Ukraine Nationalism and Rule of Law

Ukraine Nationalism and Rule of Law
  • Bill, Eric, thanks for joining us.

    There has been much attention focused on the role of the state-sponsored militias in Ukraine.

    What is the status of democracy  and the rule of law in Ukraine on this, the twenty fifth anniversary of Ukraine declaring independence?

  • A word of explanation is required as to the first part of this question. At the beginning of the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine (the Donbas) and the annexation by Russia of Crimea, in early 2014, the Ukrainian army was in a catastrophic state, and volunteer formations emerged such as the Azov Battalion. These received much attention at the time. Extreme right-wing elements became prominent on both sides of the confict. 

    Ukraine has now reorganised and re-equipped its armed forces, has introduced five waves of conscription, and Azov and other militias have been incorporated into the regular armed forces of Ukraine.

    That said, Ukraine is bedevilled by serious corruption and competition between big business interests, which undermines democracy and the rule of law. Nevertheless, Ukraine is in many respects much more democratic than Russia, there is greater freedom of expression, and serious efforts are being made to reform the legal and judicial systems, and law enforcement.

  • Здравствуйте Bill!   And thank you for helping us understand the hottest conflict in Europe on the hottest summer day in Britain.   I'd like to pick up where you leave off -- in fact, precisely with your final sentence. 

    Certainly the more serious media along with leading NGOs confirm much of what you say.  Russia and Ukraine are both wracked with corruption.  Both are
    plagued with some nationalist and far-right movements.  Both of them lack any real democratic commitments or serious traditions of human rights.   And yet, despite it all, I agree with you that at least some significant portion of Ukrainian society seems dedicated to reform and to improving the rule of law.

    A central question then seems to be: How should Europe or the West respond?  Perhaps at no time in recent memory has trust in joint Western or NATO leadership been so low.  From your concluding sentence are we to deduce that the West should march ahead with strong support for Ukrainian democracy and for its greater integration or affiliation with
    Europea?  Or do we need Realpolitik, sacrificing any high priority for Ukraine in order to appease Russia?  Or is there some position in the middle which is not just a vague and flimsy compromise?

  • There are several words in your last paragraph, Eric, that need unpacking. Surely Russia and Ukraine are both part of "Europe", and, indeed, where does the "West" end or the "East" begin? 

    Not so long ago the Russian Empire included Poland and Finland, and for a part of the last century Russia occupied a large part of Germany. The greatest Tsar of Russia (Catherine II) was a German princess, and the last Tsars were cousins of the British royal family, who were (are) Germans. 

    The predecessor of Muscovy, which began its expansion, like England, in the 16th century, was Rus, in what is now Ukraine. Ukraine and Russia were ruled by the Golden Horde, the Tatars, for more than two centuries. 

    But to return to my first point: Ukraine is, in Andrew Wilson's words, the "unexpected nation", which did not exist before World War II. Now it has just as much a right to exist and flourish as Finland, Poland, or Georgia; or, indeed, former British possessions. Every European state has a vital interest in ensuring that both Ukraine and Russia are stable and prosperous states in which civil liberties and human rights are protected.  

    If by the "West" we mean the EU, then the EU's future is in some doubt as a result of the Brexit vote. Russia has always been adept in dealing not with the EU but with its member states, especially Germany. Eu sanctions for Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea remain in place, as do Russian sanctions against the EU. But the volume of trade and the pace of economic integration have not diminished substantially.

    If by the "West" we mean NATO, then we should remember that NATO was the counterpart of the Warsaw Pact, and a mechanism for mutual defence against the perceived aggressive intentions of the USSR and its allies. In my view NATO lost much credibility when it undertook offensive action against Serbia, and its eastward expansion after the end of the Cold War is understandably viewed with apprehension by Russia.

    Europe as a whole has had far too much experience of war in the last centuries, and there can be no military solution. The annexation of Crimea was made possible by the presence, in agreement with Ukraine, of 25,000 Russian troops in Sevastopol, and by the abject failure of Ukraine to resist. The focus now must be on the plight of the indigenous people of Crimea, the Crimean Tatars, whose representative body, the Mejlis, has been closed by Russia, and whose leaders are in exile in Ukraine. The EU Parliament recently adopted a strongly worded resolution on this question, and every way must be found to give the Crimean Tatars support.

    Russia does not intend to annex eastern Ukraine, and the worst case scenario is that Donetsk and Luhansk will become "frozen conflicts", like Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

    But there are powerful voices in Russia proclaiming that Ukraine has no right to exist as an independent state. In my view the proper answer is to build links with the sections of Russian society which insist that Russia's future is in stronger engagement with European institutions such as the Council of Europe and OSCE.

    Russia will soon celebrate 20 years since its ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights, under its 1993 Constitution which enshrines human rights, civil liberties and the primacy of international law. Britain and Russia have rather too much in common in their attitude to the ECHR. So we in civil society have a common platform!

  • You raise many crucial points Bill.  I'll need to focus on just a few, but do let me know if I'm overlooking important elements.

    I agree entirely with the history you recount.  "West" and "East" are indeed largely Cold War constructs.  Those words have represented at best fluid borders (and not just in Europe).  You're right to recall that whether or how we draw such lines depends much on whether we're talking land, culture, rule, and so forth.  Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov seem to have struggled in drawing those boundaries as much as we do today. 

    On the other hand would you not agree that, however arbitrary may be their origins, current nationalisms are rendering these divisions very real?   Indeed à propos contemporary nationalisms: as a staunch "Remainer" (cf. my previous discussion thread on this website), I have strongly advocated Britain's leading role in a European Union of open borders.  Although I suspect you mean the observation ironically, should we be equating Britain's Euro-scpeticism, which admittedly includes confusions with and hostilities towards the ECHR, with Russia's attitudes towards human rights?  Sexual minorities, to mention but one set of targets, might well decline to do so.

    But back to your proposal.  Of course I agree we need to build links.  I've been involved in a few myself, always with enormous personal and professional satisfaction.  But "let's engage more" seems like a weary old game, particularly when dissidents find themselves ever more restricted in their activities and at ever greater personal and professional risk. 

    These problems force us to look more closely at Russia's dominant politics.  Many voices would join you in claiming that "eastward expansion after the end of the Cold War is understandably viewed with apprehension by Russia."  Well, yes, "understandably" in the sense that we can easily find Russian nationalists who dislike it, and who are less bothered by critical examinations of their histories than we in -- yes, "the West"! -- are very rightly expected to be.  But I guess I'm less interested in what can be "understood" (we can pretty much explain, or indeed explain away, whatever we like) and more in what can be justified.

  • All of the historical context is definitely important, but it is also interesting that we continue to assess Ukraine in relation to Russian standards.

    And it doesn't seem to address the issue of the militias, both in terms of the implications of a state hiring militias to squash opposing factions and the danger of militias then turning on a supposedly western government. Already we see them influencing public discourse, creating terror and conflict at peaceful gatherings. 

    Can there be rule of law or democracy in a state that empowers radicals?
  • You hit the nail on the head! Both Ukraine and Russia suffer from radical nationalists, in both cases homophobic and anti-semitic. Fanatics on both sides, especially people who like weapons, are attracted to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. 

    I have been working in Ukraine since 1992 (in Russia since 1983), and from the start it was noticeable that in Kyiv and much of Ukraine people speak Russian and Ukrainian without even thinking about which language they are speaking. My first visit was to Donetsk, and I returned there several times, most recently in 2011. Ethnicity and language were not issues. Religion is the more divisive issue in much of Ukraine. But the beautiful city of Odessa is still a great Jewish city, and on the last two occasions, in the last year, that I have travelled to Ukraine, the plane has been full of Hasidic Jews, travelling to their place of pilgrimage in the city of Uman in Ukraine. 

    There have been occasional anti-semitic disturbances. On 25 September  2011, a protest rally of about 100 people was held by the nationalist All-Ukrainian Union "Svoboda" to demand 'stricter legal and sanitary controls on pilgrims' and better regulation of Hasidim pilgrims in the interest of risks to local security and health! These are the notorious far-right and anti-semitic groupings which became rather prominent at the time of the "Maidan revolution" in early 2014. But I repeat that they have few supporters in Ukraine and make no headway in elections.

    The "hot" nationalists mainly come from western Ukraine, from Galicia, which was never part of Ukraine until after WW II. The city of Lviv, Galicia's capital, was before the War the city of Lvov, in Poland, and its population was predominantly Jewish and Polish. Before that it was called Lemburg, in Austria-Hungary. Before that it was in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. There are now very few Jews or Poles. But some very "hot" anti-Russian nationalists. When I was there in 2000 there were serious proposals by the municipality to organise vigilantes to prevent the sale of Russian language literature or the playing of Russian popular music. This is the fertile soil from which the militias sprouted. Anti-Russian and anti-semitic populism go hand and hand with veneration for Nazi collaborators.

    There is no evidence that the neo-fascists who organised the provocation referred to in your link in February this year had been hired by the state, they have not brought down the government, and Roman Stoika their leader has been on the wanted list since 2015 - see

    The far right is active in every country in Europe including the UK. What is noticeable is that, as Anton Shekhovtsov has reported, far-right representatives from a number of Western European countries have been recruited by Russia to give credibility, as "observers", to the annexation of Crimea and separatism in Donbas. See for example

  • It's true, Bill, that nationalisms can be found all over the West, right down to Noway and Denmark, which can be called more-or-less impotent at their most extreme ends.  Of course, states like those two also have the longstanding and powerful counterweights of citizen-democracy, well-managed economies, high standards of living and social welfare, along with fierce commitments to human rights and the rule of law.  

    Russia and Ukraine have counterweights of their own, though of a rather different vintage.  The more benign moments of Russian Tsarism, then Soviet dictatorship, supplied counterweights to extreme nationalist or separatist types of movements, albeit simply aimed at maintaining order at all costs, in order to shore up absolute power.  Abracadabra: Putin's "sovereign democracy" turns out to look strikingly similar.

    In a nutshell, I'm not sure all observers would feel complacent about Russian or Ukrainian nationalisms.  But even if we accept this idea that they bark more than they bite, I'm not sure I'd equate their nationalisms (let alone some of their horrific racism, sexism, homophobia, and perhaps more antisemitism than we're admitting here) with Western European analogues.  

    So I'm still wondering: What should the West do?  Getting back to your proposal, there's a long history of the West using soft civil-society and cultural initiatives to counter regimes egregiously flaunting human rights -- almost always failures.  I'm not saying the choice is only between war on the one hand and wishy-washiness on the other.  I'm just asking: Is wishy-washy the best the West can offer?

  • I only ask again - what is "the West"? 

    My line has always been that relations between Russia and Ukraine mirror those between England and Ireland... the same jokes at the expense of the "little brother" - and the same history of conquest and hard-won independence. Though Irish independence cost far more blood from 1916 onwards (and several uprisings before then) than did the relatively peaceful disengagement of Ukraine from the USSR - up until 1914.

    Moreover, English constitutional law was shaped by A V Dicey, who was a die-hard opponent of Irish Home Rule - and of trade unions and local government. The internal armed conflict from 1969 to 1997 in the UK can be compared with the Chechen insurgency in Russia. And the McKerr (shoot to kill), Finucane (murder of a solicitor) and other Northern Irish cases against the UK at Strasbourg have not been resolved to this day - refusal by the UK to conclude an effective investigation. 

    So, while trying to avoid the pitfalls of moral relativism, I would be very cautious about seeking to intervene in any way. The English must resolve their own problems, probably without Scotland and maybe without Wales and Northern Ireland; and the same goes for the Ukrainians and the Russians.

    I do hope, Eric, that - unlike Owen Smith, who seems to favour armed intervention - your absolutely justified moral outrage and concern does not justify a repeat of the disasters of Iraq and Libya.... , 

    I'm now on the ferry to the Netherlands - my daughter's wedding on Saturday! England was a staunch supporter of the 80 years war of the Dutch for liberation from Spain, for example Philip Sydney at Zutphen. The Dutch burned the English fleet in the Medway in 1667, but we are friends again...


  • The Proud Dad will surely have one or other things on his mind (and plate) today, but let's see if we can't squeeze another round or two out of you.

    Some might well wonder about the "Our Yesterday is their Today" narrative.  The more we contemplate those likenesses between Russia-Ukraine today and Britain-Ireland a century ago, the more some striking differences emerge.  The British parliament by that time had long echoed with mighty voices condemning British policy.  William Gladstone was already loudly and passionately endorsing Irish Home rule in the 19th century, because he lived in a state with law and civic institutions that allowed him to do so.  Who is Russia's Gladstone today?   Elisabeth Bennett and Jane Eyre set the tone for an emerging if hard-fought future.  The progressive or reformist visions of Nikolai Rostov or Pierre Bezukhov, by contrast, are very deliberately presented as at best futile and at worst fatuous.  Two centuries later has that changed?

    Or take your more contemporary comparisons to the Middle East.  Speaking of proud dads, you and I certainly agree that nothing will be resolved by marching Dad's Army to the Kremlin doors.  The involvements in Iraq and Libya (although I'd certainly not put them in the same box, as many do, in terms of the policies or planning behind them) have certainly led to grievous numbers of innocent civilian deaths. 


    And yet, since you invoke that region (in which the Russian role has been heinous), ever more anomalies arise.  They lead us to examine more closely this apparent "law of the excluded middle", namely, that we either (a) declare all-out law or (b) lend some moral support to a few isolated dissidents and otherwise sit back and lament British history, because after all it's "just as bad".  Yet no one better than professors in our respective institutions would know that there are certainly options between those two extremes.  Observers from Mars might well wonder why they such options scarcely discussed, at least if they claimed for themselves the same political values which you claim in your approach to Russia and Ukraine.

    So back to your Middle East comparison.  In the past century the Jews have faced one of the most systematically planned and executed genocides in history, on the heels of a millennium of antisemitism.  Yet, as we are sternly and tirelessly admonished, that is "no excuse" for the way a rather small landmass became the Israeli state.  When it comes to perceived Jewish "imperialists", countless university campuses in Britain and elsewhere, in a curiously mellifluous harmony with several dozen states that have loads of time on their hands to shuttle through UN resolutions (most of them far worse human rights abusers with few if any resolutions against them at all).  None of those forces seem to be at a loss about concrete actions to be taken about a state they deem to be criminal. Suddenly they snap into the most vibrantly concerted action.  Suddenly no one seems stumped about what to do or about how to move beyond sheer words and gestures. Suddenly no one is at a loss to scream the rawest and most incensed invective and to shout down anyone who ventures disagreement.


    During that same century, indeed on the heels of previous centuries, Russian governments have orchestrated genocide (notably the Holodomor), they have committed murders of millions of other innocents, they have impoverished countless populations stretching over colossal landmasses from Central and Eastern Europe clear into Asia, not to mention their own role in grossly aggravating the Middle East tensions through the pernicious distribution of antisemitic tracts and support for brutal dictators (claiming yet further innocent victims--indeed along altogether racist lines), and Russia still counts among the most abusive nations despite being under declared war or informal attacks from absolutely no one, and indeed aggressively initiating such attacks itself in each of the regions you yourself enumerated above.  And yet now, just as suddenly, it seems the best approach is to tip-toe gingerly, to prudently weigh and balance all factors with Ciceronian sobriety, to feel deeply "sensitive" to all sides, to "understand" Russia's "legitimate" concerns, to assess the situation all with all the probity supplied by historical context, and to draw comparisons with Western nationalisms and with the evils of the British empire: and therefore to actually do nothing more in practical terms (if I'm understanding correctly) than set up a few Goethe Institutes.  When did you last see an anti-Russia boycott campaign at Birkbeck?  Where was that "die-in"?  Where is that blood-in-the-face outrage?  I understand one of your colleagues is institutionally barred from research in Israel.  Has that same institution kept you away from Russia?  

    With no slight chill in my spine, I suspect no one there could even easily think of any particular reason for such action against Russia.  I suspect (though I'm happy to do the experiment with you--just say when) that if we were to stand outside the Student Union polling for attitudes about Russia and Israel, very different "policies" would indeed emerge, explaining indeed why we view and treat the two so differently, and why we manage to look at Russia and see nothing worse than a morality tale about how the British have mistreated the Irish.  So it seems there are all sorts of things that could done.  The barriers arise not from pragmatics, but from sheer will -- and from core values. 

    (I guess the standard line would be: “Yes, but the US helps Israel”.  Except that the US has shed exponentially more innocent blood at home and abroad than Israel has ever done, while none of the BDS-crowd, not even the American ones, ever call for an anti-US boycott.  In fact the BDS-ers I know seem to be flying to the US every five minutes—only for "constructive engagement" of course, and never to lie on a beach in Honolulu or Miami or to dine in fancy NY restaurants.)


    So it seems we can rehearse all the history and draw all the analogies we like. Yet far from consulting facts in order to choose policy accordingly, we merely end up with already pre-fabricated policy, for which facts are then selected altogether post hoc in order to support that policy. 

    And perhaps that was never a surprise.