Menu Close
Six white men who are leaders of European countries are seen talking at a table underneath a television screen displaying the Ukrainian flag.
Slovenia Prime Minister Janez Jansa (left), Czech Republic Prime Minister Petr Fiala (second from left) and Poland Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki (third from left) meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a visit to Kyiv on behalf of the European Council on March 16, 2022. Ukrainian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Defending Europe: How cultural identity shapes support for Ukraine and armed resistance against Russia

Since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, 2022, the outpouring of solidarity and material support for Ukraine across Europe has been impressive – and highly unusual.

Sweden, for instance, has not provided military aid to a country at war since shortly after the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939. Germany has similarly had a policy of providing only nonlethal aid to conflict zones. Both countries are now aiding Ukraine with military weapons.

As some observers have noted, Western countries are quick to condemn armed resistance when it happens elsewhere in the world. But European countries did not react by providing support in 2008, when Russia attacked Georgia. Nor in 2014, when Russia invaded eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea.

Something is different this time as many European countries have not only promised but also delivered arms to Ukraine.

Cultural identity

As a scholar of identity and social movements, I see the current rise of European support for Ukraine as the result of a campaign waged by Ukrainians in recent years to shift Ukraine’s identity away from Russia and toward the European Union, or EU, the group of 27 European nations that share military defense, trade and the Euro, the common currency.

In addition to Sweden and Germany, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, France, the Czech Republic and Slovakia decided it was legitimate to provide weapons to Ukraine to resist the Russian invasion. In turn, the European Union jointly decided to further support Ukraine with military weapons.

These measures can be contrasted with how controversial the issue of supplying weapons to conflict zones in other parts of the world usually is for European nations.

Many of the countries that have now been quick to promise arms to Ukraine have strict regulations against arms exports to countries in conflict. In addition to national regulations, the European Union also has its own restrictions on arms exports.

Europe and the Russian threat

Given Russia’s military capabilities and geographical proximity, Russian aggression is of particular concern to European Union states. Indeed, neutral countries like Sweden have long considered Russia the main military threat, suspecting the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation for submarine incursions into its territorial waters.

A black submarine is seen sailing before it submerges underneath the sea.
A Russian submarine sails through the Bosphorus Strait on on February 13, 2022. Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

When I served in the Swedish army in the 1990s, there was no question that we were training for guerrilla warfare against an invader from the East – no one expected an attack from NATO in the West.

In Sweden, the sense of threat from Russia has heightened significantly in recent years with incidents of Russian military planes crossing into Swedish airspace. Many suspected that unidentified surveillance drones deployed in January 2022 over Swedish nuclear power plants and government buildings had originated in Russia.

What is noteworthy is the extent throughout Europe to which Ukraine is framed as a distinctly “European” country, whereas Russia remains the threatening “other.”

Who is European?

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that Ukraine is “one of us and we want them in the European Union.”

Russia, she explained, seeks to target “stability in Europe and the whole international rules-based order.”

European identity is determined by more than geographical location. Not long ago, European identity decidedly excluded Central and Eastern European states.

When Poland and Hungary joined the EU in the 2000s, for instance, the inclusion of them as true Europeans was tenuous at best.

The prejudice against them was exacerbated during the days of Brexit in 2020 when the U.K. was deciding whether to exit the European Union. Poles and other eastern Europeans living in Britain feared attacks from extremists groups. A spike in hate crimes occurred shortly after the U.K. decided to leave.

In July 2020 alone, more than 5,000 hates crimes were reported, an increase of 40% from the same period the previous year. The vast majority of them were directed against citizens from eastern European countries, with more attacks against Poles than against all other nationalities put together.

Two men and a woman dressed in business suits are walking underneath a large gold-framed painting that depicts a battle scene.
From left to right, European Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen walking inside the Palace of Versailles, near Paris on Mar. 11, 2022. Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Clearly, something has shifted in the European understanding of who counts as “European” in only the last few years.

This shift, I argue, can be traced to the Maidan protests in Ukraine of 2013-2014. Civil unrest and street demonstrations broke out shortly after Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an agreement to further integrate the country with the EU.

Some 25,000 people camped out in Maidan, Kyiv’s central square, where they were beaten and shot at by police and government security forces. Dozens of activists were killed. Ultimately, the protests resulted in Yanukovych fleeing the country and new elections were held.

Since the country’s independence in 1991, Ukrainian governments have waged a conscious campaign that has been described by some as “declarative Europeanization.”

The Zelenskyy government’s ambitions to join the EU and NATO reflect longstanding goals of segments of Ukrainian society.

Social movements do more than change political systems and laws – they change and create identities.

For Ukraine, the Euromaidan protests are often cited by experts as a watershed moment in the post-independence identity struggle between those who felt kinship with Russia, and those who leaned toward Europe.

‘We are European’

The subsequent efforts for increased integration with the EU and, eventually, membership has also led Ukraine to promote its “Europeanness” inside the EU.

At the 2020 EU-Ukraine Summit, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made that clear.

“Ukrainians are quintessentially European in terms of the values we believe in,” Zelenskyy said. “We are European in our instinctive embrace of freedom and in our deeply felt democratic principles.”

In short, the overwhelming and emotional European support for Ukraine is not simply a result of the greater scale of Russian aggression compared to 2014.

It is also related to the growing perception inside the EU that Ukraine is, indeed, European.

The Ukrainian government is well aware of the importance of this perception and makes sure to emphasize that the invasion is taking place on European soil. “Russian army is firing from all sides upon Zaporizhzhia NPP, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe,” Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, tweeted on March 3.

On March 8, Olena Zelenska, Ukraine’s First Lady, wrote an impassioned plea to the European states on President Zelenskyy’s official website.

“This is a war in Europe, close to the EU borders,” Zelenska wrote. “Ukraine is stopping the force that may aggressively enter your cities tomorrow under the pretext of saving civilians.”

The European response

EU officials themselves have until very recently been resistant to the idea of Ukrainian membership, but the Russian invasion has pushed them in the opposite direction.

A member of the People’s Party in the Spanish Congress of Deputies summed it up: “This is the West against the bad guys, the illiberal regimes, and we should be on the right side of history.”

European right-wing parties have long used rhetoric that claims superiority of European civilization. In Western Europe, right-wing groups have until recently employed it against Central and Eastern Europeans as well as non-Europeans. But they did not invent this discourse – it is firmly rooted in old European stereotypes of civilized Europe and the barbaric hinterlands.

[Over 150,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletters to understand the world. Sign up today.]

With its latest invasion of a European country, Russia continues to be seen as barbaric while at the same time Ukraine is swiftly being embraced as part of the civilized European community, valiantly defending its independence on the frontlines against Russia, once again.

If Ukraine prevails and exists as an independent country when this conflict is over, Vladimir Putin may well have unintentionally pushed Ukraine firmly into the arms of Western Europe.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 148,300 academics and researchers from 4,406 institutions.

Register now