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A response to Leonid Ragozin’s “Putin no longer fears a democratic Ukraine”

Debate continues over whether or not Putin is specifically worried about Ukraine’s ongoing attempts at reform. Whilst democracy in the country is flawed, the situation on the ground is by no means as bad as suggested by certain writers.

February 23, 2022 - Luke Smith - Articles and Commentary

Night view of Dnipro. Photo: Marianna Ianovska / Shutterstock

Earlier this month, the controversial Russia pundit Leonid Ragozin wrote an article for Al Jazeera titled “Putin no longer fears a democratic Ukraine”. The problematic piece lays the blame for Ukraine’s present troubles solely on the West and on Ukrainian political elites, entirely erasing Russia’s agency.

The author’s core contention is that while Putin once feared Ukrainian democracy, the Russian president no longer does because the troubled state of Ukraine today is the best argument against the democracy he used to fear.

He goes on to suggest that the West is not interested in democracy but in creating an “anti-Russia” into which it can move military infrastructure. According to Ragozin, this “geo-political adventurism” is the driver of a conflict that could be solved if the West would simply engage with Russia in good faith.

The problems of post-Maidan

Ukrainian democracy today has very significant problems and this is undeniable. It possesses a political class that is for the most part incorrigibly corrupt. The country also suffers from many other structural problems that have hampered the pace of reform. These issues include deeply entrenched oligarchic monopolies and the effects of a Russian foreign policy focused on undermining the stability and statehood of Ukraine whenever and wherever possible.[1]

Serious analysts continue to debate to what extent Putin specifically fears Ukrainian democracy, or more simply a hostile, western-aligned and well-armed state on its borders. Dr. Andrew Fink argued recently in the Kyiv Independent that this distinction may not exist in reality, as Putin likely does not believe democracy as such really exists anywhere in the world.

The reason for this is that the Russian political establishment is famously prone to “mirror imaging”. Moscow believes that other nations, much like Russia itself, are in fact run by a core group of manipulative siloviki who manage their countries’ “democracy”. It was for this reason that the Russian leadership was surprised by the election of Donald Trump in 2016 in spite of their support for him. They did not think that the establishment would “allow” such a thing to happen, no matter the actual result of the vote.

But rather than engaging with this debate, Ragozin here strays into propaganda. The article argues that Putin does not fear Ukrainian democracy because of mirror imaging or because democracy is less of a concern for him than alignment (it is hard to imagine Putin objecting to a Ukraine that consistently elects Donetsk-mafia clan candidates in free and fair elections). Instead, the Russian leader simply does not fear Kyiv’s reforms due to how illiberal Ukraine has become following Euromaidan.

The piece then goes on to make a long list of assertions, none of which are backed up with evidence. Ragozin asserts that “Ukraine […lost] its appeal within Russian pro-democracy circles…. in large part because of the toxic nature of the Ukrainian political debate…which the genuinely sympathetic liberal Russians found shocking.” On what basis does the author speak for Russian liberals as a group?

Whilst the author is apparently uninterested in backing up his claims about Russian liberals, the interested reader is quickly able to find examples of Russian dissident organisations operating in Ukraine, such as the Free Russia House. In the aftermath of Lukashenka’s crackdown on protests in 2020-21, Ukraine also saw a massive influx of Belarusian dissidents. This suggests that the country still is an example for Russian speakers who aspire to live in a democracy. To this day and for all its problems, Ukraine is the only Russian-speaking country in the world that has anything approximating a free society and democratic government. Russia and Belarus do not have real elections. The rivals of Ukrainian presidents are lambasted on TV stations they themselves control or investigated by law enforcement. In Russia, the president’s rivals are murdered.

The author’s next set of mental gymnastics comes with his assertion that “With a war in one corner of the country, powerful organised crime and way more political assassinations than Putin’s Russia saw during the same period, Ukraine came to remind Russians of the turbulent 1990s.”

This is written as if the war in “one corner” of the country just appeared spontaneously. The same goes for political assassinations. It is not clear if Ragozin means that Ukraine experiences more assassinations now than Russia did in the 1990s, or more assassinations than Russia did from 2014 to the present day. However, either claim would be dubious.

The article does not explain how exactly the total amount of political assassinations is tallied. Given the ubiquity of assassinations in Russia today, it is unclear why Russians would need to look back to a prior period for comparison. 

Another obvious question here, and one that the author refuses to ask, is how many of these political assassinations in Ukraine were done by, or at the behest of, Russian security services. Overall, it appears that the answer is quite a few. It would seem then not entirely honest to point to those as examples of Ukrainian democracy sleeping on the job, unless Ragozin is interested in making some kind of fascist argument that democracies are too weak to resist Russian aggression.

The reader is also left to wonder how the author determines what constitutes a “political assassination”. In the interconnected world of Russian political, business, organised crime, and security service elites, it is often difficult to determine even an approximate motivation for any particular murder. Is the author here counting things like the recent death of an FSB officer in the Russian embassy in Berlin? Conversely, does he consider Ukraine’s security services striking legitimate military targets in Donbas to be “political assassinations in Ukraine”? Would he consider the death of a person who attempted to expose, for example, financial wrongdoing on the part of a high-profile figure to be a “political assassination” in Ukraine, but not apply the same standard in Russia?

We do not know, because the author did not consider it important enough to tell us. What the article seems to suggest, however, is that Ragozin is only counting extremely high-profile cases like the attempted Navalny assassination. This is a dubious methodology to say the least.

Language laws

When addressing Ukraine’s laws, the article again mischaracterises the facts on the ground. The use of the Russian language is not “severely restricted” by law in Ukraine. In fact, it predominates in major cities in the centre, east and south of the country. No matter an individual’s spoken language of preference, native-level passive comprehension of each language is almost universal. Russian speakers continue to be disproportionately represented in the country’s armed services, and largely Russian-speaking volunteer battalions, such as the Dnipro-1 Regiment, were instrumental in stalling Putin’s advance when war broke out in 2014.

The language law does not even make the list when Ukrainians are surveyed about the issues that concern them the most. It is curious that this should be the case when one of Putin’s stated concerns is the protection of Russian speakers.

It appears that the author is gesturing here at a common trope in discourse around Ukraine: namely that Russian-speakers, especially in the South-East of the country are “Pro-Russian”, want Kremlin protection, feel that their rights are being trampled and thus, they vote for Pro-Russian parties like Opposition Platform for Life (Opzzh).

Ragozin has previously taken the position that Ukrainian rejection of ethnonationalism, represented by Poroshenko and his language policies, accounts for the subsequent election of Z­­­­elenskyy, and that Zelenksyy’s subsequent failure to repeal that law now accounts for Opzzh’s increase in popularity as new provisions have started to come into place (most recently the provision regarding mass media publications). But there is little to suggest that this is case, especially given that social surveys indicate most Ukrainian voters support the language law.

Poroshenko lost the 2019 election because of stalled reforms, perceived mismanagement of the war and a particularly egregious scandal involving the misappropriation of military equipment that broke during the election cycle. Not because of his language policies.

One must also distinguish between the motivations of individual voters and the motives of the party. At the strategic level there is no question that Opzzh pursues policies that are not only aligned with but in large part actively directed by the Kremlin. But this does not mean that these same policies are presented to voters in those terms. Rather it plays a skillful propaganda game wherein it positions itself but rather as the party of peace which will secure a return to normalcy, willing to end the war even by conceding autonomy to the breakaway regions. None of this means that the majority of Opposition for Life voters want more Russian incursions into Ukrainian territory, or that they feel that they need the Kremlin to protect their language rights. It means rather that Ukrainian citizens residing closer to the frontline are more likely to be war-weary, more likely to have an even lower level of trust in the government than the (already quite low) Ukrainian average, and therefore more susceptible messaging that promises peace, stability and normalcy now, even with significant concessions. While Opzzh does oppose the language law, these other factors are all significantly more important than language in accounting for their popularity. 

Lastly, Ukrainian political parties operate under what political science terms a client-patron model. Put simply, this means that a significant number of any parties’ constituents vote for it not out of any particular ideological or policy commitments as much as in exchange for benefits (concrete or perceived) that party representatives have been able to bring to the voter’s locality or to the voter personally. Especially in East and South of the country, people are more likely to have an indifferent, Wedding at Malinovka-esque attitude towards authorities, with perhaps some preference for whatever devil they happen to know.[2]

None of this to say that there are no valid criticisms of the language law. But these problems do not rise to the level of ethnonationialst “forced assimilation”, as the author has sometimes characterized it.

Sleight of hand and the erasure of agency

While Ragozin writes that Ukraine looks like “a mirror image of nationalist and illiberal Russia”, the fact remains that Ukraine has had six presidents since 1991. Russia, for all intents and purposes, has had only 2 (Medvedev is widely considered to have remained Putin’s subordinate in practice during his presidential term). 

Debate will no doubt continue regarding how much Putin’s policy is driven by Ukrainians’ democratic aspirations and the implications of this for reform movements elsewhere in the Russian-speaking world. However, Ragozin goes far beyond questioning the extent to which a fear of democracy drives Russian policy.

Rather, he uses that question as a jumping off point to cast Ukraine as a failed state, suggesting that Ukrainians’ pro-western and democratic aspirations are insincere and that the country is being manipulated by cynical NATO masters in the West whose sole interest is in expanding their military infrastructure. He then presents the current, extremely dangerous situation as the fault of everyone but Russia, laying the blame for it on “incompetent” Western policies. In short, it is not analysis, but rather narrative. This is perhaps best illustrated by how easy it is to flip the article’s conclusion on its head: “The version of Ukraine we are seeing today is very much a product of the profoundly flawed and incompetent Russian policies of the last 30 years — in particular the Kremlin’s war of choice that has killed over 14,000 people since 2014. It is a creation of the East.”

Luke Smith is an independent writer based in Ukraine. He has written for The Odessa Review, Kyiv Post, and several newsletters in the emerging markets/political risk space.

[1] A recent Costs of War report from CEBR found that 8 years of war have cost Ukraine USD 280bn, a sum greater than Ukrainian GDP for any individual year since 1991.

[2] See also Katherine Quinn-Judge’s piece in Foreign Affairs 

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