Resilient Ukraine is Solution to Aggressive Russia

As Russia’s policy of aggressive regional revisionism continues, Ukraine must build resilience at home to protect society and ensure progress of reforms.

Expert comment Published 19 October 2020 Updated 23 October 2020 2 minute READ

In over a year since President Zelenskyy embarked on his diplomatic effort to ‘end war with Russia’, there have been some steps forward in releasing prisoners of war and a short-lived ceasefire period. But few have any illusions peace is likely in the near future.

Vladimir Putin’s statement in June that ex-Soviet republics had left the USSR ‘with gifts from the Russian people’ - meaning they had gained supposedly ‘Russian’ lands - shows he has no intention of changing Russia’s policy of revisionism and disruption.

And Russia’s recent engagement in Belarus, which could see Minsk losing sovereignty as the result of any bargain Lukashenka may have struck with Putin to stay in power, further endangers Ukraine’s northern border.

While it is important to withstand the onslaught of Russian aggression, equally crucial is building institutions, organizations and individuals that demonstrate commitment to reforms, shared values, engagement, unity around a common purpose, and a sense of identity.

Building this resilience at home is an essential strategy for Ukraine, to enable its society to absorb shocks and use crises to design new institutions - something Ukraine needs to do to be truly independent. Such efforts should also go hand-in-hand with strengthening diplomatic outreach to maintain the unity of Ukraine’s international partners on Russia, especially in relation to sanctions.

Increasing awareness of the domestic vulnerabilities Russia exploits to weaken Ukraine is the starting point for any sensible policy. Our research for Chatham House outlined the three most effective levers of negative Russian influence on Ukrainian society - armed conflict, corruption and the opaque nature of domestic politics.

The effects of the armed conflict in Donbas reverberate nationwide, which is precisely why Russia keeps it simmering. Ukraine struggles to properly reintegrate veterans back into civilian life, and they have many grievances. There has been an increase in violence and crime involving the use of firearms as, since 2014, one in ten Ukrainian citizens has acquired a weapon.

Social polarization is also growing between citizens who express strong patriotic sentiments and demand the restoration of the pre-war status for Donbas and those who would compromise along the lines laid down by the Kremlin.

In western Ukraine, support for the reintegration of Donbas is significantly lower than in the rest of the country, and is decreasing due to a lack of progress in the peace talks. Stalemate in the efforts to resolve the conflict works in favour of Kremlin-aligned parties, and could further fracture the already complex political landscape.

Reintegrating Donbas in a way that ensures Ukraine’s security is only possible if strategic and sustained efforts are directed at strengthening social cohesion. If this is achieved, the eventual return of Donbas does not pose a threat to the country’s statehood.

Ensuring strong connections across the whole of Ukraine in the form of transport links, exchange programmes between young people and professionals, and more direct communication between communities is key.

Ukrainian society already has some powerful reserves of resilience that should be channelled by the state and embedded at national and regional levels. Ukrainians are determined to defend their country and are optimistic they will overcome current hardships.

Horizontal links, nascent social cohesion among groups of active citizens and a vibrant civil society are helping Ukrainians to persevere. All these elements mobilized strongly again to meet the challenge of COVID-19.

It is a positive sign that President Zelenskyy’s administration has acknowledged the importance of resilience as one of the pillars of the new National Security Strategy. But so far, this remains a declaration on paper. It needs to be followed up with action.

To ensure that Ukraine’s internal system of governance has a resilient structure, most public agencies should be revamped into adaptive units that are agile, learning, and inclusive organisms.

Input from civil society and the private sector, as well as from the mayors and leaders of newly decentralized communities, should form the backbone of policymaking and social innovation.

Top-down design is doomed to failure, as it is not rooted in the reality of how the country functions. The decentralization process should be completed so that the country is ruled by ‘a team of teams,’ which works to ensure that concerted efforts deliver the results of real reform to citizens.

Finally, it is crucial to help Ukrainians develop critical thinking and media literacy in order to build a cognitive resilience against disinformation and information manipulation. Courses on this have been successfully piloted in Ukraine and should be scaled up for schools across the country.

A truly resilient Ukraine is not only able to withstand the hostile actions of Russia, but is also better prepared for future shocks, such as regional geo-strategic challenges, pandemics, natural disasters and disruptions to the global economy.