Post-war Ukraine Begins Now
20/12/2023
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20/12/2023

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Post-war Ukraine Begins Now

Is it possible to think about post-war Ukraine in the present moment? This idea seems in no way obvious at a moment when the war has entered a difficult phase, when it is becoming clear that it will demand courage, resources, and time from both Ukrainians and Ukraine’s partners, and that this will be for a period of time that is impossible to anticipate at this point.

Yet reflecting on the post-war period does not just mean thinking about the country’s future. It is also about understanding that which, in the present, is creating this future. Thinking about the Ukraine of tomorrow is an important way to support it today by better understanding what its strengths and weaknesses are, as well as its heritage and transformations.

What is post-war?

The very concept of the post-war, while seemingly straightforward, is not an empirically easy reality to define. The war’s boundaries are ambiguous, and the social sciences have seized on this ambiguity in the past few years to question the boundary between war and peace. In contrast with conflicts described in school books where there is a clear delineation between a state of war and a state of peace, a declaration of war that serves as a starting point and the signing of a document that marks the end, a period of violence that is succeeded by a period of non-violence, many contemporary and historical armed conflicts are more fluid in nature. The use of armed violence is not often preceded by a declaration of war and is not necessarily limited to wartime. The social systems and hierarchies created during the war are rooted in pre-war social structures, and do not disappear after the war. Finally, situations of “neither war, nor peace” 1 and social situations of an uncertain nature are no longer considered abnormal or transitory, and are now being studied by researchers over time and within their specific configurations.

The use of armed violence is not often preceded by a declaration of war and is not necessarily limited to wartime.

Anna Colin Lebedev

In Ukraine’s case, delineating the war’s boundaries is characterized by this same uncertainty. That uncertainty applies above all to the beginning of the war. If, viewed from our countries, the armed aggression of February 24, 2022 can be undeniably qualified as a declaration of war by one state against another state, for experts on Ukrainian society this date is not necessarily the starting point of the war waged by Russia — and this is even less so for Ukraine’s citizens. Many cite Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 at this war’s beginning. Others place the war on a continuum of Moscow’s hostility toward Ukraine that they trace back to the 2004 Orange Revolution, the Great Famine orchestrated by the Kremlin in the 1930s, or even the Russian Empire’s hostility towards any desire for Ukrainian independence. Finally, the spread of the “hybrid war” 2 concept, often used to describe Russia’s bellicose policies and increasingly criticized 3 , has helped to blur the temporal and spatial boundaries of the war waged by the Russian state.

Post-war is an equally imprecise concept. Contrary to conventional definitions which view the end of war as a radical rupture followed by the arrival of a state of peace, the social sciences highlight the continuities between the state of war and the state of peace: on the one hand, the social and political dynamics that were in place before the war continue to have influence during wartime; on the other hand, the dynamics that were set in motion during the war and the actors who emerged from the war still shape and influence the evolution of societies well after the officially declared end of armed conflict. The end of the war and the post-war period are more operational concepts which are useful to local communities and international aid donors than recognizable moments on the ground 4 . On the ground, the post-war period is rooted in the present.

If the end of the war in Ukraine is sometimes difficult to imagine, it is not only due to the shifting situation on the front and the balance of forces, but also due to the difficulty of defining what might qualify as a victory or a defeat 5 , as well as the difficulty of thinking about the war’s end point in this situation of fluid edges. Defining when the war will be considered over depends on whether one is looking at it from Ukraine’s point of view, from the Russian aggressor’s point of view, or from the point of view of one of the states that support Ukraine. When will the war be considered over by someone living in territories occupied by Russia in 2022? By a resident of Crimea? By a Ukrainian officer serving on the front since 2014? By a Ukrainian exiled in a European country? By Ukrainian intellectuals? By Russian military officials? By the governor of a Russian region bordering Ukraine? By Russian combatants? By the ordinary Russian living thousands of miles from Moscow? Not only will the answer be different for each of these actors, for a number of them it will vary over time.

On the ground, the post-war period is rooted in the present.

Anna Colin Lebedev

There is no need, however, for certainty about the end of the war to think about what comes after because the post-war era is taking shape before our very eyes, day by day. New customs, new weaknesses, and new expectations are already shaping the Ukraine of tomorrow.

A stubborn cliché pervades our vision of war: that of the chaos of war. The images disseminated by reporters shape the corresponding imagery: the destruction of homes, people forced to flee, the excruciating brutality of combat. All of this is true, and all of it is unacceptable. However, this vision of war as a space and moment of social chaos is sometimes accompanied by anticipation of institutional breakdown, the total disruption of everyday life and, last but not least, the weakness of the state.

Yet war, especially when it drags on, is also an ordinary space of social life, with its political and economic actors, its opportunities and resources, its social ties and hierarchies, its values and divisions 6 . By observing the transformation of Ukrainian society in and as a result of war since 2014, we can understand not only the resilience it was able to show in the face of 2022’s massive aggression, but also the resources it has to continue to cope with war and shape the post-war era. 

A reclaimed state

The reclaiming by Ukrainian citizens of their state and their attachment to it is one of the most striking developments of the last ten years of direct and indirect armed aggression by Russia against Ukraine.

When I conducted a survey of combatants in the Donbass in 2015-2017, particularly those who had signed up to fight in the country’s east as early as the spring of 2014, many explained to me that what had made them take up arms was not the desire to defend their government, but the urgent need to protect their country. The government was considered to be plagued by corruption and political games, trust in political institutions was at an all-time low, and the view that the armed forces were weak was widely shared. Ukraine was recovering from the Maidan revolution, which represented a major political break with the past, but which had also propelled many Ukrainians towards political involvement 7 .

When the war in Donbass began in the spring of 2014, many feared that the Ukrainian government would collapse. In fact, the opposite happened: the imminent military threat and the determination to keep the values of the Maidan revolution alive led citizens to reclaim their public institutions in an attempt to change them from the inside. Combatants returning from the front accepted positions in ministries and administrations; members of the “Maidan generation” 8 entered political life, others became advisors to ministries, and still others founded NGOs seeking to establish social control over the state. Much of this involvement collided with the reality of often paralyzed public institutions, and ended in rupture. However, the dynamic set in motion by the war in Donbass did result in the revitalization of government institutions, substantial reforms in several sectors, and the development of a dense, active and alert network of associations, all ready to cooperate with or oppose the government.

When the war in Donbass began in the spring of 2014, many feared that the Ukrainian government would collapse.

Anna Colin Lebedev

A striking feature of the Ukrainian political situation prior to the armed aggression of 2022 was a high level of mistrust of political institutions 9 . For a number of commentators, this mistrust was an indicator of a fragile or even failed state, disconnected from its citizens and on the verge of collapse. Today, a number of calls to halt support for Ukraine echo this same rhetoric.

It is important, however, not to misunderstand the relationship Ukrainians have with their government. Though they may firmly denounce those in power as unworthy of their office and criticize the pervasiveness of corrupt and bureaucratic attitudes, this is accompanied by a strong attachment to the institutions themselves, which should be reformed rather than overthrown. For many Ukrainians, transformation is not expected from “top-down” reforms of the political system and democratic institutions, but from a bottom-up transformation in which ordinary citizens can play an active role.

Social movements — key players in Ukrainian society

While confidence in political institutions is fragile, two institutions enjoy the unwavering support of Ukrainians: their armed forces and their civic organizations, which enjoy a respective approval rating of 72% and 68% on the eve of the invasion 10 , rising to 94% and 87% in October 2023 11 .

“We are the state”, is what my contacts on the frontline and in NGOs have been telling me since the start of the war in Donbass. How can we understand this statement? Building a better Ukraine, reforming the state and building the country’s defense was their responsibility as citizens, they explained to me. Paradoxically, it was the weakness of the Ukrainian armed forces in 2014, which lacked equipment, skills and experience, that was the driving force behind a major change. Given that the armed forces were not capable of defending a Ukraine under attack, civilians organized themselves to fight the war, some by going to the front and others, in much greater numbers, by supporting, supplying and equipping fighting units. Even if the regular armed forces gradually regained control over the war effort after a few months, the role of volunteer movements remained central, providing what the state was unable to do 12 : meeting some of the needs of combatants on the front line, taking care of veterans or the wounded 13 , as well as offering support to those internally displaced by the war. Ranging in size from large national NGOs to groups of a few people raising money for a specific military unit, these initiatives have remained fluid, quickly adapting to new needs. The spread of civic initiatives, foundations and associations has not been confined to the military sphere, but has permeated society as a whole.

In a country where social protection remains insufficient, volunteer movements have created an alternative safety net. Beyond this role, they have also developed a certain expertise in their areas of involvement, often nurtured by international partnerships and openness to innovation.

The importance of making civil society the driving force behind reconstruction has been highlighted on several occasions 14 , as well as the frustration of social movements at continuing to be excluded from decision-making on reconstruction projects 15 . The principle of the “localization” of international aid, designed to give local players a greater say, is now viewed by associations on the ground as ineffective 16 . As a result, during the first months of the war, less than 1% of international humanitarian aid went directly to national and local Ukrainian NGOs, even though they were the ones directly involved on the ground and shouldering the risks. In 2022, only 0.36% of the humanitarian aid provided to Ukraine under the Ukraine flash appeal went to national and local Ukrainian NGOs 17 . Even if the distribution of aid proposed by international players is then channeled through local partners, it is difficult for these flexible, innovative social movements — who are attuned to the needs on the ground — to be reduced to the status of operators in the midst of war. Their future place in the post-war era is being shaped today; but through this group, which enjoys immense trust among the Ukrainian population, the legitimacy of post-war policies is being decided today.

An intermingling of the civilian and military worlds

The army is undeniably one of the most important institutions in Ukrainian society. This is particularly striking given that, until ten years ago, the armed forces were among the most widely criticized institutions. They were considered corrupt and steeped in Soviet-era thinking, but also useless in a country that saw no threat of future armed conflict on its territory. In 2012, two-thirds of Ukrainians expressed mistrust of their armed forces. Unlike other state institutions, for which disappointment has remained stubborn, confidence in the army has grown steadily since 2014. In 2015, 45% of Ukrainians expressed confidence in the armed forces, rising to 57% in 2017, 66% in 2020, 72% in 2021, and 96% in 2022. The positive image of the military institution has been built in and through war. Yet, if the armed forces have been able to occupy such a prominent place in the political imagination of Ukrainians, it is also because the army has become a bridging institution between the state and society. In addition to the 440,000 veterans of the war in Donbass officially counted in Ukraine a few months before the invasion, it is also difficult to estimate the number of volunteers who have various involvement with the armed forces, as well as an equally unknown number of volunteer fighters who have not been granted veteran status. The active role played by ordinary citizens — combatants and volunteers alike — in carrying out the war since 2014 has made the armed forces an institution that is directly connected to the lives of citizens. The armed forces have also been a space where reforms have been eagerly awaited, but also where certain societal questions have been raised. For example, the question of women in the army has provided an opportunity to address the issues of gender equality and sexual violence in Ukrainian society over the last ten years 18 . It is through social influence that the military institution has been changed.

Unlike other state institutions, for which disappointment has remained stubborn, confidence in the army has grown steadily since 2014.

Anna Colin Lebedev

The ten years of war in Donbass were characterized by a high degree of ambiguity: about the status of the war, which was never declared (armed actions were described as an “anti-terrorist operations” and then as a “united forces operation”); about the status of the combatants and volunteers involved; and finally, about the nature of the threat Ukraine was facing. This ambiguous situation led to considerable intermingling between civilian and military thinking, and had a transformative effect on society. Ambiguity about the nature and boundaries of the war kept a portion of Ukrainian society in a state of alert, a social situation in which individual choices and collective practices were attuned to a wartime perspective. As a result, although veterans returned to civilian life, they continued to be involved in projects connected with the front, even training to prepare for a continuation of the war; volunteers professionalized and made their activities permanent; ordinary citizens developed skills and methods that could potentially be useful in wartime. In this Ukraine on high alert, the military institution was perceived as central precisely because the country was facing the prospect of a looming threat.

Policies designed to assist recovering from war often include a “disarmament – demilitarization – reintegration” or “DDR” component, specifically aimed at combatants in armed conflict and based on procedures formulated by the United Nations 19 . These policies provide a framework for a step-by-step transition from combatant to civilian status through arms control policies, support for former combatants, and their reintegration into civilian life. Anchored in a binary view of a state of war as the opposite of a state of peace, these policies view the continued militarization of society as a sign of a failure of the policies for ending armed conflict.

Faced with this view, the Ukrainian case raises some very specific questions. The intermingling of military and civilian roles, along with the absence of a clear civilian-military distinction among those involved in the war has been one of the keys not only to the Ukrainian army’s agility, but also to the resilience of Ukrainian society in the face of Russian aggression. Support for combat veterans, as well as for civilians involved in the war, is an undeniable and ongoing need which does not necessarily correlate with an end to the war. The question of demilitarization, meanwhile, is highly dependent on the perceptions that players on the ground will have about the nature of the war’s end, and, in particular, the continued existence of threat against Ukraine. If the end of fighting — whatever form it takes — is not accompanied by certainty that the threat will disappear, Ukrainian society is likely to remain on the alert, refusing to accept that the war is over, and deeming policies aimed at returning to civilian life to be inappropriate.

In this Ukraine on high alert, the military institution was perceived as central precisely because the country was facing the prospect of a looming threat.

Anna Colin Lebedev

A transformation of divisions

The war has also had a transformative effect on political divisions and conflicts. In the 1990s and 2000s, Ukrainian society was described, both inside and outside the country, as divided between a West and an East, subjectively and objectively different. The West was described as Ukrainian-speaking, rural, tending to identify with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and with the country’s non-Soviet history. The East, on the other hand, was described as Russian-speaking, industrial, proud of its Soviet history, and looking more towards its Russian neighbor 20 . Although quickly criticized and given nuance within the country, this reading nevertheless had long-term effects on the political and academic narratives describing and explaining Ukraine. As a result, most Ukrainian public opinion institutes continue to group their poll results into “East”, “West”, “Center” and “South” blocs, blind to more subtle indicators and creating the social reality they aim to describe. The narrative of a divided Ukraine, with certain regions oppressed because of their specific nature, has also been a constant in the Russian authorities’ discourse, justifying the annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbass, and then the invasion starting in February 2022.

From the start of the war in 2014, the inadequacy of the East/West binary reading became empirically obvious. The encapsulation of pro-Russian positions in the separatist territories and Crimea, the internal displacement of people from east to west, and the growing perception of the eastern neighbor as a source of threat, had already transformed Ukraine’s political landscape. While the new unification of the political landscape has often been described, it is also important to take into account local factors, which play an important role. Since the decentralization reform was launched about ten years ago, which has been positively perceived in Ukraine, the local aspect, which is not limited to an east-west divide 21 , has been an important aspect of Ukrainian politics.

The war’s entry into a phase of high intensity, however, introduced new divisions, the development of which did not wait until after the war, and which play out on a daily basis.

The unequal experience of war is one of the most important differentiating factors today. A first, immediately visible, and increasingly salient divide is between those who engage in war, and those who stay out of it: on the one hand, combatants and volunteers in service of the army; on the other, those who find ways of avoiding mobilization and who are strongly condemned in today’s social debates. The division also extends to other categories of the population: those who have remained in Ukraine, in the regions affected by the war, see themselves as having a different awareness of the war from those who have taken refuge in western regions, and especially from those who have left Ukraine for another country.

Above all, the difference in experience and perception of the war is likely to create a major division between the regions that lived under Russian occupation and those that did not. The question of collaboration in territories that were briefly occupied is already a problem for the Ukrainian government 22 . The challenge will be on a different scale for regions still under occupation today, and especially for those controlled by Russia since 2014. Here, the war’s long duration, just as much as the conditions of de-occupation, play a central role in post-war divisions.

Considering the post-war period in Ukraine in all its complex political and social dimensions means first and foremost considering the course of the armed conflict, taking into account the temporal dimension and the uncertainty of the war’s boundaries. If the question of how to move on from the war is to include the question of the long term, it is not simply a question of “when do we start reconstruction?” but rather of understanding that war and post-war are not defined spaces, and that the day-to-day reality of war is the template for post-war society. The post-war period in Ukraine is happening right now.

Notes

  1. Dominique Linhardt and Cédric Moreau de Bellaing, « Ni guerre, ni paix. Dislocations de l’ordre politique et décantonnements de la guerre », Politix, vol. 104, no. 4, 2013, pp. 7-23.
  2. Jéronimo Barbin, « La guerre hybride : un concept stratégique flou aux conséquences politiques réelles », Les Champs de Mars, vol. 30+s, no. 1, 2018, pp. 109-116.
  3. Journée d’étude – La « guerre hybride » à l’épreuve du feu, IRSEM, June 3, 2022.
  4. Jacobo Grajales and Cécile Jouhanneau, « L’ordinaire de la sortie de guerre. Sociologie de l’action publique après la violence armée », Gouvernement et action publique, vol. ol8, no. 4, 2019, pp. 7-23.
  5. Joseph Henrotin and Thibault Fouillet, « La victoire dans la guerre en Ukraine : de quoi parle-t-on ? », Areion 24 News, December 5, 2023.
  6. Adam Baczko, Gilles Dorronsoro and Arthur Quesnay, Syrie: anatomie d’une guerre civile, Paris, CNRS éditions, 2016.
  7. Alexandra Goujon and Ioulia Shukan, « Sortir de l’anonymat en situation révolutionnaire. Maïdan et le citoyen ordinaire en Ukraine (hiver 2013-2014) », Politix, vol. 112, no. 4, 2015, pp. 33-57.
  8. Ioulia Shukan, Génération Maïdan: aux origines de la résistance ukrainienne, La Tour-d’Aigues, Éditions de l’Aube. 2022.
  9. 12% of Ukrainians had confidence in their parliament in 2012, and 11% in 2021; confidence rates were 16 and 14% for the government, 21 and 27% for the president. See : Anna Colin Lebedev, « Ukraine : l’Etat et la nation à l’épreuve de la guerre. » Les Études du CERI, 2023, Regards sur l’Eurasie. L’année politique 2022, 266-267, pp.13-20.
  10. « Динаміка Довіри Соціальним Інституціям Протягом 2020-2021 Років: Результати Телефонного Опитування », KIIS, January 26, 2022.
  11. « Динаміка Сприйняття Напрямку Справ В Україні Та Довіри До Окремих Інституцій Між Травнем 2022 Року Та Жовтнем 2023 Року », KIIS, October 31, 2023.
  12. Anastasia Fomitchova, « Les volontaires dans la formation de l’appareil militaire ukrainien (2014-2018). Des dynamiques d’auto-organisation au retour de l’État », Revue d’études comparatives Est-Ouest, vol. 1, no. 1, 2021, pp. 137-170.
  13. Ioulia Shukan, « Émotions, liens affectifs et pratiques de soin en contexte de conflit armé. Les ressorts de l’engagement des femmes bénévoles dans l’assistance aux blessés militaires du Donbass », Revue d’études comparatives Est-Ouest, vol. 2, no. 2, 2018, pp. 131-170.
  14. Orysia Lutsevych, Giving civil society a stake in Ukraine’s recovery. How government, citizens and donors can work together to embed trust in reconstruction, Chatham House, June 2023.
  15. Vladyslav Galushko, Iskra Kirova, Inna Pidluska et Daniela Schwarzer, War And Peace: Supporting Ukraine To Prevail, Rebuild, And Prosper, Open Society, October 2022.
  16. Ukraine: Perceptions Of Localisation In The Humanitarian Response, ACAPS, June 16, 2023.
  17. Ukraine Flash Appeal 2022, Financial Tracking Service.
  18. See “Invisible Battalion” project.
  19. Operational guide to the integrated disarmament, demobilization and reintegration standards, United Nations Development Programme, October 18, 2017.
  20. Mykola Riabchuk, Ukraine: One State, Two Countries? With Comments, Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), Tr@nsit online, Nr. 23/2002.
  21. Maryna Rabinovych, Ukraine’s Decentralization from the Perspective of Territorial Self-Governance and Conflict Management, Forum for Ukrainian Studies, July 17, 2020.
  22. Thomas d’Istria, « Ukraine gives swift justice to suspected collaborators in recently liberated areas », Le Monde, November 19, 2023.
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