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Ukraine’s public diplomacy enters a new phase

A new milestone in Ukraine’s public diplomacy began in late March when the foreign ministry approved, for the first time in history, a public diplomacy strategy. The document calls for efforts to form and promote a positive international image of Ukraine at a strategic level and defines the concept of public diplomacy, filling a conceptual void that had existed for many decades.

After Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991, public diplomacy in the official Ukrainian public and academic discourse was practically absent. Existing initiatives in this field were mostly isolated, lacked complexity, strategic vision and adequate financial support. For some time, the duties of public diplomacy were assigned to so-called cultural and information centres, which operated at foreign diplomatic missions. These centres were responsible for disseminating information about Ukraine abroad, acquainting foreign audiences with Ukrainian history and culture, and informing them about Ukraine’s tourism opportunities and attractions.

June 23, 2021 - Nadiia Bureiko - Hot TopicsIssue 4 2021Magazine

Ukrainain poet Serhiy Zhadan at an Authors’ Reading| Photo: (CC) Rafał Komorowski / WikiCommons

Despite the importance of such work, the activities of cultural information centres were usually limited to formal protocol or representative activities, lacking continuous and systematised coordination. Furthermore, these centres were often short of adequate financial resources and human capital. Therefore, their work failed to achieve the expected effect, as there was a lack of “fresh visions” which, again, required strategic support.


After the Revolution of Dignity, which caused many state-building changes, the situation has significantly altered. Moreover, an urgent need for public diplomacy was identified with the beginning of the aggression against Ukraine by the Russian Federation, which included the illegal annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbas and widespread disinformation. Thus, public diplomacy – as a set of planned measures to convey specific messages about Ukraine to influence the formation of public opinion in other countries – has become more relevant than ever. It was in 2015 when the institutionalisation of public diplomacy began in Ukraine and the first signs of systematisation in the approach to its formation and implementation were outlined.

The successful development and implementation of public diplomacy requires a coordinated team effort. It is a question of strong involvement in the direction and understanding of public diplomacy algorithms of government representatives, state and non-state institutions, as well as the synergy between them. The main generator of public diplomacy in Ukraine is the ministry of foreign affairs. It is the foreign ministry which performs the tasks of “promoting the formation of Ukraine’s international prestige and building its image in the world as a reliable and predictable partner”. Consequently, the ministry “disseminates information about Ukraine abroad, its place and role in the world to strengthen the positive international image of the state, provides foreign diplomatic missions of Ukraine with relevant information”. An important step in 2015 was the establishment of the department of public diplomacy (now the department of communications and public diplomacy) in the structure of the ministry. Since 2015, the ministry has been actively using Twitter diplomacy, promoting information and image campaigns (such as #CrimeaisUkraine, #JusticeForMH17, #LetMyPeopleGo, #StopNordStream2, #CorrectUA, #KyivnotKiev). In addition, it launched a digital portal about modern Ukraine designed for foreign audiences – www.ukraine.ua. According to Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, the site was created “so that the world would learn about the real Ukraine: creative, dynamic, and innovative. A country of diversity and enchanting nature. A country of freedom and dignity. A country where millennia of history and culture are complemented by an ambitious vision of the future.”

A real turning point for Ukraine’s public diplomacy was the proposal to establish a specialised state institution – the Ukrainian Institute – which in 2015 was presented for public discussion by the foreign ministry in order to improve an understanding and perception of Ukraine around the world. According to then foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, the Ukrainian Institute is “the identification of Ukraine – what Ukraine is for the average Dutchman, Greek or Brazilian, what it is associated with, and, of course, its attractiveness”. The process of opening the institute was not an easy task and was impeded by numerous bureaucratic obstacles. But, finally, in June 2017, the decision for its establishment was approved, and the following year the position of its general director was filled. However, the first fully-fledged working year of the institute only took place in 2019, when the core team was formed and regulations were adopted that allowed it to function.

Internationalisation of Ukrainian culture

Today, the Ukrainian Institute, which represents Ukraine abroad through the potential of culture, is without exaggeration the most active actor in the field of public diplomacy in Ukraine. Since its establishment, the institute’s team has launched a number of successfully functioning programmes to strengthen the international and domestic image of Ukraine through cultural diplomacy. In addition, co-operation has been established with Ukrainian diplomats abroad, foreign Ukrainians with experience in organisation of cultural events, foreign partners and partner institutions in Ukraine. The main goals set by the institute are: increasing Ukraine’s visibility internationally by spreading knowledge about it; promoting the Ukrainian language and culture abroad; building international dialogue through supporting international exchanges; ensuring Ukraine’s participation in co-operation projects in creative industries, culture, education, science, economy and other fields; the dissemination of the Ukrainian experience in the development of civil society, commitment to the values ​​of freedom, democracy and national unity.

Another state institution that plays an important role in the development of public diplomacy is the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, established in 2017. The foundation puts forward new mechanisms of state financial support (through the creation of competitive grant programmes) for initiatives in the field of culture and creative industries and promotes the preservation of cultural heritage and development of Ukrainian culture. Among the goals of the foundation is the internationalisation of Ukrainian culture. Thanks to its support, for several consecutive years, numerous projects have been implemented that contain an international component.

The Ukrainian Book Institute, established in 2016, is involved in the promotion of Ukraine’s image abroad through the propagation of Ukrainian literature. Among its functions are: the implementation of residency programmes for authors, translators, illustrators and literary critics, the translation of Ukrainian literature into foreign languages and the representation of Ukraine in international organisations within the publishing field.

The Ukrainian Institute, the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, and the Ukrainian Book Institute are often referred to as “new model / new generation” institutions. After all, they were all founded after the Revolution of Dignity and have been conducting their activities with the help of young progressive teams that have a fresh vision and new ideas based on transparency, openness, efficiency and accountability. According to some experts, it is very important that these institutions are not only able to survive but to grow stronger, despite the rather difficult ecosystem in which they operate.

In the spring of 2020, these institutions were threatened with major funding cuts due to COVID-19. There was a direct threat to the new cultural policy of Ukraine, both within the state and cultural diplomacy (which works with foreign audiences). Funding was largely defended by direct efforts of the main actors, yet not without public attention to the issue, both in Ukraine and abroad. Nonetheless, the situation exposed clear sore spots – not only a problem of resources, but the frequent absence of an adequate level of inter-institutional co-operation and the appeal to culture on a residual basis. Another painful moment was the attack on the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation in the spring of this year. In support of the institution, many employees of the cultural and creative sectors, artists, academics, public activists, and ordinary citizens initiated a social media campaign in support of the foundation. It was called #довіряюУКФ (#ITrustUCF).

Outlining a strategic vision

A new milestone in Ukraine’s public diplomacy began in late March this year when the foreign ministry, for the first time in its history, approved a public diplomacy strategy. It does not only single out public diplomacy as a functional area of Ukraine’s foreign policy, but provides answers to questions that were often previously used to “falter”. First, the document itself calls for efforts to form and promote a positive image of Ukraine internationally at a strategic level. The strategy defines the concept of public diplomacy, names its priorities, goals and objectives and its main tools.

Second, the document not only identifies seven areas (cultural, economic, expert, culinary, scientific, educational, sport and digital diplomacy) that are key to Ukraine’s public diplomacy, but outlines which institutions will be responsible for each area. In addition, the strategy repeatedly emphasises the need for close inter-institutional / interagency co-ordination. The very process of developing the strategy in the fall of 2020 signalled the inter-institutional synergy not only of the public but also of civil society. After all, representatives of civil society and well-known experts on public diplomacy were invited to the strategic sessions coordinated by the department of communications and public diplomacy at the foreign ministry.

Third, the strategy recognises the importance of applied research and analytics to ensure the functioning of the public diplomacy field. This practice has already been successfully initiated by the Ukrainian Institute in co-operation with think tanks, striving to build its agenda on the basis of empirical research. This allows it to better determine the ground zero, from which the initiatives start, and then to measure the effectiveness of the work done. Even though this approach is an established practice in many advanced countries, it is still used quite selectively in Ukraine, so enshrining it in the strategy is an important step.

Fourth, the strategy addresses the subject matter of the public diplomacy field – this regards the national brand “UkraineNow” that was officially approved by the government in May 2018, as well as the main narratives that are to be promoted to position Ukraine internationally.

Fifth, the main geographical vectors are described in detail, taking into account Ukraine’s foreign policy priorities in cultural diplomacy, attraction of investment, promotion of Ukrainian exports, educational opportunities, tourism potential, and in scientific-expert and digital diplomacies. In additionally, the strategy offers specific indicators for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of its implementation.

Unanswered questions

Funding has traditionally been a weak point. The strategy itself recognises the scarcity of available resources, yet emphasises the need for full expenditure to properly execute the tasks of public diplomacy. Will it be possible to maintain this funding level, let alone expand it? To maintain partnerships with their foreign counterparts, Ukrainian institutions need stable funding. Otherwise, what public image can we talk about if an exhibition or festival in some country is cancelled due to a sudden reduction in travel expenses? In the same context, the question of obsolete budget legislation remains open particularly, the difficulties of introducing three-year budget planning of the Ukrainian Institute. This significantly complicates the work abroad (for example, in planning and implementing long-term projects).

The strategy alone will not be able to solve the problem of excessive bureaucratisation and regulatory irregularities that still characterise the Ukrainian public sector. This problem, in particular, complicates the procedure of inviting foreign experts and partners to Ukraine with public expenses. The particularities of the public procurement procedure that complicate the work of the Ukrainian Institute abroad, the co-operation with foreign partners in providing them with services in joint projects, the ability of public diplomacy in Ukraine to react in unforeseeable circumstances may have an adverse effect on the image of Ukraine abroad.

Despite the fact that the strategy pays considerable attention to inter-institutional co-operation, the question remains how the “mandates” will be coordinated between all the institutions involved in public diplomacy, whether duplication of functions or possible transfer of responsibilities can be avoided. It will also be necessary to make considerable efforts to build an algorithm for co-operation with the Ukrainian diaspora, as well as with non-governmental organisations. It would be apt to develop a grant scheme for NGOs and think tanks to strengthen expert support and professional analysis in the field of public diplomacy. The Ukrainian Cultural Foundation, for instance, could serve as a model for this.

In addition, internationally, work in this direction will continue to face some unfavourable circumstances. In particular, the Russian Federation is not only conducting a direct armed aggression against Ukraine, but is also competing for the hearts and minds of the people in the region and further abroad, using the means of hybrid warfare and allocating huge resources towards it. Moreover, in some countries, Ukrainian public diplomats will have to practically start from scratch. After all, vivid images positively associated with Ukraine are not always present abroad, there are still numerous stereotypes in perceptions and the overall knowledge about Ukraine sometimes remains rather limited.

However, the positive trends in Ukrainian public diplomacy have already been outlined. Its gradual exit from terra incognita, thanks to the active work of new institutions and the adopted strategy, provides the grounds to talk about a new level of Ukrainian public diplomacy. It will be important to maintain existing developments and gain momentum so that Ukraine’s public diplomacy is “overgrown” with success stories and effective practices. The challenges – both internal and external – still remain, and there is a need to work hard to neutralise them.

Translated by Margarita Novikova

Nadiia Bureiko is the head of the programme “Ukraine Abroad” at the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism”.

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