Russia faced no military resistance when it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula after its 2014 invasion. And when the Kremlin seized much of the Donbass region via proxies, for many months there was only a disorganized military challenge from kyiv.
With the most recent invasion, however, the situation has been different – and not only because of the flow of military supplies from abroad, Western tactical training and combat experience gained during eight years of low-intensity warfare in eastern Ukraine.
All of this was important. But the crucial difference has been the Ukrainians’ stubborn refusal to quit or be intimidated, even when outgunned and outnumbered.
Whether they are in the cities north-west and east of kyiv, or in Kharkiv – the country’s second largest city, which has come under constant bombardment – or in the southern seaport of Mariupol, where around 3,000 defenders remained holed up in a steelworks cave, the Ukrainians refuse to give up.
At Mykolaiv, near the Black Sea, the Ukrainian army withstood successive waves of Russian attacks and, despite nighttime shelling, managed to drive the attackers back to the city of Kherson, where they faced surly residents and protesters.
For Moscow, there have been many frustrations and setbacks on the Ukrainian battlefield, but it was stoic resistance and courage that made it all happen – upending the Russian plan to roll quickly to kyiv or seize the Black Sea coast of the country. It also disrupts Kremlin plans for an offensive in eastern Ukraine to establish a land corridor between the breakaway Moscow republics of Donetsk and Luhansk with Russian-held Crimea.
Few Western military strategists had calculated that Ukraine would be able to hold out for more than a few days in the face of a full-scale Russian attack. And judging by what Russian POWs told their Ukrainian captors, neither did the Kremlin.
“We are showing the whole world that we are a nation, capable of uniting, capable of fighting; and every day since February 24, we have been proving that we are something that Putin says does not exist – a political nation,” says Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, former Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister and now an MP opposition.
“Putin says that our nation has no right to exist and that we are little Russians: But here we are, neither new Russians nor little Russians; but the Ukrainians,” she adds. “We are reclaiming our history,” she says.
Ask almost any Ukrainian if the war is changing the country, and if so, how, and they will invariably answer that it is a collective experience, which has brought people together, helped to overcome ethnic and regional differences and shaped a new national consciousness – one that empowers Ukrainians to resist Russia but also castigate Western powers for not doing enough to uphold liberal values.
“I have never seen my country so united,” exults Anna Mosinian of Odessa, Ukraine’s third most populous city and a major seaport, which may well have escaped a Russian assault thanks to the stubborn resistance of Mariupol.
Purser before the invasion, Mosinian says that while the 2014 Maidan uprising, which toppled Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ally Viktor Yanukovych, exacerbated deep-rooted divisions between western and central Ukrainian speakers of Ukraine and Russian-speaking people in the south and east – including his city of Odessa – the war did much to shape a new national pride.
The Russian speakers among his friends and family never thought that Moscow would invade in the first place. They expected Putin to settle for more land grabbing in the eastern Donbass region. When the invasion arrived, civilian infrastructure was targeted and towns and villages were left in smoldering ruins, they were shocked. In disgust, many Russian speakers switched to Ukrainian in personal protest.
“It’s the predominantly Russian-speaking cities that are suffering the most – Kharkiv, Melitopol, Mariupol, Lugansk – that are feeling the full impact,” says Yaroslav Azhnyuk, entrepreneur and co-founder of Ukrainian startup Petcube. “A few years ago it was relatively rare to hear the Ukrainian language spoken on their streets. And now, in these cities, citizens come out and protest and sing in Ukrainian and talk in Ukrainian. I bet these towns have never heard so much Ukrainian spoken as now.
While there was some initial skepticism about early reports of Russian soldiers raping and murdering civilians in towns and villages north of kyiv, those doubts have since faded and been replaced by cold fury.
“No man has done more to establish the Ukrainian nation than Putin,” Azhnyuk said. “Previously, the people of eastern Ukraine couldn’t understand us in western Ukraine, and why we hated Russia for all the atrocities of World War II. Now they understand,” he adds.
According to Azhnyuk, the war makes Ukrainians more confident about who and what they are, and what their place should be in a post-war world. “Ukrainians have united around a geopolitical vision – it’s a war over a civilizational choice between freedom and authoritarianism,” he says.
“The war has changed Ukraine forever,” says Mykolay Danylevych, a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, an autonomous church subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church. “It’s a national war, and when it’s over, there will definitely be a new Ukraine in terms of identity and form of society,” he adds.
The reshaping of Ukrainian society is already being played out between Ukraine’s two rival Orthodox churches. Since the invasion, more than 150 parishes have defected from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Patriarchate of Moscow to Ukraine’s smaller Orthodox Church based in Kyiv. The defections are in reaction to weekly broadcasts by Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, justifying Putin’s invasion and portraying the war as an apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil determined to smash the God-given unity of Holy Russia.
Danylevych expects there to be more defections, but he also suspects there could be an even bigger religious and cultural schism, saying the Ukrainian Orthodox Church may be “loosening its connection , even break it completely, with the patriarchate of Moscow and become independent.
“Priests and bishops talk about it; the trend is going in that direction,” he says.
There are risks, however, if Ukraine rejects everything Russian, warns Danylevych. Due to its tangled history, the Russian language and culture are also part of Ukrainian identity, he says. Adding: “When the war is over, we should all draw conclusions about our lives before the war and learn from our mistakes. And the government will have a unique opportunity. [Ukraine’s president Volodymyr] Zelenskyy said that before the war there were no good Ukrainians or bad Ukrainians; we are all Ukrainians; and he must maintain this message after the war.
There’s still a long way to go before that, and in the months to come there may well be an even greater price to pay than has already been levied for refusing to give up. The Russian offensive currently taking shape in the Donbass is commanded by Aleksandr Dvornikov, the general who oversaw Russia’s razing of Grozny in Chechnya and Aleppo in Syria.
Ukraine’s strengthened national sentiment has been shaped on the anvil of war – but the blows to come will likely test its resilience even more.