Clash of Narratives: the War in Ukraine

Clash of Narratives: the War in Ukraine
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From left to right: Riccardo Alcaro, Rebecca Harms, Michael Leigh, Oleksandr Zaystev, Samuel Charap

Nearly one year after the Maidan protests shook the very core of Ukraine’s political order, opposing narratives of the revolution and the unfolding war in Eastern Ukraine continue to shape the public debate. These discussions do not only determine how the conflict will go down in our history books. They inform our response to the war in Ukraine by paving the way to more or less confrontational approaches toward Russia.

In Germany, the war of competing narratives is waged between two camps, derogatively labeled as “Putinversteher” (Putin whisperers) vs. “Kalte Krieger” (cold warriors). Public attitudes toward the Kremlin and the government in Kiev are deeply divided. The myth of a fascist government in Ukraine, and empathy for the Kremlin’s reaction to the EU-Ukrainian Association Agreement continue to be aired in popular TV shows, local and regional newspapers, market places, and in parliament. This polarized view of the war in Ukraine and the appropriate response to Russia’s aggression, however, extends well beyond Germany. A public discussion at Brookings, organized in cooperation with the Boell Foundation North America, showed that the dividing lines follow similar patterns on both sides of the Atlantic.

Between Battle and Ballot Box: The State of Play in Ukraine

Having frequently visited Ukraine in the past year, the Peterson’s Institute’s Anders Aslund describes the spirit in Ukraine as that of a nation coming together. In his view, no country in the world has a civil activist movement as strong as the one in Ukraine today. To provide sufficient support in this volatile situation, the US and Europe need to invest in a Marshall Plan for Ukraine focused on rebuilding its infrastructure and providing urgently needed humanitarian assistance. In order to overcome the massive economic challenges, Ukraine’s next government needs to make rapid progress towards decentralization, fight corruption in the public sector and cut subsidies and regulation. Aslund argues that cutting public spending will ultimately cut corruption, which in turn will help sustain popular support for the painful reforms. While the reform path ahead resemble a herculean task, a successful parliamentary election and the joint leadership of Poroshenko and Yazenjuk are promising starting points. 

The Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer reinforced that needed reforms are both of economic as well as political nature, including decentralization, anticorruption measures, judicial reform and reform of the energy sector. Ukraine needs increasing diplomatic and economic support from the West well beyond the current assistance packages of the IMF. Contrary to the current state of play, greater consideration should also be given to military assistance to Ukraine in the form of defensive weapons. To sustain Western support, however, Ukraine’s government needs to make serious efforts to implement the urgently needed reforms. Any further delay in the reform process will have a double negative effect: it would likely cause a sense of frustration amongst the own population and would further risk disillusionment in the West.

Western support for Ukraine is not only based on norms and values. Its strategic interest is first and foremost to have a politically and economically stable state in the EU neighborhood. Further, the West needs to push back against Russia’s breach of the basic rules of post-Cold War security in Europe. In order to stop the erosion of this fundamental peace order, there needs to be a clear Western response against such drastic violations.

Co-president of the Greens in the European Parliament, Rebecca Harms, summed up the outcome of Ukraine’s parliamentary election as pro-Europe, pro-Ukraine and pro-democracy. The electoral outcome shows that Ukrainians have decided to pursue their relations with Europe despite the disappointments they experienced in the wake of the EU’s slow and hesitant response to the war. The question is whether the EU is now ready to provide meaningful and necessary assistance that goes beyond the current aid packages. For a successful reform process, EU twinning programs with Ukrainian state agencies can play a crucial supporting role. It is further imperative for the EU to pick up negotiations with the new political actors representing the Euro-Maidan civil society movement instead of exclusively cooperating with the old elites.

War as Opium for the People: A View from Russia

Brookings non-resident fellow Lilia Shevtsova describes how Ukraine has become an obsession for the Kremlin and a drug for the Russian people. For Putin and his ruling eilte, Ukraine has become a crucial factor of domestic politics. Russian media covers Ukraine day and night to distract the people from internal problems and to lay the ground for large-scale patriotic military mobilization. The war in Ukraine has become a platform for Putin to implement his system of personalized power. Putin’s survival doctrine is based on the idea that Russia is a unique state civilization that contains the West. Hence, in Putin’s view, Russia is not merely fighting against a westward-looking Ukraine or the Maidan movement, but against the West as a whole.

Shevtsova refutes the argument that the Kremlin felt threatened or encircled by the West when the Yanukovich signaled his willingness to sign the EU Association Agreement. Instead, the international factors playing into Putin’s decision to take military action were the dysfunctionality of the EU and the Kremlin’s conviction that the West is in decay. Russia’s strategy includes gas and propaganda warfare, in addition to bribing parts of the Ukrainian business elite as well as cooperating with European right and left wing groups. In order to undermine European unity toward Ukraine, Russia creates Trojan horses inside the European Union, most successfully in countries like Italy and Hungary.

Between Confrontation and Appeasement: The EU’s Neighborhood Policy

Former Director General for EU Enlargement Michael Leigh reminded the audience that the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) was devised in 2004 in order to offer neighboring countries closer links with the EU provided they adopt certain reforms. The goal of the ENP was to support good governance and economic prosperity in countries surrounding the EU in order to prevent a spill over of instability. To avoid institutional overstretch, the EU devised these policies incentivizing reforms without including EU membership prospects. At the time, Russia chose not to participate in this initiative under the given rules and procedures.

In Leigh’s assessment, the ENP largely failed in retrospect. Instead of a ring of friends the EU ended up with a ring of fire on its Eastern and Southern borders. There are numerous reasons for this: First of all, it has become clear that the EU has to offer membership in order to effectively convince other states to adopt meaningful reforms. The main defect of the policy of striking Association Agreements with Eastern European states, however, was that it was incompatible with Putin’s plans for a Eurasian Union. Given this poor record, it is time for the European Union to re-evaluate its integration policy, including the concept of EU Association Agreements. A review by the new European Commission will most likely conclude that more subtle and differentiated approaches are needed. In order to avoid further conflict with Russia, Leigh concludes, European policies must give greater considerations to Moscow’s views and interests.

Along similar lines, IISS’ senior fellow Samuel Charap argued that the major flaw of EU and NATO enlargement is their non-negotiable rules of accession. When the EU and NATO extended membership to Eastern and Central European states, they failed to integrate Russia in that process due to the latter’s unwillingness to accept the membership terms. Russia began to see the integration of its neighbors with the West as a threat because it was itself excluded from that process. Although the Ukraine crisis originated in the competition for influence between the West and Russia, the US and the EU responded with deeper integration with Ukraine, reassuring Eastern and Central European NATO partners, and enacting sanctions toward Russia. The Kremlin perceived these policies as a mere continuation of the West’s expansionist post-cold war policies. Should the EU react to the current crisis with the provision of even more NATO security guarantees or deeper integration with Ukraine or other Eastern states, Charap predicts, increasing conflict with Russia will follow.

According to Charap, the EU’s pursuit of deeper integration with Russia’s neighbors has unintentionally become a threat to European peace and stability. As Europe’s post-cold war policy of enlargement is outdated and has reached its limits, new arrangements have to be made that are acceptable to the West, to Russia and to its neighbors. These arrangements must be based on political compromise on all sides. The alternative is continued conflict with Russia about principles that the EU is ultimately unwilling to defend. The past year has shown that it is much more important for Russia to keep EU institutions out of its neighborhood than it is for the EU to guarantee the security of Ukraine. Therefore, setting a new regional foreign policy and institutional framework is the only way out of this rivalry.

Agreement between Charap and Rebecca Harms was limited to the argument that the war in Ukraine mandates a serious re-evaluation of the EU’s relations to Russia. Demanding a firm stance toward the Kremlin, Harms argued that the EU must not allow Russia’s incursion into Ukraine if it wants to avoid undermining its own value system. In practical terms, this means that the EU and the US should under no circumstances waiver or weaken sanctions against Russia unless the Kremlin evidently changes its course in Ukraine. In the medium term, the EU further needs to gain more energy independence from Russia in order to avoid vulnerability to political and economic blackmailing.

“Ukrainians acting more European than Europeans themselves”

Ukrainian Fulbright Scholar Oleksandr Zagstev noted that rather than merely being concerned with exerting influence over its eastern neighbors and countering Russian influence in the same territory, the EU should view its engagement in its eastern neighborhood as a struggle for the fundamental right to self-determination. The EU needs to make clear that it will not tolerate Russia’s attempt to take away any European people’s right to define their own path. Russia’s attack on Ukraine was also an indirect attack on the European Union and its governance principles. If Europe remains passive in order to avoid a confrontation with Russia, this would not only constitute a betrayal of Ukraine and other post-Soviet states, but also a betrayal of the EU’s own fundamental values. As seen from Kiev, while Ukraine has no right to request EU membership, it can expect to be admitted to the EU once it fulfills all entry requirements. This prospect of future membership is an important incentive for Ukraine to enable domestic reforms.

Zagstev concedes, however, that conflict with Russia will be inevitable if the EU stays true to its founding principles. While Russia is not innately opposed to the West, Putin’s imperialist behavior and authoritarian rule does not suggest a change of heart to more reconciliation in the near future. Instead, Russia will do everything in its power to keep its grip on Eastern European countries, especially Ukraine. Only a joint effort of the EU, the United States and Ukraine will stand a chance to force Russia’s military retreat.

Notably, Lilia Shevtsova observed that over the course of the last year, Ukrainians have behaved more European than Europeans themselves by fighting for their right to social and political activism and fundamental European values. Warning of the long shadow of the war in Ukraine, she predicted that the repercussions of this war could be far greater than the results of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With its undeclared war on Ukraine, Russia goes beyond undermining the post- Cold War settlement. It violates nothing less than the fundamental European order forged by the Peace of Westphalia.

False Divides and Open Questions

First and foremost, the discussion illustrated that a Russian and a Ukrainian democrat, together with a Green Parliamentarian from Europe can form an unusual alliance calling for decisive European action against Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine. For those calling for more dialogue and greater consideration of Russia’s legitimate interests in Eastern Europe, several open questions remain: how should the West respond when the most fundamental principles of diplomacy are disrespected by the Kremlin, such as keeping signed agreements? What can diplomacy alone achieve if what is stated publically by one side is in stark contradiction to the action on the ground? And how do you take into account the big power interest of Russia without compromising a small nation’s fundamental right to self-determination? As the West has so far decided to refrain from direct support for Ukraine’s army fighting against Russian-backed separatists in the East, the least we can do is to confront these difficult questions.