In On the Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin wrestled with the question of why people would ever be willing to risk themselves for strangers. Only in 1871, in The Descent of Man, did Darwin find an answer: Societies that include brave people in their population would have an advantage when faced with hopeless causes — situations in which the brave act without regard for personal survival in the event of success. In other words, particularly in existential conflicts when losses against a competing group could mean genetic or cultural extinction, moral commitments to group loyalty, sacrifice, and heroism are most consequential.
In his shifting justifications for war against Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has rejected Ukraine’s right to nationhood, depicting Ukrainian national identity as a fiction resulting from errors made by his predecessors in the Kremlin, going back to Vladimir Lenin. This is not a new argument for Putin: During a NATO summit in Romania in April 2008, Putin argued, “Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? A part of its territory is [in] Eastern Europe, but a[nother] part, a considerable one, was a gift from us!” Nor are these views rare among Russian elites. In April of 2016, Russia’s then-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev declared that there was “no state” in Ukraine. In February, Vladislav Surkov, who served as an advisor to Putin for more than 20 years before falling from favor in 2020, argued
There is no Ukraine. There is Ukrainianism: a specific mental disorder…. A muddle instead of a state. There is borscht, Bandera, bandura. But there is no nation. There is a pamphlet called “Samostiyna Ukraine” [Independent or Sovereign Ukraine], but there is no Ukraine.
In a long polemic he published last year, Putin referred to Russians and Ukrainians as “one people,” arguing that it is the West that attempts to enforce a “change of identity” and wrest Ukraine away from its rightful place in Russia’s orbit.
With its invasion, Moscow put this view to the test. And it has failed in the crucible of war. Oxana Shevel suggests that one of Putin’s biggest mistakes has been his belief that Russian soldiers would be welcomed as liberators, and that the Zelensky government would quickly fall, with a pro-Russian quasi-independent Ukraine following suit. She explained:
For Ukrainians, it is an existential struggle for survival. It’s really nothing less than that. Ukrainians are very well aware that Putin’s end goal is the destruction of their sovereign nation as such. He denies Ukrainians a separate identity and Ukraine’s right to exist as a sovereign state.
So, instead of being greeted as liberators, Russian troops have been greeted with insults and Ukrainian flags, even in areas that were seen as the most Russia-friendly parts of the country before the war.
In launching his war on Ukraine, Putin overlooked the utility of violence and war in remaking identities. Identities are constructions of their times, and are subject to the specific categories of use in a particular historical period and the forces that animate them. Human beings tend to draw more closely to whatever identity is currently under threat. Even a feature or category that we do not consider meaningful to our sense of self can take on great meaning if we believe we are being treated badly for it. In this way, identity (national, ethnic, tribal, or religious) can be an outcome of war rather than its cause, and it is normal for a “we” identity to emerge when “we” are being collectively threatened. As Harvard anthropologist John Comaroff noted, “It is … in situations of struggle and times of trouble that the content of ethnic self-consciousness is (re)fashioned.”
A March 18 study across all Ukrainian oblasts (excluding Russian-occupied Crimea and Donbas) by Rating Group Ukraine, an independent, non-governmental research organization, demonstrates that the war has already helped to reduce regional differences such that, “Russia and Belarus are considered hostile countries by the vast majority of Ukrainians, regardless of place of residence.” In other words, the vast majority of Ukrainians throughout the country, even in the historically more Russia-friendly east, now see Russia as an adversary.
It is true that Ukraine and Russia’s origins are intertwined, overlapping in the first Slavic state, Kievan Rus. However, Ukraine has its own history of changing religions, borders, and peoples that goes back more than a thousand years. Its capital, Kyiv, officially celebrates its founding year as 482 and was already a major city while Moscow was still a small village. Kyiv’s legendary and eponymous founder Kyi, along with his brothers Shchek and Khoryv, and sister, Lybid, are often depicted as arriving on a Viking-style longboat. But soon after Putin’s accusations of Lenin creating Ukraine, Ukrainian Facebook users shared photoshopped images of Lenin at the head of this legendary longboat. This satirical picture illustrates how the Ukrainian sense of nationhood, going back to at least the medieval period, is deeply at odds with Putin’s notions of a modern date of origin.
Of course, what is even more impactful is that they are at war. And war and violence can craft mutually constitutive identities among both sides of a conflict. The Euromaidan Revolution, also known as the Revolution of Dignity, and past Russian threats and aggressions have already done much to strengthen Ukrainian state identity. Olga Onuch, who has been part of several studies gauging Ukrainian identity and political attitudes, says that the data following Euromaidan demonstrated that already, “civic identity or state attachment was extremely strong amongst Ukrainians,” but adds that “[a]s the conflict escalated, so did support for the Ukrainian state.”
Back then, Ukrainians of diverse origins collectively stood against the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych, as they now resist Russia’s brutal efforts to reimpose direct influence over the nation. Onuch, along with colleagues Henry E. Hale and Gwendolyn Sasse note that there are signs that in Ukraine, “civic identity is gaining ground at the expense of ethno-nationalist identity.” So, although Ukrainians in the south and east largely favored pro-Russian presidential candidates from 2004 to 2014, that support evaporated by 2019. In 2015, 56 percent of Ukrainians considered the various nationalities of Ukraine as constituting a Ukrainian nation, compared to just 39 percent in 2007.
Any country, Ukraine included, that has been the target of aggression is likely to experience a “rally ‘round the flag” effect, a well-studied phenomenon that can help to fashion a larger civic and national identity. But this experience, it should be noted, can also come with a greater appetite for punitive violence. In this way, while the necessity to defend against foreign aggression can help build solidarity among local identities, it can also adversely affect chances for diplomatic solutions.
People generally are more willing to accept grievous losses during violence than in diplomacy. The case for militarism and violent solutions may be more effective at recruiting support because we need only appeal to the moral responsibility of fighting evil, whereas a persuasive case for diplomacy depends on establishing clear criteria of effectiveness as well as confidence that it can be accomplished. In this way, it can be “very hard to talk” to a vicious aggressor, as the defender feels morally obligated to retaliate against such violence with retributional force — even if that retaliation ultimately does more harm than good. People who believe they are fighting a defensive war against a brutal aggressor may find it harder to put down the gun and pick up the pen.
Such emotionality may have been adaptive in humanity’s distant past: early groups of humans who imagined an “us” through the observance of sacred principles that connected and bound them together would have had an advantage over those who did not. There is at least some anecdotal evidence this is so — religio is Latin for “re-connect”, after all. This idea of sacred connections would have particular importance for cultural survival, when the community of “us” was on the losing side of an existential conflict.
A recent study sheds more light on the wartime “rally ‘round the flag” effect. Political scientists analyzed implicit biases among 600 respondents that self-identified as either ethnic Russian or Ukrainian, across four Ukrainian cities. Implicit associations are valuable because they can be good predictors of behavior, often more than explicitly declared views. They found that a year after Russian hostilities began in 2014, on average, ethnic Ukrainians and Russians in Ukraine were both implicitly and explicitly biased in favor of Ukraine. This suggests that ethnic minorities are not necessarily biased in favor of the country with which their ethnic identity is generally associated. Instead, their analysis suggests that where the state associated with their ethnic identity is the aggressor, a significant bias can form in favor of the home state. Thus, in a country that has been the victim of aggression, instead of fragmentation of its citizens among local ethnic identities, the formation of a “supraethnic” or a civic national identity may manifest. In this way, further aggression against Ukraine by Russia today is predicted to reinvigorate national identity among Ukrainian citizens.
Whatever Putin imagines Ukrainian national identity is — it is Russian aggression against Ukraine itself that can flesh out and bolster what it means to be Ukrainian. The experience of collective defense and sacrifice against Russia can itself work to instantiate and radicalize this new sense of Ukrainian national identity ever more widely.
For identity is the stuff of meaning; being with and belonging to others who share our sense of self is central to the meaning of identity. We can only be “us” when we are together, both now and also by feeling connected to others before us and after us, through our shared history — in this way, group identity makes us feel our sufferings and victories are honored and celebrated. It is the threat itself that, through prompting sacrifices, can help create and affirm bonds of affection, solidarity, and resilience.
What, then, of Russian identity? There has been much ink spilled on the idea of Russian resiliency. But it is worth noting that the Russians mustered their greatest successes in defense of their homeland against Napoleonic France and the Germans in WWII, not as an invading army. While on the offensive, they lost to the Japanese, they lost in Afghanistan, and they lost The First Chechen War.
But the sacrifices endured in defense of the city in the Battle of Stalingrad were a rallying cry during World War II. The sentiment persists even today, and the city is still a symbol of patriotic sacrifice and unity for Russians. It is ironic, then, that the Russians are making multiple Stalingrads in Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Chernihiv today.
This can readily be seen in the growing sense of Ukrainian nationalism, the use of yellow and blue Ukrainian colors, along with the “Saint Javelin” iconographies, combining Ukrainian nationalism, religious imagery, and violence. When we saw this fusion of religion, nationalism, and violence in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the question was “whether Islam was a violent religion?” After all, all these diverse places had only one thing in common, the argument went — religion. But of course, these places had something else in common — they were active zones of conflict. When people face an existential threat from a superior enemy, they draw on all aspects of their identity for meaning, motivation, and inspiration — religion included.
Samuel Huntington had it the wrong way around. It’s not a conflict of belief between cultures or “civilizations” that leads to war; it is war that refashions our ideas of self, community, and belief. In this way, Putin may find that now, even more than Lenin, his legacy will be of the man who helped make Ukraine.
Siamak Tundra Naficy is a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s department of Defense Analysis. An anthropologist with an interdisciplinary approach to social, biological, psychological, and cultural issues, his interests range from the anthropological approach to conflict theory to sacred values, cognitive science, and animal behavior. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Army, or the Naval Postgraduate School.
Image: Ukrainian government