In the early days of March 2022, as Russian troops were approaching the outskirts of Kyiv, international media were focused primarily on the Ukrainian frontlines. Journalists paid little attention to the informal meeting of EU leaders at Versailles, nor to the document they adopted. The insipid language of the declaration differed little from past EU statements about Ukraine, expressing no more than non-binding ‘acknowledgement’ of Ukraine’s ‘European aspirations and European choice’ and making vague promises to ‘further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership to support Ukraine in pursuing its European path’.

But a short phrase was added to the ritual curtseys that marked a real breakthrough in the perennially ambiguous relations between the EU and Ukraine. ‘Ukraine’, the document stated, ‘belongs to our European family’. The formulation might seem ordinary, even trivial, but it would have been inconceivable even a few weeks earlier. Recall that the official language of the EU had for decades been watchfully cleansed of any wording that may have hinted at Ukraine’s Europeanness and, at least theoretically, Ukraine’s eligibility for membership. This was a real nightmare for the EU – as a French diplomat once told me, comparable only to the possible accession of Turkey.

This is why not a single EU document had ever referred to Ukraine as to a ‘European state’, but instead employed tricky euphemisms like ‘partner country’, or ‘neighbouring country’. Ukraine had been cautiously placed at a safe distance on mental maps, into a nebulous space called ‘the western NIS’ (‘New Independent States’), ‘the Western CIS’ or ‘Western Eurasia’. Consequently, all Ukraine’s overtures to the EU had been met with nothing more than a polite ‘acknowledgement’ of its European aspirations – a frustrating catchphrase that meant something like ‘give me your phone number, I’ll call you later’.

The real meaning of this courtesy was revealed in less formal statements made by many EU officials. Suffice to mention former Italian PM Romano Prodi’s notorious remark that Ukraine ‘has as much reason to be in the EU as New Zealand’. Or the quip by Günter Verheugen, the former European Commissioner for Enlargement, that ‘anybody who thinks Ukraine should be taken into the EU should perhaps come along with the argument that Mexico should be taken into the US’.

For the many Ukrainians who overwhelmingly, under all governments, supported EU accession, this was a cold shower. Especially those who in 2014 waved blue EU flags on the Maidan, braving police batons and snipers’ bullets, and who cherished their ‘European belonging’ as a key element of their Ukrainian identity.

2 February 2023. Image: European Commission (Dati Bendo) / Source: Wikimedia Commons

Two denials

The persistent western denial of Ukraine’s Europeanness was the counterpart of the Russian denial of Ukraine’s existence. Politically, these two denials were framed differently and had incomparably different consequences – purely institutional in first case, military-genocidal in the second. Epistemologically, however, both stemmed from the same root, one that can be defined, after Foucault and Said, and certainly after the Polish-American Slavist Ewa Thomson, as ‘imperial knowledge’ – as a system of narratives that empires develop about themselves and their colonies, in order to strengthen and legitimise their hegemony. In both cases, it was Russian imperial knowledge that informed both the Russian and the western view of Ukraine, though in the case of the latter it was supplemented with ideological-cum-ethical constraints.

Russian ‘Ukraine denial’ has much deeper roots and is strongly connected to how Russian imperial identity is constructed – through appropriating Ukrainian (and Belarusian) history, territory and identity, and placing Ukraine/Kyiv at the very centre of the imperial myth of origin. Independent Ukraine, by its very existence, undermines that mythology. In the imperial-minded Russian, the notion of Ukraine as a sovereign nation-state provokes ontological insecurity and anxiety. Putin calls independent Ukraine an ‘anti-Russia’ and defines it as an ‘existential threat’ to his country.

In a way, he is correct. Inasmuch as Ukraine’s national identity is incompatible with the Russian imperial identity, it is indeed ‘anti-Russia’. And it is an ‘existential threat’ to Russia as an empire, although it is also a chance for the emergence of Russia as a post-imperial nation – as the Polish–American diplomat Zbigniew Brzezinski aptly remarked long ago.

Since the 18th century, western nations have uncritically accepted and normalised Russian imperial knowledge, largely also accepting ‘Ukraine denial’ as part of this. Westerners shared that ‘knowledge’ throughout the 1990s and often still do. But their ‘Ukraine denial’ was not driven by ontological insecurity and anxiety. It simply mirrored Russian mythology, which perfectly suited the West’s ‘realist’ policies towards both Russia and Ukraine. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the West accepted Ukraine’s independence as a fait accompli, buttressed by legal norms and procedures rather than cultural and historical arguments (so dear, in a perverse form, to Putin and his acolytes).

Ukraine’s declared desire to ‘return to Europe’, i.e. join Euro-Atlantic institutions, was a different story. One may argue that this desire – common to all eastern European nations – challenged established notions of ‘Europeanness’ and provoked ontological turmoil in the West too. But while Russians’ anxiety stemmed from the sense that their imperial identity was incomplete without Ukraine, western Europeans’ anxiety stemmed from the opposite feeling – that their identity (and not only wellbeing) would be threatened by an alien body. It was quite natural for western Europe to adapt its old ‘Ukraine denial’ into denial of Ukraine’s European identity and belonging.

To support this new anti-Ukrainian narrative, elements of Russian imperial knowledge (that had never been properly revised or dismissed in the West) were revived. Perhaps the most important was the narrative about the primordial closeness of Russia and Ukraine – of their proximity, affinity, interconnectedness and virtual inability to exist without each other. This argument was beneficial in practical terms, since it justified a cynical ‘Russia-first’ policy at the cost of its former satellites, assigned tacitly to Russia’s ‘legitimate sphere of influence’, in other words its ‘backyard’.

The former US ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, thus explained to readers of the New York Review of Books that Ukraine was a ‘nowhere nation’ whose language was derived from 16th-century Russian. The German and French foreign ministries concluded in a joint classified report that ‘the admission of Ukraine [to the EU] would imply the isolation of Russia’, and that ‘it is sufficient to content oneself with close cooperation with Kiev’. The former French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing argued that only ‘a part of Ukraine has a European character’, while the other part has ‘a Russian character’ and ‘cannot belong to the European Union as long as Russia is not admitted to the EU’. His German colleague, the former chancellor Helmut Schmidt, assured readers that ‘as late as 1990, nobody in the West doubted that Ukraine had for centuries belonged to Russia. Since then, Ukraine has become an independent state, but it is not a nation-state.’

In a recent article, the British historian Timothy Garton Ash recollects how, after the spectacular Orange Revolution in 2004, he urged the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, to say publicly that the European Union wished Ukraine one day to become a member. ‘If I did that,’ Barroso replied, ‘I would immediately be slapped down by two major member states [France and Germany].’ ‘There will first have to be a discussion of whether a country is European’, said a spokeswoman for the EU’s commissioner for external relations, clarifying the issue in starkly candid terms.

Unrequited love

Only within this context can one properly appreciate the tectonic change in EU attitudes toward Ukraine, indicated by that short phrase of the Versailles Declaration. It came too late, however, and at too high a price: vast swathes of Ukrainian territory were occupied, cities destroyed and thousands of citizens killed. Ukrainians may have good reasons for anti-western (res)sentiments: throughout their history they have been betrayed and neglected rather than recognised and supported by westerners. But the only alternative has always been Russia, an autocratic state determined either to assimilate or physically destroy them. Ukraine’s national identity was fundamentally incompatible with Russian imperial identity.

Ukrainian nation-builders of various colours understood this perfectly and leaned to the West, even though their desperate love remained unrequited. In the West they saw at least a chance, however slight and improbable. Ukraine’s pro-western orientation was its modus vivendi vis-à-vis a hostile neighbour who made ‘Ukraine denial’ an imperial creed. Ukrainians became ‘westerners by default’: they had little choice but to accept western values and discourses, even though they did not always feel comfortable with them.

This can be traced back to the mid-19th century, when the poet Taras Shevchenko and fellow Ukrainophiles broke the ranks of imperial Slavophiles with the subversive ideas of federalism and republicanism. We can find it in the official documents of the short-lived Ukrainian National Republic (1918–1920) and the programmatic articles written by its head, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, one of which was titled ‘Our Western Orientation’. We can discern the same rationales and imperatives in the pro-western positions of the Ukrainian dissidents of the 1960s and ’70s, and in the predominant stance of Ukrainian politicians and the general population since independence.

It was not mythical nationalists (or ‘Nazis’, in Putin’s parlance) but the post-communist president Leonid Kravchuk and the communist-dominated parliament who rejected Ukraine’s full membership in the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States in the early ’90s and eventually fenced off many other integration initiatives promoted by Moscow. It was another post-communist president, Leonid Kuchma (a Russian speaker from the south-eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk), who in 1998 signed a decree ‘On Reaffirming the Strategy of Ukraine’s Integration into the European Union’, and who, five years later, signed the law ‘On the Fundamentals of Ukraine’s National Security’.

Article 6 of that law stated, inter alia, that Ukraine ‘strives for integration into the European political, economic and legal space with the goal of membership in the European Union, as well as into the Euro-Atlantic security space with the goal of membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’. Remarkably, Kuchma’s prime minister at the time was the former Donetsk governor Viktor Yanukovych, who as president later worked on signing an Association Agreement with the EU, only to shelve the idea after strong pressure from Moscow (provoking mass protests and, ultimately, his downfall).

Contrary to the common western wisdom, consensus about Ukraine’s ‘European integration’ existed in Ukrainian society long before the ‘Euromaidan revolution’ of 2013–14, even though many people in Ukraine hoped (naively) to combine the westward drift with good relations with Russia. They opposed Ukraine’s membership in NATO, fully aware of the sensitivity of that issue for Moscow, but did not expect the purely economic agreement with the EU to provoke similar wrath. To placate Moscow, Yanukovych adopted non-allied status for Ukraine in 2012 and extended the rent of the Sevastopol naval base to Russia for another 25 years. But to no avail: in 2014, Russian forces occupied Crimea and staged a fake ‘rebellion’ in the Donbas.

The Russian invasion did not significantly change Ukrainians’ predisposition toward the EU, which had always been positive. But it radically improved their attitude towards NATO – as all the opinion polls since 2014 confirm. While a substantial portion of the Sovietophile population of the Crimea and the Donbas were excluded from these surveys (and from voting in the national elections), the results above all reflect the radicalisation of the remaining part of the population. Moscow brutally taught Ukrainians that non-allied status and staying out of NATO provided them with no security.

Shortly after Euromaidan, the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology carried out a nationwide survey asking people which values Ukrainians shared with Russians and which with Europeans. In both cases, respondents could pick three options from a list. It turned out that Ukrainians believed they shared the following with Russia: ‘history and traditions’ (46%), ‘culture’ (26%), ‘ethnicity’ (18%), ‘religion’ (15%) and ‘language’ (12%). But they compiled a completely different list of values they shared (or would like to share) with the West: ‘rights and liberties’ (28%), ‘democracy’ (27%), ‘rule of law’ (14%), ‘respect for the people’ (14%) and ‘economic development’ (12%). (Remarkably, prosperity was last rather than first on the list). The results clearly indicated that Ukrainians perceived their affinity to Russia exclusively in terms of the past, and their affinity to the West primarily as a goal for the future.

Kundera’s playbook

The Versailles Declaration of 2022 that finally recognised Ukraine’s belonging to ‘our European family’ and opened the thorny path to its EU membership has brought Ukrainian ‘European dreams’ closer to reality than ever before. However, with the Russian full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s ‘Eurasian nightmares’ also became more real than ever. This raises the stakes of the struggle enormously. The need to mobilise all available resources, including symbolical capital, has become vital.

Public opinion is one such a resource. Domestically, it is easier to exploit, since Ukrainians are well aware of what the war is about and what they are fighting for. In the past few years, they have lost whatever ambivalence they once had towards Russia, the West, or national independence; they know today that this is a war of national survival. They do not use lofty words like ‘freedom’, ‘dignity’ and ‘sovereignty’ to express their feelings; it is the business of intellectuals to discuss these things. Ordinary people prefer categories such as ‘our land’ or ‘our country’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘true’ or ‘false’. As Oleksandr Vilkul, the mayor of Kryvyi Rih (and one of many Ukrainian politicians previously labelled ‘pro-Russian’) put it: ‘We were born here. The graves of our relatives are here. We have nowhere to go.’

Ukrainians do not need many words to be persuaded and mobilised. But international opinion is a different matter. Milan Kundera’s seminal essay ‘The Tragedy of Central Europe’, which I have referred to in these pages before in connection with Ukraine, can help us identify the rhetorical strategies that should be employed and those that probably should not, and the effects that can be achieved and the side-effects that can be avoided.

Throughout his essay, Kundera pursued two clear goals. First, to persuade western readers that so-called ‘Central Europe’ (essentially, just three nations from the former Habsburg Empire that were subjugated by the Soviets) shared a common culture and history with the West, to such a degree that western Europe (i.e. Europe in general) remained not just incomplete without them, but ontologically insecure. Second, he wanted to remind westerners of their sins in relation to ‘Central Europe’, primarily those of neglect and betrayal, above all at Yalta; to evoke guilt and empathy and to channel this into greater awareness of Central Europe and stronger support for its ‘European’, i.e. anti-Soviet aspirations.

But there was also a third narrative that supported the other two. Recurrent reference to Russia and/or the Soviet Union as a dark, ‘Asiatic’ force provided a contrast to the impeccable Europeanness of Kundera’s three chosen nations. I shall come to this.

There is no clear proof that Kundera’s essay had a significant impact on the western public beyond a narrow circle of intellectuals. Some ran to the defence of the holy cow of ‘Great Russian Culture’, while others discerned a courageous challenge to discursive conventions and the Cold War. But in Eastern Europe, where the essay was published illegally, it played a much greater mobilising role. It was broadly perceived as an argument for the region’s ‘European belonging’ and a passionate claim for a ‘return to Europe’, to ‘normalcy’, and for liberation from Soviet dominance.

In Ukraine, I remember, we read the text in Polish translation (the Ukrainian translation was less accessible since it was published in Canada, in a diaspora journal called Dialoh). Kundera wrote off Ukraine as a case of a disappearing nation, relegating it to the footnotes. But we had no hard feelings against him: the threat of complete disappearance was quite real. We celebrated the essay as a manifesto of freedom, a call for emancipation, and a roadmap to the West, away from Moscow.

It was only much later, in the 1990s, that the exclusivist character of Kundera’s thesis came to the fore, when the ‘Central European’ nations used it to elbow their way into the elite clubs of the EU and NATO, bypassing the less ‘Central’ and less ‘European’ co-prisoners from the same Soviet camp. As the Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko has since noted, ‘instead of breaking down the wall between East and West, it simply shifted it further eastwards’.

Today, in their messaging to the West, Ukrainians employ all the narratives once used by Kundera. They emphasise their ‘Europeanness’, their cultural affinity and historical interconnection. They remind the West of its faults and blunders in connection with Ukraine and Russia, its long-time appeasement of a rogue regime, its betrayal of the Budapest Memorandum and many other wrongdoings, striving to awaken a guilty conscience in their addressee. They construct Ukraine’s image as thoroughly dichotomous to that of demonic Russia, which they argue is a country of liars and killers rather than of great composers and writers.

And then they use one final argument, which Kundera mentioned only once, at the very beginning of his essay, when referring to the last words spoken by a Hungarian broadcaster during the 1956 Budapest uprising: ‘We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe.’ The phrase has become the main Ukrainian message: ‘We are dying for your security, your freedom, your values. We are dying for international order, principles, justice.’

But for all this rhetorical similarity, there is a profound difference. Ukrainians today can rely on arguments that were not available to Kundera. The Cold War order was based on the Yalta agreements, which were in turn reaffirmed by the Helsinki Accords, and whose stipulation of the inviolability of border meant, as the literary critic Przemysław Czapliński remarked, ‘inviolability of narrative’. But today Ukrainians can employ legal arguments that are fully on their side.

Cultural, historical and even moral arguments are disputable (especially in politics), but written rules and agreements are clear cut. Whatever Putin may fantasise about Ukraine’s ‘artificialness’, there is the undeniable fact of aggression against a sovereign state. There is the blatant violation of the UN Charter and of bilateral and multilateral documents; there is a crime of war and an increasingly obvious crime of genocide. This does not make historical, cultural and other arguments redundant, but inevitably relegates them to secondary importance.

Today’s Ukrainians may not have the same illusions about the West as Kundera and his generation, but they certainly have more self-confidence, stemming from a newly acquired historical agency. This was famously expressed by the Ukrainian president on the first day of the war, in his response to American diplomats who offered him evacuation from Kyiv to a safer place: ‘I need ammunition, not a ride.’

The real tragedy of the half of ‘Central Europe’ that drifted eastwards is that it was recognised too late and at too high a price. Indeed, we still don’t know what the final price will be.

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