In its fight against Russia, Ukraine’s central war aim is very easy to grasp. “Ukrainians are not ready to give away their land, to accept that these territories belong to Russia,” explained President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. “This is our land.”
The phrase “our land” is fundamental to how Ukraine understands the war. Implicit in its use are the assumptions that it refers to all of Ukraine’s internationally recognised state territory and that this territory is indivisible. Zelenskiy was explicit about this recently: “Unless we liberate our whole territory, we will not bring peace.”
Ireland knows something about the power of the idea of territorial indivisibility, of artificial partitions and lost land that must be recovered. Ukraine’s case is different in that it has a fundamental principle in the United Nations Charter on its side, that states have a right to territorial integrity.
The politics of territorial integrity, of course, are often deeply contentious, most especially when large federal states collapse, and the borders of constituent units become newly anointed interstate borders.
This is what happened when Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union went into dissolution in 1991. Wars broke out over who controls what territory in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and later Kosovo as the former Yugoslavia came undone. A similar dynamic unfolded in the South Caucasus and Moldova but, to the surprise of some, not in Ukraine after the collapse of the USSR. Observers had expected some mobilisation in Crimea to join Russia at this crucial transition point, but this did not really materialise until later and was defused by adept diplomacy by Kyiv and Moscow.
As a consequence, Ukraine enjoyed more than two decades as a state without compromised territorial integrity (unlike Georgia and Moldova). In 2014, however, Russia invaded Crimea and sponsored separatist proxies in the Donbas. This left more than 7 per cent of Ukraine’s internationally recognised territory occupied by Russia. Few states recognised Russia’s annexation of Crimea. “Crimea is Ukraine” became the defiant slogan of Ukrainians and the international community.
Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine has made territorial integrity all the more important as a rallying cry in wartime Ukraine. Indeed, territorial integrity appears to have become a sacred value, namely a transcendent ideal that defines Ukrainians as a moral community. Compromising on sacred values is taboo to communities defined by them.
Zelenskiy’s wartime rhetoric suggests that Ukraine’s territorial integrity is a sacred value. Ukrainian land should not be partitioned or conceded to an occupier. This is true even of the most contentious places, like Crimea and the Donbas, where Russia has considerable local support. Ukraine’s backers across the West publicly support this aspiration. As French president Emmanuel Macron declared after meeting US president Joe Biden recently “We will never urge the Ukrainians to accept a compromise which will not be acceptable to them.”
What do ordinary Ukrainians think? This summer we asked over 1,800 respondents in three cities close to the frontlines – Poltava, Dnipro and Zaporizhzhia – what they thought. Internally displaced persons comprised half the sample, local residents the rest. Large majorities affirmed that Ukrainians view territorial integrity and their war against Russian invasion as sacred.
Viewing territory as sacred is both a descriptive and injunctive norm, a belief that other people see it as important as well as an understanding of it as desirable behaviour. About three-quarters of respondents said an undivided national territory was an essential value of the Ukrainian nation. Over 45 per cent strongly agreed with the idea that people should fight and be willing to die for their country. The young were slightly more skeptical of this sentiment than older generations.
We examined a series of different framings of the relationship between life and territory. In the first, we combined the idea of sacrifice with that territory, asking respondents if they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “Because of the sacrifices of Ukrainian soldiers during this war, it is more important than ever that Ukraine never conceded any territory to Russia.” Over three-quarters of respondents strongly agreed.
When we asked respondents to assess whether it was more important to save the lives of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians or continue the war to free all Ukrainian territories including Crimea and Donbas, respondents under 30 are more inclined to prioritise saving lives. People over 45 prioritised continuing the war to free all Ukrainian territories.
Our findings underscore some important realities of the war in Ukraine. The territorial integrity of Ukraine is indeed an expressed sacred value for most Ukrainians in this war. Zelenskiy’s rhetoric resonates with, while also consolidating this belief among, ordinary Ukrainians.
But territorial integrity is not the only sacred value held by ordinary Ukrainians. Protecting lives is central also. When these are juxtaposed – when Ukrainians are asked whether saving lives or fighting until all territories are liberated is more important – respondents are quite divided.
Ireland’s experience with the allure of territorial indivisibility has lessons for Ukraine. Research on conflict involving sacred values suggests that a process of reframing is necessary if there is to be a negotiated peace, one that acknowledges that compromise is required. In the process of bargaining, the taboo becomes redefined as the tragic, a trade-off required by harsh wartime realities. This process often takes considerable time and follows from deepening war fatigue among the war parties.
Whether this happens with Ukraine’s defensive war against Russian invasion is an open question. Right now, the morale of Ukraine’s military is high and their cause clear: liberating all Ukrainian land.
Gerard Toal is professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Tech. Karina V Korostelina is professor of conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University