Ukraine’s Identity Has Been Decided by Putin’s Invasion

Russia's assault has settled an age-old question among Ukrainians as to whether they are 'Central' or 'Eastern' Europeans

Ukraine’s Identity Has Been Decided by Putin’s Invasion
People holding a Ukrainian flag in Warsaw during demonstrations in 2014. (Photo by Wojtek Radwanski / AFP via Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin must have breathed a sigh of relief when Viktor Yanukovych emerged victorious in Ukraine’s presidential election in 2010. The last time the latter had run for president in 2004, a botched attempt to rig the election had caused a pro-Western revolution that denied him the presidency and denied Russia a predictable partner in Kyiv.

Not this time. Unlike in 2004, international observers confirmed the 2010 election was free and fair and, on Feb. 25, Yanukovych was inaugurated as the new president of Ukraine. In a sense, it was a reversion to the historical mean. For centuries, Russians and Ukrainians had shared a single state, first in the Russian Empire, then in the Soviet Union. The Soviet collapse may have separated them but they remained inextricably linked by history, language, culture and — crucially for Putin — politics.

Yanukovych, a Russophone native of Ukraine’s Donbas region who drew his support from the most Russian-speaking regions in the country, was an emphatic confirmation of this. Where Russia led, Ukraine would follow.

Yet crippling problems remained. Ukraine was a divided country, unsure of its identity and place in the world. While the east and south were economically dependent on links with Russia and retained close affinities, the west and central parts looked westward with envy instead. In 1991, Ukraine and Poland had roughly equal GDPs per capita. Twenty years later, Poland’s GDP was four times that of Ukraine. The divergence was hard to ignore.

Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine had watched its neighbors to the west throw off the shackles of Soviet Eastern Europe and recast themselves as “Central European” countries instead; integral to the West, with EU and NATO membership to prove it. Their break with communism was absolute. It entailed not just a radical transformation to liberal democracy and free market capitalism but also a total reimagining of their history and place in the world, aligned firmly with the West. By the 2010s, this transformation had paid off handsomely for most of the region in terms of income, opportunities, prestige and security.

Russia, for its part, also struggled through years of post-Soviet malaise. The former imperial core tried its own radical, liberal democratic and capitalist transformation in the 1990s, which instead birthed an oligarchic, authoritarian, state capitalist regime that largely abandoned the facade of democracy in the 2000s. Nonetheless, living standards had recovered by the 2010s, thanks in large part to booming oil prices filling the state coffers.

These were, vaguely, the two models on offer to Ukraine. On the one hand, it could pursue the path of Euro-Atlantic integration alongside a more assertive Ukrainian identity, like its Central European neighbors to the West, which would be certain to antagonize Russia. On the other, it could remain a semi-sovereign part of the “Russian world” and stake its historical fortunes on whatever Putin was building around his increasingly confident regime in Moscow, with things remaining much as they were.

There was also a third option, pursued by the country’s powerful second president, Leonid Kuchma, to make Ukraine a sort of bridge between the West and Russia. But the country’s poor economic performance, unitary political system and continued dependence on Russia made this difficult to pursue or legitimize.

When Russia and the West began to drift apart in the early 2010s, this became even clearer. Russia started asserting itself as an independent civilization distinct from — if not antagonistic to — the West. It also took on the mantle of the protector of Russians abroad, with an ever-expanding definition of Russians.

The word “Ukraine” originally meant something like “at the border.” Modern Ukraine has had the choice to become one of two radically different borderlands, intersecting with its own conflicts over national identity and its tightly-interwoven relationship with Russia.

It is a reflection of the new political reality that has emerged in Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The old Moscow-dominated entity known as Eastern Europe withered away and was replaced by an unapologetically Western-oriented one known as Central Europe. Meanwhile, Russia made a full break with the West and embraced an anti-Western civilizational idea as its new raison d’etre.

Modern Ukrainian elections have been not just choices of politicians but also referenda on the country’s identity and place in the world. Increasingly, the choice was one between Central Europe or Eurasia — to be the eastern borderland of the West or the western borderland of whatever order Moscow was building in opposition to the West.

Last year, long before Russian troops marched on Kyiv, Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba made it clear Ukraine had made its choice over the past decade. “I am deeply convinced that Ukraine is and has always been a Central European state: historically, politically and culturally,” he said. “Most importantly, Central Europe is where our identity belongs.”

How did the country go from electing the Russophile Yanukovych to a Central European state in the span of a decade?

The answer lies not just in the pro-Western revolution that overthrew Yanukovych in 2014 or Putin’s subsequent invasion of the country that year or indeed his even larger one in 2022. The answer is to be found in the very idea of Central Europe itself.

The 19th-century Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich famously, albeit apocryphally, quipped that “Asia begins at the Landstrasse,” the road leading east out of Vienna. Europe stopped at the city’s boundaries, and from there began the Orient.

In his day, the idea that Europe’s eastern half was civilizationally deficient was taken for granted by the continent’s educated elite. Enlightenment intellectuals in the late 18th century, looking for a backward eastern foil to the civilized West, had found it in a new concept called “Eastern Europe.”

If Metternich were to suddenly awake from the dead in 2022, his shock at the fact that Ukraine was now, as Emmanuel Macron put it, “a part of the European family” would probably suffice to put him back in the ground. The historian Larry Wolff called the idea of Eastern Europe a “work of cultural creation” and “ideological self-interest and self-promotion.” It stuck.

By the time of the Cold War, the juxtaposition between Eastern and Western Europe could not have been starker, as a Russian-dominated communist bloc was separated from Europe’s western half by an Iron Curtain.

At the time, many on both sides saw this as natural, desirable or both. Since 1989, such people have largely faded from view, replaced by a different kind of person proclaiming a new division of Europe — one that puts their country on the right side, this time, in the name of European civilizational unity.

In 1984, the Czech emigre writer Milan Kundera published an essay titled “The Tragedy of Central Europe.” In it, Kundera lamented the disappearance of this amorphous cultural entity known as Central Europe from the mental map of Europe, subsumed under the quasi-Oriental one named Eastern Europe. Central Europe would become, in Wolff’s words, the “ideological antidote to the iron curtain.”

The idea of a geographical space called “Central Europe” did not have wide currency in the English language before World War I. The German politician Friedrich Neumann popularized it with his 1915 book “Mitteleuropa” — literally “Middle Europe” — which envisioned a German-led reordering of Europe to emerge after WWI.

Instead, WWI destroyed both the Austrian and German empires, ending over a century of total German hegemony in Mitteleuropa. The concept migrated to the cultural realm.

Living in a struggling Austria in the interwar years, prolific and popular German-language writers such as Joseph Roth (born in today’s Ukraine) and Stefan Zweig developed what has come to be known as the “Habsburg Myth”: the notion that the rule of the Habsburgs was a golden age for the region and their empire a sort of proto-Europe in miniature.

Both Mitteleuropas were wiped away by the destruction of World War II. The Germans, standard-bearers of the first conception of Middle Europe, were almost entirely expelled from the region after WWII. Meanwhile, Jews — the people most emblematic of Roth and Zweig’s cosmopolitan Habsburg culture (both were themselves Jewish) — were subject to an unspeakable genocide followed by further antisemitic communist campaigns targeting the few who remained.

Mitteleuropa was replaced by an Eastern Europe made up of almost-entirely homogeneous Slavic-majority nation-states ruled by one-party communist dictatorships. By the 1950s, “Central Europe” was dead both as a geopolitical concept and as a cultural reality.

It was revived in its modern incarnation thanks to a fortunate confluence of interests. Kundera’s essay was just one example of a growing idea among Eastern European dissidents in the 1980s that a cosmopolitan, Western-oriented Central Europe was lurking under the surface of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. Western countries, for their part, were happy to entertain the idea as a way to undermine the Soviet empire in Europe.

“To die for one’s country and for Europe — that is a phrase that could not be thought in Moscow or Leningrad [present-day St. Petersburg]; it is precisely the phrase that could be thought in Budapest or Warsaw,” wrote Kundera, evoking the heroic Hungarian and Czechoslovakian resistance to Moscow-led invasions of their countries in 1956 and 1968, respectively. Today, one might add Kyiv to that list as well.

Central Europe was, in Kundera’s words, the “kidnapped West,” abandoned due to the misguided notion that it naturally belonged to the “eastern“ world. Politically, they were in the east, but culturally they belonged to the West.

Countries like Hungary, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and Poland were not only a fundamental part of Europe but countries for which Europe was a fundamental part of their identity. “The moment Hungary is no longer European — that is, no longer Western — it is driven from its own destiny, beyond its own history: it loses the essence of identity,” wrote Kundera.

At the time, Kundera’s essay was poorly-received, especially in the Eastern Bloc. Few doubted the division of Europe was there to stay. Even fewer believed Soviet power would crumble as easily as it did just five years later.

Back then, people still believed in the earnestness of what Kundera condemned as the “ideology of the Slavic world” that served as Russia’s justification for its imperial rule over Central Europe. It was the notion that Slavic countries (of which Eastern Europe was largely composed) shared both a common history and a common fate. It was not so much a single idea as many related ones, including that of the all-Russian nation used by Putin today as justification for invading Ukraine.

At the time, Central Europe sounded to many like little more than the delusional fantasy of a bitter ex-communist. Yet the skeptics would soon be proven wrong. Eastern European communist regimes fell like dominos from 1989 to 1991, with almost any idea associated with them completely delegitimized. To the world’s wonder, Moscow stood idly by as its empire in Eastern Europe faded into history and the very idea of Eastern Europe was shaken to its core.

The whole region then scrambled toward a single political goal: the “return to Europe.”

Often, this was seen purely as a political program: becoming a liberal democracy, joining NATO, joining the European Community. Partly it did mean those things, but the “return to Europe” was also accompanied by a cultural ideology that staked these countries’ claims on Europe: the cultural ideology of Central Europe.

Countries like Poland, Hungary, Croatia, the Czech Republic and others completely reframed their histories to emphasize their association with Europe and the West. Communist rule was condemned wholeheartedly as an evil equal to Nazism (which, thanks to Central Europe, the European Parliament now recognizes). Pan-Slavism and anti-Western strains of thought were likewise condemned as out of touch with the nation’s true European character.

It must be said that this was not an act of historical fabrication or delusion. These countries are indeed a part of Europe. Prior to the 18th century, they were even integral to it, with Poles, Czechs, Croats, Hungarians and others playing major roles at key points of European history, including but not limited to the Reformation, the Renaissance and the wars against the Ottomans.

Central Europe was not a fantasy after all. History was proving it.

By the 2000s, the whole region had been welcomed into both NATO and the EU. German banks and American tanks were building a prosperous, secure and free Central Europe out of the same post-communist rubble that had been left to Ukraine.

Yet Ukraine’s break with its communist past was not so extreme. There was no wholesale uprooting of old communist memorials or removal of public officials, as happened in Central Europe. There was no condemnation of Russian or Soviet rule as akin to Nazism or European colonialism (except in some niche nationalist circles); no rapid attempt to join Western institutions. There was no return to Europe — to Central Europe.

Eastern Europe was a lonely place in the 2000s.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union was very different from that of Eastern Europe. It wasn’t dissident intellectuals who set Ukraine on its path of modern independent statehood but rather the very same communists who had ruled the country until then. The same was true in Russia itself and most other post-Soviet states.

After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Ukraine adopted the aesthetics of independent nationhood but not the political culture or cultural confidence to match it. While its first president, Leonid Kravchuk, attempted certain nationalist policies, he was voted out of office after two years and replaced by the more conciliatory and Russia-friendly Kuchma.

Kuchma stressed Ukraine’s belonging to a “Euro-Asian cultural and economic space.” While officially he pursued EU membership, this was with the goal of acting as a bridge between Europe and Russia at a time when globalization seemed eternal.

This made sense considering Ukraine’s internal divisions. While a significant minority concentrated in the country’s west and the diaspora wanted Ukraine to make a complete break with Russia and the Soviet past and pursue an enthusiastic return to Europe, another large minority wanted the opposite. The former largely viewed the latter as Russian colonists, while the latter tended to see the former as corrupted quasi-Poles trying to tear Ukraine away from its east Slavic brothers. Neither was a recipe for civic unity.

Most Ukrainians, however, were no ideologues. They were content with some form of soft nationalism while preserving close ties with Russia, two things that were not inherently opposed. Relitigating WWII was not a high priority for them. Nor was imposing either Ukrainian or Russian as a language when the vast majority of Ukrainians got by day-to-day with knowledge of both.

While in Europe, Central Europe became a byword for the countries that were recognized as being civically closest to Europe — European standard-bearers for the end of history — in Ukraine it meant something far more controversial; a nation-building agenda spearheaded by a single part of the country and a break in relations with the neighbor with whom it still shared more personal ties than any other. But the two Central Europes were no different.

While Western countries may have celebrated the 1990s as a period of post-nationalism and cultural openness, for Central Europe it was a conditional openness based purely on their own Europeanness and the non-Europeanness of the others they defined themselves against, Russians above all. For a country where a large minority identified as Russian, and an even larger minority felt some vague sense of kinship with Russia, this would always be a tough sell.

The modern idea of Central Europe never really rejected the division of Europe into its “civilized“ and “less civilized“ halves. It merely sought to push that distinction further east: a new division of Europe with corrected borders.

Kundera (a former communist), for example, demanded that Europe recognize the Europeanness of the Czechs, Poles and Hungarians but also demanded no less fervently that a boundary be drawn between the Catholic West and Orthodox or Islamic East. Ukraine would not have made the cut. Russia, in his estimation, was a fundamentally alien, Oriental presence in Europe. That was what made the tragedy of Central Europe so appalling.

Similarly, Vaclav Havel, the liberal playwright and first president of the Czech Republic, argued that if “NATO is to remain functional, it cannot suddenly open its doors to anyone at all … the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia [and others] clearly belong to the western sphere of European civilization.”

Poles, Balts or many Ukrainians will today heap scorn on the barbarism of the Asiatic Russians compared to their own Europeanness. Estonia’s former president and social democratic Toomas Hendrik Ilves gave a prime example of this attitude when he tweeted that Mongolia was a country with “deep genetic and cultural ties to Muscovy,” implying the barbarism of Russian forces in Ukraine is due to some sort of Asiatic factor in the Russian DNA.

Perhaps there is a reason the Habsburg Myth was a myth and not a reality. The “cosmopolitan” Habsburg Empire was a hotbed of conflicting nationalist politics. No one illustrated this strange duality of Central Europe better than Zweig, who once wrote that “nowhere was it easier to be a European” than in Habsburg Vienna, the same city that had an openly-antisemitic mayor in Karl Lueger at the turn of the 20th century — and produced Adolf Hitler.

What opened the door to the revival of Central Europe was not some long-suppressed cosmopolitan culture but the failure of state socialism and the increasingly apparent gap in living standards between East and West. For the average Central European, the return to Europe was more about material benefit than cultural belonging; the latter was always the concern of only a relatively small group of intellectuals.

Ukraine has experienced a similar dynamic over the past 30 years. Since the 1990s, a group of intellectuals with a relatively narrow base of support has demanded that Ukraine take the path of Central Europe. To their minds, this means total decommunization, Ukrainianization, rejection of past and present association with Russia and, of course, the assertion of Ukraine’s unambiguously Western, European identity that had been artificially suppressed for the last three centuries.

It was one thing for Poland — a homogeneous country with a strong and unified national identity — to do this. But, in Ukraine, the return to Central Europe was impossible to enforce electorally.

That was, until Putin decided to invade the country in 2014. The year 2014 became Ukraine’s 1989. The difference was that unlike in 1989, when Moscow was silent as Central Europe was reborn, in 2014 it was anything but.

More than three centuries of modern common statehood shared by Ukrainians and Russians is usually traced back to 1654, when the Cossack Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky swore allegiance to the Russian tsar in the Ukrainian town of Pereiaslav, separating most of what we now call Ukraine from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of which it had been a part for centuries before that.

In traditional Russian (and Soviet) historiography, that prolonged period of common Polish-Lithuanian rule over Ukraine was an anomaly. The Pereiaslav Agreement marked the natural reunification of east Slavic lands tracing their common heritage to the 1,000-year-old medieval state of Kievan (or Kyivan) Rus. In this framing, Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians are but three branches of one all-Russian or triune nation; Russia being their natural leader as the greatest of the three.

In his essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which set out his casus belli for the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Putin wrote that the Pereiaslav Agreement showed Khmelnytsky’s Cossacks were a “Russian Orthodox people,” whose struggle against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was “a war of liberation.”

Last year, Kuleba laid out the alternative interpretation. Before Pereiaslav, “most of [Ukraine’s] history, interests and economic ties had belonged to Central Europe. … This part of our history should never be overshadowed by the following historic developments, when Ukraine found itself integrated into what is now artificially called ‘Eastern Europe.’”

Russia has always had a complicated relationship with the West. Despite playing a central role in so many seminal events in European history, its identity as a European country has always been treated as suspect. Generations of Russian thinkers have themselves questioned their belonging to Europe, musing that their country’s Slavic, Eurasian or Asian character makes it a civilization unto itself.

Over the course of Putin’s reign, this trend has become dominant, after the resurgent Westernizing tendency during the 1990s and early 2000s gave way to the bitter anti-Western mindset that rules today.

Yet this presented a problem with regard to Ukraine, a fully sovereign state since 1991, tied to Russia by innumerable personal, economic and political ties. While Russia looked inward, starting to reimagine its place in the world as a Eurasian rather than European country, culminating in the formation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2014, Ukraine looked in the opposite direction.

That same year, thousands of Ukrainians descended upon Maidan Square in Kyiv to protest Yanukovych’s decision to put Ukraine on the path of Eurasian rather than European integration. While, for some Ukrainians, closer association with Russia was preferable, too many others saw the choice as an error of historic proportions, ignorant of the glaring gap between the two political and economic systems on offer, as well as of the country’s “true” identity.

When Ukrainians looked west, they saw a group of countries with a similar historical fate that have over the last 30 years achieved remarkable economic success with a program of “Euro-Atlantic integration,” such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania. Abandoning the negative associations with Eastern Europe of old, these countries have redefined their identity as Central European states integral to Western, European civilization, with great material success.

When they looked east, meanwhile, Ukrainians saw a domineering country saddled with many of the same social, political and economic problems as Ukraine itself that would entrench the status quo rather than change it. In exchange for cheap gas and little else, Ukraine had to cede its sovereignty and national self-determination to be on the western periphery of an isolated Eurasia.

Putin’s Russia, seeing itself as both the defender of a triune East Slavic nation composed of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus and as the leader of a distinct Eurasian civilizational bloc, could not countenance a European Ukraine, which would destroy both the triune nation and the Eurasian superstate.

Whatever he had hoped to achieve, Putin’s gamble to keep Ukraine in Russia’s orbit backfired, sending Ukraine down a path of rapid Central Europeanization. The perception of Ukraine as a European nation-state whose history and identity lie to the west instead of the east, which had long struggled to assert itself, finally became dominant.

In the years after the Maidan revolution and the subsequent Russian attempt to destroy the country’s sovereignty, the Ukrainian state took up an active nation-building role of a kind it had normally spurned.

An official Institute of National Memory on the model of ones set up in other Central European countries was given the remit to reshape the nation’s historical narrative, bringing it into line with Central Europe and away from Russia. Emblematic of this were sweeping decommunization laws passed in 2015, in a direct response to Putin’s instrumentalization of the two countries’ Soviet legacies to justify his aggression on Ukraine.

That Soviet legacy was progressively dismantled, through both decommunization and mainstreaming Ukrainian nationalism, including of the controversial far-right nationalist WWII figure Stepan Bandera and his Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Ukraine ceased to refer to the Eastern Front of WWII as the Great Patriotic War, as it is referred to in Russia, instead emphasizing the crimes of the Soviet regime in Ukraine and likening it to an occupation. Putin hardly helped counter this trend by trying to dismantle the country through pro-Russian “People’s Republics” drenched in neo-Soviet aesthetics.

Ukraine’s pursuit of the return to Central Europe in many ways culminated in an amendment to its constitution in 2019 that changed the preamble to include the “irreversibility of the European and Euro-Atlantic course of Ukraine” and the “[confirmation of] the European identity of the Ukrainian people.” This was not just about NATO but also the country’s fundamental sense of identity and belonging in the world.

Russia’s turn toward Eurasianism and Russian nationalism, meanwhile, culminated in amendments to its own constitution passed the following year. One new article declared that “culture in Russia is the unique heritage of her multinational people.” Another stated that Russia is constitutionally obliged to ensure the protection of “compatriots living abroad” and to “[preserve] All-Russian cultural identity.”

The divergence was complete. If it weren’t already clear before, by the 2020s, it was obvious that Ukraine would not be added to Russia except by force.

While Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine supercharged its Central Europeanization, this one has essentially marked the total split of the two ideas of Ukraine. On one side of the front there is the sovereign Ukrainian state ruled from Kyiv, now fighting for its very existence, marking the eastern border of Central Europe. On the other, there is an as-yet-unformed Little Rus marking the western border of an all-Russian Eurasia, its own existence exclusively dependent on Russian patronage.

Each nurtures a radically different understanding of what Ukraine is, where its identity belongs and, ultimately, where its future lies. But only one can really call itself Ukraine. The other is little more than a Russian imperial project dictated from Moscow; another distant oblast in Russia’s vast Eurasian empire.

Kundera saw Central Europe not as a concrete place but as a culture or a fate whose “borders are imaginary and must be drawn and redrawn with each new historical situation.” Today, the front lines of the Russia-Ukraine war are determining where that new border will lie.

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