Although Ukraine is much further along the path to a functioning democracy than Russia is, it still has disturbing authoritarian, ethnonationalist tendencies—and many of those tendencies have caused Kiev to score own-goals, thereby feeding the Russian propaganda machine1—and possibly leading many Ukrainians to collaborate with Vladimir Putin’s tyrannical regime.
Putin’s pretexts for invading an independent country are bogus. No, Ukraine is not conducting a genocide against ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The Ukrainian government is not led by Nazis. And the presence of the US and NATO in Ukraine is not an existential threat to the country with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Nonetheless, the refusal to acknowledge the country’s role in World War II, its rigid linguistic policies, and its suppression of dissent contradict the image of progressive democracy that Ukraine wants to project. What’s more, Ukraine’s embrace of ultranationalist policies is a threat to the country’s national security.
Erratum: In an earlier version of this post, I referred to Ukraine’s interim minister of free speech and information as “Nestor Shufrych.” Shufrych is the official who was replaced after being accused of high treason. The interim minister is Yevgeny (Yevhen) Bragar.
Why is Kiev continuing to cover up, minimise, or deny pro-Nazi activity during World War II?
In Foreign Policy, Josh Cohen warned Ukraine against embracing Nazi collaborators after the Maidan uprising overthrew the corrupt, pro-Putin president Viktor Yanukovych. Unfortunately, both presidents Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky have failed miserably in this regard, tearing the country apart. The most infamous Nazi collaborator that Ukraine and its supporters have rehabilitated is Stepan Bandera. I’ve discussed Bandera before, so I won’t say anything about him here—there are plenty of others to discuss.
Just this past week, a Ukrainian-Canadian WWII veteran, Yaroslav Hunka, was fêted in front of Canada’s parliament as a “freedom fighter against the Russians”—during the Jewish High Holy Days, no less. He claimed he was affiliated with the “Ukrainian Liberation Army,” but there was no such thing. The one force fighting against the Soviets during World War II was the Nazis, and the ULA was merely a division of the SS. The New York Times, Le Monde, the BBC, and several other traditional media reported accurately on the matter, but Ukraine’s Euromaidan Press, as well as other state propaganda outlets, did an impressive feat of mental gymnastics to explain why an SS veteran was not an actual Nazi. So, apparently, did the right-wing “heterodox” British hate rag UnHerd. Even the Ukrainian nationalists’ darling Stepan Bandera was just a contemptible little stooge of the Nazis, not a member of the actual Schutzstaffel like Hunka.
Other Ukrainian nationalists have chosen to elide the country’s collaboration with the Nazis. A journal affiliated with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (Kiev patriarchate) published an article castigating Russian propaganda and presenting Ukraine as blameless in the face of Russian religious persecution. The Ukrainians themselves were among the chief instigators of pogroms in the early 20th century, along with the Russian White Army. Ukrainian nationalists merely took their oppression at the hands of Poland and Russia and turned it on their Jewish and Polish neighbours. In 1933, when the Soviets apparently conducted “pogroms against Ukrainians,” Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany—and Ukrainian nationalists made a deal with the devil by working alongside him.
Why is a multilingual, multicultural state pursuing narrowly ethnocentric and nationalist policies?
Putin’s claims that Kiev is conducting a genocide against Russian-speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians are groundless, but post-Maidan Ukrainian governments have encouraged harassment and repression of Russian-speakers. Even before the full-scale invasion, some Ukrainian officials and everyday citizens have conflated patriotism with a narrow, petty ethnic and linguistic nationalism—including strident Ukrainisation policies in Crimea, which is overwhelmingly made up of ethnic Russians.
One of Kiev’s biggest mistakes was to establish Ukrainian as the sole state language and exclude Russian from the protections that official EU languages have, as well as those of other linguistic minorities. Although Ukraine instituted a policy allowing oblasts to adopt secondary official languages, this was quickly rescinded after Yanukovich was deposed. Insisting on having a single state language—and enforcing it aggressively with fines and other penalties—is not conducive to a healthy democracy in a multilingual, multicultural country. Did the use of Russian become widespread because of Moscow’s cultural domination? Undoubtedly. But people have spoken the language for generations, and it has become theirs, just as much as English has for the Irish, Black Americans, and Indians. When Ukraine became independent, it should have followed the path of South Africa, Canada, Belgium, India, Ireland, and Scotland and become a bilingual state, at least on paper.
In “Russia, Ukraine, and Lasting Peace in Europe,” the political scientist Nicolai Petro outlines the contrast between Kiev’s official policies and the experiences of ordinary Ukrainians, particularly in the east. Describing these citizens as “Other Ukrainians,” he says:
Regional voting patterns have also been very different from the rest of Ukraine. While critics often attribute this to nostalgia for the Soviet Union, it is better understood as a yearning for Soviet-era cosmopolitanism, which embraced the region’s mixed cultural heritage and industrial accomplishments. This manifested itself politically in a visceral rejection of the monoethnic nationalism popular in western Ukraine, and in the affirmation of a Ukrainian identity that is inextricably tied to Russian culture, if not to Russian politics.
Unlike their counterparts in Western and Eastern Ukraine, only one-fifth of the “Other Ukrainians” supported the Maidan revolution. Petro continues by saying that the “Other Ukrainians” are more likely to see Russian and Ukrainian cultures as being inextricably tied, rather than adversarial cultures that can exist only by negating the other. Post-Maidan governments’ endorsement of narrow ethnic nationalism has failed to bring the country; instead, it has merely increased the cultural and regional divisions.
A series of anecdotes illustrates the kinds of internecine tension Ukrainian ethnic nationalism engenders. The Ukrainian news site Strana2, known for its criticisms of the central government in Kiev, records linguistic scuffles thoroughly, but pro-government and nationalist sites have as well. Very little of this is covered in the English-speaking press; nearly all of it is written in Ukrainian or Russian. For example, in July 2022, the Security Service of Ukraine arrested Dmitry Gorodetsky—a blogger originally from Kharkov who moved to Lviv to escape Russian attacks—for complaining about discrimination against Russian-speakers in Western Ukraine. A year later, also in Lviv, a man originally from Russian-speaking Odessa was harassed for singing songs by Viktor Tsoi.
On the pro-government Telegraf news site, Anastasia Halata wrote an exposé on the interim commissioner for free speech and information, Yevgeny Bragar, who is a member of Zelensky’s Servant of the People party. Halata castigates Bragar for a number of “sins,” some of which involve defending the use of Russian and distinguishing the Russian people from Putin’s government. First, Bragar said that Ukraine’s enemy was the Putin regime, not Russia. Second, he defended a bus driver who played a Russian-language TV show on the Lutsk–Kiev bus line. A volunteer on the bus tried to make the driver stop playing content in a “non-state language”—that is, Russian. The driver refused. And finally, Bragar used the Russian version of his first name, Yevgeny (instead of the Ukrainian Yevhen). (Telling a constituent to sell her dog to get more money for her basic needs is a dick move, though.)
It’s one thing to encourage people to speak Ukrainian and remove the stigma imposed on it by Russian and Soviet authorities; it’s something else to fine, shame, and attack people for speaking the “non-state language” they grew up using. There were fewer linguistic tensions in the past, but according to Strana, the post-Maidan crackdown on the use of Russian is perceived as an overreach by some Ukrainians, especially after national and municipal authorities have tried to restrict the use of Russian outside official functions.
Ironically, Ukraine’s promotion of chauvinistic policies bears disturbing similarities to the Russians’ and Soviets’ policies under the tsars and Stalin—or in the occupied territories of Donetsk, Lugansk, and Crimea. For a country that wants to distinguish itself from its former imperialist overlord, Ukraine is acting a lot like Russia. Replacing Russian chauvinism with its Ukrainian analogue does nobody any good.
If Ukraine is so democratic, why is there so much repression?
The Western mainstream media has rightly called out Russian attacks on freedom of speech and journalistic independence. This should not, however, insulate Ukraine from criticism. Both Russia and Ukraine are stifling environments for opposition journalists, whistleblowers, and activists.
In “The State of Ukrainian Democracy Is Not Strong,” Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic highlights some of the illiberal policies that Ukraine has implemented since the start of the full-scale war. Dissidents, satirists, pacifists, and other government critics have all been silenced, repressed, fined, arrested, detained, or imprisoned by the Kiev regime under the guise of promoting national security. And the government isn’t the only source of repression: many dissenters have found themselves on extragovernmental blacklists like the notorious Mirotvorets (“Peacemaker”) and the less-well-known Chesno (“Honestly”) and Evocation. Although these people are frequently labelled supporters of Putin’s invasion, many are not; they are critics of post-Maidan Ukrainian social policy. Many are leftists. In one case, the Odessa-based Workers’ Front of Ukraine was accused of being funded by Russia—and making posts against capitalism. Moreover, the Poroshenko administration banned the Communist Party of Ukraine back in 2014. Opposition to capitalism or adherence to Marxist ideology does not automatically translate to support for Putin or his hangers-on.
It seems that the Ukrainian government, in a reasonable attempt to protect itself from Russian interference, has developed an unhealthy distrust in its own citizens, even those who have come out against the invasion. For example, the “pro-Russian” Strana news site has been blocked in Ukraine for several years, even though its views on Crimea, Donbass, and the Russian invasion coincide with those of the government (despite claims by the pro-government StopFake that it supports Russia’s annexation of Donbass). It refers to this year’s “elections” in Donbass in scare quotes, as well as other terms like “Lugansk People’s Republic,” “authorities,” and “administration.” Ironically, the Russian government has also blocked Strana since the full-scale war began last year.
The mind boggles at how Ukraine’s censorship resembles that of its attacker.
Why are so many people willing to collaborate with the Russians?
Russia is the aggressor here. This is crystal clear. What is not clear is what should attract these “superfluous” Ukrainians to a country that makes no effort to find a space for them. Nothing except for the sheer horror of Russia.
—Anatoly Ulyanov, Lefteast
It is possible—though I can’t be certain—that Kiev’s knee-jerk chauvinistic policies have caused certain Ukrainians to throw their lot in with Moscow despite all the cruelties visited upon their country by the Russian invaders. I am making no excuses for defenders of the Kremlin or its invasion. But the remarkably high number of collaborators, even in government, reveals the faults in Ukrainian civil society—and yet Ukraine keeps doubling down on its repressive policies targeting dissenters, speakers of Russian, and anyone else who stands in the way of the post-Maidan nation-building project, regardless of how they feel about Putin’s bloody, unjust, brutal, illegal war.
Anatoly Ulyanov, a Ukrainian refugee now based in Los Angeles, wrote a moving piece about the “superfluous Ukrainians”: people, often Russian-speakers, who feel pushed aside by Ukrainian chauvinism but also fear for their lives because the Kremlin is bombing their cities. Ulyanov’s “superfluous Ukrainians” overlap with Nicolai Petro’s “Other Ukraine.” These Ukrainians have no motivation to be patriotic, to protect their country, to rally to the national cause, when they are told that they are not part of their body politic. This makes them more susceptible to Russian propaganda narratives about Kiev’s disregard for the people of the Donbass and Crimea, as well as Russophones elsewhere.
It is these “superfluous Ukrainians”—often from Kharkov, Odessa, Crimea, Lugansk, Donetsk, and occasionally Kiev—who are so dissatisfied that they collaborate with Russia or consider doing so. Oleh Romanchuk, a journalism professor at Lviv National University, compiled a number of incidents involving Ukrainian “fifth columnists,” most of whom were Russian-speakers from Kiev and eastern Ukraine who were upset about the government’s aggressive pursuit of ethnonationalist policies. Some sided with the Kremlin, but not all did. One of the “fifth columnists” Romanchuk listed was a fourteen-year-old girl. He is right to want to protect Ukraine from Russian attacks, but attacking teenage girls is unacceptable. (This isn’t the first time Ukrainian nationalists have gone after kids—Mirotvorets has more than one adolescent listed in its database.)
Mykhailo Podolyak, one of Zelensky’s closest advisers, made clear the superfluity of ethnic Russians in Crimea. According to him, should Crimea return to Kiev’s control, the majority of its population should “eradicated” from the area:
We have to completely close everything related to the Russian cultural space there. We have to eradicate everything Russian. There should be only Ukrainian cultural space or global cultural space. We should not have a dialogue about whether a person has the right to use the Russian language or not.
They should be expelled, and some should be imprisoned.
Navel-gazing “decolonial” Ukrainian thinkpieces have promoted similarly nauseating views about ethnic Russians and Russian culture that make the skin crawl. These nationalists condemn Russian opponents of Putin’s war as harshly as its supporters:
Despite how much certain states want to look at Russia pragmatically and search for dialogue opportunities, it continuously proves its inability to come to civilised solutions. In addition, the state-aggressor takes advantage of how its culture and lifestyle can be romanticised in the West, creating the image of “the other Russia”, which allegedly deserves respect, acceptance and help, regardless of aggression.
—Bogdan Logvynenko, Ukraïner
Is this the kind of thing we should defend when we show solidarity with the Ukrainian people? I refuse to defend this odious claptrap. (I doubt it would go over well with the European Union, were Ukraine to eventually join.) I want desperately to see the Ukrainians defeat Russia—but the US, EU, and NATO must hold Kiev accountable for its treatment of its citizens. I hate the fact that to protect Ukraine, we must give arms and funds to the Kiev regime, which has escaped accountability for its actions toward its citizens. The alternative is worse, though, so I continue to support them militarily. They wouldn’t stand a chance without Western weaponry.
In particular, the West must do its utmost to stop Kiev from shooting itself in the foot. If not, Ukraine will lose out of sheer stupidity. The government’s encouragement and tolerance of linguistic and ethnic chauvinism, as well as its dismissiveness of its history collaborating with Hitler, are a threat to its own national security. If you want your citizens to defend their country, you need to give them something worth defending. “Ukraine: Love It or Leave It” will not make the country whole again. It hasn’t worked here (despite the efforts of the MAGA wing of the Republican Party and their Tea Party antecedents), and it won’t work there.
- As an aside, you may wonder why I focus more on Ukraine than on Russia—it’s because I have little else to say about Putin’s regime that hasn’t already been covered in the New York Times, CNN, the BBC and various other mainstream outlets. It goes without saying, at least for me, that Putin is a menace. And I want to show there’s room for criticism of Ukraine that doesn’t just parrot Kremlin propaganda. ↩
- Strana is sometimes accused of being pro-Russian, but it has clearly opposed the invasion, considers Donbass and Crimea to be part of Ukraine, and has frequently reported on discrimination against Ukrainians abroad. Because of its anti-government stance, the site is no longer accessible in Ukraine, and readers within the country must use a VPN. Ironically, the site has also been banned in Russia because of its opposition to Putin’s invasion. ↩