Gwendolyn Sasse and Yuliya Bidenko examine Ukraine’s recent history and discuss the role of civilian resistance in opposing Russian forces and rebuilding the country.
Nearly a decade has passed since Russia initiated its invasion of Ukraine. This tumultuous period has left a profound mark on Ukrainian society and cultivated a culture of resilience.
Gwendolyn Sasse, a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, and Yuliya Bidenko, an associate professor of political science at Karazin Kharkiv National University, discuss Ukraine’s recent history, the perseverance of its people, and its hopes for the future.
Yuliya Bidenko, “How Ukraine Was Underestimated: Decentralization, EU Integration and Digitalization.” ZOiS Lecture Series in cooperation with Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, July 14, 2022.
Yuliya Bidenko, “(De)Structuring of the Civil Society in the Political Process in Ukraine and Belarus,” in The Nonprofit Sector in Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia: Civil Society Advances and Challenges, ed. D.H. Smith, A.V. Moldavanova, and S. Krasynska, (Leiden, Netherlands, and Boston, MA: Brill Publishers, 2018).
Gwendolyn Sasse and Alice Lackner, “War and State-Making in Ukraine: Forging a Civic Identity from Below?,”Ideology and Politics 1, no. 12, 2019.
Gwendolyn Sasse, “Public Perceptions in Flux: Identities, War, and Transnational Linkages in Ukraine,” June 12, 2018, ZOiS.
“What Ukrainians Think About Ukraine’s Movement Towards EU Membership – Survey,” last modified January 10, 2023, New Europe Center.
“Social Screening of Ukrainian Society During the Russian Invasion,” last modified October 7, 2022, Gradus.
“Results-2022: Under the blue-yellow flag of freedom!,” last modified January 5, 2023, Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation.
Sergiy Solodkyy and Gwendolyn Sasse. “The Link Between Decentralization and EU Integration,” New Europe Center and Centre for East European and International Studies.
Rosa Balfour and Thomas de Waal, “How Russia Shattered Europe’s Post-Cold War Illusions,” September 14, 2022, Carnegie Europe.
Gwendolyn Sasse, “The Risks of Negotiating an End to the War in Ukraine,” December 6, 2022, Carnegie Europe.
Gwendolyn Sasse, “Der Krieg Gegen Die Ukraine” (Munich, Germany: C.H. Beck) 2022.
February 24 marks a year since Russia began its latest invasion of Ukraine. Recent headlines have focused on the Kremlin's military tactics, possible new offensives in the spring, and the latest decision to step up military assistance for Ukraine from Europe and the United States. And yet that attention at times makes us lose sight of Ukraine and its people. Their culture, their history, and in particular, their perseverance are central to understanding the dynamics of today as well as the possibilities of tomorrow. Understanding Ukrainian society has to be an integral part of our discussions about European and international security.
So what are the sources of Ukraine's culture of resistance? How has the last decade of Russia-Ukraine relations shaped the war? And what will some of Ukraine's greatest challenges be when the war comes to an end?
Hello and welcome to Europe Inside Out, a monthly podcast from Carnegie Europe about the continent's greatest foreign policy challenges.
My name is Gwendolyn Sasse and I'm a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe.
This episode of Europe Inside Out is about Ukraine and how the country has withstood the last year. I'm joined by Yuliya Bidenko, an associate professor of political science at Karazin Kharkiv National University and currently a fellow in the Ukraine Research Network Unit at the Centre for East European and International Studies in Berlin. Yuliya, welcome.
Hello Gwendolyn. Many thanks for having me here today.
We are speaking just ahead of the one-year mark since Russia's latest invasion of Ukraine began on the 24th February 2022.
There's a great deal to unpack, some of which my colleagues Rosa Balfour and Thomas de Waal did back in September 2022. But the war dynamics have evolved since then, and we need to take stock. Attention in international policy and public debates has recently focused on the necessity versus the risks of stepping up military assistance to Ukraine. The long-awaited decision by the German government to send Leopard 2 tanks and allow the export to Ukraine of Leopard 2 tanks from European allies to Ukraine, together with the coupling of this decision to the US announcement to send Abrams tanks marks a new stage in this war.
Currently, fighting is concentrated in the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine, near the city of Bakhmut. New Russian and Ukrainian offensives are expected in the spring.
Amidst these latest developments, I'd like to draw attention to the Ukrainian people. Yuliya, is it possible at all to describe daily life of those who live in Ukraine? Or maybe put a bit differently, how would you describe Ukrainian society and politics at this point?
Well, you are totally right about the intensity of casualties in Donbas. Actually, my very young nephew recently joined the Ukrainian army and has been there on the frontline, so it is really very dangerous there. And actually, very recently I got the news that he was wounded in action and now he's in hospital. And the very same day Russian missiles targeted a residential building in Kharkiv in the very central district, just a kilometer away from my apartment and actually the place where my mom lives at the moment.
So that's a small piece of puzzle how that everyday life in Ukraine is like.
But switching to the sphere of my professional expertise, I would say that the whole society demonstrates a splash of volunteerism and a very high level of unity, of mutual aid, and of civic cohesion. As to politics, there is enormously high level of trust in certain leaders, especially in President Zelensky and in public institutions taken in general and a lot of hope placed in a democratic future and the EU aspiration.
These trends were confirmed by public opinion polls conducted by the Ukrainian institutions or even some colleagues of ours like Henry Hale and Olga Onuch. Also the last week of January was marked by some scandals in the military procurement or MP unethical behavior and subsequent resignation in the Defense of Ministry, Office of the President, some Parliament resignation and regional administration changes in the key region. So the new political season in Ukraine promises to be very dynamic, but it is very important to keep this level of mutual recognition and mutual cooperation between government and society that has emerged and increased during 2022.
I think you've mentioned a few really important aspects, also drawing on opinion polls which maybe are not so familiar to everyone. And you've highlighted the trust in particular institutions and I think some of these trends were reinforced by the war but they were not entirely new. So for example, the armed forces top every poll in terms of public trust in this institution, and now narrowly followed I think by the president, President Zelensky. But what I've always found striking and already in recent years that volunteer organizations or volunteers themselves figure very prominently in a list of political institutions and this is obviously a societal phenomenon, but that I think says quite a lot about how Ukraine has evolved in recent years.
And you also mentioned EU aspirations. The idea to conduct reforms because it's necessary to be part of the European Union is also very pronounced now during this war. And we've just had recent polls really showing that. And I think that's important, this recognition of the need for reforms and clearly a president who acts immediately against allegations of corruption amidst war and sacks some of the people closest to him also sends a very strong signal in that direction.
But I'm also wondering, and I'm interested in your view on that, Yuliya. For many in the west, in Brussels, also in national capitals inside the EU, Ukraine unfortunately was often still a blank spot and that has changed. It's a tragic way in which the country has obviously written itself into the mental landscape of Europe. But it is still, I think, the case that many in the West were and still are surprised by the extent of Ukrainian military and in particular civilian resistance. And obviously a crisis is the test of society and it's hard to predict. Only when it happens can we really know how society reacts. But I wonder how you explain this phenomenon. And I know you've talked about the culture of resilience in... In recent talks that you've given, so I wonder if you could explain what you have in mind there.
When talking about this culture of resilience, Ukraine has one of the most developed civil societies comparatively to the other countries of former USSR region. And after Euromaidan, these civil societies not only advocated a broad range of reform but managed to maintain efficient cooperation on a central or regional level with the local councils or with the Parliament. So it really was a very powerful driver for reforms and as confirmed by 2022 as a Ukrainian resistance.
And let's acknowledge that the Russian occupation started in 2014 and since then a great number of NGOs and volunteers developed their network to address military threats or to respond to humanitarian issues.
Therefore, the most active part of society was somehow prepared to fast and cooperative actions to address the full-scale invasion in 2022
Also, due to the very competitive elections and reform of decentralization, a lot of young people and civic activists appear to engage in policymaking. Meanwhile, both local elites and regular citizens took responsibility for a life in their communities starting since this decentralization reform was implemented in 2015. Those incredible examples of resistance from temporary occupied territories were so numerous and impressive. I should mention here that the Yellow Stripe initiative and some other partisan actions or non collaborative practices which got famous in 2022 and they do not cease in South and even in Crimea now.
Can you maybe explain what the Yellow Stripe Initiative is? That might not be familiar to everyone.
Well, it is a very a decentralized and I would say even based on individual actions initiative which remind people in temporary occupied territories of Ukraine that the certain community is Ukraine. So people are making marks on public objects, they draw in this yellow stripe just to remind citizens that Ukraine will come back here soon and remind people who are occupants that they are not welcome here anymore. So it's not the kind of NGO, it's not the centralized initiatives, people built bottom up but people making these symbolic by their own risk to remind the citizens that the de-occupation is very possible.
Yes, thank you. I think that's really important to also focus on these bottom-up initiatives. And that's really what we mean when we talk about volunteering and volunteers. And you mentioned the Euromaidan, the mass protest in 2013-14. I also think that the mass mobilization in itself is a very rare event and Ukraine has undergone mass protests several times. 2004 and the Orange Revolution and 2013-14 with the Euromaidan, those were the biggest examples but then there were other big protests as well. And I wonder if that just does something to society and changes networks, but it also changes perceptions, expectations, but maybe also behaviour and something that can be mobilized and tapped into in a very different context. And I've often talked about civic identity in this context and I think maybe what you named culture of resilience is not that different from that. So that basically you subsume that identity under being a citizen of the Ukrainian state and you engage with it and for it at different, different levels.
Yeah, that's true. And I would say that civic identity is very important here because more and more people since 2014 began to feel themselves as citizens of Ukraine regardless the ethnic, origin or even lingual preferences. I would prefer to talk about the culture of resilience, it also includes not the identity as such, but the readiness to act, the readiness to be responsible, the readiness to cooperate with others, but also the readiness to... To act as a free people and show their position not only to authorities, but to occupants and also probably the readiness to cooperate with public authorities. So it was very common practices for Ukrainian civil society and activities to establish horizontal networks and links. So the trust to other people was pretty high even before the full scale invasion in Ukraine. But what surprised me nowadays that the public authorities getting more and more open to such cooperation and to such communication so we can talk here about civic-private-public cooperation.
Yes, thanks. Maybe what I try to describe as civic identity is the precondition for what you describe in terms of cultural resilience, not to actually become active on that basis. And that's why then I think that resilience develops with such force. When we think about what surprised people or Western governments in particular, I think maybe a surprise that we haven't mentioned yet, what surprises me most with hindsight is really how Russia's leadership and mostly Putin himself underestimated Ukraine. So he seems to have believed his own rhetoric. But how one can get the neighboring country so wrong and conduct a war on that basis, that is for me, with hindsight, really the biggest surprise of all.
Yeah, that's absolutely true. And I would agree here that probably Putin ruling current Russia, he literally far from reality and probably he's out of any informational flow, so he just living in his own bubble. But it's not only Putin who launched this war. So numerous, I would say advisors or even researchers, they were definitely underestimated Ukraine, probably driven by these Russian chauvinism, lacking an experience of these revolutions, reforms, including people from civil society in policymaking, so that they just couldn't believe that it could be that way in neighbouring countries they consider to be their colony or even part of their Russian world perspectives.
For those of us who follow global affairs in detail, and even for those who just keep up with the news, the 24th of February 2022 is a significant date. There's a widespread sensation that this is a turning point, though what comes next is characterized by uncertainty. But the reference to the 24th February 2022 as the start of the war is incorrect. And I think we should be very clear about this here, that Russia's war against Ukraine began in 2014, not in 2022, and there were even precursors before that.
I would talk about Russia's war against Ukraine in three stages. The first stage is Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 in the aftermath of the Euromaidan 2013-2014. And that annexation of Crimea then enables the second stage of Russia's war against Ukraine, namely the war in Donbas, where from the spring of 2014, Russia supported militarily and financially and politically local separatists. And the war lasted until the full-scale invasion last year, in February last year. And that is the third phase of Russia's war against Ukraine.
And so it's been a step-by-step escalation of the war. And I think that's important because it also gave Russia time and room to adjust, also to adjust to some of the reactions of the West.
But if we look maybe back to the days of the Euromaidan and 2013-14 and then the annexation of Crimea follows, I think you were in Kharkiv in 2014. If you take us back to that time, to that moment often I think it's overlooked that the Euromaidan did not only take place in Kyiv, but that there were also protests in other regions in the south and east and not only in Kyiv or in Western Ukraine. But what did that look like at the time?
That's totally true and I so appreciate your, your position about the stages of this war and I wanted to emphasize that Euromaidan demonstration started in Kharkiv not even in 2014, but in November of 2013, just at the same time that in Kyiv, of course it was smaller with no barricades there. But the most numerous demonstrations were held on a very constant basis till the end of February 2014. There was an extremely cold winter and people were layered up, but not only because of the temperature outside, but also considering that could be attacked by criminals or even militiamen. And I remember that I always took my passport with me in the case of reporting such attacks or even in the case if I'll be arrested. And exactly in Kharkiv thousands of people with Ukrainian flags prevented Novorossiya to be proclaimed at the convention of south and east deputies called by Yanukovych, who fled Kyiv at that time, on February 22, 2014.
But following the occupation of Crimea inductions not only taken by local pro-Russian activities, but also by Russian citizens they led to this next stage of the conflict in the east. Actually, I see myself with my own eyes the numerous buses with Russian plates which were standing in Kharkiv central area. So definitely there were people who came from Russia to take part in this Novorossiya or Russian Spring project. And there were similar scenarios implemented in Luhansk, Donetsk, and some smaller towns of that region. This scenario included to capture regional administration, then to occupy regional offices of the security service and police offices, to arm people, and make local officials, mostly deputies of local consumers, to proclaim so-called people republics. In Kharkiv, there were two attempts to occupy a regional administration, but they fled and in Donbas cities they achieved more success with the aftermath.
Why do you think that's the case? I mean, why did Donbas, so parts of the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, also not the whole of the Donbas region provide a fertile ground for Russian intervention and not other parts of the southeast of Ukraine?
There is no one reason here and probably some colleagues from academia or media could have different angles to emphasize why they were more successful in Donetsk and Luhansk than in Kharkiv and for example, Odesa or Kherson.
But I would like to underline three main differences. Firstly, the position and attitudes of local elites, because elites in Donbas, they were really connected to Yanukovych and some oligarchs and losing the power in Kyiv meant to them losing kind of ability to rule all over Ukraine, to rule all of Ukraine. In Kharkiv and Odesa, there were no oligarchic and political clans which were able to act all together. So there was more diversity of political spectrum here. And actually the... The position and attitudes and status of the law enforcement agencies, namely security service, was crucial here because in Donetsk and Luhansk, they let people in and just give them a weapon. In Kharkiv, I remember that they were kind of a fortress, you know, so they didn't perceive any attempts of these protesters, so=called protesters to get into the building. Secondly, the level of civil society development because as I mentioned before, in Kharkiv, there were thousands of people who were standing with Ukrainian flags from the very beginning, and civil society in Kharkiv and in Odesa really was very diverse and vibrant. And third reason is a type of regional economy in Kharkiv and in Odesa there were no connections with the European Union markets and it was more service-oriented economy. And even taking the industrial enterprises, mostly they were kind of in coal mines, they demanded more qualified workforce. And that is why people do not perceive Russian propaganda so I would say so true.
Yeah. I think maybe building on what you said, if we look back also at some of the opinion polls of 2013-14, I think what's noticeable repeatedly at that time is that in the region we referred to as Donbas, there are greater socioeconomic concerns about what a westward orientation of Ukraine would mean. So closer links to the EU and other markets. So I think that's quite different, however, from saying that this is a pro-Russian attitude, no? So if you look at opinion poll and it is linked to what you said about the regional economy, that there are other social concerns and they play into these... These dynamics, why something might be sparked off in this region and reinforced greatly by Russia. But I think it's important to say that this does have nothing to do with a wish to integrate with Russia. But maybe what's different and opinion polls show that is kind of this social dynamic that's happening in obviously an old style industrial region, at least in parts.
Yeah, that's absolutely true. But I wanted to emphasize that in Donbas these attitudes were also fluid by the owners or even local politicians. So it was a high correlation or interrelation between business and government. There actually we have an expression Donetsk-clan. So under the Yanukovych rule people who let's say were members of Parliament or owners of these enterprises, they were the same people. So they tried to impose their rules and use all the Ukraine in their own business interest. So when they understood that they can lose this huge power, they began to spread this information and make people believe that they wouldn't find their places after Euromaidan Ukraine.
We've already begun to touch on the role of society during war. Let's spend a bit more time talking about the future now. And of course, it's hard to do so, but also it seems necessary, not least as it relates to the reconstruction of Ukraine and the prospect of Ukraine to become an EU member state. And as such, it also relates to European security.
And one of the things that's been on my mind is what the effects of war will be on Ukrainian politics and society. So what will be the challenges for political institutions, for example, at the national or local level? On what basis or on what issues will new political parties be built or how can the current push for reforms be channeled? And I can see a necessary centralization of the whole political system during war but what do you think might be implications of this later on? And society, as we discussed is very united now, can this last? Also thinking of obviously vulnerable groups after this war as well. And I'm also thinking about a very transnational Ukraine if we can call it that at the moment, given that so many millions of Ukrainian citizens are displaced and also partly externally displaced, so it seems very important to integrate them into any reconstruction effort. How do you see some of these challenges for politics and society shape up?
Well, it's a whole set of very difficult questions and issues of course. Poverty, corruption, and populism were always among the main threats for Ukrainian development since the very first years of independence. Now these threats are multiplied by the colossal physical losses in infrastructure and in human capital.
We are losing our best people on the front line and from the other point of view, having very educated women and I would say pretty good educated teenagers and children, we are losing them as external migrants and refugees at the moment. So these issues will shape the development of Ukrainian society for the next ten or even twenty years I would say. And of course these issues will reshape political discourse and political forces in Ukraine.
As to centralization, it is really the process which is happening already due to the Marshall Law and government could use this reconstruction process and funds to control regions and to make mayors more obedient. Before the war Zelensky's party somehow lost local elections in 2020. So they definitely could play this card to keep local politicians more loyal.
And actually that is why I think that local governments and civil society should be included in the process of recovery of Ukraine.
The other problem which we can face up in the nearest time that the burning out of volunteers and activists and new cleavages in society could also affect the development of political system negatively. Because when you have a lot of people who burn out and just want to relax and they have no resources to control the government, there is always kind of deduction to politicians so to expand their power. And I think the new cleavages in society will be related to question where have you been during the war? And what's your personal input in victory? It's really the very topical now in social media discussion. So people use it to establish new inequalities in society, I would say. And the other dimension of inequalities will be on regional level because for example Kharkiv, which was highly developed before the war, now losing for example these capabilities to restore the economy. Meanwhile, Lviv is literally experienced kind of increasing of business activities because there were businesses who were relocated and the international aid comes through the region and there were a lot of IDPs who came to this region but they also tried to make to spend their money there and to find jobs here and to pay taxes, local taxes, for example.
I think in this context we also have to talk about the prospect of EU membership. Ukraine is now a candidate country and there's overwhelming support in Ukrainian society across the whole country for EU membership. What is also possible though, is that there are perhaps also unrealistic expectations attached to that. Some recent surveys show us that a majority expects EU membership to materialize within one to five years. So that sets some alarm bells off. I was wondering if you could sort of describe what needs to happen to make that a realistic prospect, maybe not within one to five years, but nevertheless a realistic prospect. And of course I want to emphasize right away that what's really important too is that it stays a credible policy on the EU's part. So now the candidate status is given. A lot will depend on how credible this remains. And the EU needs to also reform to keep making a credible offer. But focusing on Ukraine, what do you think has to happen? What could happen?
These opinion polls actually show us that the support of the EU integration of Ukraine constantly increases. So it's nothing related to rally around the flag. It really was pretty high even before the Euromaidan revolution, so it was more than 40% of people who would vote for the EU integration of national referendum in early 2015. But now these numbers are about 85-90% depending of the methodology. So I would say that I'm not among these optimists, but I try to be realistic. And here I will be more certain that about the political process after the war. We need a lot of routine work on the governmental, parliamentary and probably business level to comply with the EU general criteria and in particular regulations and notes about Ukraine that we get since the candidacy. we have this huge social support and Ukrainian society proved that it's sharing the EU values even during the war. We have a lot of recognition towards the LGBT groups, towards the regional cultural diversity and these topics are still debatable like in every Eastern or even Central European society.
And we have already very developed economical interrelations and developed trade. And in a natural way I would say the Russian market is lost for decades for Ukraine. So the EU and particular member states, they recognize and consider it as the primary trade partner. So I believe here that also education or culture and programs like Creative Europe or Erasmus plus which were open to Ukraine also could affect here some positive moves. So it's just a political will from political elites and a lot of everyday routine work which is needed to join the EU.
But of course, among these criteria there is political and institutional ability of the EU itself to absorb new members. So I just wanted to address this question to you as the expert in European affairs.
To be honest, I worry a little about that. It already wasn't so straightforward a decision to give this candidate status to Ukraine and also to Moldova. There was quite a lot of negotiation necessary inside the EU, and I think everybody realizes that the EU with each enlargement, but also with enlarging to include Ukraine and Moldova, will look different and it will have to reform itself and some of that it has to do before this can reasonably happen. And it means that on the one hand, there has to be enough attention of linking the reconstruction of Ukraine, obviously an enormous task, and if we think of all the different dimensions of that, and to link that reconstruction really with reforms, with transformation and it can only happen if that, from the beginning, is I think aligned with EU accession. And that is however more and the EU has to therefore still step up and really generate and keep generating also a consensus inside itself, inside the EU that it wants that to really make that happen and therefore stay credible. Otherwise I think that is an enormous political risk because you can't just give candidate status during a war and then not act on that.
I see serious attempts to address these issues, but as the EU will have to also adjust I'm not so optimistic that this can happen fast, or at least in the timeline that Ukrainians wish for. I also want to maybe to round it up, say that we've talked a lot about society, we've talked about mobilization, about resilience, we've talked about reforms, we've now talked about reconstruction. But of course all of that needs currently continued military, humanitarian, and financial support. Otherwise there won't be the foundation for a future which allows these discussions to actually turn into reality.
EIO Musical theme steps in
So maybe we leave it there for today. Thank you very much, Yuliya, for joining me on this month's episode of Europe Inside Out. It was a real pleasure speaking to you.
Thank you. Thank you for your invitation and this very insightful conversation that we have today.
For those of you who are interested in learning more about Ukraine, I encourage you to follow Yuliya's work on Twitter @YuliyaBidenko. Y-U-L-I-Y-A-B-I-D-E-N-K-O. You can find me at @GwendolynSasse. G-W-E-N-D-O-L-Y-N-S-A-S-S-E.
Thank you for listening to Europe Inside Out, a podcast by Carnegie Europe.
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