Ukraine Crisis: Status Quo, Challenges and Possible Solutions


An interview with Filip Radunović, Project Manager at ERSTE Foundation

Russia still claims that it is being unfairly blamed for the events in Ukraine. There is also a general concern about the lack of evidence of what is really going on in eastern parts of Ukraine. What laws govern the current situation?
It is not easy to distinguish the real character of the conflict since it reached a new dimension of hybrid warfare which hasn’t been used by sovereign states in the 21st century. I am sure that this will be the topic for many political and military theoreticians in the years to come. In order to establish real categories and talk about governing structures we need to have precise first hand information. Here lies one of the core problems, especially for the broader European public: the lack of independently researched information. What we witness is also a huge crisis of the quality press, a situation in which only few outlets can afford to bring in their reporters to follow the events on the spot. On the other hand you have the Russian propaganda, which proves to be very effective, probably the most precise soft power used in the conflict. The remaining gap is being filled by political comments and various analyses, which are not always supported by reliable facts and figures but rely more on the personal political orientation of respective opinion makers. And then, you have very few intellectuals and public figures, like Yale Professor Timothy Snyder, who altruistically try to explain the socio-historical context of the ongoing conflict. Speaking in general, the entire situation shows us once again the enormous importance of free, independent and critical media. And certainly the important role of intellectuals as opinion leaders.

Where do you personally see the origins of this precarious situation?
There was a unique chance of consolidation between Russia and the west after the changes in 1989. Unfortunately for both sides, this momentum was missed. The period of the early and mid-1990s, with important transformation processes starting across all of Eastern Europe offered a historical opportunity – on both sides of the Atlantic. The United States, as well as the European Union should have used their political and economic influence of that time to offer Russia a more sustainable partnership based not on geopolitcal and economic interests, but on mutual understanding of each others value system. And then engage into building trust on eye-level. Instead we’ve seen a mainstream approach of the west reflected through Francis Fukuyamas End of History –  totally blending out the socio-historical and political heritage of the pre-Soviet and Soviet era, thus mainly highlighting the neoliberal dimension of a larger integration process which then kicked off. Unfortunately the cultural, social and historical dimensions of the Soviet post-imperial legacy – something which Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko calls the “abandoned secrets of history” – have not been of huge interest for European and US-American realpolitik. Only now, after 25 years, it seems that political decision makers in the west are getting the bill for being too blind to recognise the inner developments of the post-soviet societies. Therefore we shall not only blame Vladimir Putin or his elites but ask oursevels about the overall socio-economic context of the global system which was created after 1989 which allowed such individuals to gain power and transform Russia into the state it is in today. And this is not exclusively a Russian issue, it also affects many other states and societies which haven’t had the chance to develop themselves as stable democracies before 1989. If we look around, we can see quite similiar trends in Europe of 2014: citizens being disilusioned with their political representatives, feeling neglected and without a clear perspective for the future. So what happens? In more developed democracies we see the rise of new national, extremist or protest parties; in weak democracies, like Bosnia and Herzegovina, we see broad social protests which have gone to extremes in Ukraine where we’ve wittnessed a disturbingly violent destabilisation and subsequent annexion of entire regions by a foreign power. But the core problem – the lack of belief in political representation – is almost everywhere pretty much the same issue. Only the reactions of the citizens how to solve it vary substantially.

What has the West done so far in Ukraine? And what can it do now? Currently it appears as if the interests of all involved parties, be it Ukrainians, Russians, Europeans or Americans, are not reconcilable.
Basically, we have two predominant perceptions of the crisis in the west. One perspective is shown through the prism of the liberal delusions of the west, putting part of the blame on the US and EU, which supposedly provoked national security interests of Russia by directly supporting the Ukrainian opposition and interfering in the protests on Maidan – crossing the red line, hence brining up harsh reactions from Vladimir Putin. Professor John J. Mearsheimer’s recent analysis depicts these historical developments and natural failures within the US/EU-relationship towards Russia quite well. This perspective is being shared by many European intellectuals, but also western business representatives who are deeply engaged in trade affairs with Russia. They appear to ignore the fact that  Russia is also defending its vital interests through the ongoing blood shed on Ukrainian soil. In the German-speaking context those individuals have been sarcastically marked as so-called “Putinversteher”.

The other perspective of the conflict is the one of Russia’s immediate neighbors – various states which historically experienced Russian dominance and went through quite painful processes of self-determination, be it the Baltics, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Poland or Ukraine itself. Certainly they see themselves as (potential) victims of a broader geopolitical, neo-imperial Great Game of the 21st century. Therefore, quite reasonably, most of them want to move away from the Russian sphere of influence, thus shifting to the western model of societal development. So, we are talking about two very diverging perceptions of the current situation making it very hard to define one absolute truth or to talk about absolute categories.

Personally I believe that the truth lies in-between the lines. It is as much true that the west supported and directly interfered in the protests on Maidan as it is true that Russia felt its vital interests endangered by Ukraine and other former Soviet countries becoming “too European”. But it is also true that a large and very heterogeneous proportion of Ukrainian citizens prefer to be part of the European value system, with all of its pleasant commodities like rule of law, democracy and economic prosperity, as it is true that Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical reaction to these wishes was and still is an unacceptable act of causing and supporting brutal violence. We must also not forget that it’s the first time in modern history that Ukraine –  its political elites and very heterogeneous civil society – is leaving the status of being an object, thus becoming a subject of power politics – articulating its own interests and giving a totally new dimension to the current conflict which makes the entire situation even more complex.

Do you see a potential for a sustainable long-term solution?
Many western analysts, and even high ranking politicians, are repeatedly demanding a dignified exit strategy from the conflict – for Vladimir Putin – claiming that his policy is dictated by the clear articulation of symbolic and real power and realisation of certain geopolitical strategies which were defined as the Russian answer to the “provocations from the west”. Right now, in the midst of a very fragile cease-fire, with the Middle East in flames and many other burning issues facing Europe’s future, our foreign policy needs a single voice more than ever. And this voice would have to articulate deeply diverging interests of 28 member states. Exactly here lies one of the key problems of the European political practice: official EU-policy is still being merely defined through the inert defense of national interests instead of articulating the inclusive capacity of our common visions and needs for freedom, peace, democracy, pluralism and prosperity. Therefore I don’t see that the EU in its current constellation has the potential to contribute to a sustainable solution in Ukraine. If we talk about long-term solutions, I am afraid that – and that could be the best case – Europe will end up with another frozen conflict at its doorstep, like in Bosnia and Kosovo, accompanied by economic instability which will impact not only the eastern parts of our continent. At the same time we shall not forget various European national movements, the humanitarian catastrophe on our shores, combined with a tense socio-economic situation across the entire continent. All of this, thrown together with the EU’s complex decision-making structure, hinders the development towards a more sovereign union that might have concrete answers to solve these burning issues. The world is nowadays so globalised that, in order to solve even small local and national problems, we need strong European answers. Those are only possible with less national particularities and more European sovereignty. Therefore new models of decision making have yet to be defined and applied within the EU.

There are increasingly voices comparing the situation in Ukraine with the outbreak of the wars in former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The question of the international intervention in Kosovo is also being repeatedly raised. Are such parallels possible in the current context?
No, definitely not. Anybody who is seriously comparing the breakup of Yugoslavia and the current situation in Ukraine should review the last century of political history. Yugoslavia broke up because of ethnic tensions, socio-economic problems and national sentiments, which have been growing for decades under the communist regime. It were then mainly the political but also intellectual opinion makers which triggered the tragic collapse during the 1980s. We should also remember the role of prominent political leaders who, backed up by nationalistic hysteria, decided to go into war in the early 1990s. In 2014 we have a totally different scenario in Ukraine. I don’t see here the same level of a civic unrest comparable to the one in Yugoslavia of the late 1980s and 1990s, in which for example, ethnic Russians would turn to fight against ethnic Ukrainians on a larger scale. On the contrary: the main cause for Maidan was the lack of a clear European perspective, backed by an enormous pent-up disaffection with the corrupted political system and decisions of then-president Mr. Yanukovych. I also don’t see a point in comparing the annexation of Crimea with the Kosovo intervention in 1999 since we talk about two diverging phenomena. Although it had no UN mandate and breached international law at that time, the NATO intervention, with many of its tragic failures and civic loses, was in the first place a humanitarian intervention, an attempt of the west – after the utterly devastating experience in Bosnia – to stop a bloody ethnic war which ran out of control. It was then, after 1999, the responsibility of the international community to oversee the further developments in Kosovo and to negotiate a sustainable solution for its future legal status within the UN. Unfortunately the solution on UN level is still lacking although the EU achieved some progress through the facilitation of direct talks between Serbia and Kosovo during the last couple of years. In the meantime there have also been attempts to re-negotiate international law and the right on humanitarian intervention on various levels, but unfortunately with no successful output nor major agreement so far. On the other hand, as a consequence out of these comparisons we have now deeply diverging opinions and argumentation lines between the west and Russia, not only about Kosovo but also on the legal status of Crimea, South Ossetia, Transnistria etc.

How does ERSTE Foundation contribute to the civil society in Ukraine? How can the civil society impact the outcome of this conflict?
We try to offer alternatives. Alternatives for those agents of the civil society whose ultimate goal is to join the European value system. We think in terms of culture and broader social inclusion as core pillars of European unification. Therefore we are working with young, engaged cultural and social activists whose wish is to exchange their ideas and visions with counterparts from western parts of Europe in order to create a larger discourse on topics, which have not been discussed so far. One of our main projects is the support of the Visual Culture Research Center in Kyiv, a young institution which is starting this fall, serving as a new spot for encounters between progressive visual art and social activism in Ukraine’s capital. The civil society has a crucial role since it’s been their civilizational voices, which raised fundamental questions about the own future. Therefore we at ERSTE Foundation see our role as mediators, enabling those young activists the possibility to reach out with their unique ideas and innovative initiatives to new parts of Europe and bring in their experience in order to create a new space for reflection of our common future.

Filip Radunović works as project manager for ERSTE Foundation’s Europe Programme since 2008. He studied commu­nication studies and political science at the University of Vienna with his Masters and doctoral theses focusing on semiotics and media psychology. Filip previously worked as a researcher at the Institute for Communica­tion and Media Science in Vienna and for KulturKontakt Austria in Montenegro. In the Foundation he covers projects focusing on civic education, migration, social research, capacity building and democratization in Eastern Europe.