How the War Could Transform Ukrainian Politics

True to the opening line of its national anthem, “Ukraine has not yet perished.” Nearly three months after Russia invaded Ukraine, the offensive has stalled. Fears voiced in February that Ukraine may cease to exist as an independent state have receded. Ukrainian democracy will survive. Yet, while the world’s focus has understandably centered on the course of the war, less attention has been paid to the impact the of the war on Ukrainian politics and democratic development. These shifts, outlined in four sections below, have the power to fundamentally change the country and must be critically considered by policymakers planning for Ukraine’s recovery and reconstruction.

Erosion of Pro-Russian Sentiment

For its nearly three decades of independence, Ukraine has struggled to develop a unifying idea to consolidate national identity, bridge the ethnic, religious, and linguistic divisions of its heterogenous society, and guide its geopolitical course. Although Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its undeclared proxy war in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions awakened a sense of patriotism and purpose among many Ukrainians in 2014, a substantial portion of the population continued to hope for the normalization of relations with Moscow. Proponents of this view were concentrated in the southeastern regions of the country, where local economies and supply chains were deeply integrated with Russia as a legacy of Soviet rule, and where Russia enjoyed significant social and cultural influence as a result of more than a century of immigration.

However, since the start of the “special military operation” in February, hopes of a peaceful coexistence with Russia have evaporated. As one analyst of Ukrainian identity politics summarized, “the vast majority of Ukrainians throughout the country, even in the historically more Russia-friendly east, now see Russia as an adversary.” This sentiment is borne out in recent social surveys, which found that only 8 percent of respondents had positive inclinations toward Russian citizens, down from 47 percent in 2018. Ukrainians are well aware of the high degree of support within Russia for invasion and increasingly believe that ordinary Russians bear responsibility for war. Atrocities committed against Ukrainian civilians, such as the massacre in Bucha or the indiscriminate destruction of Mariupol, only serve to harden Ukrainians’ outlook toward their neighbor.

The war has provoked a reconsideration of the countries’ shared history, with more Ukrainians acknowledging Russia’s role in Ukraine as that of a colonial power rather than a fraternal nation. The ideological divide between Ukrainians and Russians, whom Russian president Vladimir Putin infamously characterized as “one people,” has deepened, and citizens of Russia and Ukraine have fundamentally incompatible views of their past, present, and future.

In this context, the pro-Russian political orientation has become outdated and toxic, and the regional divide that has loomed over Ukrainian politics for decades is fading. In an April 2022 survey by the International Republican Institute, 80 percent of respondents nationwide supported Ukraine’s entry into the European Union, whereas only 2 percent supported joining a regional customs union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. In eastern Ukraine, more than two-thirds of respondents were proponents of EU accession, which underscores the national consensus for a political-economic course toward the West. Hot-button cultural issues that once undergirded opposition campaigns in eastern Ukraine, such as language policy and the celebration of divisive historical figures after the Revolution of Dignity, have lost their resonance as Ukraine fights for its future.

Banning of Russia-Linked Political Parties

Meanwhile, the government has taken steps to protect itself from Russian manipulation by placing restrictions on political movements that are tied to Moscow or support its position on the war. At the outset of the conflict, the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine suspended the work of several political structures linked to Russia, while Ukraine’s parliament passed a similar measure that was signed by President Zelensky on May 14 to ban political parties that justify or deny Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine.

The Opposition Platform–For Life (OPFL) party, which had the second-highest share (13 percent) of votes cast in Ukraine 2019 parliamentary election and was a leading voice against Euro-Atlantic integration, deserves particular attention. Politicians associated with the party have been placed on Western sanctions lists for their purported links to Russian intelligence agencies. The reputation of the party has also been discredited by the fact that most of its representatives in parliament had fled Ukraine days before the invasion, suggesting those party members may have been tipped off about the attack, and also the willingness of several local and regional party members to collaborate with Russian occupation forces in southern and eastern Ukraine. Further illustrating the extent of OPFL’s alienation are the cases of prominent former member of parliament Illia Kyva, who defected to Russia and has publicly called on Putin to use weapons of mass destruction against Ukraine, and party cofounder Viktor Medvedchuk, who was offered to Russia as part of an abortive prisoner exchange after being captured by Ukrainian security services following his escape from house arrest on treason charges. While a rump of OPFL has rebranded as a parliamentary group emphasizing respect for human life, peace, and the independence of Ukraine in an attempt to retain their seats in the legislature, it is unlikely to gain traction with a peace platform, given that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians believe they will prevail in the war against Russia and precious few are willing to make concessions to end hostilities.

While the motivation to ban Russia-linked political parties is understandable as a defense against fifth columnists, it raises concerns about due process and rule of law and could create difficulties for Ukraine down the road. Some legal experts claim that the ban violates Ukraine’s constitution and may be challenged in European courts on the grounds of violating fundamental political freedoms or reversed by Ukraine’s own constitutional court, which has issued controversial decisions in favor of OPFL in the past. Supporters of the law have noted that the ban is a stopgap measure and may require amendments to comply with democratic standards. Yet, if it stands, the ban could be the first step in rooting out other forms of Russian malign influence and soft power in Ukraine through legislation and executive action and would be the basis for future discussions on lustration.

Oligarchs Extended a Political Lifeline

In 2014, a weakened Kyiv government turned to oligarchs for support. Banking magnate Ihor Kolomoyskyi, for instance, funded volunteer units fighting against Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine. Yet, these concessions came at the price of entrenching self-interested actors in influential positions and eroding the state’s monopoly on violence. Within a few years of the Revolution of Dignity, the malign influence of oligarchs in Ukraine had become so problematic that the U.S. Helsinki Commission concluded that oligarchs “have captured the Ukrainian state, crowding out non-corrupt political parties and competing with one another to steal Ukraine's wealth.” Concerns about grand corruption were a persistent block on Ukraine’s aspirations to join the European Union and NATO.

A redux of this dynamic may be shaping up as Ukraine prepares for a long standoff with Russia. Although President Zelensky launched a “de-oligarchization” campaign only one year ago to insulate political processes and the media from undue influence by business elites, Ukraine’s richest individuals are almost uniformly backing the government in the war against Russia. This suggests they understand not only that a Russian takeover would be detrimental to their business interests, but also that the crisis provides an opportunity to improve their standing. So far, oligarchs have provided substantial donations to help Ukraine meet defense and humanitarian needs and have signaled their willingness to play a role in the country’s eventual recovery. For example, steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, whose company Metinvest owns two steel plants in Mariupol, has pledged to rebuild the city once the Russian occupation is over. These efforts are hardly selfless; they have been accompanied by uncritical coverage in local and Western press that allow the oligarchs to reframe themselves as patriotic defenders of their country.

If Ukraine is not careful, it risks trading away its future to meet its needs in the present, ignoring some of the most vital lessons learned from 2014. A recent bill introduced in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, would allow persons facing corruption charges to be exempted from criminal liability if the damage is fully compensated during the period of martial law. Since prosecutors have struggled to establish the full extent of funds stolen in some of biggest corruption cases (e.g., Kolomoyskyi’s alleged theft of $5.5 billion from PrivatBank ), the bill would allow corrupt actors, including some of Ukraine’s most prominent oligarchs, to pay pennies on the dollar to escape accountability for crimes committed before the war. As the past eight years have shown, oligarchs have the capacity and incentive to block reforms intended to root out corruption and facilitate Ukraine’s transition to a full-fledged market economy. If they exploit the conflict to deepen their hold over Ukraine’s politics and economy, there is little reason to doubt they would once again undermine Ukraine’s path to Euro-Atlantic integration to protect their personal wealth and influence.

Veterans’ Movement, Civil Society Energized

All signs point to a postwar atmosphere in which one’s activities during the invasion play a major role in determining one’s bona fides as a candidate for public office. With social trust in the military and territorial defense units at an all-time high, military leaders and servicemembers are in a strong position to enter the political arena. Established political parties and oligarchs may try to co-opt prominent defenders of Ukraine to suit their causes, but those who proved themselves during the war and stick to their principles in future elections will have substantial political capital and a chance of unseating members of the old guard.

In this context, Ukraine’s veteran movement is likely to become a more overt and organized political force in the coming years. While veteran organizations had largely refrained from aligning with established political parties since 2014, they took up a narrow set of causes in recent years that sometimes posed a direct challenge to the Zelensky administration. In the post-invasion environment, veteran organizations could play a key role in identifying candidates for office and mobilizing grassroots support. At minimum, the rapid, nationwide influx of volunteers joining the armed forces and territorial defense units will make veterans a critical voting bloc in future elections and will push their issues into the mainstream. The broader membership base of the veteran community should create a more diffuse group identity, which could help to safeguard it against being co-opted by far-right movements—an emerging trend prior to the invasion.

Another countervailing influence on the regressive role of oligarchs and corrupt actors will be Ukraine’s civil society, which has mobilized tremendous resources to support Ukraine’s defense and to address humanitarian needs. Early polling data reveal that nearly one-third of all Ukrainians have volunteered to help fellow citizens or aid the defense effort. Like the veteran community, this group of citizens will have considerable influence in Ukrainian politics and will help to shape the agenda from inside and outside of government, much as they did after the Revolution of Dignity. Civil society is certain to play a role in monitoring expenditures of international funds earmarked for Ukraine’s economic recovery.

What Do These Changes Mean for Ukraine and Its Western Supporters?

Domestic politics in Ukraine are bound to transform as a result of the war, and there are many challenges ahead. Chief among them, Ukrainian society will have to contend with the difficult question of how to reconcile the role that certain political figures played in the years before the invasion with the roles they have assumed in the months since. This applies not only to previously pro-Russian politicians and regional strongmen, but also Ukraine’s oligarchs. It will also have to ensure that the patriotic fervor that has enabled Ukraine to resist the Russian invasion does not metastasize into toxic intolerance or trigger illiberal shortcuts that could damage the country in the long run.

Yet, for the first time since 2015–16, when reforms introduced after the Revolution of Dignity began to lose steam, an opportunity has emerged for Ukraine to fulfill its potential as a democratic state with strong institutions and an economy that is worthy of foreign investment.

As the Russian offensive falters, Ukraine’s Western partners are starting to think about how to help the country recover and rebuild. This process creates an opportunity to support the positive transformations taking place within Ukraine and to safeguard against backsliding. A move by the European Union to forge closer ties with Ukraine—which would require a considerable degree of creativity and flexibility in Brussels, as there are serious obstacles to even granting candidate status—would be a long-term boon for reformers and would fortify elected officials to make tough decisions for the public good.

In the interim, states and institutions providing financial assistance for Ukraine’s reconstruction should help promote strong anti-corruption mechanisms to attract additional investments and reinforce the rule of law. Policymakers in the West should monitor for signs that oligarchs and corrupt officials are positioning themselves to recapture state institutions and funds, speak with one voice about the impermissibility of returning to certain “old habits,” and help develop the capacity of responsible actors to secure the bright future that Ukraine deserves. There is a tremendous opportunity for Ukraine to strengthen its democracy following the war. It must be seized.

Andrew Lohsen is a fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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