Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian offensive is a tragic reminder that a self-confident nation is the best defense against an aggressive enemy. Even when a state is backed by a large alliance, such as NATO, its ability to defend itself will depend first and foremost on the unity of its nation and its willingness to sacrifice. In the case of Ukraine, several Western powers are supplying the weapons the country desperately needs, but its defense is in the hands of Ukrainians. If they prevail, it will be a victory of the Ukrainian nation.
Three factors make a strong nation crucial for the defense and survival of a state under attack.
First, war is a local event. Soldiers fight over particular bridges, hills, and cities. Artillery and missiles target specific objectives. Frontlines move across fields, roads, and villages. The costs of combat are borne by particular communities that have to make the tough choice between resisting or surrendering to an invader. The ability of a community to unite and to endure the challenges of a defensive war will determine the choice it makes. Of course, the reasons for, as well as the consequences of, a war are often about more than the locations of combat. Ukrainian political leaders can declare that they are fighting for Europe’s freedom and security, and that their victory will protect a liberal world order. But in the end their ability to stand firm against Russian forces will depend upon the Ukrainians’ will to push back Russian assaults and to reject Russian occupation.
Second, Ukraine’s defensive war is showing that manpower is essential. A high-intensity conventional war still causes heavy casualties on both sides. A state that conceives of war as a targeting exercise and thus a contest of high-end technologies will not be well suited for lengthy local competitions of national wills. Of course, technology is necessary. Ukrainian soldiers are using American Javelins and Turkish Bayraktars. But these tools are effective only because Ukrainians are willing to take high risks, incur casualties, expend resources, and devote time to their nation’s defense. Only a nation, deeply anchored in its culture, can withstand the costs of such a war and field the soldiers to oppose the enemy.
Third, a foreign power will easily penetrate a weak and divided nation. A rapacious, hostile state can exploit the internal divisions of the nation it seeks to dominate. For instance, factions out of power may seek help from a foreign state, undermining the rule of the opposite faction even at the cost of letting a foreign power dominate the political community.
One explanation for the Russian military’s poor performance is that it attacked Ukraine with the wrong assumption. Thinking that Ukraine was a torn nation without a coherent identity, Moscow anticipated that Kyiv would fold quickly under a Russian attack. Russian-speaking Ukrainians were expected to greet Russian soldiers with joy, not Javelins. Wealthy politicians were thought to be attached more to their foreign bank accounts than to the cities they lived in. Obviously, this assumption was wrong: Ukraine is demonstrating that it is a nation capable of putting aside all differences in order to repel the Russian attack.
The bravery of the Ukrainians does not mean that once the war is over there will be perfect political and cultural harmony in this country. Religious differences will be visible, political contests between various parties will return, and perhaps even deeper divisions will be present between Ukraine’s eastern regions destroyed by Russian firepower and the less devastated areas in the western oblasts. But the ultimate test of a nation is whether it can pull together in moments of hostile pressure and aggression.
War clarifies what is important to people. Ukrainians are not defending democracy as an abstract process or a liberal world order that carries some sort of talismanic superior quality. Rather, it is defending a living community. As a Ukrainian woman who escaped from Mariupol under Russian siege put it: “I will go back once the Russians have gone. It’s where all my ancestors are buried. I can’t be happy anywhere else.” She, like many others in Ukraine, will not accept Russian domination over the place where her roots are.
To many European and North American countries, blissfully enjoying the mirage of perpetual peace, the kind of war Russia has launched in Ukraine recently seemed archaic and impossible. Perhaps because of this, the idea of a self-confident nation rooted in local traditions, a shared history, and a common vision became a relic to be discarded in favor of global values and concerns, the pursuits of a rootless Davos man.
This trend has been particularly strong in Europe. The dominant narrative holds that the cause of the two world wars, and of the colonial adventures of some countries in the twentieth century, was nationalism. Consequently, the solution to the alleged national problem was a supra-national ideology of a European identity grounded in a common market and currency. Many hoped that the euro would create Europeans, a demos that would supersede individual nations. But the result has been that the natural bonds of human association—rooted in ethnic, cultural, and religious particularities—have been denigrated. Constant self-flagellation about past national sins, real or alleged, has led many to devalue their own nations.
In times of apparent international harmony, denouncing the nation was a luxury mistake. It carried little geopolitical risk because there were few immediate threats. But it undermined the social cohesion indispensable to political order. As we are seeing in Ukraine, when international competition turns into war, there is no substitute for strong nations. The “liberal, rules-based world order” will not defend a country’s land—a self-confident nation that is attached to a particular location, tradition, and religion will.
Jakub Grygiel is professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.
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