The Ukraine-Russia Struggle Goes Way Back | Opinion

Earlier this week, ahead of his formal order for the invasion of Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin gave one of his most aggressive speeches yet. He denied Ukraine's right to exist; pushed false narratives that the post-2014 Ukrainian government is illegitimate and subscribes to a radical nationalist ideology; and portrayed Ukraine as an aggressive state willing to take back the Russia-occupied Donbas by military means. All these allegations were a pretext for Putin to recognize the "independence" of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk "people's republics" and justify the invasion of Ukrainian territory by Russian troops. What's more, Putin accused Ukraine of committing "genocide" in Russia-occupied Donbas—failing to explain how exactly that could happen in territories Ukraine has had no access to for eight years.

This belligerent rhetoric is explained by one simple fact. To Putin, a democratic Ukraine represents an existential threat to his new Russian imperialism—a political model centered around the cult of state and new Leviathan, rehabilitating Stalinism in domestic and foreign politics. This is why Russia has been so desperate to bring Ukraine back into its sphere of influence.

But the reality is that Russia has lost the battle for Ukrainians' hearts and minds. Seventy-two percent of Ukrainians believe Russia is a hostile country; 68 percent want to join the EU and 62 percent want to join NATO. The Ukrainian struggle for freedom and democracy is a universal one.

The country's struggle against Russian authoritarianism is not new. In fact, Ukraine has been developing a political culture centered around rights and against tyranny for centuries. In the Middle Ages, Kyivan Rus' was a pluralistic political entity organized around multiple centers of influence of city-states, without a single tyrannical ruler. In the early modern period, the Ukrainian Cossack polity formed a model of republican politics and contractual idea of the state different from the rising Muscovite authoritarianism. In the 19th century, Ukrainian intellectuals developed an idea of bottom-up politics focused on autonomous communities (hromadas), against tsarist autocracy. And in the 20th century, the Ukrainian version of socialism was oriented towards European models of cooperative economics and emancipation of peasants and workers, rather than the Russian model of a "dictatorship of the proletariat."

Ukraine has paid a high price for daring to challenge Russian authoritarianism throughout its history—and still is today. For much of the 19th century, the Russian empire banned the Ukrainian language from public use and sent leaders of its culture to prisons or exile. In the 20th century, Russian Bolsheviks destroyed Ukrainian independence, exterminated its intelligentsia and killed about 4 million people in the 1932-1933 artificial famine. Other famines in the 1920s and 1940s each led to the deaths of 1 million people. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet Union systematically sent Ukrainian human-rights defenders to prison camps.

Russia's 2014 occupation of Crimea and the subsequent military and social disaster in Eastern Ukraine is but a continuation of this long history. And while Ukraine has remained resilient, recent threats and false narratives are pushing Ukrainians to the limit.

Ukraine protest
Demonstrators protest in support of Ukraine, in Times Square New York, on February 24, 2022. - Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, unleashing air strikes and ordering ground troops across the border in fighting that Ukrainian authorities said left dozens of people dead. KENA BETANCUR / AFP/Getty Images

To hide its crimes, the Kremlin is painting a picture of demonic, "nationalist" Ukrainians. But Ukraine is not about wild nationalists hating Russia. It is about a deep, historic political culture in which freedoms are essential and tyrannical rule is unacceptable. Ukrainians are now united in opposing Russian aggression, regardless of whether they speak Ukrainian or Russian. Today, it is naïve to think that a Russian speaker would necessarily support Russia's control over Ukraine; even in the mostly Russian-speaking regions of Eastern and Southern Ukraine, an idea of common Ukrainian political identity based upon the idea of rights has grown in strength and marginalized the imperial idea of a "Russian world."

We need to look beyond the rhetoric, and focus on the reality. Russia does not care about NATO expansion; it cares about its own expansion. It doesn't want to stop NATO enlargement; it wants NATO not to stop Russia's own enlargement. Russia is the last tyrannical empire in Europe, and is desperate to reverse republican and democratic traditions in European—and Ukrainian—politics.

Western countries should stay firm on Russia. The first round of sanctions imposed against Putin's regime for recognizing the "independence" of Russia-backed "republics" in the occupied territories of Eastern Ukraine was a step in the right direction. As was the commitment to freeze the certification of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

But what now, given Putin's declaration of war? First of all, tough sanctions need to be applied to key sectors of Russian economy, including energy, banking and defense. Putin friends' assets should be frozen all across the Western world, and the rounds of sanctions should be regular, targeting more and more individuals and assets every month, to increase pressure on Russian elites.

EU countries, the U.S. and other allies should also conclude bilateral common defense agreements with Ukraine and create a framework for Ukraine's security. A no-fly zone over the Ukrainian territory should be ensured to hamper the Russian army taking advantage in the air during its invasion. They should continue to offer Ukraine military aid to enhance its defense capabilities, as well as economic support to safeguard its economy—and its people—from the effects of the military crisis. This economic support should be provided on condition of further reforms in Ukraine, primarily in the judiciary and anti-corruption sector.

Ukraine will not back down in this existential fight, but the world needs to step up today to help the country defend itself—and defend democracy in our world. Tomorrow, it may be too late.

Dr. Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and journalist. Board member of International Renaissance Foundation. Analytics director at Internews Ukraine, chief editor of, associate professor at Kyiv-Mohyla academy, award-winning book writer.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.