They oppose Putin. But Ukrainians won’t work with them. | Politico | July 18, 2023


This article is a reprint. You can read the original at Politico.

By Nahal Toosi

“As Russia launched its full-scale war on Ukraine last year, the head of a Washington think tank found out the hard way about one of the more surprising fissures between Russians and Ukrainians.

Alina Polyakova, who runs the Center for European Policy Analysis, wanted to start a fellowship for Ukrainian civil society leaders as well as Russian dissidents. But she and the center faced immediate blowback from Ukrainians who questioned why any positions would go to Russians — even Russians who oppose the rule of Vladimir Putin.

“It was very controversial, because some Ukrainians still have the view that there’s no such thing as a good Russian,” said Polyakova, a Ukrainian American. The argument, which Polyakova appreciates, is that available resources “should go to support Ukrainian civil society.”

The dust-up over the fellowship program illustrates a broader phenomenon: Despite their mutual fury toward Putin, Ukrainian activists and Russian dissidents are largely avoiding each other. There’s little cooperation and no serious coalition building. Instead, there’s tremendous suspicion on the Ukrainian side and defensiveness from the Russians.

The tensions suggest that no matter when the war ends, the social ruptures between Ukrainians and Russians will fester far longer.

Russian dissidents simply aren’t doing enough to support Ukrainians, said Daria Kaleniuk, a Ukrainian anti-corruption activist. There’s no broad Russian dissident campaign to help Ukraine get NATO membership or funds from seized Russian assets, she said.

Instead, they “are very self-focused,” Kaleniuk said. “They try to present themselves as if they are victims and not lesser victims than Ukraine.”

The tensions have popped up in many arenas: from debates over who speaks at a college graduation to a free speech group’s decision to cancel a panel with Russian writers after objections from Ukrainian writers on another panel.

An Oscar win by a documentary about jailed Putin opponent Alexei Navalny drew much Ukrainian eyerolling, as did the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize was given last year to civil society activists from Russia and Russia-allied Belarus as well as Ukraine.

And last month, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of bestseller “Eat, Pray, Love,” announced that she was delaying publishing a Russia-based novel after a huge backlash from Ukrainian readers.

The book, titled “The Snow Forest,” is set in 20th century Siberia, and it’s partly about resisting the Soviet empire. But it would have been published around the two-year mark of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Gilbert said Ukrainian readers objected to any book set in Russia.

“I do not want to add any harm to a group of people who have already experienced and who are continuing to experience grievous and extreme harm,” Gilbert said.

Some leading Ukrainians say that, contrary to what many in the rest of the world may believe, Putin isn’t the root of the problem they face in Russia. And knocking him out of power won’t resolve anything.

The problem is the Russian mindset — the Russian “soul,” some say — and its imperialist bent. Many Russians simply cannot accept that Ukraine is a fully independent country, Ukrainians complain. That’s especially the case for Crimea, a Ukrainian territory Putin annexed in 2014 and which many Russians believe has always belonged to them.

“We even have an expression: ‘When the Ukrainian question comes, all Russian liberal people are gone,’” Lisa Yasko, a Ukrainian member of parliament, told POLITICO during the Oslo Freedom Forum in June.

Still, these are complicated feelings about complicated relationships, and ties between ordinary Ukrainians and Russians are far from severed.

Many Ukrainians and Russians have relatives in the neighboring country. Ukraine has been a refuge for some Russian dissidents during Putin’s two-decade-plus rule.

It’s not unheard of for individual Russian dissidents to help Ukrainian activists on projects, such as organizing protests. Some groups cooperate, though usually quietly. The Free Russia Foundation, a group with headquarters in Washington, works with Ukrainians on certain rights-related issues.

Ukrainian activists also recognize that large numbers of Russians have skewed views of the war and Ukraine because of Kremlin propaganda. Overall support for their military’s actions in Ukraine remains high among Russians, especially those who rely on TV for news, according to recent polling data from the independent Levada Center.

But plenty of Ukrainians also get tired of such excuses for Russians. While Putin may be issuing the orders, Russian citizens are the ones dropping bombs on their cities and committing atrocities against children.

Prominent Ukrainians note that their population has kicked out corrupt leaders over the past 20 years whereas Russians have never mobilized enough to oust Putin.

“Something that is very painful for me personally is that many Russian people don’t have the feeling of responsibility,” said Yasko, the Ukrainian parliamentarian. “They don’t understand what they can do to make a change in their own country.”

The feelings of anger and trauma appear to go far beyond Ukrainian officials, academics and others who fall under the broad label of “activist,” seeping down to ordinary Ukrainians without public megaphones.

Polls taken since Russia’s February 2022 invasion suggest that it has led to a striking unity of cause among Ukrainians, the vast majority of whom now dislike Russia.

Some Ukrainian commentators complain that Russians and their views have drawn notice for decades — whether at the United Nations, in academia or entertainment — while Ukraine and other former Soviet states have struggled to be heard. Some are calling for a “decolonization” of such Russian influence.

Everything from the decision to play the music of long-dead Russian composers to the use of the Russian language itself, which many Ukrainians speak, has fallen under scrutiny.

The debates are reminiscent of how a post-World War II world grappled with reintegrating what was once Nazi Germany. Even today, for instance, the music of Richard Wagner, adored by Adolf Hitler, is rarely heard in Israel.

The Russian dissident community is divided on how to talk, and feel, about the war in Ukraine.

One big debate among Russian dissidents is whether to cast the conflict in Ukraine, which began on a smaller scale in 2014, as Putin’s war or Russia’s war, said Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion who co-founded the Free Russia Forum, an umbrella group for the Russian opposition.

“In my view, the question is irrelevant — of course it’s Russia’s war, as it was Nazi Germany’s war,” Kasparov said. “But for some of them it’s very painful. They say ’No, no, we are not responsible for the war. We have to make sure the Russian people are not dragged in.’”

Sergei Guriev, a prominent Russian economist, made a distinction between guilt and responsibility. Guilt should be ascribed to Putin, his collaborators and those directly committing crimes against Ukrainians.

That said, “I’ve never voted for Putin, but I didn’t fight him well enough to prevent this war, and for this, of course, I feel responsible,” said Guriev, who is based in Paris — having fled Russia like many members of the Russian dissident community.

Ukrainians engaged in public campaigns of support for their country have different degrees of distrust for Russian opposition leaders.

Kasparov is more respected than many others partly because he’s willing to speak about the need for Russians to broadly take responsibility. Kasparov regularly appears on Ukrainian media. He also has helped raise money for Ukrainian groups through the Renew Democracy Initiative, an American organization, said Uriel Epshtein, the group’s executive director.

Navalny, the longtime Putin opponent, may be the biggest threat to the Russian leader, even from the penal colony where he is being held in Melekhovo, 150 miles east of Moscow. But many Ukrainians are skeptical of him because for years he was ambiguous about whether Crimea should be returned to Ukraine.

Navalny clarified he believes that Russia does need to leave Crimea in a series of tweets this past February, but his Ukrainian critics are not fully convinced.

Demonizing Russians as a whole “is disastrous for the future peace of Europe,” warned Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which advocates for a more militarily restrained U.S. foreign policy.

“While the people who express such feelings about Russia claim to be opposing the Putin regime, their actions and writings in fact provide better domestic propaganda for Putin than he himself could ever have devised,” the pair wrote, nodding to Kremlin claims of rampant global “Russophobia.”

Others dismiss this, saying the Putin regime has long cried “Russophobia” while going ahead with invasions and other nefarious activities no matter how other countries respond.

“The burden is on the Russians here, because they are the ones who caused this war,” said David Kramer, a former State Department official involved with the Free Russia Foundation.

After weeks of discussions with donors, associates and others, Polyakova and her think tank decided to include both Russians and Ukrainians in the new fellowship program. But the decision led one Ukrainian analyst to end his longtime affiliation with the center, Polyakova said.

The Russian and Ukrainian fellows in the program are getting along remarkably well, including while discussing thorny topics. The conversations offer insights into potential future reconciliation efforts, Polyakova said.

Such initiatives may be many years away, but they need to happen, she said, “because these countries are bound together by geography, first and foremost, and there’s no escape.””


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