First of all, I would like to say that my background is in journalism – so I principally work on the ground – although we also do research so I won’t only refer to my ideas. Probably the first thing to say is that Ukrainian society today is very pluralistic, so the views I represent could vary. But at this current moment, I think the Ukrainian population thinks that there should be place for some understanding of the sovereignty and the will of the Ukrainian people, because it is understood that in Russian publications – in what Putin writes – there is no place for Ukrainians to decide; this should be also be related in Western accounts. Just recently I have been asked many times about how Ukrainians feel to be pawns on the global chess board and I usually respond that that’s not quite the case. The problem is with a global security architecture in which a smaller country, though Ukraine is a big country, has no real protection because we are still thinking about big alliances. Indeed, some Russian analysts say today that Russia is still living with a Gorbachev-style understanding that sooner or later Russia would become part of the West. Now, we need to admit that today the Kremlin does not want this; it does not accept this stick and carrot politics, because it does not understand that there are any carrots to be had from the West. This should be the discussion: how can countries who do not happen to be in alliances in a time when Russia doesn’t have this strength be protected?
We know for sure that now the support for EU and NATO membership is growing in Ukraine. We do understand it is difficult, but that is the will of the people. I think it is also very important to understand what Ukrainians think about Russia. For many, and for my generation, it is not really about geopolitics, it is really about the fact that Russia represents authoritarianism and corruption and Ukraine represents democratic and liberal values. So that’s the point. Ukraine is the role model for the whole of Eastern Europe and for post-Soviet spaces; be it the Caucasus, Central Asia, Belarus, and Russia itself, and we know that is exactly what frightens Putin the most. While discussing why he is so obsessed with Ukraine, the idea is that he feels offended and humiliated, not just by Ukraine, but by the Ukrainians, who, during the Orange Revolution and during the Euro-Maidan revolution, supported a different side. So that also makes it very serious.
The question, which I do not obviously have an answer for is about the fact that neutrality today does not work. Ukraine has remained neutral for a lot of time, and that is why it is vulnerable. But I also want to talk about the Donbas and Crimea, and the compromise with Russia, which are very different things. So, I think it is important and often not mentioned by the foreign press and even in academia, that for the last two and a half years, Ukraine was moving in this classical conflict resolution framework. By voting for President Zelensky two and a half years ago, the majority of the population chose the idea that there could be some negotiation with Russia, perhaps not really compromise, but at least the idea that we should negotiate. The idea of taking the Donbas by force was necessarily voted out.
Indeed, after a couple of years being here on the ground, and participating in dozens of events, discussions with international experts, negotiations that were both open to the public and not, in which there were different ideas; the concept of transitional justice was developed. Unfortunately, it did not lead to anything considerable. However, I will not say that it was for nothing because in the end it was mainly about humanitarian actions from the Ukrainian state. It made it so that the people living in the occupied territories benefited from better humanitarian policies, and a more positive approach from the state. However, again, it did not work with Russia, and there is also the question that it is very hard for Ukraine to ask for something more.
I think the problem with this is also that on the table, in the context of high-level negotiations, the sides indeed need to have a defined final strategy in mind. Sometimes they need to make room for compromise and find an exit strategy for their counterparts; because we understand that in times of war, that is how conflict resolution works and that there are groups within the population that will not accept compromise. Russia effectively does not need to compromise; Ukraine has already made quite a few concessions. These were not hard for Ukraine, but still, from a publicity standpoint often what would happen is that the Ukrainian government would be mocked in the press for being weak, and that searching for compromise was not patriotic. Russia caused this, so that all the negotiations were made in with the aim of making the Ukrainian government look as though it was not firm enough, so that was not a very good start to the discussion.
That said, we should not demonize the Minsk Agreement. I myself was working in Mariupol when the first Minsk Agreement was adopted, and I was in Debaltseve when the second Minsk agreement was approved; there was not much choice. There was no moment for a better agreement than this, at any point in the last years. The thing with this agreement is that it is quite vague, which is both a good and a bad sign. There is nothing terribly bad in it, but we understand that Russia wants to use this ambiguity put something wrong in it, inserted something that would not be accepted by Ukrainian society.
The question is how to really work with this document. Firstly, the problem is that it is outdated. It was created at a time when there was not even a real conflict line. So, that is something to discuss. I know that my assumption would be yes, that Ukraine would be pushed to do something with this on conditions which we do not yet know. But the critical thing is really to understand from our point of view, is what are those critical elements? What really is the danger for the Ukrainian state? Because I also argue that at this point Ukrainian society has crossed a point of no return. It is resilient enough; it is strong enough to digest certain elements if we are speaking about humanitarian policies for example. Of course, I am not speaking about giving real autonomy to the Donbas – the way Russia sees it – with the separatists in the Ukrainian parliament.
I also need to mention that we are doing some research in the occupied territories. The research did not really have a political skew, but we did understand that its population is not hostile to Ukraine, it is not fully “brainwashed”. It feels abandoned, it wants to return to a status when there was no war and would accept any peace possible. Other research conducted through sociological surveys, suggest that a majority of Ukrainians do not want to compromise Ukrainian sovereignty, so no there is no question that Crimea and the Donbas should be part of Ukraine; they do not want to really compromise on this. Also, there is a high level of acceptance of this by the people from the occupied territories so, social cohesion is high. The social surveys show that Ukrainian society is far more moderate and has a civil identity based on loyalty to the state, rather than for instance what is usually written in the “Kyiv bubble” – or liberal media – so there is something to work with.
Compromises are usually made when one side feels the status quo is harmful. It is not the case for Russia. Now Russia can live in this current situation for a while. For Ukraine, I would do claim that the conflict itself is toxic; Ukraine would be blackmailed all the time, unless the issue is not solved. It is also a part of the Ukrainian State’s responsibility to care of the people in the Donbas and Crimea.
Just one more point to add about the compromise with Russia. I think it is difficult because when a country denies your sovereignty it is very hard to accept it. That is the first thing, but where I think there is hope, and it may be very theoretical, and it is a generational issue, but I think I need to give this hope to people: a couple of years ago, I was reporting from Russia, and I met this new generation of people who were in their twenties. When I was going to Russia in 2000 to 2010, I met a lot of people there who were also liberals. They were indeed talking to us Ukrainians in this relational context of bigger and small brothers. Those kids in Russia today – I speak about young political activists, and journalists – they looked at us as people coming from a free and democratic country, exactly like I had watched the Estonian or Polish reporters when I was just starting my career. I do think that with a democratic Russia there could be compromise, but so far in this environment, we can only consider some level of containment and we need to return to this idea of how to protect states that are currently not positioned within alliances.
Nataliya Gumenyuk is a Ukrainian author and journalist specializing in foreign affairs and conflict reporting. She is the co-founder and CEO of the Public Interest Journalism Lab
Cover Photo: Maksim Blinov / Sputnik / AFP.
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