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Security under Ze threat?

Review of the book titled: Ukraine after Maidan. Revisiting Domestic and Regional Security. Written by Tomasz Stępniewski and George Soroka.

May 15, 2019 - Tomasz Lachowski - Books and Reviews

Maidan in Kyiv. Photo: neiljs (cc) flickr.com

Internal and regional security was one of the most significant issues invoked in the recent presidential race in Ukraine. Petro Poroshenko, who fought for re-election, claimed that a state which is the victim of an external aggression and involved in an ongoing armed conflict is simply not ready for any experiments. Nevertheless the Ukrainian nation chose a new leader – Volodymyr Zelenskiy – who shall become the sixth President of Ukraine. Therefore a crucial question appears: is Zelenskiy likely to uphold the Euro-Atlantic vector of development in Ukraine following the aftermath of the Revolution of Dignity, notably in the security dimension?

Zelenskiy. To step out of the shadow

During the presidential campaign, Zelenskiy was reluctant to make any binding statements on its vision for the future of Ukraine in terms of geopolitics and relations to the Russian Federation. The famous Ukrainian comedian and a founder of the “95 Kvartal” studio was rather willing to leave the decision on the possible accession of Ukraine to NATO and the European Union to the people through referendums. Moreover Zelenskiy seemed to be open to re-defining negotiations with the Kremlin over the seized parts of Donbas and occupied Crimean Peninsula. He made a slip of the tongue during the debate with Poroshenko held at the Olympic Stadium in Kyiv on April 19th, when he named a group of pro-Russian Kremlin-backed separatists as “insurgents” (a narrative that stands in line with Russian propaganda that refers to the violence taking place in Ukraine as a civil war, rather than as an invasion by a foreign government, in this case Russia itself).

Many experts felt threatened by Zelenskiy’s attitude towards Moscow and ideas of possible means for ending hostilities in Donbas. A bit surprisingly, during the press conference organised just after the first exit polls were released showing that Zelenskiy had over 70 per cent support, a Kryviy Rih-born actor confirmed that talks in a “Normandy format” shall be continued and that one of the first challenges of a new president remains the fate of the Ukrainian prisoners of war, including those sailors unlawfully captured by Russian troops at the Kerch Strait on November 25th 2018.

Nonetheless we still do not know who is going to be responsible for security issues on Zelenskiy’s team (the so-called Ze komanda, or “Ze team”). Zelenskiy will have an important say in this: keep in mind that according to Ukraine’s constitution, the national president maintains the prerogative to nominate a minister of national defence, as well as a minister of foreign affairs. Whoever they may be, they need to offer strong advice on security matters. The Ukrainian head of state is, after all, also the Ukrainian Army’s Supreme Commander-in-Chief.

A long-term objective – Ukraine between the East and West

As it seems, one of the most influential “manuals” on all of the abovementioned topics is a newly published monograph entitled Ukraine after Maidan. Revisiting Domestic and Regional Security, co-edited by Tomasz Stępniewski of the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin and George Soroka of Harvard University. Both scientists managed to gather five different scholars working at Polish, Ukrainian, Finnish and American universities or research centres to compose a book concerning the domestic and international implications of the security issues of post-2014 Ukraine, its geopolitical identity and its social perception of the possible accession of the Ukrainian state to NATO.

Stępniewski and Soroka emphasise that as a consequence of the Revolution of Dignity and subsequent Russian aggression, Ukraine “has become an area of contention for two rival integration projects: that of Europe, represented by the EU and normatively envisaged as liberal-democratic politically and market-driven economically, and that of Euroasia, conceived of as an alternative, Russia-led union”. What is interesting, as Yuval Weber highlights in his paper, Ukraine seems to be much more important for the Russian-led bloc than for the western states. Therefore Petro Poroshenko’s efforts to form a coalition of western powers shall be assessed as his successful outcome – the question remains whether a new president would be able (or willing) to maintain Ukraine as a subject of political interest for western powers, particularly in Berlin but also to a large extent in Paris.

Weber analyses Ukraine as a “bargaining failure” in the whole period after the cold war, claiming that Vladimir Putin’s strategy “to challenge Ukraine before European integration” was firstly designed to check European stability and political unity, and secondly served as a result of Russia’s dissatisfaction with the international order since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Taking this into consideration Stępniewski indicates that as a result of Russian aggression against Ukraine, NATO’s interest in the “security grey zone in Eastern Europe” – meaning countries that directly border Russia and used to be part of the USSR – has altered compared to the 1990s and the first years of the 21st century. NATO still does not possess a cohesive strategy towards the post-Soviet space; nonetheless in Stępniewski’s view the 2016 Warsaw Summit showed NATO’s attempt to stabilise the region and improve its security.

Moreover, the aggression of the Russian Federation, including the illegal annexation of Crimea and the formation of the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics”, has revealed that issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity also extend to other countries in the region, like Poland or Finland. This topic is explored in Jussi Lane’s paper. Lane correctly writes that security is becoming more and more “about information, its production, consumption, and interpretation”. Therefore information warfare, being part of a broader notion of hybrid warfare, and information security that demands concrete capabilities to resist the Kremlin’s policies of disinformation and propaganda shall be perceived now as one with the upmost importance.

Socio-political identity of “post-Maidan” Ukrainians

Undoubtedly Russia’s attempts to conquer Ukraine in 2014 (which have continued beyond this date) have consolidated Ukrainian society, causing trust levels in Russian media (or, in other words, disinformation and propaganda) to decline and increasing openness towards the idea of joining the EU and NATO in the future. What is more, the Euromaidan that led to the visible development of civil society in Ukraine resulted also in a profound shift in how the internal and regional security environment is currently perceived by a majority of Ukrainians. As Joanna Famina states in her paper, Ukrainians “are now willing to join the club (of NATO members), the club members are visibly less enthusiastic about such a step”. Therefore there is a place for countries like Poland that, in spite of a difficult past, have always supported Kyiv in its efforts to stand up to Russian aggression and integrate with NATO. Perhaps the new Ukrainian president can and shall be perceived by Warsaw as a new opening in Polish-Ukrainian relations, not only in a sense of the interpretation of historical crimes and injustices, but also in regards to present challenges of regional security.          

In his paper, George Soroka underlines the two parallel processes witnessed in the aftermath of the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine: state-building (like developing governance or institutional reforms) and nation-building (by enhancing national consciousness and identity). The American scholar writes about the visible change of Ukrainians’ geopolitical orientation that took place after Maidan and Russia’s attempts to violate Ukraine. Soroka is right in further saying that “Ukraine’s best hope for ensuring domestic tranquillity lies in pursuing a civic conception of nationhood”.

Having in mind the presidential election results and the failure of Petro Poroshenko, who based his message on three values – “army, language, faith” – it has to be noticed that in general Ukrainians are reluctant to move towards a homogeneous society. Does this mean that the people of Ukraine can shift today to become (again) more pro-Russian? Not necessarily, since five years of war against Ukraine directly affected many Ukrainians who want to separate themselves strongly from Russia not only in terms of politics, but also in terms of a  false “common” identity. Nevertheless Zelenskiy’s openness to, for instance, recognising the Russian-speaking inhabitants of Ukraine as an integral part of the Ukrainian nation (also with some Soviet nostalgia) clearly shows the complexity of the socio-political identity of Ukrainian society – a factor that was oversighted or disregarded by Poroshenko in his campaign.

Can Zelenskiy measure up to Poroshenko’s security and foreign policy achievements?

To sum up, even though Zelenskiy’s victory over Poroshenko was really quite massive (clear proof that, as a society, Ukrainians were disappointed in their incumbent president), it has to be noticed that Poroshenko’s efforts in foreign policy and the security sector shall be assessed in a positive manner. Firstly, Poroshenko strengthened the military capabilities of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (which had been disunited and scattered at the beginning of the Russian aggression in 2014). Secondly, he was able to form an international coalition to support Ukraine and impose new sanctions against the Kremlin. Thirdly, Poroshenko succeeded in his policy of making the Ukrainian Orthodox Church united and independent from Moscow. After all, January 5th 2019 marked a monumental day for all of Ukriane when Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, signed the tomos that officially recognised and established the Orthodox Church of Ukraine as an autocephalic entity independent from the Russian Orthodox Church. This achievement cannot be treated solely in a religious dimension because it carries great geopolitical ramifications strongly attesting to Ukraine’s internal and regional security.

If Volodymyr Zelenskiy wants to uphold the Euro-Atlantic vector of Ukraine’s development, he shall not behave simply as the antithesis of Poroshenko. If he did so, it would mean the return of Ukraine to the Russian sphere of interest, a possibility that seems to be unacceptable to the majority of Ukrainians (including Zelenskiy’s voters themselves). Zelenskiy is constantly trying to convince experts and journalists that he and his Ze komanda are ready to learn and are open to reasonable advice. Thus I recommend starting this process with such “manuals” as the book co-edited by Tomasz Stępniewski and George Soroka and following its insightful expertise in real life.  

Tomasz Lachowski is a lawyer and journalist. He has a PhD in international law from the University of Łódź and is the editor-in-chief of the magazine Obserwator Międzynarodowy.


Ukraine after Maidan. Revisiting Domestic and Regional Security. By: Tomasz Stępniewski and George Soroka (eds.). Publisher: Ibidem-Verlag, Stuttgart, 2018

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