JEF Malta: People beyond War: Identity Politics in Post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia

, by Alexander Borg, JEF Malta

JEF Malta: People beyond War: Identity Politics in Post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia
Credit: JEF Malta

On December 16th, JEF Malta hosted an edition of its recurring seminar ‘JEF Talks’ in order to discuss the impact of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine on the nationhood of both Russian and Ukrainian people. Former Maltese Foreign Minister, Dr. Evarist Bartolo, Martens Centre Research Associate and Assistant Lecturer at the Institute of European Studies at the University of Malta, Dr. Andre P. Debattista, and Global Instructor at the European Security Academy and freelance defence advisor, Mr. Patrick Schaerrer

9th May marks the celebration of the fall of Berlin to the Red Army and the end of the Second World War in Europe, a conflict in which 24 million servicemen and citizens of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics perished. After the U.S.S.R.’s dissolution in 1991, the celebration of 9th May by the former Soviet republics stood as one of several symbols of fraternity and a shared history among them.

The brotherhood of Ukraine and Russia was one in particular which seemed ready to withstand the test of the post-Soviet age: in 1994, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk signed the Budapest Memorandum, under the auspices of the United States and the United Kingdom, which decreed that Russia would respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, and that Ukraine would handover its nuclear weapons arsenal to the Russian government in an effort by the U.S. administration to prevent the proliferation of Soviet-era weapons of mass destruction.

In the early hours of 24th February 2022, the cobalt blue sky over Ukraine was lit by a rain of fire that torched every corner of the 31-year old independent republic and the largest nation located entirely in Europe, from the Eastern Carpathians on its western borders with Hungary and Slovakia to the Donets Coal Basin (or Donbas’) which had been the centre of a protracted armed conflict between Ukraine and the pro-Russian secessionist regimes of Lugansk and Donetsk for the past 8 years. As the first Russian infantry and armoured divisions advanced from across the internationally-recognised Russo-Ukrainian border and occupied Crimea, Vladimir Putin’s ‘Special Military Operation’ had begun.

After 3 decades of hope for the fraternal coexistence of Ukraine and Russia, bound by shared Eastern Slavic cultural heritage and post-Soviet bilateral engagement, the conflict which began following the annexation of Crimea in 2014 had spiralled from a conflict between Kyiv and Moscow, to one between two nations and two historical narratives.

JEF Malta invited our 3 panellists to discuss the underlying and multifaceted ‘crisis of identity’ sparked by the invasion, in large part, due to their unique and expert insights into the ramifications the first major inter-state conflict in post-war European history on how Ukrainian and Russian citizens have perceived their nationhood and their citizenship of their states. As the former foreign minister of a neutral member-state of the E.U., Evarist Bartolo was able to present the political dynamics of Ukrainian as well as Russian statehood, and how the formation of both states after 1991 interacted in a variety of ways with the national identities of the peoples that lived in them. As an academic and expert in the field of contemporary European studies, Andre P. Debattista was able to discuss certain global and continental reverberations from the wider conflict between Ukrainians and Russians, and Patrick Schaerrer, who brought invaluable insights as a freelance defence instructor who experienced the wartime conditions of the Ukrainian armed forces first hand, presented the conflict from the view that it challenged certain historical narratives and, in turn, fundamental aspects of the way modern Ukraine and Russia are governed as well as their respective relations with the Western World.

The discussion’s first objective was to understand the ramifications of the invasion on its perception by Russians as an act of the enlargement of their state, and by Ukrainians as the curtailment of theirs. Afterwards, the changing dynamics in the relations of both Russia and Ukraine, as Eastern Slavic and Orthodox Christian nations, with the European community and the Transatlantic alliance were discussed. The discussion concluded on the role of the invasion as a source of change in the dynamic between Russian citizens and the ruling regime: would it serve as an opportunity for opposition movements to garner enough support to induce significant societal and political change, or would Putin and his acolytes further entrench their kleptocratic rule over the World’s largest nation by censoring and suppressing real and imagined opposition to the war itself?

The sobering conclusion of the seminar lay in the reality that while it is impossible to predict how certain political changes within either country may take place, what is certain is that the invasion has exacerbated a number of long-dormant causes for the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, one of the most important of which is the Kremlin’s ‘un-acceptance’ of the shift of the world order from one concentrated on Washington and Moscow, to one concentrated on Washington and Beijing. Understanding the conflict from the perspective of Russians and Ukrainians, as the direct combatants, also helped to defy certain Western assumptions prior to the invasion.

One of the most peculiar ‘miscalculations’, in large part caused by pro-Russian violent demonstrations in 2014 in cities such as Odessa and Kharkiv, was that ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking Ukrainians would create an additional front against Ukraine. In actuality, the brutality of the Russian military’s tactics further contributed to a process of civic nation-building in Ukraine that included ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers who rejected the unilateral conquest of their state by another which they refused to form part of against their will.

While the aim of this discussion was to inquire and question certain presumptions about the war in Ukraine, its objective was central to JEF’s mission and stance on this conflict: the violation of the integrity of Ukraine’s 1991 borders as well as rhetoric and actions questioning the independence of Ukraine and the existence of a Ukrainian national identity are not only illegal, but factually incoherent. The objective of this seminar should therefore be received as part of the wider inquiry into Vladimir Putin’s false narrative as well as the imperialist intent and consequences that narrative creates, proving that history, and the truth, are on the side of an independent, sovereign and whole Ukraine.

In addition to standing for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, the objective of this seminar was to distinguish between the unilateral and imperialist policies of the Russian government, and the unfree masses of Russian citizens, many of whom have risked their very lives to demonstrate and publicly criticise their government for bringing shame to the Russian nation for pursuing a war of aggression against a fellow Slavic nation. It is for this reason that the invasion of Ukraine is not representative of the Russian people, just as similar acts of unilateral aggression and expansion in modern European history were not representative of the unconsenting millions upon whose behalf certain dictatorial governments waged their wars.

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