Nationalism, Weak States, and Unrealistic Realism

12 April 2022, 1459 EDT

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 shocked many observers, who believed that Putin would never take such an “irrational” step.  Putin’s decision dramatically undermined Russia’s security. Ukraine posed no meaningful military threat to its neighbor. NATO maintained minimal foreign forces in Poland and the Baltic States. Putin had avoided major retaliation for his annexation of Crimea and his ongoing proxy warfare in eastern Ukraine. Tensions within NATO and the European Union remained high in the wake of, among other sources of friction, both Brexit and Trump’s relentless hostility toward the alliance.

In contrast, Russia’s invasion galvanized a broad coalition to impose devastating economic sanctions, motivated a massive increase in German defense spending, and could very well result in Finland and Sweden joining NATO. To say that it further strengthened anti-Russian and pro-Western sentiments in Ukraine would be an understatement.

Putin’s decision dramatically undermined Russia’s security

Dozens of other countries proved willing to bear significant costs to punish Russia for the invasion. The United States, the European Union, and others instituted an unprecedented sanctions regime – one that included canceling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and cutting off Russia’s major banks from their financial markets. Despite ample reason for caution given the danger of escalating conflict with nuclear-armed Russia, NATO member states ramped up military aid including lethal arms to aid Ukraine’s defense.

For some security analysts, Ukraine’s policies seem just as irrational. Many labeled Ukraine’s determination to join NATO and the EU naïve and provocative. They advised Kyiv to pledge neutrality in order to avoid (or, later, end) conflict. Ukrainians immediately rallied behind their president, showing an unwavering willingness to fight despite their inferior military capability and lack of allies willing to directly intervene on their behalf. The result: substantial Russian casualties and the apparent collapse of its northern front.

Taking Nationalism Seriously

At its core, the current war in Ukraine reflects an incompatibility of nationalist narratives. Many Ukrainians want to escape Russia’s imperial shadow. Putin wants to reextend that shadow – to erase Ukraine as an independent national identity.

In March 2014 Putin asserted that “Kyiv is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus is our common source, and we cannot live without each other.”

Putin’s imperial mindset cannot tolerate a genuinely sovereign Ukraine in Russia’s “near abroad.” He repeatedly invokes the old Russian Empire, laments the breakup of the Soviet Union, and describes Ukrainian independence as the nation’s biggest loss. Putin emphasized these points in his February 21 pre-war address, but he has held such views for a long time. In March 2014 he asserted that “Kyiv is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus’ is our common source, and we cannot live without each other.”

This national narrative enjoys wide support from both elites and the Russian public — one poll, conducted prior to the invasion, found that 64% of Russians saw Ukrainians and Russians as “one people.”

The power of nationalism also sheds light on Ukraine’s resolve to fight its stronger adversary. Nations are forged through shared experiences. As their collective identity becomes stronger so does the desire to defend their political independence. People often make material sacrifices for higher goals, yet many political scientists routinely fail to anticipate such “irrational” behavior.

National narratives are always contested. Ukraine’s leaders debated visions for its future during the turbulent 1990s, but its people asserted their desire for national independence through a 1991 referendum. Ukraine’s nation-building continued through dramatic internal transformations (2004) and under Russia’s aggressions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine (2014). Post-2014 polls show increased support for the European Union and NATO. Pro-Western sentiments particularly increased in the south and east, reinforced by a president who actively promotes national unity over regional, linguistic, or ethnic cleavages. Putin’s 2022 invasion will further solidify these trends.

Both Ukrainian and Georgian leaders have faced mass protests when deviating from these core national narratives.

Skeptics of the power of nationalism in Ukraine need look no further than nearby Georgia. Despite being one of the weakest post-Soviet states, Georgia was among the first to declare independence from the Soviet Union, on April 9, 1991. Two years earlier, Soviet troops inadvertently galvanized its national liberation movement by crushing a peaceful protest in Tbilisi. Russia has represented the primary threat in Georgia’s national identity since the early 19th century, so it is not surprising that a March poll found that 87% of Georgians think “the war in Ukraine is also our war” and 88% hope for Ukraine’s victory.

Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili captured this historical perspective well in a recent interview. When asked whether Georgia’s decision to apply for EU membership would anger Russia, Zourabichvili pointed out that Russia annexed Georgian territories several times since 1801. She emphasized that sovereign and democratic Georgia still chooses European integration.

Eastern European nations fought for their sovereignty long before NATO even existed

Both Ukrainian and Georgian leaders have faced mass protests when deviating from these core national narratives. In 2013 Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an EU agreement, sparking his ouster in the Revolution of Dignity. Georgia’s current leaders have also approached Russia cautiously, yet its public routinely condemns any proposals for concessions to Russia as treasonous and shameful. Although some see submitting to Russian dominance as prudent given Georgia’s geopolitical vulnerability, doing so would sacrifice the autonomy that is central to Georgia’s national identity. It is thus little surprise that Georgia (and Moldova) recently joined Ukraine in applying for EU membership.

Weak States are Agents Too

The invasion – and the circumstances surrounding it – underscores the agency of weak states. Preoccupied with great power politics, many framed the war almost exclusively in terms of the NATO-Russia relationship. Some entirely overlooked Ukraine’s agency. Still others downplayed Putin’s agency in launching the invasion, blaming the United States and its allies for provoking it. But Ukraine’s and Georgia’s desire to join NATO is no less genuine than Poland, Czechia, Hungary, and other NATO states that also sought membership in order to escape Moscow’s shadow.

The entire post-Soviet region faces a dangerous time

NATO enlargement contravenes Putin’s imperial vision, but the roots of this conflict run far deeper. Eastern European nations fought for their sovereignty long before NATO even existed. Many declared independence after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Some, including the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the Democratic Republic of Georgia, gained international recognition before Bolshevik Russia conquered them. Others like Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia remained independent until World War II, when they too fell to Soviet forces. The threat of Russian domination deeply informs these countries’ national narratives – Putin feeds into these narratives whenever he describes them as “stolen” from Moscow.

Observers and officials need to remember that these states’ national histories have inspired enduring struggles to gain and secure independence. An imperial, revanchist Russia once again threatens that independence. Ukraine is fighting for its life. Casualties on both sides mount. And the entire post-Soviet region faces a dangerous time.