Ukrainian democracy in action. Why a successful strategy to counter authoritarianism includes Ukraine’s membership in the EU and NATO

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Hanna Hopko’s interview to news magazine New Eastern Europe:

Ukraine’s geopolitical relevance is only growing given the increasing hybrid attacks launched by authoritarian regimes against the West. In the 30 years since the country’s restoration of statehood and independence, Ukraine has become a reliable contributor to European security. Kyiv even gave up the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal in 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result, it can be argued that Ukraine truly represents democracy in action. This is especially clear in relation to neighbouring Belarus and especially Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which are increasingly experiencing a transition to totalitarianism.

A successful democratic Ukraine means a stronger and more resilient Europe. The country has paid the highest price in pursuit of this common success, especially during and after the EuroMaidan or the Revolution of Dignity. Of course, Europe itself is faced with many pressing problems and contradictions. At the same time, the West as a whole is often not ready to act pre-emptively against new threats. It is certain, nevertheless, that Europe has a reliable partner in Ukraine, which may well become a powerful ally in the near future.

It is important for Ukraine that the NATO 2030 plan includes not only statements on the alliance’s open door policy, but also clear mechanisms regarding Ukraine’s progress towards membership. Photo: Oleh Dubyna / Shutterstock

A historical issue

“The fate of Europe will depend on the solution of the Ukrainian problem”, stated Lancelot Lawton in the British House of Commons before the Second World War. In his opinion, it was necessary for the British policy in the East to include Ukraine in the system of Western Europe. After all, “an independent and autonomous Ukraine is necessary for European economic progress and world peace”.

More than eight years of Russian armed aggression has confirmed the ability of Ukrainians to defend their state to the extent that they will never return to Moscow’s sphere of influence. However, the dreams of millions, who for centuries have fought for statehood and believed in Ukraine’s special importance regarding the fate of Europe, will only come true when Kyiv becomes a full member of the European family of nations and NATO. From a pragmatic point of view, such a move is in the collective interest of the West, which should show greater readiness and political courage regarding Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions. As one of the initiators of the Verkhovna Rada’s 2019 “Resolution on the Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the Russian Federation”, I believe that Ukraine’s current position will ultimately help transform Russia and curb the expansion of authoritarian regimes. After all, Ukraine has borne the brunt of various international issues Europe has been facing for centuries. The future of the continent subsequently lies in Ukraine. From fighting off invasions to curbing authoritarian regimes in the 21st century, Ukraine’s position on the European continent has remained the same. However, it is unclear if Europe truly understands these experiences.

Exactly 400 years ago, pivotal events for Europe took place in Ukraine. Near the fortress of Khotyn, brave Cossacks repelled an invasion of thousands of Ottoman troops. The future of the entire continent depended on the result of that battle. Losing that battle would have opened the way to Warsaw to the Ottoman Empire.

Ukraine continues to find itself in a similar situation today. The country has successfully defended Europe from an uninvited guest for eight years. In this regard, the recent decision of the European Union Council to provide assistance to the Ukrainian military under the European Union’s “Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace” (IcSP) deserves respect. I am also grateful to those EU member states who have helped Ukraine by providing weapons to defend its sovereignty in light of the large concentration of Russian troops on the border. Despite this, we also want to believe that the number of such friendly and courageous acts will only grow in the years to come. Ukraine naturally hopes for fewer events such as the recent veto on weapons supplies. After all, Putin continues to engage in blackmail and issue threats against western organisations such as NATO and the EU. This situation only encourages the Kremlin to take further action, such as the build-up of troops near the border.

In fact, Putin is making money by threatening to invade Ukraine. In addition to their meeting in Geneva, Putin and the US President Joe Biden have pursued telephone conversations on numerous occasions. During these talks, the Russian leader has bargained for favourable conditions for himself and his circle at the expense of those living in Russia. Putin is now faced with record low approval ratings. As for Ukraine, we must understand that the West’s line is currently quite tough but only on a superficial level. If Putin launches a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it is said that he will face even stronger sanctions. But why are there currently no sanctions designed to stop such a move in the first place? At the same time, it remains wildly unclear why Nord Stream 2 was allowed to continue. Russia’s armed aggression in Ukraine has lasted for more than eight years, during which more than 14,000 people have died. Putin has not fulfilled even the first clauses of the Minsk agreements. Instead, we are seeing a growing number of attacks on the West.

Gradual change

Instead of withdrawing troops from the occupied territories of Ukraine, Putin is moving more military equipment and troops near the Ukrainian borders. Putin is using blackmail and threats to destabilise the situation in Europe. He is trying to undermine the unity of NATO and the EU by completing and launching Nord Stream 2. Therefore, we do not need to wait for Putin’s next invasion of Ukraine to impose sanctions.

Ukrainians have come to certain conclusions about the situation. They will resist and will not allow the government to make “painful compromises”, as one Ukrainian oligarch once suggested in a Wall Street Journal essay. After all, we have the truth and a strong army with unique experience behind us. In fact, primarily thanks to civil society, volunteers, and the help of the West, we have one of the largest and most capable armies in Europe. A peaceful sky over a secure Europe rests on the shoulders of Ukraine’s military, which protects our common values, peace and security. Its actions ensure the safety of countries even beyond Warsaw and the Baltic states.

Next year will mark ten years since Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity. In the West, this event is better known as the EuroMaidan, as it was sparked by Viktor Yanukovych’s failure to sign the Association Agreement with the EU. Participants went to the streets and squares in the name of values and not for the sake of their own interests. Moreover, many protesters sacrificed  their lives for the dream of Europe. This is worth remembering in Berlin or Paris, in Budapest or Rome.

The revolution gave Ukraine a chance to reform institutions that would protect citizens from corrupt officials. These changes strengthened the resilience of the Ukrainian society, which started to resist not only Russia’s external hybrid war but also the negative influence of oligarchs. The transformation of Ukraine into an institutional state is a marathon, not a sprint. It is important to carefully introduce reforms and ensure that they can stand up to various challenges. In particular, the decentralisation reform should become the foundation of democratic governance and a source of the formation of the new political elite. Whilst the reform of the public service is currently under way, it has not yet resulted in too many changes. The same can be said about judicial reforms. Ukraine still has serious problems with corruption, the rule of law, and the domination of oligarchs. However, an honest assessment of the situation will ultimately allow for an active solution.

The Ukrainian society is still prone to choosing political projects that lack real programme, team and content during elections. Yet, I believe that our citizens are slowly embracing the path of change. Even in advanced democracies, it is clear that democratic advantages cannot be taken for granted. With each new generation and government, we must ensure that democratic principles are protected in the country. My conclusion is that Ukraine’s transformation through reforms will not work without Christian values. As a moral authority, dissident Yevhen Sverstyuk once wrote: “Civilization has grown. The man has shrunk.” The sacrifices made by many citizens during the Orange Revolution and the Revolution of Dignity were challenged by those who backed Leonid Kuchma’s then corrupt oligarchic clan system. This system has stolen our historical chances on many occasions.

Demand for integration

After the turbulent and bloody events of 2013-14, Ukraine signed the political and economic portions of its Association Agreement with the EU. On July 11th 2017 the EU Council made the final decision and concluded the Association Agreement on behalf of the EU. Since then, Ukraine has not become any less close to Europe, and Ukrainians have not lost their faith in it.

The country’s course to the West is now unchanging and irreversible. The citizen’s growing support for the Euro-Atlantic path shows that development is going in the right direction. The New Europe Center, a foreign policy think tank based in Kyiv, recently commissioned its second nationwide poll on Ukrainian society’s expectations on foreign policy. Ukrainians are overwhelmingly in favour of continuing the country’s integration with the EU and NATO. According to the study, 60.7 per cent of respondents believe that Ukraine should become a member of the EU. At the same time, 52.7 per cent believe that Ukraine should become a member of NATO (last year the reported figure was 48.4 per cent). A characteristic feature of this year is that the level of support for the EU has decreased, while more people are now in favour of NATO integration.

According to another poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, the vast majority of respondents would support Ukraine’s accession to the European Union in the event of a referendum. Indeed, 67.1 per cent of all respondents would vote “yes” in such a vote. In the case of a referendum on joining NATO, 59.2 per cent of all respondents would vote “yes” and 28.1 per cent would vote “no”.

We must now ask our western partners if they are ready to see Ukraine not just as a contributor to European security but also as an integrated part of it. Do they understand the consequences of the political weakness shown in Bucharest in 2008, when there was no political will to give Ukraine and Georgia a Membership Action Plan? At the same time, how would the prospects of membership contribute to Ukraine’s democratic transformation?

It is important for Ukraine that the NATO 2030 plan includes not only statements on the alliance’s open door policy, but also clear mechanisms regarding Ukraine’s progress towards membership. It is necessary to develop and present an optimal route with a roadmap for the key reforms, as was the case with visa-free travel with the EU. Learning the lessons from not admitting Ukraine and Georgia to NATO should provide more arguments for the alliance to change the approaches.

Generational change offers new hope

The youth of Ukraine offers another guarantee that the country’s current course will be maintained in relation to both the government and its western partners. This was made clear by the implementation of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Youth Model project, launched by the “ANTS” National Interests Advocacy Network with the support of the NATO Information and Documentation Centre. As a result of the project, 215 university students participated in lectures on NATO’s creation, priorities and challenges. Furthermore, 85 students took part in a session of the NATO Youth Model Parliamentary Assembly. The speaker of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament), the deputy prime minister and members of the Verkhovna Rada also participated in this event.

In anticipation of a truly historic session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which will take place in Ukraine in May 2022, the project organisers are creating a network of young leaders in the country. These young people will learn about the key democratic decision-making mechanism of NATO in a multi-national environment, as well as specific committees and activities of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

At the same time, calls for appeasement regarding Russia are still sometimes heard in European capitals. The issue with this approach was clearly seen during Josep Borrell’s visit to Moscow in 2021. Following this, the head of the EU diplomacy was forced to admit that Moscow “did not live up to expectations for the establishment of a modern democracy”. If Brussels had listened more to Ukraine, Borrell might not have faced humiliation in the Russian capital. In today’s strong and resilient Europe, there should be no place for an appeasement approach advocated by figures such as former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Defending and improving links with Europe

Human rights continue to be systematically violated in Russian-occupied Crimea. At the same time, the demographic situation in the area is changing and any dissent is being suppressed. Since the occupation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, the Kremlin has imprisoned 130 Ukrainian citizens, including journalists. Sevastopol journalist Oleksiy Bessarabov, deputy editor-in-chief of the Black Sea Security Journal, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for his pro-western views and activities. He has been imprisoned for six years. His colleague Dmytro Shtyblykov was due to be released last year after five years in prison, but a new case has been filed against him. He now faces an additional 12 to 20 years in prison. Vladyslav Yesypenko, a freelancer of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was arrested and tortured last year.

More than half of these prisoners are Crimean Tatars. In the families of Kremlin’s Ukrainian political prisoners, 207 children were left without parental care. The occupying authorities still attempt to accuse such figures of extremism, terrorism, sabotage and espionage. September marked two years since the last time Russian authorities released political prisoners. Since then, none have returned to their families.

Through this article, I would like to promote the second annual international “Democracy in Action” conference on June 6th and 7th 2022 (https://uadia.org/), the first high-level initiative in Ukraine that does not take money from oligarchs. The general theme of this year’s discussion is “Resilience vs hybrid threats”. Senior officials and international experts will discuss potential solutions to various hybrid threats to democracy, such as strategic corruption, disinformation, legal warfare and climate change.

Ukraine offers many solutions to the challenges of modern democracy. The state is quickly becoming a regional leader in many areas, such as countering disinformation, hybrid warfare and cyber-attacks. It is very important for us that Ukraine’s voice, experiences and proposals are heard and perceived as assets with which it can become a respected part of the club of western democracies.

Since Ukraine is an example of democracy in action, it is worth pursuing support not only in the security and defence sphere. Certainly, the country must also seek economic co-operation, such as joint investments into production sites with key strategic partners. This would integrate Ukraine into production chains involving the export, extraction and processing of critical raw materials for high-tech products. It is also worth pursuing the creation of new manufacturing plants that will focus on new technologies such as electric cars.

To be competitive, we also need to be at the forefront of global innovation trends in the IT sector. It is worth remembering that in July 2021, Ukraine signed a memorandum on a strategic partnership with the EU in the field of critical raw materials, such as titanium, cobalt and lithium. These resources also present Ukraine with additional opportunities. It is critical for the EU to have access to such raw materials in order to remain competitive and not be reliant on China. A relationship with Beijing involves various geopolitical risks and high costs due to logistics. At the same time, it is important for us not to allow Ukraine to simply become an exporter of raw materials but to become a key partner in strategic areas such as space and engineering. For 30 years we have struggled with perceptions that Ukraine is simply a buffer zone rich in raw materials.

Ukraine is Europe

We must build a country on the foundation of Christian values and morals if we are to realise Ukraine’s dreams of joining the EU and NATO, and recovering Donbas and Crimea. Robert Schuman, an officially recognised “Father of Europe”, believed that the continent’s future depended on the revival of Christian values. These would further shape Europe’s political and economic realities. Ukraine also has a special mission to revive these values in Europe.

My dream is to one day visit Moscow and take part in the unveiling of monuments to the victims of Holodomor and Putin’s regime. I believe that Lenin will finally be buried and that the monuments to Stalin will be demolished, following the example of Ukraine’s own decommunisation. By moving closer to Europe, Ukraine is helping Europe to become closer to itself. As a state, we have decisively chosen the path of returning to the European home. We now need to protect the common security and peace of the continent and not only from the Russian aggressor.

Ukraine is Europe. Ukraine is defending Europe. It is time for the EU to choose Ukraine as a reliable partner and member of its family.

Hanna Hopko is a foreign policy expert, a chairman of the board at the Network for the Protection of National Interests “ANTS”, and a former chair of the Ukrainian parliament committee on foreign affairs from 2014 to 2019.

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