June 01, 2023
For over a year now, since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian society has yet again been defying geopolitics. Ukraine’s heroic resistance against Russia—a nuclear power and the owner of one of the world’s biggest armies—has dealt a blow to those great-power admirers who expected Ukraine to fall in three days. The country’s resistance and resilience also speak to the collective power of individuals. As international relations theorist Ken Booth wrote, “As individuals we do not have much power, but in our own lives we can do something, however little. Little should not be belittled. Something is better than nothing.” This wisdom is echoed in one of the mottoes of Ukraine’s 2013–2014 Euromaidan protest movement: “I’m a drop in the ocean”—meaning that the efforts of one individual are never enough but that each individual’s efforts are vital for achieving a common goal.
The existential threat of the ongoing war motivated as many as 80 percent of Ukrainians to engage in civil resistance as of April 2022, in addition to the 3 percent who joined the army. Volunteers have been supplying the army with everything from bulletproof vests and monoculars to vehicles and drones. Come Back Alive, one of the oldest and most reputable volunteer organizations in Ukraine, raised funds and procured over 600 armored vehicles, more than 6,000 thermal imaging cameras, and over 5,500 drones, while hundreds of other informal and unregistered groups have engaged in similar activities. After Russia shelled forty Ukrainian cities on October 10, 2022, volunteer foundations raised $5.6 million in just twelve hours thanks to public donations. Each Russian attack seems to provoke more resistance from Ukrainian society.
Civic engagement is aimed not only at supporting the army but also at fostering civilian resilience. A prominent example is the team of volunteers in occupied Kherson who deliver food and basic necessities by bicycle to various parts of the region. When Russian attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure halved the country’s power-generating capacity and caused electricity shortages, residents in apartment blocks left flashlights, water, and snacks in elevators in case anyone got stuck. Even Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valeriy Zaluzhnyi is nicknamed “Volunteer” because of his readiness to help out, highlighting the interconnectedness between Ukraine’s civilian and military forces as well as the concept of a people’s army identified back in 2015.
Ukrainians are confident of winning the war, but there is a growing sense in the country that after the victory, things will not be easy. Forecasts can only be speculative, but it is possible to capture some of the prevailing moods in Ukrainian society at the time of writing. While the common goals of defending Ukraine and defeating Russia still unite Ukrainians, many cleavages on other issues are already visible or become apparent from surveys and polling data. Looking ahead, the end of the war will mean not only a return to peace but also the advent of a new set of challenges for Ukrainian society.
RESISTANCE AS A ROUTINE
Over a year since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, war has become a daily reality for Ukrainians, and volunteering has become a way of life. As literary critic and volunteer Mariia Shuvalova put it, “At any given point in the day—even when answering emails or going to the kitchen to grab a snack—you might see a missile hitting an apartment building across the street. At a certain point, tragedy becomes routine. You have no choice but to keep functioning. One way we do that is by incorporating the resistance into our routines.”
Since the start of the full-scale invasion, the number of people who volunteer on a continuous basis has fallen: according to a survey by research organization Rating, only 40 percent of Ukrainians engaged in volunteering as of February 2023, down from 80 percent ten months earlier. Yet, such fluctuations in levels of engagement are typical for Ukrainians, whose identity, according to the Economist, is “about an ability to come together when you feel that you need to and to get things done.”
Contrary to the measures typically used in academia, which evaluate the strength of civil society on the basis of membership in organizations or protest potential, active Ukrainians define their civil society engagement through four main components. In an online survey of 1,000 respondents conducted in August 2022, activists emphasized the importance of common actions (defined as participation, impact, interaction, and donations), values (common views, a sense of being united, and awareness), responsibilities (duty, care, influence, and a desire to effect change), and belonging (membership in society or an organization, nationality, and citizenship). These categories do not presuppose constant participation in civil society activities. Rather, they motivate people to step in when engagement is most needed and to step back when an immediate need is satisfied.
Ukrainians are united in their confidence about Ukraine’s victory in the war: 97 percent of the respondents in the February 2023 Rating survey held the conviction that Ukraine would win. Moreover, more people now believe that Ukraine will maintain all of the territory within its internationally recognized borders as defined in 1991: 74 percent thought this in February 2023, as opposed to 53 percent in April 2022.
Now, public discussion in Ukraine has shifted to what the country’s victory should look like. Prominent Ukrainian intellectuals, veterans, scholars, and civil society leaders have published the “Sustainable Peace Manifesto,” the most comprehensive attempt so far to outline the terms of peace. The document consists of two parts: One is dedicated to bringing Russia to account for the war, including through punishment for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide; reparations; and international isolation. The other part focuses on ensuring sustainable peace, from Ukraine’s accession to the EU and NATO to Russian disarmament, the long-term decolonization of history and culture in Russia, changes to the global energy balance, and many other measures.
The future, however, will bring fresh challenges for Ukraine, both internationally and domestically. Some observers predict that the demand for justice in the country will be high. This demand involves not only putting Russian President Vladimir Putin and every other Russian responsible for war crimes in front of a specially created tribunal and extracting reparations from Russia but also investigating the activities and decisions of the Ukrainian leadership in the wake of the full-scale invasion.
One of the chief concerns in society is the Ukrainian state’s potential leaning toward a further power grab. The Servant of the People’s single-party majority in the Ukrainian parliament already allowed the government to limit checks and balances before 2022. After the full-scale invasion and the introduction of martial law, power was further concentrated in the hands of the president and the media were restricted, with political candidates from other parties having limited or no access to media appearances. Some fear that Ukrainian society needs to stand up for democracy before concentrating on postwar reconstruction.
A further challenge will be the reintegration of war veterans into civilian life. According to a preliminary forecast by the Ukrainian Ministry for Veterans’ Affairs, after the end of the war, veterans, their family members, and the families of those killed in action will amount to roughly “3 million people (10 percent of the total population of Ukraine).” Most war veterans will require physical and psychological rehabilitation as well as secure civilian jobs. A survey by the Ukrainian Veteran Fund among active members of the military found their main concerns about the postwar future to be health issues, a lack of understanding in society, and mental illness, cited by 63 percent, 52 percent, and 43 percent of respondents, respectively.
One should also bear in mind the collective trauma experienced by Ukrainian society as a whole. Ukrainians have multiple war experiences, which may be partly overlapping or vastly different. There are those who lost loved ones or their home and those who did not; those who joined the armed forces and those who did not; those who experienced occupation and those who did not; those who went abroad and those who stayed in Ukraine; and those who have money and those who can barely make ends meet. These are only a few—albeit pronounced—cleavages, which already make some people feel resentment, despair, anger, or judgment toward others. It is hard to estimate what the consequences of this widespread trauma will be, but it could have effects on rebuilding, social cohesion, and even party politics and voting.
Among other challenges will be a shrinking economy and an impoverished population: reportedly, as of February 2023, 11 percent of Ukrainians had lost their jobs since the full-scale invasion, in addition to the 5 percent who were already unemployed before the war. In overcoming these challenges, the international community’s support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia and its postwar reconstruction will be vital: the sooner Ukraine wins, the less destruction there will be. Meanwhile, Ukrainians remain optimistic: 93 percent see the future of their country as “rather promising.” That said, this positive outlook could be a coping strategy in its own right, as the postwar period may bring not only peace to Ukraine but also many new trials.
Kateryna Zarembo is a lecturer at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and an associate fellow at the New Europe Center in Kyiv.
The author is grateful to Rosa Balfour, Indre Krivaite, Gwendolyn Sasse, and Serhiy Solodkyy for their valuable comments on a draft of this article.