“The biggest problem of Ukraine”, told me a man travelling with me in a train from Kiev to Lviv, “is that we have a very bad neighbour”. It did not come as a surprise to me, as the man was from Lviv, the cultural capital of the Ukrainian national awakening that started in the second half of the XIX century. But the idea of Russia being a big Mordor, an empire of evil, seems to have become universal credo among most of the people of Ukraine. It is striking how quickly this happened. One hundred years ago, the very idea of Ukraine as an independent nation state and of the Ukrainians as a separated people was cultivated only by a minority of people, a small group of intellectuals and historians who were interested in Ukrainian folklore, and to many it seemed outright outlandish, because the identification of belonging to a group had more to do with a common religion, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, than with a feeling of national unity; there was no idea of nation as we understand it now. It may sound strange to us now, but what is considered one of the founding works of Ukrainian historiography was called “History of Rusy” and one of the first grammars of Ukrainian language was called “Grammar of ruskiy language”. Today the process of nation building seems to have been completed, and talking with the people in Ukraine one would be excused if one thinks that nothing cements more the unity of a nation than a little war, because now the nation really seems more united than ever and there are two things everybody agrees on: Russia is the enemy and Putin is a monster.
Even in the age of total information we currently live in, the nature of the conflict in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine remains a mystery to many. In the perception of many Ukrainians and many readers of the Western press, what is going on since April 2014 in the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk is not a civil war, but a war between Ukraine and Russia, a war between a victim nation devoid of any fault who is only bravely defending itself and a big evil aggressor moved by imperialistic ambitions that wants to inglobe a smaller country because it cannot do other than that. Over the last couple of years I have exchanged hundreds of messages with many people who have decided to remain in their war raged cities since the conflict began and I have reason to believe otherwise. The Russians are certainly helping sending arms and there certainly are a lot of Russian volunteers take part in the battle, but volunteers and professional warriors are on both sides, and the bulk of the fighting seems to have been endured by the common men of Donetsk and Luhansk, many of which had never embraced arms before.
The conflict has been going on partially a on low scale since the Minsk peace agreement in February 2015, but the shellings are still frequent and happen on a regular basis. There seems to be little reason to believe that the conflict may not restart raging again soon, because many in Ukraine are not ready to accept the loss of Crimea and potentially of the Donbass region as a possible humilation. The young men who are sent to the front are glorified as people defending their motherland. This glorification of the motherland looks like a textbook example of national myth rhetoric. But what difference does it make if Crimea belongs to the motherland, when the motherland of Ukraine has been indepedent for only 25 years and Crimea was actually adjointed to Ukraine only in 1954, when Ukraine was not a state, but only a Soviet Republic? Did God give to the motherland Ukraine Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk? Are the borders of the motherland holy and eternal, written in the eternal myths about the glorious motherland? Are borders more important than the lives of the people who live in these contested areas? The territorial integrity of a country should not become a fetish to which the lives of people should be sacrificed. The lives of the large majority of the people of Ukraine would arguably be very little affected if independence or autonomy was to be granted to the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk and Crimea was to be recognized as part of the Russian federation. The motherland would probably suffer less without them more than it is suffering now trying to keep them. Giving up parts of its territory could be perceived by those in power as a humilation of course, but if people need to get over the many humilations they may suffer and get on with their lives, I don’t see why countries and nations should not be able do the same.
Nadezhda Savchenko, the Ukrainian air pilot who had been imprisoned in Russia and made by much of press some sort of national hero and new Jeanne D’Arc, after having been exchanged by the Russian government for two Russian officiers, began saying that it was about time to pardon the people of Donbass, to talk to the rebel leadership and to end the war permanently. For this she was attacked by many in the Ukrainian establishment, who would perceive any appeasement as some sort of defeat and she was even accused of having turned into a Kremlin agent, a rather fantastic scenario. But in the atmosphere of war propaganda dominating in Ukraine, this is a standard accusation. The Western press, who had been praising Savchenko portraying her in the most favourable of lights, often repeating that in Savchenko they saw the next President of Ukraine in the making, suddenly lost interest in her. She did not seem to say the things which were expected from her. And after having protrayed this as a fight of Good (Ukraine, the West, our values) against Evil (Russia, Putin, the Russians in general) Savchenko’s declarations about pardoning the people of the Donbass clearly were difficult to interpret using this very simple scheme. However cynical it may sound, the media loves a war.
It is sad that two peoples so close came to hate each other. Friends and families, suddenly finding themselves on opposite irreconcilable sides, have stopped to talk to each other because of the war. A generation of young people will be marked by this event, a generation of young men will have experience the front, and at the front they will know that they are fighting against the Russians, because this what they are told. When the Maidan revolution started in November 2013, the future of Ukraine might still have been undecided, even when the Maidan forces took power, the future of Ukraine could have been uncertain. In 2004 the forces of Eurointegration had won the Presidential election after the first Maidan protest forced the previous round of elections to be declared void. Five years later Yushenko, the Orange Revolution President, left in disgrace, getting only 5% of the vote, and his rival 2004 Yanukovitch (the “pro-Russian” candidate) won, this time without a revolution invalidating his victory (one question pops to mind: if Yanukovich was so pro-Russian that he was a puppet of Moscow in fact: why did he have to wait until the last day to refuse to sign the association agreement with the EU?). But a war is not just a “revolution”. They were no deaths in 2004 during the protests that were later named “Orange Revolution”. Now more than 10,000 people have died in the Donbass and Ukraine and Russia probably will never be together again. A solution of the conflict is not in sight. At the moment it is not clear how the European Union could take Ukraine on board, and probably Ukraine will not be offered a full membership for the next 15-20 years. Its economy is too big, the country is too poor and too corrupt to be supported and supervised by Brussel. NATO membership also would seem a risky move, because this might have been the root of the whole conflict after all. But the goal of separating Ukraine from Russia and making them enemies, possibly forever, has been achieved with remarkable success.