Why Ukraine’s resistance has succeeded where Belarus’ has failed

The resilience of the Ukrainian people shows the importance of close communal ties and national identity for resilient nations.

A commentary for the Publications programme by Monika Bickauskaite

Published 27 Jul 2022

Over the past few years, Europe has seen a wave of authoritarian aggression. In 2020, the (illegitimate) presidential election in Belarus resulted in mass protests that were met by a violent crackdown from the Lukashenko regime. More recently, 2022 saw the outbreak of war in Ukraine, which has been marked by Ukrainian military and civil resistance against the Kremlin.

While the opposition in Belarus was promptly suppressed, the Ukrainian resistance has been more successful, despite the war continuing for months, and exhibiting a much larger scale of violence than the suppression in Minsk.

The resilience of the Ukrainian people shows the importance of close communal ties and national identity for resilient nations. “Slava Ukraini” – i.e., Glory to Ukraine – is trending on social media. The blue and yellow flag is fluttering in the skies from Vilnius to Leeds. Ukraine has won the narrative in the court of international public opinion.

The Power of a Shared Purpose

What sets Ukraine apart from Belarus, is precisely its strong national identity and social capital that have allowed the country to resist at home and obtain support internationally. These are two prerequisites for the building of a flourishing society, the bedrocks of a successful nation.

Ukrainians have demonstrated that a powerful shared purpose and social cohesion can help a nation persist even when its sovereignty is being challenged.

Their military mobilisation provides a notable example. At the outset of the war, 100 000 Ukrainians enlisted to the National Guard, making Ukraine’s military one of the largest in Europe. More than 66,000 Ukrainian men also returned from abroad to join the fight against Russian invasion.  Remarkable stories, like that of the bravery of the 13 Snake Island defenders who faced down a Russian ship, are going down in national folklore. The Ukrainian resistance has been astonishing.

Alongside a strong sense of national identity, the strength of Ukraine’s interpersonal ties has allowed it to prosper. According to the Legatum Prosperity Index 2021, Ukraine is particularly strong in interpersonal trust (21st out of 167), as well as civic and social participation (65th out of 167), and personal and family relations (62nd out of 167). These statistics have been seen at play during the war, as Ukrainians not only joined the territorial defence but also showed solidarity and unity more strongly than ever. Be it by sharing food and shelter with strangers, donating blood, or fighting cyber-attacks, Ukrainians have illustrated how strong social ties can allow a country to persist under the most dreadful of the circumstances.

How Ukraine’s Identity has Developed

Understanding Ukrainian history is key to understanding why Ukrainians are so resilient today. The origins of Ukraine’s national identity can be traced back to the 17th century, to the Ukrainian Cossacks (or ‘Kozaks,’ meaning ‘free men’). A Cossack is a central symbol in the Ukrainian imagination — akin to a knight in Western Europe. Ukrainian Cossacks were nomadic and militarized people that rebelled against dominant European Empires and gained their independence in 1649. They are now remembered as representatives of the first Ukrainian state, and their importance is even acknowledged in the national anthem which alludes to the fact that, even though Ukraine was integrated into the Russian Empire in the 18th century, it was once a free Cossack state, and this freedom should never be forgotten. The anthem ends with the rousing phrase ‘’we brothers are of a Kozak heritage’’.

After the fall of the Berlin wall and Ukrainian independence in 1991, Ukraine’s statehood developed quickly. At independence, anyone living on the territory had a right to citizenship. At that time, a little less than a quarter of the population identified as ethnically Russian and three-quarters as ethnically Ukrainian – alongside minorities, including Crimean Tatars.

Ukrainian identity has consolidated further since then. When a census was conducted a decade later, in 2001, the number of people identifying as Russians was down to 17%, showing that many have moved away from the concept of ethnic identity, towards a civic one and identified more and more as Ukrainians. The Euromaidan protests of 2013-14 marked a further turning point. Olga Onuch’s research shows that Ukrainian civic identity and state attachment has been extremely strong since then. This applies across linguistic groups and regions. She concludes that ‘’as the conflict escalated, so did the support for the Ukrainian state.’’

The current war has continued these trends. As has happened repeatedly in Ukraine’s history, it is the shared purpose of defending its sovereignty that is allowing its people to persist. Just as Britons still remember the Battle of Britain and VE-Day, Ukrainians will look back at the siege of Kyiv as a key moment in their national development.

Why the Lack of National Identity is a Problem

The Ukrainian case stands in a sharp contrast to Belarus, where the combination of a lack of national identity and weak social capital is not allowing it to move towards liberal democracy. A year ago, as protests unravelled throughout the country, many were hopeful that this meant the end of the Lukashenko authoritarian regime. However, the protests were harshly supressed, and people eventually stopped resisting.

One of the explanations for these different outcomes can be found in Belarus’ lack of national identity. In the country, many do not believe that Belarus ever existed as an independent state and trace the source of Belarusian statehood to the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. Whereas Ukraine developed national myths over the centuries, Belarusians have not yet inculcated the same sense of shared vision and direction. Belarus ranks particularly low in the Legatum Prosperity Index on social networks (152nd out of 167), and civic and social participation (114th out of 167).  Correspondingly, its citizens failed in their resistance against Moscow’s influence.

These two opposing stories show that social capital and strong national identity are essential for a country to defend itself and its values, and more widely for prosperity. The Ukrainian case hence illustrates that as democracy is declining globally, it will be important to invest in cohesion, rather than exclusion; strong interpersonal trust and social participation, instead of divisions. Strong social ties and a national identity framed around core principles like freedom, courage and kinship have sustained the Ukrainian people’s fight. At a time when those values are under threat worldwide, their experience carries lessons for us all.