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Ukraine at the Crossroads: Political and ethical reflections

Ukraine at the Crossroads: Political and ethical reflections

Ingeborg Gabriel

Ukraine lies at the edge of Europe. Samuel Huntington in his „Clash of Civilizations“ saw the Orthodox world as a separate entity and as much as his theory is ethically doubtable, there is a kernel of truth in this, insofar as in the West this large state with about 45 million inhabitants and an area of about 603,700 square km for many seems rather far away. Indeed, during the long decades after the Russian revolution in 1917 until 1989 (a period Eric Hobsbawm called the short 20th century), Ukraine as part of the Soviet Union was practically cut off from the rest of Europe. The massacres, the man made hunger catastrophes (known as Holodomor) as well as the expulsions of different minority groups in the time between the wars and during World War II left the whole region traumatized, as Timothy Snyder shows in his brilliant book “Bloodlands. Europe between Hitler and Stalin” (Vintage Books: London 2010). In 1991 Ukraine declared its independence. At that time the impoverished country was moreover beset with all evils of post-communism, i. e. lack of a legal system, forced privatization and the immense aggrandizement of oligarchs who knew how to profit from the situation. The first time I visited Ukraine at the beginning of the 1990’s with a group to support two social projects we were stunned that such poverty could exist in Europe. People lived mainly on their gardens and potatoes they were free to cultivate in the devastated agricultural land, in a country that had been considered the corn region of Europe. In the area near Tschernobyl, where we were based, the social and health consequences of the nuclear catastrophe of 1986 were still felt and will be for hundreds of years. I remember a priest and his wife both with cancer and their hope that their son by being sent to France might be spared that fate. A nurse and an Orthodox Monk and Doctor opened the first hospice in Ukraine there in the 1990’s and indeed I felt that the church was one of the first to create a new oasis of social and common life.

Against this social and political background the Orange Revolution of 2004 (that was gamed away by political quarrels) and the Euro-Maidan protests (Maidan being the main square of Kiev) have to be evaluated. The latter started in December 2013 and lasted till the flight of the Russia oriented President Victor Yanukowitsch in February 2014. The political question behind them concerned the future orientation of the country. The nascent Ukrainian civil society mainly in the West and an active intelligentia protested peacefully against a corrupt political class and a pushback of democratic renewal and human rights as well as against the attempt to reintegrate Ukraine into the Russian zone of influence. The brutal suppression of these protests spurred a wave of support in Europe, but also divided the continent. Several countries in the EU (Poland, the Baltic States etc.) feared expanding Russian influence whereas others feared the revanche of an increasingly self-assured and nationalistic Russian policy under Vladimir Putin, who has considerable military means (including nuclear weapons) at his disposal. The annexation of the Crimean island in March 2014 constituted also a demonstration of this capacity as does the support for the so called separatist rebels in East Ukraine heavily suffering from war – with dire consequences for the country as a whole.

War thus has come back to Europe for the first time since the Balkan wars in the 1990’s; this conflict being more dangerous since it involves a (former) super and nuclear power which makes it prone to escalation and comes in a time when Europe is fighting with other ills such as the financial crisis and growing anti-European populist parties (some of which are allegedly supported by Russia). Last but not least the political situation in Ukraine continues to be fragile and the weak economy suffers from war.

There are, however, also impressive signs of hope as I could observe at a conference in April in Kiev, organized by the Catholic University of Lviv on the theme Reconciliation and the Future of Ukraine in Europe. The general tenor is that the war with Russia has united the Ukrainian and Russian speaking Ukrainians around a political and social project and strengthened rather than weakened the orientation of the country towards the West.[1] A large majority of Ukrainians of whichever ethnicity reject the annexation of the Crimean and Russian interference in the Donbass. A widespread and highly active Russian propaganda depicts Ukraine as a fascist and extremist country where Russians suffer. The Western press has slowly wakened up to this threat of disinformation. The economic situation of the large majority continues to be dire. The obscene wealth of oligarchs cannot but have a strong influence on politics. Michael Walzer in his Spheres of Justice (1983) states that justice requires each sphere of a society to function in accordance with its notions of justice independently. This should also be the case with politics and economics.  

The situation described above asks for an ethical and political response on several levels: At the Euro-Maidan demonstrations the sentence was frequently heard: We defend your (i. e. European) values with our blood. To Western ears that may sound a bit too emotional. However, the ethical question behind it is to be taken seriously: Which solidarity has to be granted to those that stand up for human rights and democratic structures and try to improve the standards of justice in their countries? Which engagement and costs are legitimate in a battle for Europeanization? And what can Europeans do, also European scientists, to support the efforts of citizens and colleagues there to recover from a traumatic history and fend off the threat of a new autocracy? These ethical questions on solidarity need to include also economic and social solidarity. An inward looking European attitude that tries to save our own standards is not only ethically disputable but also proves rather fragile in view of populations who cannot gain a livelihood, in which the social fabric is highly strained, families have fallen apart, but where there is also – as I could observe – a great will in the society to move out of the predicaments of the last century. Any peace solution will have to include a serious reflection on the past aiming at reconciliation as a form of conflict prevention. The conference mentioned above showed that – admirable in the present situation of war – such incentives exist and need to be supported by all, also theologians and the churches.

Ingeborg Gabriel holds the Chair of Social Ethics at the Catholic Faculty of the University of Vienna. She also serves as director of the episcopal Commission Justice and Peace in Austria and at present is Vice President of Justice and Peace, Europe.

[1] Cf. also ‚Putin the uniter‘, in: The Economist, June 20th 2015, p. 29.