Reporting on Russia’s barbaric war against Ukraine and the west necessarily focuses on the savage killing of citizens, raping of women, the destruction of infrastructure, what and/or when additional military support might be received from the West, and what might happen next.
Another critically important part of the story needing to be told fully exposes the fallacy of the long-held belief that Russia was a mighty nation, rather than an oil and gas revenue-fed military with no regard for its citizens, with no self-confidence in any unique national identity.
Would soldiers from a genuinely powerful nation really steal washing machines, toilets, refrigerators and more to ship back to their wives and families? Would the families of soldiers from a real superpower be giving their warriors lists of appliances and more to bring home because the people of their savaged neighbor are so better off?
Would a self-aware and confident Russia be so determined to erase completely the history, culture, and entire existence of a neighbor unless that neighbor’s existent exposed the fraud that has been Russia’s aggressively advertised image for decades?
The Wall Street Journal’s Dan Henninger wrote on Thursday about Putin’s determination to obliterate Ukraine’s national identity. What Henninger describes exposes so much about the pathetic Russian self-image.
Putin will not stop until he is stopped and we must give Ukraine what it needs to defeat Putin and his demonic thugs.
Daniel Henninger | December 7, 2022 5:41 pm ET
A bad habit in our confused times is to communicate in words and phrases no one fully understands. Maybe that’s intentional. Merriam-Webster, the dictionary publisher, chose as its 2022 word of the year “gaslighting,” which has something to do with “misinformation,” which itself is said to be different from “disinformation.”
I think the dictionary people got it wrong. The real word of the year is “identity.”
In the U.S., personal-identity debates pitch us into the briar patch of gender self-identifiers and pronouns with no agreed-upon meaning. But the heat goes even higher in arguments over national identity.
Before the midterm elections, President Joe Biden criticized Republicans for going “MAGA,” a Trumpian phrase that stands for “Make America great again.” MAGA and the “1619 Project” have become fighting words in a civil war over national identity that is dissolving a common understanding of what America represents. With Brexit, the Brits spent five years fighting over who they are.
National-identity debates are messy, but one country’s ordeal makes the stakes crystal clear.
No nation deserves to go through what Ukraine has endured with Russia’s unprovoked invasion, but unlike many wars that lose sight of why they’re being waged, Ukraine’s is a case study in the meaning and value of national identity.
For those of us looking on from afar, the war there has become a daily display of indiscriminate Russian bombing, leveling infrastructure, apartment buildings and hospitals. The result is a seeming infinity of rubble. We’ve learned that this is how Russia wages war—in Ukraine, Chechnya, northern Syria or any future theater.
As always, urban bombing’s goal is to break the opposition’s will to resist, but it is about more than that in Ukraine, which was made clear in a recent Journal article about Russia’s systematic looting of the Kherson Art Museum before Ukraine’s military recaptured the city.
What happened at the Kherson museum has little resemblance to the Russian infantry’s crude, random looting of stores and homes. It is more like the Taliban’s destruction in 2001 of Afghanistan’s huge sixth-century Bamiyan Buddhas, an act regarded as barbarism.
The looting of the Kherson museum had to have been planned in detail by Russian art specialists in Moscow, intellectuals who knew exactly what was in the museum and what the art represented to Ukrainians.
As described by the Journal’s Ian Lovett, the removal of art began Nov. 1 under the direction of 10 civilians from Russian museums. About 10,000 of Kherson’s more than 13,000 pieces were taken away, notably all paintings by Ukrainian artists. Rooms of artifacts that existed in Ukraine’s territory before the Russian empire were emptied.
From day one of this war, the purpose of Vladimir Putin, and of the ideologues who surround him, has been to eliminate Ukraine’s national identity. Erase a nation’s art, and its past evaporates.
The Ukrainians are said to be putting much of their national heritage in hiding or temporarily moving it outside the country, an activity reminiscent of what countries did during World War II to avoid similar heists of national identity by the Nazis.
It may well be that in our time historical memory has been reduced to last week’s Instagram posts, or such embarrassments as Kanye West’s recent remarks on Hitler. But surely support for Ukraine from the war’s earliest days by formerly placid Europe is explainable in great part to its understanding that a successful Putin destruction of Ukraine’s national identity would set an ominous precedent. Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said last week the alliance would support Ukraine for “as long as it takes” and that “we will not back down.” One hopes that includes the alliance’s member living in seeming security across the Atlantic.
Nationalistic sentiments have become rife in the U.S., most often on the right. They reflect a belief or fear that the traditional underpinnings of American identity and economic security are being undermined—by an influx of non-English-speaking immigrants, globalization, radical reinterpretations of U.S. history and certainly the new vocabularies of personal identity.
This is an important and worthy discussion that doesn’t deserve dismissal as little more than right-wing “MAGA.” But the danger in a nationalistic U.S. drift, especially in Congress, is that it could turn quickly into insularity, the impulse to cut off America from a troublesome world that just isn’t worth our attention.
The short version of navel-gazing nationalism is that we have “needs at home,” but what country doesn’t? Last May, 11 Senate Republicans voted against a Ukraine aid bill, and in October, the House Progressive Caucus sent Mr. Biden a letter—quickly withdrawn—urging him to negotiate a settlement directly with Mr. Putin.
Ukraine is a sovereign nation with a population, though dwindling, of nearly 44 million. The terms of the struggle to preserve a nation’s national character could not be clearer. If Mr. Putin outlasts the free world to prove it’s possible to absorb a nation’s identity, his win will leave the rest of us standing on the downslope of what we say we represent..
The opening comments are Mr. McConnell's and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation or the Friends of Ukraine Network.
Coordinator, External Relations
U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network
Robert A. McConnell is a co-founder of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and Coordinator of External Relations for the Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network.