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The Source of Ukraine’s Resilience

13 128 27

In early March, the Ukrainian city of Melitopol fell to Russian forces. This largely Russian-speaking city was a place where the Kremlin had hoped its forces would be welcomed as liberators. After taking over, Russian troops abducted the city’s mayor, Ivan Fedorov, a Russian speaker. The Ukrainian government circulated a video showing a blindfolded Fedorov being dragged out of his office. This led to mass protests, with hundreds of people demanding the mayor’s release. He was eventually let go, hailed as a hero by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and transformed into a symbol of courage in the face of Russian aggression.

Not all mayors have been as fortunate as Fedorov. In the village of Motyzhyn, outside of Kyiv, Mayor Olga Sukhenko and her family were tortured and killed by Russian forces because they refused to cooperate. After a month-long occupation, Russia withdrew its forces from the village. Across Ukraine, Russian troops have faced fierce resistance as citizens rally not just in support of Zelensky in Kyiv but also to defend their local mayors and elected city councils. For this reason, the world has gotten to know the names of many Ukrainian cities, including Kharkiv, Kherson, Lviv, Mariupol, Bucha, Hostomel, and Irpin, which have witnessed unspeakable war crimes. In Kherson, which has been under Russian control for more than three months, a recent café bombing near Russian headquarters showed that a resistance movement is alive and well there. Ukrainian guerrilla attacks are taking place in other Russian-occupied areas, as well, particularly around Kherson.

A major source of Ukraine’s resilience is this strong sense of local civic identity. It is the backbone of the country’s self-defense, and it helps explain why so many Ukrainians—especially Russian speakers—are so willing to defend their communities against Russian invasion. And it’s no accident that local governments have so much authority. Decentralization reforms adopted after the Maidan revolution in 2014, which overthrew the Russian-backed government of Viktor Yanukovych and came to be known as the Revolution of Dignity, have played a pivotal role in building national unity. The devolution of power has facilitated greater social cohesion by transforming competing ethnic identities from zero-sum competition into positive-sum community pride. A more decentralized government has given Ukrainians the sense that they are building their own country.

Paradoxically, Ukraine strengthened its state by devolving power. Political legitimacy in Ukraine has been built by citizens from the bottom up, and Ukraine must keep its focus on the local level as it begins to consider rebuilding the country when the war is over.

Although democracy has been a hallmark of Ukraine since it gained independence in 1991, power has often been concentrated in the hands of a few. By 2014, the country was mired in corruption. Oligarchs controlled political parties and the........

© Foreign Affairs

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