Ukrainian liberation from Putin’s ethnic patriotism

Moscow’s invasion of eastern Ukraine only affirms the country’s embrace of European Union-style values.

Protesters hold posters in front of the Russian Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 22.

On Feb. 22, the day after Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine, the news in that country was not only about this latest border violation by Moscow. People in the capital, Kyiv, and elsewhere were also following a free and vigorous debate in parliament over legalization of civilian firearms. They read of a mass resignation of judges over a corruption probe. Particularly intriguing was a scandal over who would represent Ukraine in the Eurovision Song Contest.

In other words, eight years after the Maidan revolution launched Ukraine toward membership in the European Union, its people are actively embracing a collective identity shaped by EU-style civil values, such as free speech, rule of law, and self-governance. One key indicator: In January, as Russia’s threats escalated, public support to join the EU reached 68% in nonoccupied Ukraine.

Not only do Ukrainians reject the invasion; they reject an idea put forth by Russian President Vladimir Putin that the two countries are “one people” with “very powerful genetic code” that unites them in a type of ethnic patriotism, or blood-and-soil unity.

The invasion was in fact a moment of liberation for Ukraine. “This is a historic day of our freedom, the day when Russia officially admitted that Ukraine and Ukrainians are no longer its ‘brotherly nation,’” wrote Ukrainian military journalist Yuriy Butusov.

For the EU, too, Russia’s aggression reaffirms why the bloc was created after the ethnicity-driven wars of the 20th century. “What is important is that Western countries had been able to agree on what they were confronting,” said Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor.

Ethno-nationalism still drives many of the world’s conflicts, from Ethiopia to Myanmar. In Ukraine, that battle may have turned a tide this week. Even among the country’s minority Russian speakers, most favor EU membership and its practice of universal values, according to polls. Many Russian speakers even enjoy the visa-free regime granted by the EU that allows Ukrainians to work in member states. That’s a powerful countermessage to the notion of ancestral bloodlines as the destiny of nation-states.

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