March 25, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 370

A War Of Two Nationalisms Looks To The Future

March 25, 2022 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 370

That Russia launched a brutal war of aggression in 2022 (continuing earlier attacks launched against Ukraine by Russia in 2014) against its neighbor Ukraine is a given. And there is no moral equivalence between the Russian aggressor and the Ukrainian victim. Beyond that the narratives can get fuzzy.

One narrative – particularly in the West – paints plucky, tolerant, liberal, democratic Ukraine standing up against its larger neighbor. In this narrative, Russia is this nationalist, predatory, imperialist power. Accompanying this narrative are Western tales of trans or gay or refugee people in danger because of the Russian aggression.[1] Putin is some combination of Hitler and Stalin.

The Russian narrative paints Ukraine as a nationalist Ukraine-chauvinist oppressor of Russian speakers and opposition groups, an intolerant rehabilitator of notorious Ukrainian extremist figures of the past (Stepan Bandera and the OUN, Roman Shukhevych, the Waffen SS Grenadier Division "Galicia") and as a regime rife with contemporary neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists.

Of course, Ukraine and Russia are both majority Slavic nations with a long, complicated and intertwined past. Both have some surface similarities, both are extremely corrupt countries, with similar oligarchs, and have faced difficult decades since the fall of the Soviet Union. Ukraine is mostly pro-Western while Russia is mostly anti-Western. Certainly, Zelensky is a far more attractive figure to most people in the West than Putin. And the two contending narratives contain both elements of truth and exaggerations.

Western public opinion has taken the cause of Ukraine to heart, even more than the policymakers. Westerners have been deeply moved by the suffering and the heroism of the Ukrainians; how could they not be? But the West with its characteristic narcissism and superficiality always makes it about itself – the energy and umbrage that flowed from BLM to Covid masks and mandates is now channeled to "Slava Ukraini!" But there is a difference between the motivations of the Ukrainians and many of their well-wishers in the West.

Just as there are Chechen fighters and neo-Nazi militiamen (Azov and Wagner)[2] on both sides, nationalism in its patriotic, centrist, and extreme versions is present. Not surprisingly, both sides also have advocates among the broader far-right nationalist community across Europe. If Ukraine seems to represent the "nationalism in one country" model, Russia represents the internationalist nationalism of an expansionary Great Russia, drawing from the mystique of both the Romanovs and the Soviet Union. Ukraine wanted to "Ukrainianize" its population, even the disaffected Russian part of its citizens, in order to promote a strong national identity. Steps taken against the Russian language,[3] against pro-Russian Ukrainian media, and – after the war started – against pro-Russian political parties would seem to confirm this trend. Russia, on the other hand, wanted to Russianize what it could of Ukraine, whether in total or in part. And while there have been many anti-war demonstrations in Russia, many other Russians have rallied to their president and his cause.[4] And contrary to Western propaganda, there are certainly Russian soldiers fighting heroically for their cause.

But in terms of raw motivation, it is the Ukrainians who demonstrated most vividly on a popular level the power of a national idea, of armed patriotism, of fighting and dying on a battlefield against hopeless odds, of flags, borders, blood, and soil, all those objectionable things long thought lost and certainly regarded with disdain by globalist elites.

Out of the conflict will appear new military heroes, both professionals and amateurs. As Churchill once said, "nations that go down fighting rise again." The last stand of the Azov Battalion among the ruins of Mariupol will doubtless become part of a powerful ethno-national mythology for some of Ukraine's future irredentist generations. That this specific military organization has a very controversial past (soft-pedaled by a liberal American magazine on March 23 as "once a far-right militia infamous for its neo-Nazi members")[5] could well be forgotten in a welter of newfound mainstream respectability. But everyone is fighting, not just these small ideological militias.[6] Ukraine seems less about the battle of liberalism versus authoritarianism than one nationalism poised against another. Russia still has the upper hand in terms of sheer brute force. But one recalls the heroic struggle of 20th century nationalists like Metaxas in Greece and Mannerheim in Finland against brutish foreign invaders.

But perhaps rather than the past, the Russia-Ukraine War is a window into a possible future. Of those motivated by a powerful national idea, or patriotism and religion, and willing and able to fight for those beliefs, and those that are not. The fighters would include countries like Ukraine, Israel, Turkey, Poland, Russia itself (for now), and China. Other countries with threatening neighbors, Finland, and Greece, for example, score high among nations willing to fight for themselves. Middle Easterners and Muslims also generally score high in this category of patriotic defenders. Those who would not be willing to fight for their country have clustered in the countries of Western Europe and Japan, according to a much-copied 2015 WIN/Gallup Global Survey.[7] Have the latest threats posed in latter years by China (for Japan) and by Russia (for Western Europeans) really stiffened spines and stirred national feelings? The media recently has been filled with stories of Western European countries, especially Germany, radically boosting defense spending in the wake of Russia's Ukraine aggression.[8]

But defense is not just about money and hardware but about a population motivated to fight fiercely for a cause. All those Western anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles sent to Ukraine in recent weeks would have meant nothing if not for the willingness of the Ukrainians to fight. One has only to look at the military haul the Taliban made in 2021 when the Afghan National Army collapsed.[9]

Western plans to bleed Russia dry in Ukraine and overthrow Putin could well succeed. Or the Russians may succeed in eking out a face-saving victory by seizing enough of Ukraine to make some sort of peace. But the only reason these outcomes are even possible is that the Ukrainians fought. The West certainly helped with some key arms shipments and important military training. But the fierce sense of nationhood, of pride and identity, of sacrifice and dogged determination, of kill or be killed, that was homegrown.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], March 2, 2022.

[2] See MEMRI Domestic Terrorism Threat Monitor report Russian Neo-Nazi 'Wagner Group' Mercenaries Share Coded Recruitment Call On Telegram, March 23, 2022.

[3], April 25, 2019.

[4], March 12, 2022.

[5], Mach 23, 2022.

[6], March 22, 2022.

[7], May 7, 2015.

[8], March 22, 2022.

[9], August 18, 2021.

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