The Struggle for Ukrainian Self-Determination and Identity

This quick take is part of our Crisis Crossroads series which highlights timely analysis by CSIS scholars on the evolving situation in Ukraine and its security, economic, energy, and humanitarian effects.

Ukraine is a resilient nation, having been occupied and subjugated for generations. Every attempt at Ukrainian self-determination has been systematically and forcibly quashed. The twentieth century was particularly traumatic. The Russian Empire forbade the speaking of Ukrainian and forced conversion to Russian Orthodoxy. With the 1917 October Revolution and the removal of Russian imperial forces, Ukrainians attempted to create an independent state. The Ukrainian War of Independence (also known as the Soviet-Ukrainian War) ensued, a series of conflicts during which time the Ukrainian People’s Republic was established, only to be invaded by the Bolsheviks in 1919 and fully subjugated by the Soviet Union in 1921. The newly formed Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, a puppet of Soviet Russia, was complicit in the objective to forcibly erase Ukrainian culture and replace it with Russian identity. Stalin caused millions of Ukrainians to die due to collectivization and famine. His solution to the population crisis (which he created) was to send Russians—lots of them—to quickly “repopulate” the Donbas. Ukrainian women were especially victimized. Denial of language and faith, sexual violence, and starvation—these are the tools of oppression and erasure. The establishment of a free and independent Ukraine in 1991 was long overdue.

What will happen should Russia again succeed in subjugating Ukraine? The international community should expect nothing different from what has transpired since 2014 in Crimea and parts of the Donbas. Ukrainians under Russian occupation will once again suffer erasure of their culture and national identity and live in an environment of suppression and fear. Once again, Ukrainians have been forced to renounce their citizenship or lose their property, their access to basic services, and even their jobs. All resistance is met with force. Putin is attempting to erase Ukraine once more.

But history teaches us that Putin’s aspirations are folly. This is a resilient people who, despite barbarism and violence, will never lose their sense of self—their identity. Ukraine will endure.

Nicole Aandahl is the senior vice president for people and culture at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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