The Ukrainian Nation

September 15, 2022

Ukraine is being baptized by fire, and will emerge as a nation defined not by ethnicity, culture, or even language but by the defense of the homeland. Everyone who rose to the challenge in this dark hour will be Ukrainian. This is why I’ve been saying that the closest analogue we have — and so potentially an example of how the nation could develop — is Israel, as it was born in the War of Independence. Despite being explicitly a Jewish state, it’s a democracy with a very large non-Jewish minority, and a country where the armed forces play an outsized role in social cohesion and national identity. This has made the country an extraordinarily difficult nut to crack, as its neighbors — more numerous and surrounding it from three sides — have repeatedly found out.

And so it will be in Ukraine — its path to security does not lie in some guarantees by foreign powers (although I do think that NATO membership is now in the cards) but in maintaining a formidable, and respected, military establishment under firm civilian control. After the war, Ukraine will have the largest, strongest, and only battle-tested army in Europe for the foreseeable future. It will become the first line of defense from any further adventures from Russia, and the security center of gravity in Europe will shift from the Franco-German condominium to the Baltic-Polish-Ukrainian one.

This recent survey bears out these thoughts. The question is “How much do you trust the following state agencies and institutions?” The responses record the net between 100% trust and 100% distrust.

Survey Responses

The list is topped, unequivocally, by the army and defense organizations: ZSU, National Emergencies Service, National Guard, volunteer organizations, Border Service, volunteer brigades, the President of Ukraine (71%).

Trust then drops significantly to a second group, from Community Organizations (44%), church, Security Council, national police, local heads (e.g., mayors), security services (34%), local councils, Ministry of Interior, and National Bureau of Investigations (11%).

The last group is not trusted at all: Government, National Bank, Attorney-General, special anti-corruption unit, national anti-corruption bureau, parliament, commercial banks, bureaucrats, courts, and political parties (-55%).

As one would expect, the list is topped by the military/volunteer organizations. Their dominance is remarkable and absolute. The security/police services are a distant second, reflecting citizen suspicion of secretive state organizations and (corrupt) law enforcement. And the legacy of corruption is evident in the final group, where all important bodies supposedly fighting corruption (which they had done so ineffectively for decades) and those actively participating in it (bureaucrats and political parties) prominently figure.

The one worrisome aspect of this is the lack of trust in institutions that would be essential for the functioning of a democracy based on the rule of law (parliament, courts, political parties) and the privileged position the Presidency occupies. The latter is probably just a function of Zelenskyy, which means he will have a very difficult task ahead to use his immense prestige to guide Ukraine toward a democratic future rather than some sort of presidentialism that can easily slide back into semi-authoritarianism. (Think Washington after his second term as President, and the importance of the precedent he set.) Nothing in his character so far suggests that he would try to ensconce himself in power, but when everyone else is mistrusted, there is always the temptation to play savior.

Hopefully, the lodestar of EU membership will guide the country as it navigates its way out of the utter devastation that the Russians have inflicted on it, and people do not get seduced by populist appeals that promise to solve their problems quickly and easily. I believe that Ukrainians will absolutely choose the right path here, but do not be surprised if it does not look like the ones taken in other democracies at their post-war births.

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