of baked goods was intended for the eastern city of Kharkiv, which has withstood some of Russia's heaviest bombardment in three weeks of war. "Everyone who can help does, however they can," Horbach says.

The scene at the distribution centre unfolded on Ukrainian Volunteers’ Day, commemorating the moment in 2014 when Ukrainian activists headed off to the border region of Donbas to fight Russian-backed separatists.

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“It is our ability to instantly unite during ordeals, find common ground and fight together that creates our character, our Ukrainian character,” Zelenskiy said on Monday, marking the occasion in one of his morale-boosting video addresses.

Wars bring destruction and death, but they can also shape a country’s identity for generations afterwards. Since the Russian invasion, Ukrainians have pulled together as perhaps never before in their three decades of independence, and rarely even in a history marked by episodes of horrific adversity and foreign rule.

Existential threat

A country historically divided between the Russian-speaking east and pro-Europe west, and whose post-Soviet national project was marred by corruption and state capture, is being reinvented in war.

"You're witnessing the birth of a new Ukraine," says Andriy Sadovyy, mayor of the western city of Lviv. "I can't imagine any other European country that would demonstrate such resistance. We're like David against Goliath."

The cohesion, say Ukrainians, is a response to the existential threat their state faces. Putin’s war of choice, which he unleashed on the pretext of “liberating” Ukraine from Zelenskiy and its elected leaders, has instead brought people together to take up arms, donate money or volunteer, even Ukrainians who formerly had pro-Moscow sympathies.

This new wartime dynamic of resilience and resistance is arising from Putin’s flawed central assumption behind waging war, many Ukrainians argue: the idea that a critical mass of the population would welcome invasion and occupation.

Instead, the country’s military, with the help of western advice and weaponry, has held off the Russian advance on the biggest cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv. Kyiv’s contingency planning to keep the government and the economy going, months in the making, has kicked into action. And Ukrainians are, by their own account, volunteering to pitch in, even under Russian bombardment or military occupation.

In a telephone poll of 1,200 people across Ukraine last week, conducted by the agency Rating, more than 80 per cent said they were helping in the defence of Ukraine in some way, either in the army, as territorial defence fighters, financially or in “informational resistance”. An even larger proportion – 91 per cent – said they felt “hope” when thinking about the situation in their country, the highest level recorded by Rating ever.

This sense of optimism might be surprising for those outside of Ukraine viewing appalling news pictures of refugee columns fleeing ruined villages or neighbourhoods in flames after Russian missile attacks.

Horizontal identity

Ukrainians interviewed for this article are less surprised, and say they have a history of uniting horizontally across communities, regions and class divides in adversity. This quality, some argue, distinguishes them from Russians, who have lived in a top-down society ordered by autocracy.

"Ukrainians have always come together in hard times," says Olga Stefanishyna, deputy prime minister. "We survived the Holodomor," she says, in reference to Stalin's artificial famine created in Ukraine in 1932-1933, which killed more than three million people. "We are a nation that has been suffering from the Russian empire for more than a century. So we know how to stay united, and only by staying united can we survive."

The solidarity Ukrainians are displaying could yet prove fragile, with both Ukraine and Russia this week confirming progress towards a possible agreement to end the war.

The prospect of Ukraine embracing neutrality, raised in the talks, would be especially controversial, and would need to be approved by parliament because aspiration to join Nato is enshrined in the country's constitution.

After Ukrainians’ painful experience of the Russian invasion, any debate on doing so would certainly be heated, and risks reopening divisions that the war has healed.

But many in Ukraine believe the war could be a turning point with lasting impact. "People's attitude to Ukraine, to the state, has changed completely," says Sergei Utenkov, director of a nuclear spectroscopy lab in Kharkiv's Institute of Physics and Technology. "Confidence in the state has grown. And people are standing by their fellow Ukrainians in a way we never saw before."

If some outside Ukraine are marvelling at its people’s unity, the prowess of its army and Zelenskiy’s aplomb, that is because so much of its post-Soviet period was so fractious and troubled.

Many Ukrainians see the periodic uprisings and conflicts their country went through as the birth pangs of a nation. “Since 1991 we, Ukraine, have apparently made many mistakes and possible setbacks, but we’ve been moving in the right direction, adopting bold and unpopular reforms, even in the time of war,” says Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who served as prime minister from 2014 to 2016.

Years of dysfunction

Ukraine’s birth in 1991 was bloodless to the point of anticlimax: with the Soviet Union beginning to fray, parliament adopted a declaration of independence in August 1991 which was then endorsed by about 90 per cent of voters in a referendum.

It was followed by years of dysfunction that unfolded in parallel with the post-Soviet transformation of Russia. Reforms were fitful and oligarchs captured parts of the economy and the state, fuelling public cynicism about government and institutions that was already deeply entrenched from Soviet times.

Ukraine was also hobbled by a deep rift between the east of the country – largely Moscow-leaning, with a complex network of ethnic and cultural ties to Russia – and the more nationalistic, Ukrainian-speaking, pro-European west. In the post-independence era this split began to deepen, with fateful consequences for the whole country.

After Putin became Russia's president in 2000, he took advantage of the divisions. "One could see Russia's deliberate efforts to corrupt Ukraine's elite and economically control and exploit Ukraine," says Yuriy Vitrenko, chief executive of state gas company Naftogaz and a close confidant of Zelenskiy.

Then in 2004 the east/west cleavage triggered a massive political crisis that culminated in an event Ukrainians still call the Orange revolution. In that year's presidential election, Viktor Yanukovich, a politician from the Russian-speaking east who was backed by Putin, defeated Viktor Yushchenko, a centrist supported by the centre and west of Ukraine. But mass protests over vote-rigging prompted a rerun of the ballot, which was this time won by Yushchenko.

Yanukovich came to power anyway in the 2010 elections. But the east/west tensions worsened and with them the debate about Ukraine’s future direction: should it aspire to be part of Europe or cling ever tighter to Russia?

That unresolved question came to the fore in 2013 when Yanukovich unexpectedly pulled Ukraine out of a long-negotiated pact with the EU, triggering months of protests. He ended up fleeing Kyiv as Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity swept the old order from power.

Grassroots volunteerism

TV pictures from the uprising conveyed to the outside world an impression of social divisions and violence. But some Ukrainians who took part in the unrest remember it for the culture of grassroots volunteerism and activism that was developed then and has now taken root.

However, in the chaos that ensued, Russia annexed Crimea and fomented a revolt in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where pro-Kremlin separatists declared two breakaway statelets. The conflict, which exposed the frailties of a region remote from Kyiv and vulnerable to Russian meddling, smouldered for eight years and would claim 14,000 lives, including more than 3,400 civilians. But it led to a new seriousness among policymakers about tackling Ukraine’s challenges.

Stefanishyna, the current government official, remembers 2014 as a “breaking moment” that focused Ukrainians’ minds.

“This military aggression was a reality check,” she says. “I think both it and the Revolution of Dignity showed that institutions should be strong, institutions should be resilient and that the government should get rid of corruption.”

In the years that followed, Ukraine digitalised public services to cut layers of red tape, and restored anti-corruption institutions. Still, cynicism about the state persisted, and protest voters played a role in electing Zelenskiy as president, when his only political experience was playing one on TV.

As Putin ramped up his threats against Ukraine, Zelenskiy put in place a strategy for “national resilience”, including provisions for how the government might deal with different scenarios that have since come to pass, including a full-fledged invasion and a mass exodus of refugees heading west.

“That has served a very good goal of our survival, of our security and of making sure the government was fully operational from the first moment the war started,” Stefanishyna says.

The bloody nature of Russia’s invasion has now united Ukraine in disgust at Putin, and often at Russians themselves – even among those Ukrainians who might previously have felt warmly about their eastern neighbours.

‘We hate them all’

In the eastern city of Kharkiv, whose population is overwhelmingly Russian-speaking, people who had strong personal, business or cultural ties with Russia are turning their backs on it in the face of a bombardment that has transformed neighbourhoods to rubble and killed a still untallied number of people.

“We always used to like Russia,” says Utenkov, the lab director. “We never felt any enmity. But after this we hate them all.”

The same goes for Ukrainian politicians who previously aligned themselves with Russia. Yuriy Boyko, a politician from the pro-Russia Party of Regions – and former minister in the pro-Kremlin Yanukovich government – is among the Moscow-leaning figures who since the invasion have urged fellow citizens to aid civilians in the war zone, help refugees and enlist in the territorial defence of Ukraine.

"We condemn the aggression of the Russian army against our country," he said in a Facebook post. "We are doing everything to help our citizens in this terrible time. We will defend Ukraine!"

Andriy Kluchko, an IT professional in Kharkiv, spoke about an army of volunteers that has organised groups at a neighbourhood level to help vulnerable people, including the elderly and people with disabilities. “Groups are created according to need – for things such as medicine, food, ammunition, pets, old people,” Kluchko said. He said he was planning to take charge of a 500kg shipment of food this week from the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro and “divide it into smaller food parcels which we’ll distribute to people in need”.

Yevgeny Komarovsky, a Kharkiv doctor, writer and TV presenter, says the Russians fundamentally misread the mood in his hometown.

“They were absolutely convinced that Kharkiv would welcome its liberators with open arms, shower them with flowers and bring them the keys to the city,” he says. “But, in the end, Kharkiv turned out to be a lot more pro-Ukrainian than other cities with a higher percentage of Ukrainian speakers. They showed the whole country that they want to be part of Ukraine.”

Few Ukrainians like contemplating – much less discussing in public – the possibility of defeat and occupation at the hands of the invaders. Yet that is the reality the country, unbowed yet outgunned, is now facing.

Rice and potatoes

However, even in what Kyiv calls the “temporarily occupied territories” mostly in Ukraine’s south that have fallen under Russian control, the sense of national unity is still strong.

In many cities occupied by troops with little apparent interest in governing, local residents have taken matters into their own hands, seizing the initiative to maintain basic services disrupted by the war.

In the southern city of Kherson, the largest urban area to fall into the invaders' hands, Russian forces blocked off the main road leading into the city, so local farmers delivered rice and potatoes to its needy population by boat.

“People have organised themselves spontaneously to ensure a steady flow of bread and other staples to local people,” says Serhiy Rybalko, a local councillor in the Kherson region.

He says in villages taken over by Russian forces, local men had formed volunteer patrols to maintain order and prevent looting. “They have established full control,” he says.

But solidarity only goes so far in the face of what could be a long period of occupation. Barring a breakthrough in slow-moving peace talks, Ukrainians’ mettle could be tested under the white heat of collective civilian punishment in ways it rarely has before.

In some places it already is. In the Russian-blockaded city of Mariupol, hundreds of thousands remain trapped without access to heat, water, communications or other basic services for more than two weeks. Last week, a local employee of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been brokering failed attempts to bring hundreds of thousands of residents out and aid in, said people were beginning to fight one another for food.

US defence planners, watching the war from Washington, believe that Russia, after being halted outside Kyiv and Kharkiv, has shifted its strategy to aiming at civilian targets in a bid to break the public's spirit, as it did in long and deadly sieges in Syria and Chechnya.

Ukrainians insist they will not be broken. “We can be overrun, our cities can be destroyed by rockets, but if Russia should attempt occupation they will be faced with an insurgency like no other in history,” says Mychailo Wynnyckyj, who teaches at Ukraine’s Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

“Russia simply doesn’t have the manpower to occupy Ukraine. Occupation requires minimal acquiescence, if not collaboration from the population. Ukrainians are mobilised to resist.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022