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Interview: A War Of Independence: Six Months Into Russia's Invasion, A Ukrainian Historian Takes Stock

A boy waves a Ukrainian flag on top of an armored personal carrier at an exhibition of destroyed Russian military vehicles and weapons in the center of Kyiv dedicated to the country's upcoming Independence Day on August 24.
A boy waves a Ukrainian flag on top of an armored personal carrier at an exhibition of destroyed Russian military vehicles and weapons in the center of Kyiv dedicated to the country's upcoming Independence Day on August 24.

KYIV -- On August 24, Ukrainians celebrate Independence Day, a major national holiday marking the declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. This year, it comes exactly six months after Russia launched a large-scale invasion aimed to strip Ukraine of that independence.

On the weekend preceding the public holiday, damaged Russian military vehicles were displayed at Kyiv’s main street, Khreshchatyk – trophies in a war that appears far from over. At the same time, Ukrainian authorities imposed tougher safety measures and warned of the increased possibility of air attacks on the capital and other cities.

Speaking to RFE/RL in an interview conducted online on August 22, Yaroslav Hrytsak, a prominent historian and public intellectual who is a professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, reflected on the meaning of Independence Day, on what Russia’s war on Ukraine has wrought, and on what is to come.

RFE/RL: At the beginning of March, you wrote [in the daily Ukrainskaya Pravda] that Ukrainians are going through their great national war against Russia. What did you mean?

Yaroslav Hrytsak: Two weeks after the invasion began on February 24, it was already clear that it is going to be a long war and that the real stake is the very existence of Ukrainians as a nation. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants to deprive us of the right to have our independent nation state and our own national culture.

It's a national war also because no one can escape it: One way or the other all of us will be impacted by it and thus we all share a responsibility to resist the invaders.

RFE/RL: The Western general public once again “discovered” Ukraine this February even though Ukraine’s struggle for independence has a much longer history. Why is the West having such a hard time understanding Ukrainians, a nation of 40 million people living in the territorially largest country in Europe?

Hrytsak: The first reason is the old classic Orientalism. To many in the West, Eastern Europe is a wild, exotic place and conflict there is kind of normal.

Ukraine is a testing ground for the stability of the two competing political models of our era: liberal democracy and authoritarianism.

The second reason is that much of the Western elites see Ukraine through the prism of Russian imperial history. The main Western historical narrative describing Eastern Europe was largely formulated by the Russian émigrés of 1920 who appropriated Ukraine and deprived it of [political agency]. As British historian Norman Davies has nicely put it, Ukrainians were portrayed as Russians when they did something good and as Ukrainian or nationalists when they did something bad.

In more recent times the disentanglement of Ukrainian history from Russia's started only with the return of Vladimir Putin to [the presidency] in 2012, when the hopes of liberalization under Dmitry Medvedev proved to be in vain. The failure of Russian modernization encouraged Western leaders to see Ukraine as a democratic alternative to Russia.

RFE/RL: What is at the heart of the difference between Ukraine and Russia that led to this war?

Hrytsak: The three decades following the fall of the Soviet Union have shown that Ukraine and Russia are different not because of the language, and not even because of culture, but because of the political traditions -- that is, the perception of the relationship between the state and society. To put it bluntly, you can hardly imagine the victory of a leader like Putin in Ukraine and the victory of a revolution such as the [2004-05] Orange Revolution or the [2013-14] Euromaidan in Russia.

Students rally against the regime of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in Ivano-Frankivsk around the beginning of the Euoramaidan in December 2013.
Students rally against the regime of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in Ivano-Frankivsk around the beginning of the Euoramaidan in December 2013.

Many people do not understand the scope of changes brought by Ukraine's two successive revolutions. Without the victory of civil society on the streets of Kyiv in 2004 and 2014, we could be in a similar place as Russia and Belarus are now, where protests on Bolotnaya Square in Moscow in 2012 and in Minsk in 2020, respectively, did not bring about political changes.

RFE/RL: In the past, many analysts and commentators used to talk of "two Ukraines" -- the pro-European West and pro-Russian East. You have been critical of this notion in your work.

Hrytsak: It's an extremely simplistic and stereotypical divide. In fact, Ukraine has been profoundly divided historically, but these divides are more complex, and the language is not a key factor. Without going into the history of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it is sufficient to say that when independent Ukraine had been established in 1991 there was not a lot of solidarity between different regions.

RFE/RL: Can you elaborate on this?

Hrytsak: Ukrainian independence came as a result of a compromise of three actors, very unlikely allies: national communists in Kyiv representing the tradition of Soviet Ukraine, nationalistically inclined western Ukrainian elites, and -- oftentimes forgotten – the Donbas miners' strike movement, which was one of the strongest social movements in the late Soviet Union. The first wanted to remain in power, the second wanted a nation state like Poland or the Czech Republic, and the third wanted their economic demands satisfied. [The Donbas miners] first turned to Russia, but once they realized that they were being ignored by the Kremlin they placed their bets on Kyiv.

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Right after the proclamation of Ukrainian independence, this unlikely alliance split, and these actors become competitors. So, it was difficult to talk about a unified Ukraine at that point.

I still remember that in my youth in Lviv we used to think of Kyiv almost as a foreign city. The change came only with the first and second Maidan [the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan protests], which changed Kyiv into a real Ukrainian capital.

Another less obvious step was the emergence of Dnipro, formerly Dnipropetrovsk, as the third power center. It had been Ukraine's largest industrial city that almost ruled the Soviet Union at some point, because a large part of the Soviet elite was from there, including Leonid Brezhnev and his family.

Some key political figures of independent Ukraine, such as [former President] Leonid Kuchma and [former Prime Minister] Yulia Tymoshenko, were connected to it. Crucially, Dnipro elites were competing with the Donetsk elites, which they considered to be just a regular mafia. As they used to say, "Dnipro never votes for [Viktor] Yanukovych," [a former president from the Donetsk region].

So, in 2014, at the time of the Euromaidan, the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in the Donbas, the Lviv-Kyiv-Dnipro axis was the backbone of Ukrainian statehood.

RFE/RL: How has the February full-scale invasion changed this balance?

Hrytsak: Before this war, Odesa and Kharkiv were considered not fully reliable, or even on the edge of pro-Russian positions. The current war has turned them decisively pro-Ukrainian, with their mayors taking extremely anti-Russian positions and even partly switching to the Ukrainian language in their public appearances.

Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak
Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak

At the same time, countrywide, I don't see a revolutionary change at the level of public opinion, even if I agree that Ukrainians are more united than ever before. All the things that we see now were in place before; what changed is the intensity. As opposed to what Putin announced on the eve of his invasion, the Ukrainian nation does exist and it is politically stable. For the last 30 years, the majority of Ukrainians have backed independence from Russia, and wherever they are faced with a threat from Moscow, real or invented, this tendency only increases.

RFE/RL: What kind of Ukraine will emerge from this conflict?

Hrytsak: I don't know what the future of Ukraine will look like, but I see two mutually exclusive tendencies.

The first is the ethnicization of Ukraine, very much like in the case of Israel after the 1973 Yom Kippur War -- that is, the emergence of a very strong national identity built upon ethnic, religious, and maybe even linguistic lines. This would come with a new form of mild authoritarianism -- "authoritarianism with a human face." Zelenskiy and his team are already consolidating their power. War almost always creates this possibility.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy

The second tendency is that Ukraine enters the path to joining the EU and gets economic support to recover from the destruction brought about by the war, that is the long-discussed new "Marshall Plan." This way the hopes of building a robust democracy could be fulfilled and in economic terms, Ukraine might even turn into a sort of Eastern European tiger.

The key factor is how long the war will take. The longer it lasts, then the more likely the first scenario will become. We don’t know what will happen if it lasts, for example, another five years. And the length of the war is highly dependent on Western support.

RFE/RL: Before the war, you published a book discussing Ukraine's historical and current place in the global world. What role does this war play for the West?

Hrytsak: Putin himself said he is waging war not against Ukraine but a war against the West on Ukraine's territory. Now he is trying to position himself as a leader of the ex-second world and ex-third world in a new global competition.

Therefore, Ukraine is a testing ground for the stability of the two competing political models of our era: liberal democracy and authoritarianism. In a way it boils down to a choice between the so-called end of history and the return of history.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Putin has instrumentalized history as a casus belli and -- very much like [former President] Donald Trump in the United States -- promises "to make Russia great again." Ukrainians, on the other hand, do not want to repeat history, because for them there is too much injustice and suffering there.

RFE/RL: It is not the first time in history that Ukraine is fighting for independence and negotiating its borders. How and when can this war end?

Hrytsak: The overwhelmingly dominant position of Ukrainian society is that it won't accept any territorial concessions and wants to come back to the 1991 borders. Zelenskiy understands that if he makes concessions he could lose power, so he voices the same position.

Nonetheless, I don’t think this best-case scenario is possible in the short term. I think regaining control over the territories of the so-called DNR and LNR [Russian-controlled parts of the Donbas] and Crimea will only be possible after the collapse of the Putin regime. It will come sooner or later, but in the meantime, we need to somehow stop the war.

For now, what I see as a positive, yet realistic scenario is sort of a "Finnish option." By this I don't mean declaring neutrality but temporarily losing some territories and at the same time turning Ukraine into a strong state with a decisive reform agenda.

This is a war of attrition. The result depends very much on the resistance of Ukrainian society. So far, the prospects are stable and positive. Like most Ukrainians, I believe in victory.

RFE/RL: What is Ukrainian Independence Day like for you this year?

Hrytsak: It will be a day of solidarity and resilience. There is no deep sense of triumphalism among Ukrainians. More and more people I know are dead because of the war. It is a tragic time for Ukraine but at the same time, we are experiencing a new level of empathy and better realize how beautiful our country is.

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    Aleksander Palikot

    Aleksander Palikot is a Ukraine-based journalist covering politics, history, and culture. His work has appeared in Krytyka Polityczna, New Eastern Europe, Jüdische Allgemeine, and beyond.

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