Any war, including the current one, now six painful years-long, pits Ukrainians fighting for their independence against Russian aggression. Beyond the military confrontation, the war also involves a highly defined confrontation between two fundamentally different social systems that are at the core of the conflict. However, despite the existential stakes involved, the counterintuitive situation in Ukrainian society is characterized by ambiguity and indeterminateness. The ruling political force seems to be concealing or obscuring the public articulation of its position and preventing an understanding of what current policy is.
In such cases, civil society always tries, especially through the media, to pose “real questions” about issues of public concern. Nevertheless, today it is unclear what exactly such “questions” should look like since public interest are being deliberately marginalized in the media. In other words, no actual Ukrainian political agenda exists at all.
Instead, it is being substituted with an artificial media agenda that aims to confuse and disorient Ukrainian society. As a consequence, Ukrainian society is plunging into the chaos of misinterpretation, misapprehension, and confusion over the main values and priorities that can strengthen state institutions and contribute to the value-based formation of the Ukrainian political nation and, thereby, sustain the country on the path to victory over the Russian aggressor.
Between manipulation and capitulation
Since the last election in Ukraine and for the first time in Ukrainian history, a powerful member of the ruling political party pointed out to journalists that they were no longer needed. Perhaps, he was advised by spin doctors and strategists who advocate communicating directly with the masses via social networks. Indeed, over the last fifteen years, social media networks have created previously unprecedented options for political marketing.
By using so-called “targeted advertising” during elections, any political force can deliver case-specific promises to different social groups that each group wants to hear, including contradictory promises to different audiences. Having gained control of the government, the ruling political party will do its best to avoid painting the whole picture, i.e., a comprehensive policy platform. The point is to segregate segments of society by all available means. Instead of an open and sincere dialogue with the nation, the party in power communicates to each segment different and even contradictory content.
However, this is not the totality of matter. In the post-truth era, society is not only the victim of such manipulations. It also demands exclusively convenient political news, refusing to see or accept the whole picture or that which is outside its preferences. Thus, from a certain point of view, a splintered society itself acts as its own manipulator, responding positively to those politicians who offer convenient and trouble-free messages and promises (specially tailored for each social interest group). For demagogues and populist politicians, this is the preferred path to power.
Even this is not the end of the story. Public tastes and demands are themselves shaped within dominant media discourses. The most dangerous public rhetoric that oddly enough started right after the victory of the Revolution of Dignity depicts Ukraine as a corrupt failed state that now dominates the narrative about Ukraine in global media.
Such messaging is the point of convergence for Russian propaganda, hyperactive Ukrainian anti-corruption activists, and some segments of the Ukrainian journalistic community. Just before the recent Ukrainian presidential elections, one ambassador from a friendly country said: “What does a good homeowner do if cockroaches infect his house? – Yes, of course, he sets fire to the house. The owner will surely kill the cockroaches – but the house will also burn down.”
An especially destructive role has been played by some journalists who became members of parliament in 2014. In those cases, a transition from one calling to the other (from journalism to politics) never took place. The result was a deep conflict of interest since these two professions have opposite tasks. Journalists defend people’s right to know. They provide impartial and reliable information and an understanding of the real situation. Politicians are charged with promoting government and or party policy positions and platforms that inherently involve political considerations. They campaign for a specific political course or program.
Should our Western allies support a “corrupt and incapable” Ukraine? Should Ukrainians themselves protect it? The answer seems to be self-evident: “no, they should not.” There was similar messaging in the Ukrainian press and personal communication between certain kinds of Ukraine’s representatives and Western politicians. After all, nothing positive is happening here, in Ukraine, no reforms in place, and “the main enemy is not in the Kremlin, but on Bankova” [street name of the location and is synonymous with the Presidential Administration].
Influenced by such capitulatory media discourse, in early 2019, Ukrainian society could not but conclude that Ukraine is the birthplace of corruption. In addition to that, even the official government de-communization program is now in question (a process similar to de-Nazification in post-war Germany and that also helps debunk Putin’s “Russian World” ideology). What is more, there are attempts to portray the Ukrainian language as the source of Russia’s aggression and war.
There is no question that corruption is a great evil. However, fighting corruption did not demand the destruction of still weakened public institutions under the war against Russia, the biggest state in the world with a huge army, which is also the chief international terrorist. At the same time, the “Russian way” has many supporters in the world. Left and right extremists, different sorts of international criminals, and some irresponsible intellectuals view Putin’s regime as an alternative to Western civilization.
Some Western journalists, mostly those accredited in Moscow, and corrupted Western politicians, can be added to the fellow travelers and useful idiots. Moreover, there are international NGOs that consider freedom of speech as an absolute “equal opportunity” for the executioner and the victim alike, something akin to its ok to shout fire in a crowded theater. They promote friendship and cooperation between Ukrainian and Russian journalists, even though independent media and free speech are a myth in Russia.
The goal of the phalanx is to, unwittingly or otherwise, divert the attention of the international community from Russia’s aggression, annexation of Crimea, and military occupation of a part of Donbas, change these understandings to “internal conflict” and cut Ukraine out of the international community of independent nation-states and the global media discourse. An equally important priority for Putin is to destroy the societal discourse initiated by the Revolution of Dignity, which ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, that was itself the product of a civic uprising of Ukrainians against Russian domination and which are now fighting against the invaders, building a modern political nation, and fundamentally changing the country.
Nothing extraordinary, nothing specific
The global demand for “new faces” in politics has also impacted Ukraine, albeit with Ukrainian particularities. There is no clear-cut value judgment on whether this is good or bad. It is just a fact. Non-professionalism is a positive feature of “fresh blood” in politics. It stands to reason that as newcomers and freshmen were not engaged in corrupt practices and had spotless reputations. All the same, in a very short period during 2019, the influx of so many political novices led to an identity crisis in government circles that undermined policy direction for critically important sectors of the country.
How then does the Ukrainian public sphere appear in early 2020? First, there is complete uncertainty as to priorities for further development and what constitutes national interests. Even a return to the infamous multi-vector doctrine, which seemed to have been buried once and for all by Ukrainians, cannot be ruled out from among the conscious and subconscious assumptions. It reveals a myopic short term vision approach of situational responsiveness to new and hardly new challenges facing the new government.
Second, within a very short period, the international and even domestic image of the Ukrainian nation revering above all else freedom and dignity, with an active civil society, and a state that is struggling with all that it can muster for independence is disappearing from official rhetoric. Official spokespeople are offering such differing messages to the nation and domestic and international media that is difficult to fathom what Ukraine’s position is if any.
Depending on the situation, the authorities can express pro-Russian sympathies or patriotic rhetoric, and pro-Western emphasis, – however – without answering the key questions: “What values are we ready to safeguard? Where should Ukraine be heading?”
Third, it seems as if Russia should no longer be treated as an aggressor. The general public can conclude from media reporting that Russia is now almost a partner whose views should be understood and somehow considered reasonable. We are encouraged by spokespeople that our knowledge of the Russian language and sentimental attitudes to the Soviet past are bringing us together. Furthermore, of course, there are the benefits of doing business with Russia. Now it is acceptable for the president of Ukraine to wish the Russian president a Happy New Year on our “common” Soviet holiday.
Fourth, there is a steady drumbeat that “the real threat” is coming from a faceless mass of nationalists, veterans, activists, and volunteers, depicted as unpredictable warmongers spoiling everything with their Ukrainian language. After all, goes the narrative; it was because of them that the war began. Therefore, at the very least, they should now be silenced. It is “peacekeepers” on both sides of the front line who should be speaking. Such Russian agents of influence, as the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, a clone, and a chameleon, in actuality, is part and parcel of the fifth column protecting the interests of the aggressor and military occupier of Ukrainian lands.
Fifth, in less than a year, Ukraine has become an inviting environment for every imaginable (and unimaginable) anti-Ukrainian activity, including murdering Ukrainian speakers. Flocks of Russian propagandists, adherents of the “Russian world,” including Russian entertainers, business people, “tourists,” are crossing our border and feeling empowered that their time has come. Not all might be agents of the Russian secret services but have the common direction – destroy the Ukrainian statehood.
The identity crisis in ruling circles is penetrating society. Unfortunately, the operating concept of an “ordinary citizens of Ukraine,” is one who does not know what he or she needs or wants besides asphalted streets.
The crisis of identity of the ruling team is penetrating society. The concept of “ordinary citizens of Ukraine,” who do not know what they need besides asphalted streets, does not promote public integration. It is only values that can unite a political nation. Yes, we can be different and even confused, but our diversity and uncertainly can only be a positive factor if we see ourselves as citizens of Ukraine ready to defend its independence. The political forces that question the Ukrainian state are, in fact, its enemies.
If a Ukrainian state exists, the streets will be asphalted. And vice versa, if Ukraine lost the independence all our problems and discussions will fade away since, in the “Russian world,” there is but one source with exclusive rights to the truth and reality and with all of the answers which come from the top of the ruling pyramid to the masses – and that is it – there is nothing more. By the way, no illusions should be there – the concept of the “Russian world” does not postulate asphalted streets. That is why the struggle for Ukraine today is the struggle for the Ukrainian public sphere.
The Ukrainian discourse
The precipitous vanishing of Ukraine’s state identity from the media endangers both the polity and media itself since the latter is shaped by that identity as well. The public sector can only function under such rules of the game that are demanded by society or are the result of coercion. Today, society still can see its reflection in an ever-shrinking media mirror, through the representation of a spectrum of ideas and points of view.
A true and responsible national media must undergird the self-evident value of a free flow of information and other basic values that make us something unified, namely, a Ukrainian political nation. Only then can everyone in Ukraine work on realizing their universal God-given right to life and freedom to chart their future that in today’s world can only be secured in a free and independent country of their own. Furthermore, as the axiom states, nothing of value comes without struggle and sacrifice, especially something as monumental as Ukrainians’ centuries-long quest for nation statehood.
Without oversimplification, what we see today is a capitulatory position of the current Ukrainian administration that is proposing grounds for national unity that call for no struggle whatsoever. First and foremost, the government’s narrative is that there is no war, but rather a temporary problem that can easily be resolved.
What is misunderstood and thus misrepresented is the nature of the Russian-Ukrainian war. The war did not start in 2014. Its origins are from much earlier, hundreds of years ago. Russia is not a cantankerous neighbor with whom to reach an agreement by “simply ceasing fire.” Russia is our “existential enemy,” whose aim is the destruction of the Ukrainian state. It is the very wellspring of Russian imperialism, the glue that holds together the “prison of nations” and where Putin is trying to drag Ukraine back.
What is the principal factor that sets Ukrainians and Russians apart? The answer is simple: we come from different political cultures. It is a confrontation between the discourse of freedom and the discourse of non-freedom. It is difficult to say what exactly it is in their over the 1,000-year history of statehood, but Ukrainians need the freedom of expression and the freedom of choice. Perhaps it is having had their freedom and then having it taken away, and the ensuing centuries-long struggle to regain it that instilled a yearning that cannot be extinguished, even by the genocide of Holodomor, gulags and the rest. Whereas Russian society has no such need. Moscvy, having sprung up as a city-state long after Ukraine’s forebearers in Kyiv, needed imperial expansion and conquest to survive and that became for Russians their raison d’etre. It is a real value-based collision of two systems, two different world views. Here is why there can be no concessions to the “Russian world.”
The only consistent rhetoric coming from the president’s administration is related to stopping the war via thinly-veiled capitulatory policies. However, herein is the dilemma: Russia is the aggressor and Ukraine is the victim, not the other way round. It is not up to Ukraine to stop the war, but Russia. Hence, one of the obstacles to populist political advantage for the majority party in its discourse is the absence of a “party of war.” Even so, we continue to be bombarded with messages that there are “opponents of peace” in society. Moreover, there is a formidable problem, confirmed by sociological research, that Ukrainian society does not want peace at any price and is not going to sacrifice state independence and Euro-Atlantic integration.
Struggle against the objectification of Ukraine
Russian propaganda, a lack of statesmanship among many Ukrainian officials, misguided activists, and myopic journalists, and a lack of a public service ethos among some officials fuel the unceasing chaotization of Ukrainian society. Another factor is the breakdown in the West of faith and trust in the values that have guided liberal democracies since the end of World War II. Hence, there is almost chronic dissatisfaction in Ukrainian society with itself and its government institutions, not unlike in other western countries, but with potentially much more dire consequences, as Ukraine’s nation statehood is still in its formative stage. In either case, a significant success for Putin’s regime.
Ukraine is disappearing as a subject of public discourse as a country with its own policies, interests, and agenda. Efforts by the government to stem this tide of its own making are woefully inadequate. Consequently, Ukraine is subjected to objectification by other subjects of the international community. No one will or should take into account Ukrainian national interests if the Ukrainian state itself lacks the courage to articulate and defend them.
The situation demands decisive action, especially in the public sector. Ukrainians as a whole, the administration, government, political parties, civil society, and the media must come together to answer the following questions: “Who are we historically, culturally and politically? What unites us? What do we want? What will we never give up? Why and for whom are we a reliable partner?” That is, everything begins with defining the Ukrainian political nation.
Simultaneously, the critical task today is to protect against Russian aggression by officially integrating into the Western world by joining NATO and the European Union. The Ukrainian army has always been the most reliable ally of the Ukrainian state and its defender. Accordingly, public attention should focus on issues of national security and defense, as well as our Western allies, with whom we share common civilizational values.
The whole history of Ukraine since the Cossack epoch is a story of the struggle of the Ukrainian people for justice and state independence against Russian imperialism. We have never given up in the past, and will not now in the 21st century.
Not only common values but also the common external enemy – Russian imperialism – unites Ukrainian society. It is Russian imperialism that undermines our ability to make unanimous and successful choices. Ukrainians must defend their independence, relying, first of all, on their own will and power. Good neighborly relations with Russia are possible only after it recognizes the laws and rules governing international relations.
Russia’s fifth column is out to destroy our independent statehood, opening the gates of our fortress from inside to the external enemy. The Ukrainian state must not remain a passive observer of Medvedchuk’s and others’ media holdings dominating the airwaves with the aggressor’s propaganda. It is high time to delegitimize all similar organizations and stop their seditious activities. Ukrainians are a political nation shaping the collective self-image of what we want and are willing to fight and sacrifice for. Therefore, the domestic media sector should be working to project future Ukraine – as a self-sufficient, secure, democratic, and wealthy state. The way forward is to open and sustain a public discourse through national and local media, including social media.
If the ruling political party do not understand the importance of Ukraine’s political identity as the foundation of the state or are unable to identify and articulate in one voice to the nation as a whole, the strategy and implementation of Ukrainian state policy, this would constitute an abandonment of the victories and gains secured during and after the Revolution of Dignity.
Therefore, once again, the responsibility for reasserting our political identity and defending our country must be in the hands of the Ukrainian people/Ukrainian nation /Ukrainian political nation/and Ukrainian civil society. Progress in articulating Ukraine’s political identity as a nation-state at war will be measured by how quickly the differences among the above concepts will disappear.