All of a sudden, nationalism is back in vogue. Freedom-lovers and democrats are throwing their weight behind a nation that insists on being fully sovereign rather than entering into a quasi-dependent relationship with its neighbor.
They understand, as Ukrainians themselves have long understood, that the things they value, including uncensored newspapers, human rights, the rule of law, and personal freedom, depend on being able to hire and fire your own lawmakers.
Until two weeks ago, this was an enormously unfashionable idea. To argue for the supremacy of the nation-state was to invite accusations of racism. It was the ultimate low-status opinion, associated with Brexit and with Trumpery. Sophisticated people believed in a world where borders would eventually dissolve and we’d all be one happy multiculti family.
The agonies of Ukraine have reminded us that the national principle, the idea that freedom and democracy are most secure within units where people feel a shared patriotism, is still worth fighting for.
Few wars have had such clear right and wrong sides.
Russia was not threatened by its little neighbor. Ukraine had no territorial claims against it and was not seeking to harm its prosperity. On the contrary, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was elected in 2019 after promising to restore friendly relations with Moscow. A native Russian-speaker, he rejects with his every breath the Kremlin’s claims that that language is restricted in Ukraine. A Jew by birth, he renders absurd the Russian pretense that Ukraine is being run by neo-Nazis.
Russia is an unadorned aggressor, of the kind we rarely see these days. Putin’s objectives were not veiled. He saw Ukrainians as Russians who had been led astray, their sense of nationality fabricated by Polish and Austro-Hungarian occupiers, their speech a Russian dialect that had been falsely elevated to the status of a language. Yes, they might believe themselves to be distinct, the Russians’ narrative says, but that was an illusion. What really mattered was their descent from the medieval Rus and their Orthodox religion. If Ukrainians wouldn’t acknowledge as much, they would have to be brought into the fold by force.
Astonishingly, this view is parroted by some of Putin’s Western admirers. I say “astonishingly” because, in general, these are politicians and commentators who call themselves nationalists. Consider, for example, Steve Bannon, whose schtick is the elevation of nationhood against a technocratic global order. “Ukraine’s not even a country,” says the man pardoned by former President Donald Trump. “It’s just a corrupt area that the Clintons turned into a colony where they can steal money out of.”
Thus does the self-proclaimed patriot justify the extirpation of a nation-state whose sole offense is to assert its sovereignty.
The world is changing fast at the moment.