What is a nation? The French historian Ernest Renan proposed an authoritative answer to this complex question in 1882: “A nation has two foundations: a legacy of shared memories and the desire to live together.” In the unlikely event that Vladimir Putin had read Renan, he would have understood that Ukraine is indeed a nation. The two foundations are present and incontestable: a long-shared history and the choice of a way of life—in this case, a choice for democracy.

A nation, therefore, is not defined by ethnicity, common language, or religion. Ukrainians do not all speak Ukrainian; some prefer Russian, others Polish or even Yiddish. A multiplicity of languages is common in most nations, as is the plurality of religions: President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, the Crimean Tatars are Muslim; in Lviv, once part of Poland, most residents are Catholic, others Orthodox, under the Patriarchate of Kyiv, which is distinct from Moscow’s.

To claim that Ukraine does not exist and that it is a Russian province, as Putin alleges, is no less absurd than to claim that Belgium, Switzerland, Quebec, and Senegal should return to France because French is spoken there. Similarly, to claim, as Putin does, that Ukraine’s borders should be questioned because they are artificial is just as absurd: all borders are artificial, determined at the conclusion of military conflicts and international treaties. The demarcation between Russia and Ukraine was drawn in 1917, when the USSR was constituted as a confederation of nations; when the USSR was dissolved in 1991, every constituent nation went back to being independent. Moreover, the intangible fact of international borders, inscribed in the United Nations Charter, has been the foundation of world order since 1945. To put this principle in question would amount to unleashing a general barbarism from which no continent would be exempt. For example, would it be appropriate to restore Lviv to Poland, since it was Polish between the two world wars, or to Austria, since it was Austrian until 1919—or to Israel, since Jews were the majority there? (My family is from Lviv.) Named by turns Lemberg, Lvov, and Lviv, the city is now Ukrainian because, according to Renan’s correct definition, its history now belongs to the legacy shared by the Ukrainians. Similarly, the eastern regions of the country that Putin has essentially annexed, Donbas and Luhansk, as well as Crimea, are obviously Ukrainian, unless we want to return to a paleolithic definition of the nation: instead of the juridical standard of a border, we would use an ethnic definition, which is mythological. On this mad hypothesis, Crimea would have to be given back to the Tatars, the original population, which was expelled by Stalin and replaced with Russian soldiers.

To understand still better how much Ukraine has become a true nation, consider Renan’s second principle: the will to live together. In Ukraine’s case, will has been shown constantly and has kept growing since the 1991 proclamation of independence. As a proof, let us recall the popular manifestations in Kyiv at Maidan Square in 2014, which demanded national democracy against a pro-Russian president who was on Russia’s payroll. Since that time, participation in elections has been massive and, though these elections themselves have not been without flaws, they have always resulted in a majority favoring the West and membership in NATO and the European Union. The Ukrainians have chosen their future—a European future, one that is as far as possible, not from Russia as such, but from Putinism.

We understand better, then, Putin’s destructive rage against Ukraine: these Slavs, cousins to the Russians and culturally little different from them, when given the opportunity to choose their destiny, look to the West and not toward Moscow. The danger for Putin is not Ukraine’s hypothetical joining NATO or the European Union; it is Ukrainian democracy. It is democracy that he must destroy before the contagion reaches Russia itself. This is what Putin cannot admit. He is left to call the leaders in Kyiv neo-Nazis (a bit of a stretch, since the president is Jewish), all the while applying Adolf Hitler’s own strategy: first lie, then invade.

For the West, abandoning Ukraine to Putin would mean renouncing democracy’s universality and encouraging ethnic and religious conquests—in China, in Africa, and in the Middle East. But the Ukrainians will not let themselves be destroyed. Quite the contrary. Putin has unified Ukraine by attacking it and threatening its existence. “A Nation is a soul,” wrote Renan, “a spiritual principle.” Anyone who doubted that this was true of Ukraine must see the truth by now.

Photo by GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images


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