Who will win in Ukraine? I’m not asking about soldiers on the front lines or the civilians caught in between. Although we are inundated with reports, claims and assessments, it is extremely difficult to assess the true state of the struggle or predict its outcome. Before the invasion began, US officials expected Kyiv to fall within days – a goal that the Russian armed forces still have not achieved a month later.
Instead, I mean the battle among us keyboard warriors to determine what it all means. In the absence of reliable information, it is tempting to invoke broad frameworks and expansive rhetoric. After all, many of us work on time. And also those who don’t have to say anything to stay in the game.
There is nothing wrong with placing current events in a broader theoretical or historical context. I’ve done it myself and intend to continue. However, there is a risk that our analysis terms will become “concretized”. It’s a fancy way of saying that we treat abstract concepts as if they were real things, distracting ourselves from a real world that defies proper explanation.
I think this tendency towards reification helps explain the debate about the role of nationalism in the Ukraine war. For some commentators, the war reveals both the need and the resilience of liberal ideals clouded by associations with economic instability, military adventurism, and cultural homogenization. Earlier this month, Francis Fukuyama – best known as the author of The end of history and the last man – argued that the war could be a renaissance for “the liberal order … institutionalized in the form of the European Union and the broader global order of open trade and investment created by US power.” With the real alternative represented by Putin’s Russia, David French echoedpersonal liberty, economic liberty and international cooperation seem much more attractive than “nationalist, authoritarian” movements at home and abroad.
But that’s all wrong, defenders of nationalism insist. Instead of belying the notion that political communities should be guided by shared cultures within fixed borders, Ukraine’s heroic defense proved its relevance. Instead of parroting globalist clichés, argued Rich Lowry (the published The case for nationalism a few years ago) Zelenskyi shook up Ukraine and the world by “speaking the language of a nationalist who loves history, country and traditions of his people”.
The controversy will almost certainly outlive the actual war – which doesn’t appear to be heading for a quick resolution. In addition to the technical incentives for incessant debate, this reflects the difficulty of fitting reality into ready-made intellectual paradigms.
Start with nationalism. It is almost certainly true that more Ukrainians are moved by a sense of cultural solidarity, shared interests, and outraged pride than by a principled commitment to the liberal international order. Though fueled by Russian encroachment since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, these sentiments are not new. Like many European nationalist movements, they were initially organized to oppose imperial rule Early 19th century (at that time present-day Ukraine was divided between Austrian and Russian control). And many elements and symbols of Ukrainian national identity, including the Ukrainian language, predate them.
Additionally, while Zelenskyy has appealed to human rights and other universalist issues in his addresses to Western lawmakers, it is important to remember that he leads an electoral and political coalition at home. This coalition includes factions much further from liberal aspirations than he is. The role of far-right elements, including the Azov battalion, was exaggerated by the Russian authorities to justify their invasion as “anti-Nazi” policies. But it’s not entirely imaginary.
As Fukuyama acknowledges in one interview published on Thursday, there is good reason to characterize Ukrainian self-defense as an example of successful nationalism. But they need to be weighed against the goals that seem to be driving Zelensky and, as far as we can tell, enjoy majority support. NATO expansion was not the sole cause of the war, but Ukraine’s aspirations to join the military alliance fueled long-standing fears of encirclement in Russia. And while Zelenskyi has effectively dropped that goal, he is pursuing it in a concession to Russian interests Membership in the European Union. These are among the institutions that Western nationalists have criticized as threatening political sovereignty and cultural independence.
A similar ambiguity applies to Russia. On the one hand, the Americans tend to forget that Russia is also a multinational state. Next to one remarkable array of linguistic and cultural groups, many tied to particular regions, its population includes both significant numbers of Muslims and Christians (and decreasing numbers of Jews). Russian President Vladimir Putin invoked this diversity last month when he proclaimed “I am Russian … but when I see examples of such heroism, such as the feat of a young man – Nurmagomed Gadzhimagomedov, a native of Dagestan, a lak by nationality, our other soldiers, I want to say: I am a lak, I am a Dagestani, I am a Chechen, an Ingush, a Russian, a Tatar, a Jew, a Mordvin, an Ossetian.” He might also have mentioned (but didn’t) these iconic “Russian” leaders of the past, including Ivan the TerribleCatherine the Great and Joseph Stalin were not exactly of Russian descent.
But it is not enough to dismiss Russian claims to Ukraine as an imperial seizure of power. In the same speech, Putin insisted that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, artificially divided through the establishment of the Soviet Republic of Ukraine in 1922 and the resulting independence as the USSR fell apart. Especially in eastern Ukraine, where residents are more likely to speak Russian, Putin appeals to classic nationalist tropes of political unification (and border revision, if necessary) to reflect linguistic and religious commonalities. In 2014, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger insisted that “the West must understand that Ukraine can never be just a foreign country to Russia.” (I am grateful to the journalist Ben Judah for providing the reference).
It would be possible to multiply examples – and complications – on either side of the question. But these observations should be enough to demonstrate my point. We do not need a more detailed debate about whether liberal or nationalist conceptual frameworks are better suited to the situation. We need to better understand the specifics of these actors in this conflict. The problem is that this requires more time and expertise than the flood of events and social media demands encourage. Lest this plea for thorough analysis rather than ideological views be taken as a cheap shot at fellow commentators, I should concede that it is also an act of self-criticism
That being said, I think there’s an academic concept that’s a little more helpful than liberalism or nationalism in figuring out what’s going on — and what the future holds for states confronted with problems beyond the capacity of purely national sovereignty . This concept is civilization: a broader category of political communities that share certain cultural and social characteristics. But the usefulness and even coherence of this idea is questioned by the site liberal left as well as the “post-liberal” to the right. Here we go again.