February 3, 2017

Assessing Social Consequences of the War in Eastern Ukraine

An armoured personnel carrier (APC) patrols near the building which was damaged during fighting between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists, in the government-held industrial town of Avdiyivka, Ukraine, February 3, 2017.
An armoured personnel carrier (APC) patrols near the building which was damaged during fighting between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists, in the government-held industrial town of Avdiyivka, Ukraine, February 3, 2017.

Every armed conflict, not just full-fledged war, has a multidimensional impact that echoes throughout society in many ways, some of which can be easily predicted, while others might not be immediately apparent either to participants or outside observers.

When seeking to describe and measure the factors that can affect national resilience in practice, one can see the crucially important role that social cohesion plays in strengthening a nation’s ability to resist to and recover from aggression.

It is easy to see a general picture of many obvious consequences of the war, one that has directly affected the lives of many. These days, when Ukrainian territories are being heavily pounded and bombed by the Russian artillery, we can already observe immense negative humanitarian impact not only on the local population, but also, possibly, on economic sector of the whole region.

In this space, I present my observations based on the results of field research conducted with my colleagues in eastern Ukraine in 2015-2016. After having interviewed and spoken with more than 120 local people in the region – both in places very close to the front line as well as in quite peaceful towns and cities, and having analysed many articles in media and stories in social media, I would like to draw your attention to the consequences of the war that is affecting the lives of countless people in much more collateral or even hidden way. Understandably, this is not a very popular topic among journalists from the Western media, where situation in Ukraine is being continuously overshadowed by the war in Syria or other political news. Even here, in Estonia, we know very little about the issue of internally displaced persons in Ukraine, whose number in total is actually bigger than population of our country. However, the impact of IDPs and other easily predictable consequences might sadly be just the tip of the iceberg, which is so large that it may prevent the successful recovery of Ukrainian society from the wounds of war.

Given the complex nature of ongoing societal processes in Ukraine, the country’s current challenges are therefore seen by many Ukrainians as natural issues, not necessarily attributable to the effects of the present war. Having an ambition to assess them also through the prism of security and correlate them to the ongoing war, I would point out five major consequences that should be better addressed within and by Ukrainian society as soon as possible. Even though some of my thoughts might seem provocative or accusative, please bear in mind that this is an assessment from a friendly country—one that is the biggest per capita contributor of development assistance to Ukraine.

1. Deepening sense of distrust

The growing sense of distrust within Ukrainian society has come as an unpleasant surprise, given that no one would have imagined it possible in the time after the Revolution of Dignity or during the bloodiest battles in eastern Ukraine, when social cohesion was growing throughout the country and the civic identity of Ukrainians was becoming stronger by the day. Yet serious distrust among citizens is now present, and links among government, business, and civil society are now broken, as revealed by a quick look at the recent index of trust. As one could expect, the only part of the Ukrainian government, which is generally trusted by the society, is the military (and this honour has been earned only at the cost of many lost lives).

Many Western experts and journalists – as if looking for an excuse to forget the country and avoid writing on the topic – often refer to a general sense of “Ukraine fatigue” from outside—but interestingly enough, very much the same fatigue can be sensed within and across Ukraine itself. Disappointment is always a personal emotion and starts locally, but has a tendency to grow exponentially. The feeling is strengthened by many unmet expectations, unfulfilled promises and broken hopes – and this is not just about implementing badly needed reforms, fighting endemic corruption or providing universal access to justice. This is also about many veterans of the anti-terrorist operation (ATO), who are still waiting for respectful treatment rather than being irresponsibly threatened with criminal prosecutions.

Distrust spreads everywhere: among local communities, especially in eastern Ukraine, a high level of toxic suspicion towards some neighbours and other citizens prevails as memories of the recent occupation or of illegal uprisings are still fresh, and the search for hidden enemies or latent separatists is still underway. This remains an extremely inconvenient (or even dangerous) topic for a public discussion among locals as peace is still fragile and openly pro-Ukrainian citizens in the East are, in fact, a minority.

2. Language issue

Although it has never been a real existential problem, the language issue in Ukraine now indeed has the potential to become one. Before 2014, various Ukrainian politicians repeatedly played the ethnicity and language cards to seek electoral gain. Previously, the role of language in the self-identification of Ukrainians was overstated and the language issue itself was strongly ideologised and politicised. Sadly enough, the professional politicisation of the language issue under the Yanukovych regime is now being replaced by securitisation of the issue due to the many vocal experts and political leaders in Ukraine demanding severe restrictions against the Russian language in favour of Ukrainian. One of the main arguments they advance is that the use of Russian in the public sphere is a threat to informational security of Ukraine. This is a very dangerous trend as linguistic identity and language practice is not the same thing in Ukraine. We should recall that almost half of first-line defence volunteers in 2014-2015 were actually Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who defended their home country against a brutal and insidious aggressor. The case for harsh linguistic regulations seems to be inadequate particularly in the light of the hybrid threats posed by, and the hostile informational influence originating in, Russia. Further attempts to securitise the Russian language issue could lead to very crucial consequences, since the Ukrainian state and its society are still unstable and fragile and therefore cannot afford to alienate loyal Russian-speaking citizens. A bigger gift to Mr. Putin could hardly be imagined.

3. Gender and violence

Although women have continuously proven their strong ability to defend the country by serving as defense volunteers even in combat units (and this is also a societal consequence from the war, albeit a positive one), there is another unspoken but growing problem. The Ukrainian state was and in cases still is unprepared and unqualified for providing proper rehabilitation to war veterans and their families. Already in 2015, there were statements that Ukraine desperately needed to reform its rehabilitation medicine. However, let us look at it from another angle. Primarily trained to deal with civilian issues, almost all social workers in Ukraine are women who suddenly, when veterans began returning from the war, became the first line of official contact. Deeply dissatisfied and disappointed with the state and with numerous grievances against it (e.g. the lack of tangible socio-economic benefits after military service, the criminal prosecutions of their former comrades-in-arms, and the perceived national betrayal of the Minsk agreements, etc.), they project their pathogenic anger and anxiety onto those women performing the role of social workers and, thus, representing the first contact with the state. To this picture should be added the problem of domestic violence against women within their families. Through this, the veterans create strong mental associations and linkages between their personal frustration with and sense of betrayal by, incapable and unjust state on the one hand, and women in general on the other. In such a combination, this might contribute to growing violence against women in society, especially in domestic settings.

4. Gun ownership policy

Another serious consequence for Ukrainian society is the gradually developing major shift in general perceptions about gun policy. There is growing demand for revising the principles of Ukrainian firearms legislation as society is getting accustomed (if not addicted) to a larger degree of accessibility to personal weapons, some of which may have even been obtained illegally. Taking into account the previously mentioned ever-deepening distrust between the society and the government, with the latter furiously defending its strict monopoly on the use of force, a fair public debate is desperately needed in Ukraine—a country in which the phenomenon of defence volunteers and their heroic deeds is very unique in the history of modern Europe. This phenomenon alone has already contributed substantially to endangering Ukraine’s current gun policy, as the government faces strong public pressure from lobbying groups to review the current gun ownership law—groups that cite the practices of the Baltic states as models to be emulated. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian government has legitimate concerns about changing the law, since a more liberal gun policy in today’s Ukraine could be misused, largely because of widespread corruption and in some cases the pursuit of retribution –by many illegal activists and organised crime groups.

5. Absence of consensus about the future

Finally yet importantly, one of the most severe societal consequences from the war in eastern Ukraine is that there is no vision about its end. In addition to the internal fatigue described above, there is a worryingly spreading lack of common understanding how peace settlement could be actually achieved. A majority of those interviewed are at the stage of understanding that the Minsk peace process was actually predesigned not to succeed or fail, but to last endlessly. Just a quick look at the struggling process would show that the actual situation differs dramatically from the desired one.

When (or if) Ukrainian society enters a phase of greater consolidation in the future, then it will have to determine which conditions reconciliation could be even discussed, let alone actually take place. We should not forget that there are Ukrainian citizens still living in the occupied territories. How would they be perceived by their compatriots during and after the peace building process? As a direct consequence of the war, some evident factors contributing to even bigger division of Ukrainian society have emerged: there is, for instance, no commonly agreed attitude towards a possible membership in NATO, acceptance of so-called European values or further relations with Russia, not to speak of how to interpret modern history and its heroes or the artificially created issues of language policy. Opinions vary from very radical to quite moderate, but no clear perspectives have been proposed yet, neither internally nor internationally.

Meanwhile, a new generation of Ukrainians is being raised and educated, even as the questions about the end of the war and its consequences remain unanswered. Would restoring territorial integrity be enough for the successful consolidation of Ukrainian society and its prosperous development in the future? Or is it more about people and their aspirations? If so, what exactly should young parents in Ukraine tell their children about the war? When and how would they understand that the war is over, or whether it has been won or lost? What is their vision of ending it with victory?

Obviously, the list of the social consequences described above neither is (nor was intended to be) exhaustive, given that in a complex society there are always a myriad of interactions and interdependencies between various issues and processes. Yet it is vital for Ukrainians to learn as many lessons from the war as possible, because learning and evolving is one of the key ingredients of resilience.

Learning in such conditions, when the Kremlin’s propaganda attacks become more sophisticated and heavy artillery still threaten Mariupol or even bomb Avdiivka, is not an easy task—but it is the only thing that will ensure real changes in Ukrainian society. Changes for a better tomorrow start from knowing, analysing and dealing with the consequences of the war today. Healing will come hand-in-hand with the changes towards a better life and a more prosperous society.