Ukraine: Civil Society in the Balance
On January 19, 2014, future Prime Minister Arsenii Yatseniuk called before a crowd gathered in the winter chill of Kyiv’s Maidan for “a government of popular trust, which will be able to bring the country into the European Union (EU), which will stop the dictatorship of Viktor Yanukovych, which will renew our constitutional rights and freedoms, and which will really be … the government of a European Ukraine, a government of Ukrainians.”1
As we approach the third anniversary of former President Viktor Yanukovych’s overthrow by the Maidan revolutionaries, political analysts continue to assess the extent to which Ukraine’s newly elected leaders are fulfilling these promises. Three book-length analyses of the Maidan, subsequent Russian military incursions, and ensuing international conflict raise deep questions about what Yatseniuk’s promises for Ukraine’s future meant, and how they relate to one another. With the UN reporting near 10,000 persons killed as a result of the ongoing war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region,2 these retrospectives frequently double as efforts at assigning blame. The list of candidates proposed is a long one, including the kleptocratic Yanukovych; Ukrainian nationalists who opposed him; an emboldened and aggressive Russian government; short-sighted EU technocrats; and jingoistic American politicians. Conflicting assessments in this matter by Andrew Wilson, Richard Sakwa, and Rajan Menon and Eugene Rumer rest not merely on divergent theoretical premises—opposing a realist interpretation of Ukraine’s westward integration, as a potentially threatening geopolitical lurch, to a liberal idealist contextualization of that process within the framework of democratic consolidation—but also on sharply contradictory factual accounts. On both fronts, room exists for qualifying the prevalent—idealist and Russia-focused—Western narrative of the conflict, here convincingly set forth by Wilson, with a more multidimensional approach. Amidst continuing violence and widespread politicization, however, a fully detached take on the conflict may be impossible. Menon and Rumer’s thoughtfully written, moderate realist take suffers from occasional disjointedness and its own blind spots. In Sakwa’s comprehensive and ambitious defense of Moscow’s position, an uncritical relationship to Russian sources and ideological investment in Russia as strategic counterweight to the West hinder a good-faith assessment of events within Ukraine. In a depressing tribute to our “post-fact era,” as well as to the continued vitality of a well-funded Russian propaganda machine, the accounts’ contradictions reveal that the competing universes of fact Wilson describes in the post-Soviet space have also fractured analysis thereof. Those who still see coherence in the ideal of a democratic, European, and rights-respecting Ukraine face the challenge of confronting political manipulation, of text and of reality, while preserving the possibility of meaningful civic interchange and debate.