In a few months, Ukraine will commemorate the fourth anniversary of its rebirth as a nation in a military conflict with Russia that has initiated many previously badly missed reforms, changed the security perceptions of many Ukrainians, and reshaped societal values while continuing to influence the country’s socio-economic development.
Despite the prominence of Ukraine on the international agenda, especially as a subject of political negotiations among Moscow, Washington, Berlin, and Brussels, after almost four years it is finally time to stop projecting Ukraine’s situation and its future through a Russian prism. There is no more need to believe, feed, or spread the ugly myth that everything happening in Ukraine is happening because of Russia, or that Ukraine is (temporarily) important just because of Russia.
Now, Ukraine is no longer important because of Russia, but despite Russia. Today, Ukraine is clearly more certain and self-confident, has the best army it could ever possibly have dreamed about, and—most of all—has seen an outpouring of civic energy in the form of dedicated, motivated volunteers willing and able to shape the future of their country’s development, a civic movement that has no comparable equivalent throughout modern European history. Nevertheless, even given all of these accomplishments, almost four years after the conflict began there is still no general consensus on how it should make certain vital choices—or even on whether these choices should be made at all, given that after the war many simply do not want compromise at all.
Obviously, the longer the conflict lasts, the more drastic socio-economic consequences and deeper psychological implications it will have. Some of them can be observed already—such as the growing degree of polarization and radicalization on different issues. A slightly simplified picture of these growing divides could look as follows:
On one end of the spectrum, there is a sizeable camp of those with almost untreatable anxiety and deeply rooted fatigue from the ongoing war, a group that also has many unmet expectations about the slow process of reforms. This numerous group strongly advocates for peace negotiations; they are ready to make compromises for the sake of reconciliation and thus domestically echo the pacifistic rhetoric of some Central and Western European politicians, experts, or even certain international organisations; this rhetoric has left them intoxicated with learned helplessness – a very common (and to many, also comforting) state of being, way of life, or merely a seemingly bottomless source of financial grants. Members of this group have only superficially adopted European values as a way both of identifying themselves and of facilitating requests for more foreign assistance.
On the opposite side are those who would actually (even if not quite publicly) welcome a military escalation of the war in the east in order to take the advantage of the smallest possible chance either to unfreeze the current situation on the front lines and/or to reshape some aspects of the political landscape in Kyiv. Members of this group utterly reject compromise, thereby deepening the divides within an already polarized society. In fact, they constantly search for any possibility to break the existing fragile balance, all while verbally attacking the status quo and questioning others’ reasons for “doing nothing.” Often demanding radical change they utilize revanchist rhetoric while appealing to the psychological traumas suffered by Ukrainian society. While most in this group do not share European values, they strongly want the West to provide lethal weaponry to Ukraine. They seem to have their own version of the truth, and are emotionally attached to the recent past. Ultimately, this group seeks the means to make Ukrainian society a hostage of its cognitive past, which would allow collective memory unilaterally to dictate the present—and the future of several generations to come.
Naturally, the vast majority of Ukrainian citizens lies between those two poles. While this majority generally lacks any clear preference as to the above two strategic options, and has no preferred notion of which tactical steps would best achieve some tangible results in the country’s nation-building process, it also contains a small group of decent officials, honest citizens, conscientious intellectuals and competent experts. However their voice is often being shouted down by those who are part of the two loud extremes that attempt to dictate their preferred future as if it was the only correct one.
Despite being outnumbered by the centrist majority, the radicals have been able to participate and be heard in the public debate by learning and deftly applying some manipulative techniques to shaping public opinion. These largely consist of simple populistic proposals, superficial statements, and irresponsible promises that they either would not or could not fulfil. The use of these techniques, however, swiftly creates painful chaos in the minds of many Ukrainians, who simply cease to care about politics. The resulting ambivalence consequently undermines trust in Ukraine’s democratic institutions, whose weakness is still a major problem for consolidating society and strengthening national resilience. Moreover, the vacuum between the two poles is easily being filled in by hostile ideologies and harmful activities masterly orchestrated by and from Russia. The artificially heated internal disagreements and flagrant disregard for democratic principles that result from this divide clearly undermine Ukraine’s national security, which—at least officially—its government sees as best guaranteed by closer cooperation with the EU and NATO with an ultimate aim of Euro-Atlantic integration.
Among the many worrying trends outlined above, there is another particular tendency that could have a devastating effect on the societal resilience of Ukraine and consequently on its national security. Since each citizen is the core of resilience—and the key to strengthening it—citizens’ perceptions of security consequently matter a great deal. Thus, while it must overcome the broader splits and polarizations partially outlined above, it is even more important that the citizens’ Ukraine, the European Ukraine that arose from the Revolution of Dignity and that was later defended in battle—not turn its back on any Ukrainian, no matter where in the country they may live. This should not be just formal presence with compulsory state attributes, but forward-looking, development-oriented and mindful presence, based on shared values and focused on meeting aspirations of local promising young generation as well as reducing deficit of trust and opportunities.
There are many convincing examples that national security can easily be undermined if societal resilience is neglected or ignored at the regional or local levels—but has Ukraine learned any lessons from them? Presuming that the young generations in troubled regions will a priori be pro-Ukrainian, democratic, and liberal is simply wrong and self-deceptive. On the whole, there are two options for active young professionals in these regions: either engage actively in reforms and local initiatives in order to deliver tangible changes, or simply leave, whether to Kyiv or for destinations outside Ukraine. Sadly, the option to leave is becoming more plausible and feasible; the sense of being trapped between two poles feels increasingly terminal to younger Ukrainians in the regions outside the capital. Without opportunities for meaningful self-fulfilment and personal development, then, a majority of the most talented an educated young people are leaving to seek better places and challenges elsewhere.
The question of human and social capital is dangerously becoming a core issue for societal resilience in many regions, especially those further east, where increased national and international attention due to the conflict has ironically done (and continues to do) damage by exacerbating this brain drain. Paradoxically enough, international donors- unknowingly contribute the stripping out of valuable human resources from these regions by employing or engaging them in international programmes. They do so both by providing training and education on valuable skills as well as by increasing the scale of young people’s ambitions to the point at which they are ready to move on to brighter pastures elsewhere. Certainly, there are broader migration processes at work, and indeed Kyiv has served as a “vacuum cleaner” for decades, sucking in talented and entrepreneurially minded people from other parts of the country. However, only after the beginning of the war has this process also become a threat to national security. Without pro-Ukrainian competent specialists in the eastern regions, there will be no civic Ukraine, no value-based Ukraine, and no European Ukraine. Without exaggeration, one can say that educated people that are effectively engaged and pursue self-fulfilment on a local and regional level are a key element of societal resilience and therefore a contributing factor to strengthening national security. A turning point for Ukraine’s resilience is only emerging on the cognitive horizon of its society; thus far, there is still only little understanding that the ongoing war can be won not just with weapons, but foremost by and especially for the people who bring, cultivate, defend and spread a new Ukraine eastwards and southwards from Kyiv.
This piece was first published on the ICDS blog.
Dmitri Teperik is the chief executive of the International Centre for Defence and Security (ICDS) in Tallinn, an independent think tank aiming to advance the transatlantic community’s strategic thinking on the security challenges facing the Baltic-Nordic region, from armed or cyber attacks to threats against social cohesion and energy security.
Teperik is a former official of the Estonian Ministry of Defence, where he was in charge of defense-related research, industry, and development, serving as Estonia’s national coordinator at the NATO Science and Technology Organization, and promoting Estonia’s role in security-related cooperation projects at the European Commission and the European Defence Agency (EDA).
Editor: Dario Cavegn