This Week in Info War

Are Ukraine’s reforms reversible?

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Many people—especially in Russia—have long accepted a narrative about Ukrainian history and society that is largely false, distorted or simplified: that Ukraine was merely an offshoot of Russia, that Russia is the principal successor of the great East Slavic state of medieval Kyivan Rus, and that Ukraine was a backward, unsophisticated province of the great Russian (and Soviet) empires without a true language or culture of its own.

Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated several times that he believed Ukraine was not even a real country. Since the 2014 Maidan Revolution, moreover, the Kremlin has concocted a propaganda mishmash to rationalize its shock that Ukraine—though closely related to Russia in some ways—is a state that wants to shape its own future independent of Moscow. Russian officials and the Kremlin propaganda machine thus have claimed that the Kyiv government is dominated by fascists, that anti-Semitism is rampant, and that ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine are victims of discrimination. 

Little of this is true. In fact, Moscow’s efforts—especially its bloody military invasion—to hold Ukraine close against its will have backfired and driven Ukraine more quickly toward the West.

“The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people,” John Adams wrote to a friend in 1818 of the American war for independence. The United States and Ukraine are vastly different, but a comparable transformation of popular attitudes appears to have taken place among Ukrainians since the Maidan. 

More than 90 percent of Ukraine’s inhabitants now consider themselves ethnic Ukrainians, and only 5.5 percent Russians, found a recent poll conducted by the Gorshenin Institute. In addition, 84.6 percent of those living in eastern Ukraine consider themselves Ukrainian. Since the Maidan, Ukraine’s national identity has come to include a strong anti-Russian animus. In an April 2017 public opinion survey by Rating Group Ukraine, 57 percent of Ukrainians expressed a very cold or cold attitude toward Russia, while only 17 percent expressed a very warm or warm attitude. 

As anti-Russian sentiment has grown, so has the West’s appeal. The European Union, with its allure of economic prosperity and functioning democracy, has long attracted the interest of a sizeable portion of the Ukrainian population. The last three years have also witnessed growing Ukrainian public support for joining NATO. While the EU offers proximity, the Ukrainian government and many Ukrainians see the United States as Kyiv’s primary security partner.

What do these changes in attitude mean for Ukrainian reform? An outstanding report by the distinguished Chatham House think tank takes note of Ukraine’s fight for survival as an independent and viable state. It finds that much of what Ukraine has achieved is susceptible to reversal, and that underlying political conditions are “far from healthy.” Ukraine’s “core security objectives,” the report argues, depend on national cohesion, wise allocation of resources, and a long-term commitment by state and society alike.

The more pluralistic, Western-oriented values of much of society—but by no means all of it— will likely ensure that there will be no literal reversion to the past. Ukraine is unlikely to move back into Moscow’s orbit. But the problems outlined by the Chatham House report remain, and mean the struggle for reform will probably take new forms—in increased tensions between an active civil society and often corrupt political and economic elites, and in the fight against corruption. Rather than increase its military involvement in the Donbas, Moscow is likely to try to exploit strains in Ukrainian society by stepping up its meddling in Ukrainian politics.

In recent months, Ukraine’s intelligence service has identified a center in Kharkiv—an internet storefront—that plans and finances Russian activities. Russian-sponsored gangs vandalize Polish or Hungarian monuments so that Ukrainians are blamed or they, alternatively, vandalize Ukrainian monuments so that Poles are blamed. They also damage synagogues and pit groups against one another. They recently defaced a poster of Pope John Paul II with “anti-Polish slogans.” Vandals who are arrested have often been directly linked to parties or companies still controlled by Ukraine’s deposed dictator, Viktor Yanukovych. Such methods are less brutal than large-scale military intervention, but reflect no less accurately the Kremlin’s continued commitment to denying Ukraine the future favored by most of its citizens.

Photo: Ukraine has a long tradition of an active civil society: Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire by Ilya Repin, 1880-1891