The Revolutionary War in Ukraine
Two Faces of Nationalism
Many commentators are referring to the change in historical epoch we are now witnessing as a return to the Cold War, or even worse, as a possible repeat of the Second World War. Turning to such parallels is understandable and perhaps unavoidable, but, from another perspective, the war in Ukraine signals the decisive end of the 20th century and a return to the 19th century pattern of Europe’s wars and revolutions.
In 1792, the French Revolution turned into a continental war as the monarchies of Europe sought to crush the new state, prevent the revolution from reaching their lands, and punish the revolutionaries for daring to trouble the ancient principle of “legitimacy.” In 1848, a revolutionary wave seized nearly the entire continent as the peoples of Europe rose up with democratic, liberal, national, and the first appearance of socialist, aspirations. Only the combined efforts of the reactionary powers could crush these revolts, often through wars of re-conquest. Interested in protecting authority above all, the Czar came to the aid of his old geopolitical rival the Emperor of Austria and invaded the newly-formed republic of Hungary, helping to suppress its revolution. The Czar viewed himself as the prime defender of the old order. In his memoirs of the revolution of 1848, Alexis de Tocqueville, records his impression while foreign minister to the short-lived (and rather conservative) French Second Republic:
He alone of all the powerful governments represented the old society and the ancient traditional principle of authority in Europe. He was not only the representative but considered himself the champion of it. His political theories, religious beliefs, ambition and conscience equally urged him to play his part. He had therefore turned the cause of authority in the world into a sort of second empire even vaster than the first, encouraging by his letters and rewarding by his decorations all those who, in whatsoever corner of Europe, won victories over anarchy, or even liberty, as they were his subjects and had helped to assure his own power.
In 2014, Ukraine experienced what can be fairly characterized as a democratic revolution against the old claque of Russian stooges that dominated its state. Like most revolutions, it was only partially succesful: corruption remained a major problem; Ukraine’s own oligarchs, its “national bourgeoisie” that are friendly to its new Western alignment, still possessed immense power and influence. It was not a social revolution, only a political one. But the country had forever taken a new direction. Volodymyr Zelensky, a native Russian-speaker of Jewish descent, rose to power on the back of massive popular enthusiasm for his promise to end corruption, but most importantly perhaps he demonstrated the existence of a Ukrainian national identity that envisioned a national project and people that encompassed its ethnic and linguistic diversity.
Since 2014, a successful democratic revolution has been right on Putin’s doorstep. And it is this that’s intolerable to him. Putin presents Ukraine as an existential threat to his regime and in part he is right. One just has to look at the large protests in Moscow in 2019, and then the even bigger ones in Belarus in 2020, or those in Kazakhstan this year to see how tenuous is the grip on power of the autocracies. Putin, apparently at all costs, thinks he must crush the democratic revolution in Ukraine lest it provide a model for his own people. Sadly, he may well succeed in the short term. But in the effort he has reignited Europe’s long-dormant national traditions of democratic enthusiasm. In cynical times, we are accustomed to seeing all political things as the result of manipulation of elites and not as the product of popular will. For better or worse, this may now be changing. Democracies aroused in anger can be just as fearsome things as any dictatorship. And 1848 also saw a darker form of nationalism arise that we are still very familiar with: one directed against rather than for the cause of liberty and democracy.