Russia’s unwarranted aggression toward Ukraine has not only shattered the peace of Europe and unleashed a torrent of economic and physical destruction, but it has also thrown into stark relief the moral chasm between Russia and its rivals. As Putin dismembers Ukraine, he shows the importance and value of America’s empire of nations.
In his war speech, Vladimir Putin revealed how Russian nationalism and imperialism go hand in hand. Nationalism’s meaning is contested, but one widely used definition is fidelity to a people group that is primarily defined by a common language or ancestry. As Putin sees it, “Ukraine is not just a neighboring country for us. It is an inalienable part of our own history, culture, and spiritual space” filled with “relatives, people bound by blood, by family ties.” Supposedly, his puppet regimes in Donetsk and Luhansk are “fighting for their elementary right to live on their own land, to speak their own language, and to preserve their culture and traditions.” In contrast, Ukrainians are following a policy of “Neanderthal and aggressive nationalism and neo-Nazism” partly on “historically Russian land.” He expounded on these themes in his July 2021 essay in which he argued that “Russians and Ukrainians were one people—a single whole.” Along with the Belarussians, they “are all descendants of Ancient Rus,” a state centered in Kyiv.
Despite his claims of shared identity and destiny, Putin’s empire will not have a future of shared power. As he is making clear, it is the Russian state that will direct the other, subservient branches of the Rus family. Despite his vociferous denunciations of nationalism last Thursday, Putin himself makes arguments that are chillingly similar to those of other revanchist nationalists who have previously, as Putin is now, bathed Europe in blood. His innovation is to insist on one part of the people, the Russians, ruling an empire comprised of the other ethnic groups. In some cases, such as Belarus, he is content to rule indirectly through a subordinate. It is not clear yet what future he has in store for Ukraine.
The surprisingly sturdy Ukrainian resistance shows the power of Ukrainian nationhood and patriotism. Particularly since the beginning of the war in 2014, Ukrainians have endeavored to strengthen their national identity by passing laws that mandate education in the Ukrainian language. They have also promoted the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has asserted its independence from the Moscow patriarch—but in contrast to Russia, which has oppressed religious minorities not part of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kyiv allows greater religious liberty for others, including evangelicals. Promoting a national language and religious organization is a classic part of the nationalist’s toolkit: during the nineteenth century, liberals in Europe encouraged people to resist the autocratic, multiethnic empires in part by elevating their own languages. Before that, Noah Webster endeavored to shape American English into a different dialect and thus cement American cultural independence from Britain.
But this isn’t just a fight between ethnic Ukrainians and Russians: the Russian ethnic minority in Ukraine appears to have turned against Russia. Patriotism is often described as a love of country, which can be nearly synonymous with nationalism in an ethnically homogenous nation-state. But the distinction between the two terms becomes clearer in countries that have substantial ethnic or religious minorities, like Ukraine. It is not entirely clear what is happening in large parts of Ukraine, and we may never know the full contours of the war, but cities with large populations of ethnic Russians or Russian speakers are putting up stiff resistance to the invaders. There is some evidence that ethnic Russians in Ukraine prefer closer ties to the European Union than to Russia, as do most of their countrymen.
In pursuing a closer relationship with the European Union, the Ukrainians are turning from one empire—Vladimir Putin’s—to another. The early predecessors of the European Union concentrated on binding Western European economies together to assist with reconstruction after World War II. But even then, many European leaders sought to forge a common European identity to escape the cycle of violence that culminated in two world wars, and greater political integration was a logical extension of that idea. Despite these ideals, nationalism has never quite died out in Western Europe: West Germans in 1990 were willing to accept more costs to integrate with East Germany than their children were to bail out Greece 20 years later, for example.
That emphasis on post-nationalism has set up a political conflict between Western and Eastern Europe. For many Eastern Europeans, the collapse of the Soviet Union augured an opportunity to finally pursue their national destinies without foreign domination. To them, a supervisory committee in Brussels is better than an overlord in Moscow, but they would prefer the economic benefits of the earlier rounds of European integration with less political control. The tensions this dynamic created were displayed most recently when European Union officials announced that it would withhold millions of euros from Poland shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine.
America’s empire of nations functions differently than its Russian or European imperial counterparts. Rather than rule through proxy or direct political integration, the American empire consists of allied and partner nations. Consider that most of the post-World War II institutions that symbolize the American empire, such as NATO, originated from other countries requesting a greater American presence and that American initiatives like the Marshall Plan were a major impetus for European integration. This is partly a function of geography: two vast oceans flank the United States, which therefore poses a lesser threat to most European or Asian countries than other large powers. But for many Americans, protecting an order of free nation-states also makes intuitive sense. After the Berlin Wall fell, Americans supported German aspirations for reunification over the objections of most other great powers. Closeness to Germany explains British, French, and Russian hesitation, but its distance from Europe does not adequately explain US support.
As we can see today, the attractive power of America’s empire is still immense. Well before the 2014 uprising that began the present conflict, Ukrainians demonstrated that they prefer a future aligned with the US and Europe to Russian domination. The American position in the world is still a strong one, and as China and Russia drive other nations to seek American aid, it may yet recover a lasting vitality.