John Roughan: Putins miscalculation has put steel into both Ukraine nationalism and the Nato alliance


Phrases such as “birth of a nation” and “forged in war” are normally a little rich for our cynical times but I think we are seeing nothing less in far-off Ukraine. The pictures and stories of the devastation wrought on that innocent place and the bravery of its President and its people show a nation that will not be denied.

Against all odds, they have withstood the might of Russia for more than a month and this week Russia was reported to be retreating. It will probably settle for some territorial gains and Ukraine’s undertaking it will not join Nato. But Ukraine will have survived and it will remember.

A nation can exist in the mind and culture of people of 1000 years, as Ukraine has, without necessarily being a self-governing state. Mostly Ukraine has been part of a larger state, sometimes divided between more than one empire but usually it has been part of Russia.

Empires were not totally oppressive of constituent nations. They were capable of bringing them into imperial government, making enough room for their cultures and becoming an additional level of allegiance. Ukraine, from what I’ve read of its recent politics, has been divided between those who felt as much Russian as Ukrainian and those who asserted their Ukrainian identity above all.

The latter have been further divided between compromising and uncompromising nationalists – but not any more probably.

Until a national spirit is tested in war, those who feel it cannot be sure if it is more than an abstract, romantic identity, an “imagined community”, as academics call it. It was probably not until Russia’s army crossed their border on February 24 that Ukrainians discovered nationality was so real they were willing to fight and possibly die for it.

This was undoubtedly a discovery for Vladimir Putin, too. He clearly underestimated Ukrainian nationalism. He no doubt expected its popular young President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to flee and its government to collapse at the first sight of Russian tanks coming down the road to Kyiv.

The tanks stopped, a 60km column of them stalled on the road for weeks, their soldiers probably knowing their Ukrainian relatives and colleagues better than Putin did, and having no heart for their mission now they had discovered what it was.

Putin misjudged his Ukrainian counterpart in more ways than one. Zelenskyy was on the moderate, compromising side of Ukraine’s politics. Shortly after winning the presidency in 2019, the former comedian gave a New Year speech described by British Ukrainian journalist Bohdan Nahaylo as, “His vision for an inclusive Ukrainian national identity transcending the barriers of language, ethnicity and memory …

“It resonated loudly,” the article concluded, “with millions of the voters who brought him to power, while antagonising those already suspicious of his moderation in light of the existential Russian threat facing the country.” That was written two years ago.

Putin has discovered it is one thing to bite off the bits of neighbouring countries where Russians are a majority, which he has done in Georgia, Crimea and Donbas, but it is quite another thing to convince a country it is Russian whether it likes it or not.

Putin’s miscalculation has not only put steel into Ukraine’s national spirit, he has injected new life into the Nato alliance.

Ever since the Soviet Union collapsed Nato has struggled to find a purpose. Just a few years ago France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, called it “brain-dead”. Western Europeans seemed ambivalent about the security it gave them and disinclined to bear their share of the cost.

The alliance had admitted newly democratic countries of Eastern Europe but without much fanfare or apparent concern for the risk they posed under Nato’s article five. That article contains the strongest commitment it is possible for nations to make – that they will regard an attack on one as an attack on them all.

This is the commitment the United States, Britain, France and Germany have made to Poland, Hungary, Romania, Turkey and the former Soviet Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Nato is now beefing up its defences in all of them.

If the Baltic states are next on Putin’s imperial agenda, Nato will be at war. The nuclear superpowers will be fighting under the shadow of their ultimate weapons. It does not bear thinking. But nor does the alternative – democracies afraid to fight an aggressor who has nuclear weapons.

Ukraine’s courage has been an inspiration to all secure Western countries, especially here where we cannot imagine a threat from any direction. If New Zealand was invaded I think we would feel the same imperative to fight and die if necessary? We should be prepared.

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