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Ukrainian civil society as one of the key players in the Russo-Ukrainian War

Today, when we talk about the Russo-Ukrainian War and the future victory of Ukraine, we must remember the voice of Ukrainian civil society. This voice is significant now and it is clear that the two sides of the war will have to listen, both the aggressor (Russia) and the victim (Ukraine).

April 18, 2023 - Andrii Kutsyk - Articles and Commentary

Ivan Fedorov, Yulia Pajevska, Oleksandra Matviychuk, Roberta Metsola and Yaroslav Bozhko during the cermony in the European Parliament honouring the Ukrainian people with the 2022 Sakharov Prize. Photo: European Parliament on flickr.com

When Putin started the war against Ukraine, he not only misjudged the possibility of military resistance from the Ukrainians. He also did not realise the power of civil society in Ukraine as a political and perhaps geopolitical player without real political ambitions. At the beginning of the Russian invasion, Ukrainian activists and representatives of public and human rights organisations joined the fight for Ukraine. In particular, it is worth mentioning the emotional speech of Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Kyiv Anti-Corruption Action Centre, at a meeting with the then prime minister of the UK, Boris Johnson. During this event, she called for the leader to close the sky over Ukraine. Even then, it became clear that the Ukrainian government had a strong ally in the international arena, which on the one hand has helped by providing vital weapons and sanctions, and on the other hand has not put forward any difficult demands of Kyiv. However, it is clear that civil society will play a key role in the continuation of reforms in all spheres of the Ukrainian state apparatus.

When, at the beginning of the war, during negotiations with the Ukrainian delegation, the Russians tried to impose demands unacceptable for Ukraine (such as neutral status, the disarmament of Ukraine, territorial concessions, etc.), none of them somehow understood that the authorities could not accept these demands even if some of them wanted to. After the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, the Ukrainian government became dependent on the opinion of Ukrainian civil society and now acts according to its demands. When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy broadcasts various messages for western politicians, he actually conveys the demands of civil society. When Zelenskyy says that Ukraine will not negotiate with the Russians, it is clearly not just the personal position of the president of Ukraine. In this way, he broadcasts the position of Ukrainian society, remaining in the eyes of the free world a leader and a symbol of the struggle for freedom.

It is important to understand that when someone in the West says that it is necessary to put pressure on President Zelenskyy regarding negotiations with Russia, or asks whether Zelenskyy is afraid that Ukrainians will eventually rise up against him given their unwillingness to talk with Russia and thus stop the war, then these people do not understand the current Ukraine. Ukraine in its current state (e.g. after the Revolution of Dignity) is the antithesis of Russia. That is, it is a country where society does not depend on the government. Instead, the government completely depends on society and fulfils its requests. Nowadays, Ukrainian society demands justice and communicates these demands to the Ukrainian authorities and to President Zelenskyy personally. What is justice for Ukrainians today? This is what the president of Ukraine expressed in his “peace formula” supported by civil society. Everything about the country’s goals is quite clear: atomic and nuclear security, food security, energy security, the complete release of all prisoners and deportees, the implementation of the UN Charter, and the restoration of the territorial integrity of Ukraine as well as the world order. Naturally, there are also demands for the withdrawal of Russian troops and the cessation of hostilities, the prevalence of law and justice, countering ecocide, and preventing further escalation. This last point could function as a documented and internationally-recognised confirmation of the end of the war. In fact, Zelenskyy in his “peace formula” voiced the demands of Ukrainian society, as it (society) sees the end of the war. The key issue here is the withdrawal of all Russian troops from the territory of Ukraine (including Crimea) and punishment of the guilty (creating a tribunal for Putin and all those involved in war crimes in Ukraine).

The International Criminal Court’s issuance of a warrant for Putin’s arrest shows that the implementation of one of the demands from the list of the “peace formula” has been launched. This is already an undoubted victory for the Ukrainian authorities in cooperation with Ukrainian civil society, in particular the human rights defender and 2022 Nobel Peace Laureate Oleksandra Matviichuk (Centre for Civil Liberties). It was she who, in her speech at the awarding of the Nobel Prize, noted the importance of achieving justice by not waiting for the end of the war and then criminal trials (as in the case of the Second World War), but by acting here and now by creating a tribunal and bringing the guilty to justice.

Putin cannot or does not want to understand that he is not just fighting against the Ukrainian military supported by western weapons and sanctions. In reality, he is fighting against a powerful, mass public movement of intellectuals, human rights defenders, and civil activists who, with their authority and charisma, influence the key decisions of western leaders. The authority held in the West by these Ukrainian public figures, human rights defenders and journalists (including Daria Kaleniuk, Oleksandra Matviichuk, Myroslava Gongadze (Voice of America), Sevgil Musaieva (chief editor of Ukrainska Pravda) and Oksana Markarova (Ukraine’s ambassador to the US)) may not be comparable to the authority of Zelenskyy, but it is very important on the western socio-political front.

When Putin, through his agents in Europe, tries to destabilise or destroy western support for Ukraine, he at the same time meets the resistance of Ukrainian civil society in the West. The Ukrainian public movement and its leaders can quickly organise a protest in the key capital cities of the world, as well as use mass media to convey the importance of different decisions regarding military aid or sanctions.

The future challenge for Ukrainian civil society

The future Ukrainian victory may not be possible without further support from the West. Such support also largely depends on the support for Ukraine shown by the citizens of western countries. The West feels fatigue from the war (e.g. “Ukraine Fatigue”) but this fatigue is not comparable to the fatigue of the Ukrainians and the Ukrainian military. Despite this, it is clear that everyone has their own interests. For the near future, the task for Ukrainian civil society working in the western media space is to explain the importance of the Ukrainian victory for the citizens of the “Collective West”. The warrant for Putin’s arrest has set a precedent, as the leader of a nuclear state has now been charged with war crimes. It is important that this precedent becomes the norm and not an accident. In addition, it is important that western public opinion (which is still quite divided on how the war should end) becomes identical to the opinion of every Ukrainian who fights and dies for the values of the West. We must acknowledge that western politicians’ decisions depend on the changing opinions of their citizens (e.g. voters). Just like how President Zelenskyy acts at the request of the Ukrainian society he serves, so too are European democracies forced to listen to the demands and requests of their citizens – this is the essence of democracy upon which the entire western world rests. As an example, Poland and the Baltic countries provided and continue to provide the largest amount of aid to Ukraine in relation to their GDP. Such support is not just the decision of one or another president or prime minister, it is the decision of the citizens of these countries (of its civil societies). And only with similar support and solidarity from all other countries (specifically citizens and in a broader sense civil societies) of Europe and the world will it be possible to defeat the monster that Russia remains to this day. Ukrainian civil society more than once in its history was able to break seemingly unbreakable regimes (e.g. Yanukovych’s regime), but this was only in the domestic political arena. Now the decisive moment has come to do it once again, but this time on the world’s geopolitical stage.

Andrii Kutsyk holds a PhD in Philosophy of Media (Lesya Ukrainka Volyn National University) and MA in Eastern European Studies (University of Warsaw). He is a Research scholarship holder at the Artes Liberalis Faculty at the University of Warsaw, Member of the Research Institute for European Policy and an Assistant Editor at the European Journal of Transformation Studies as well as a Freelance Journalist.

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