Russia had no military resistance to the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula after it invaded it in 2014. And when the Kremlin conquered much of the Donbas region through proxies for months, there was only a disorganized military challenge from Kiev.
With the most recent invasion, however, it was a different story — and not just because of the flow of military supplies from abroad, the Western tactical training and combat experience gained during eight years of low-intensity warfare in eastern Ukraine.
Everything that has been important. But the crucial difference was the stubborn Ukrainian refusal to stop or be intimidated, even when they were hopeless and retarded.
It does not matter whether they are located in the cities northwest and east of Kiev, or in Kharkov – the second largest city in the country, which has been bombed incessantly – or in the southern seaport of Mariupol, where about 3,000 defenders are located. entrenched in a cavern steel mills, Ukrainians refuse to give up.
In Mykolaiv near the Black Sea, the Ukrainian army has withstood successive waves of Russian attacks, and despite nightly shelling, managed to push the attackers back to the city of Kherson, where they faced gruff, protesting locals.
For Moscow, there have been many frustrations and inversions on the Ukrainian battlefield, but it is a stoic defiance and fortitude that have made all this possible – the Russian plan to quickly roll into Kiev or conquer the edge of the Black Sea. It also disrupts the Kremlin’s plans for an offensive in eastern Ukraine to establish a land corridor between the breakaway Moscow republics of Donetsk and Luhansk with Russian-controlled Crimea.
Few Western military strategists had calculated that Ukraine could withstand a full-scale Russian attack for more than a few days. And judging by what Russian POWs have told their Ukrainian captors, neither did the Kremlin.
“We are showing the whole world that we are a nation, a nation capable of uniting, capable of fighting; and every day since February 24, we prove that we are something Putin says doesn’t exist – a political nation,” said Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, a former Ukrainian deputy prime minister and now opposition legislator.
“Putin says our nation has no right to exist and that we are little Russians: but here we are, no new Russians or little Russians; but Ukrainians,” she adds. “We are reclaiming our history,” she says.
Ask almost any Ukrainian if the war is changing the country, and if so, how, and they will invariably answer that it is a collective experience, which has brought people together, helped overcome ethnic and regional differences and shaped a new national consciousness – one that allows Ukrainians to resist Russia, but also blames Western powers for not doing enough to fight for liberal values.
“I’ve never seen my country so united,” exults Anna Mosinian from Odessa, Ukraine’s third most populous city and major seaport, which may have escaped Russian attack thanks to Mariupol’s stubborn resistance.
Mosinian was a skipper before the invasion, Mosinian says that while the 2014 Maidan uprising, in which Viktor Yanukovych, the ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, broke the deep-seated divisions between Ukrainian-speakers in western and central Ukraine and Russian-speakers worsened in the south and east. including her city of Odessa – the war has done much to shape a new national pride.
The Russian-speakers among her friends and family never thought that Moscow would invade. They expected Putin to be content with a larger land grab in the eastern Donbas region. When the invasion came and civilian infrastructure was attacked, leaving towns and villages in smoldering ruins, they were shocked. Horrified, many Russian speakers have switched to Ukrainian as a form of personal protest.
“It is the predominantly Russian-speaking towns and villages that are most affected – Kharkiv, Melitopol, Mariupol, Luhansk – that are feeling the full impact,” said Yaroslav Azhnyuk, an entrepreneur and co-founder of Ukrainian startup Petcube. “A few years ago it would have been relatively rare to hear the Ukrainian language spoken on their streets. And now in those cities, citizens are coming out and protesting and singing in Ukrainian and speaking in Ukrainian. I bet those cities have never heard so much Ukrainian as they do now.”
While there was initially some skepticism about the initial reports of Russian soldiers raping and murdering civilians in the towns and villages north of Kiev, those doubts have since dissipated and been replaced by cold anger.
“There is no man who has done more to establish the Ukrainian nation than Putin,” said Azhnyuk. “In the past, the people of eastern Ukraine could not understand us in western Ukraine, and why we hated Russia for all the atrocities of World War II. Now they understand,” he adds.
According to Azhnyuk, the war gives Ukrainians more confidence in who and what they are and what their place should be in a post-war world. “Ukrainians have united around a geopolitical vision – this is a war over a civilizational choice between freedom and authoritarianism,” he says.
“The war has definitely changed Ukraine,” said Mykolay Danylevych, a priest in the Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Moscow Patriarchate, an autonomous church subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church. “This is a national war, and when it is over, there will certainly be a new Ukraine in terms of identity and the shape of society,” he adds.
The reform of Ukrainian society is already taking place between the two rival Orthodox Churches in Ukraine. Since the invasion, more than 150 parishes have defected from the Moscow Ukrainian Orthodox Church Patriarchate to the smaller Kiev-based Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The apostasy comes in response to the weekly broadcasts of Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, justifying Putin’s invasion and depicting the war as an apocalyptic battle against evil forces determined to destroy the God-given unity of the world. Holy Russia to break.
Danylevych expects there will be more apostates, but he also suspects there could be an even bigger religious and cultural schism. independent.”
“Priests and bishops talk about this; the trend is in that direction,” he says.
However, there are risks if Ukraine rejects everything Russian, Danylevych warns. Because of its confused history, the Russian language and culture are also part of Ukrainian identity, he says. Adding: “When the war is over, we should all draw conclusions about our lives before the war and learn from our mistakes. And the government gets a unique opportunity. [Ukraine’s president Volodymyr] Zelensky said that before the war there are no good Ukrainians or wrong Ukrainians; we are all Ukrainians; and he must keep that message even after the war.”
There is still a long way to go before then, and in the coming months there may be an even higher price to pay than has already been extracted for the refusal to give up. The Russian offensive now taking shape in Donbas is led by Aleksandr Dvornikov, the general who oversaw Russia’s destruction of Grozny in Chechnya and Aleppo in Syria.
Ukraine’s enhanced sense of nationhood has been formed on the anvil of war – but the blows to come are likely to test its resilience even more.