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On a visit to Kyiv earlier this summer, I was struck by what was present that I had expected to be absent—young people sharing Aperol spritzes at a sidewalk café, municipal services such as trash collection up and running—and by what was absent that had previously been omnipresent in the Ukrainian capital—politics. The existential crisis precipitated by Russia’s illegal and unconscionable war against Ukraine has produced now legendary scenes of defiance. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s charismatic courage, aided by masterful communication skills, has turned him into an almost Churchillian figure. And Zelensky is not alone. Ukrainians from every walk of life have come together to resist the Russians, forging an undeniable sense of unity in a city accustomed to pitched political battles that can make Washington feel tame.
Back in 2015, on another visit in a different time, I asked a friend in Kyiv why the Netflix show House of Cards was so immensely popular among Ukraine’s power class. “Here, its depiction of how politics works is understood as documentary rather than satire,” he replied slyly. One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s greatest errors, predicated on his false claim that Ukraine isn’t a real country, was his failure to understand that Ukraine is a democracy—a messy, factional, scrappy democracy, but a democracy nonetheless. In the years since Ukraine’s 2014 Revolution of Dignity, when demonstrators overthrew the pro-Russian government of President Viktor Yanukovych, the political culture has become more and more democratic: civil society is increasingly well organized and strategic about holding the government accountable, parliamentary elections shift the balance of power and lead to consequential dealmaking, public figures joust in a raucous media landscape, and the vestiges of Homo Sovieticus, or the conformist “Soviet man,” are receding.
A year ago, Ukraine’s political discourse was a heated cacophony. But in late June, no one I met wanted to criticize the government. It wasn’t that they thought everything was being done perfectly. They just knew that even a hint of division wouldn’t help anyone except those in Moscow. For the moment, national unity and the exigencies of war have displaced politics.
The more recent news that Zelensky fired the head of Ukraine’s intelligence service and the prosecutor general, whose office is responsible for, among other things, investigating over 25,000 cases of potential Russian war crimes, foreshadows the creeping return of politics to Ukraine. War will not hold the country’s internal demons at bay indefinitely. As those in power, those on the frontlines, those harvesting grain with nowhere to put it, those trying to carry on with their lives despite the war, and those displaced by the fighting all reckon with the realities of a drawn out, grinding conflict, grace and grit will give way to grievance.
When this happens, Ukraine will struggle with both operational and reputational challenges. The free hand that Zelensky has had to commandeer the war effort will be curtailed to some degree. More important, he and others will be distracted. Ukraine’s war effort depends on the superior deployment of resources—soldiers and hardware—which requires the smart and agile use of intelligence and the maintenance of morale. All this becomes more difficult if those in Kyiv are fighting their own battles in addition to directing the war.
For the moment, national unity and the exigencies of war have displaced politics.
The return of politics will also strain Ukraine’s international support, which is existential—Ukraine cannot continue to fight and, therefore, to exist as a sovereign country without it. Russian leaders will seek to amplify divisions in Kyiv, and opposition parties in Western democracies will question the wisdom of aiding a Ukrainian movement that is internally divided (Russia will amplify these doubting voices, too). This growing fractiousness will pose a new, more nuanced challenge for Western leaders seeking to sustain international support for the Ukrainian cause against a more complicated backdrop.
But there are reasons to look forward to, even welcome, the return of political life to Ukraine. The resurgence of politics may complicate the country’s war effort, but it is not a sign of Ukrainian failure. Rather, it is a reflection of the high stakes of the war and of the broader struggle to define Ukraine’s future. The country has enormous, meaningful questions to contend with. That is why even in the best possible scenario—a reversal of Russia’s recent military gains and a settlement that restores the pre-February 24 border lines—politics will return.
Politics must return. This is a country living under martial law, after all. And when the war is over or, more likely, when it has been contained in geography and scale, Ukraine will not only have to be rebuilt but, in a sense, re-democratized. “Yes, we must win, but we do not win just by beating back this Russian invasion. We win by securing the institutions that will protect freedom and democracy for our country,” Oleksandra Matviichuk, a human rights lawyer in Kyiv, told me. Ukraine’s government and society will need to manage many challenges simultaneously in the coming months and years. It is not too early for Ukraine to start planning to meet those challenges or for their international partners to start thinking about how they can help.
The return of politics to Kyiv will bring at least three big tests for Ukrainian democracy. The most obvious one is physical reconstruction. Some of this needs to begin now: schools, hospitals, and homes destroyed in areas from which the conflict has receded must be rebuilt. Early reconstruction efforts signal the intention of Ukrainians to return and to secure their future, helping boost morale. But talk of a Marshall Plan for Ukraine has been more abundant than the money will be. With reconstruction costs projected to exceed $1 trillion, it would be foolish to expect grants to make up the lion’s share of the funding. Ukraine will therefore need to leverage extraordinary assistance from international financial institutions and attract private capital, which will require creative thinking with international partners about how to mitigate risks for investors.
One way to reassure investors would be to create special courts that can provide predictable judgments on business matters, perhaps aided by technical support from European and North American governments. Every decision about reconstruction is inevitably a decision about resources and, therefore, likely to be contested. When politics comes back to Kyiv, Ukrainians must expect a rush for limited resources, and donors should push to incorporate regional governments, civil society, and industry in the process of reconstruction.
Ukraine’s partners also need to prepare for moral and human reconstruction. The work of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine—established to investigate violations of human rights and international humanitarian law—and of the country’s top prosecutor investigating war crimes will be especially crucial. War crimes prosecutions do not heal unhealable wounds, but they help cauterize them for society. The harder test for the Ukrainian justice system will be to ensure accountability for any wartime crimes committed by Ukrainian troops or corruption by Ukrainian officials responsible for key elements of the war effort. These prosecutions will be politically fraught but essential to protect democratic values and uphold the rule of law.
Finally, Ukraine and its partners must help the millions of civilians displaced by the war return home and rebuild their lives. Many have experienced profound trauma and will need psychosocial support that is difficult to deliver, especially in a recent conflict zone. Politics will insert itself in debates about how to treat the immediate mental and physical health needs of the country, as well as the long-term needs of the wounded. Amid the wreckage, the people of Ukraine will have to emotionally multitask: to grieve what was and simultaneously muster the energy to imagine a future. That is a heavy lift, and although the real villain is across the border, tempers tend to find more proximate targets. The Ukrainians may struggle to avoid the trap of scapegoating one another.
A second big test concerns the role of oligarchs in Ukrainian society. Although several of Ukraine’s wealthiest business tycoons have provided critical humanitarian and financial support during the war, those who amassed enormous wealth in the immediate post-Soviet period have for the most part played an unhealthy and outsize role in Ukrainian politics. For the last three decades, they have fueled corruption, undermined the rule of law, and held back both democratic progress and economic development.
International partners may be tempted to push Kyiv to attempt to sideline the oligarchs entirely in the postwar era. But to pursue this ideal would be to deny reality. The inconvenient truth is that Ukrainian oligarchs have the power to thwart reforms and undermine progress. As such, they must be enlisted in the reconstruction efforts. This may require a willingness to offer them moral (if not legal) amnesty for their past corruption or shady dealings and to make clear that there will not be mass asset seizures. In exchange for keeping their wealth, these oligarchs should commit their collective support for a new and less corrupt system. It will take a clever combination of carrots and sticks to dissuade them from the practices they have engaged in for the last 30 years at the expense of the people of Ukraine. International partners can provide positive and negative inducements to help the oligarchs make the right choice, but it must be the Ukrainians who set expectations in public statements and private negotiations.
The final test for Ukrainian democracy involves the country’s much-vaunted president. Zelensky has demonstrated undeniable courage. He has helped people around the world see Ukraine’s fight as their own. He has offered encouragement, sympathy, and righteous anger to his people in the right measures and at the right moments. For all these reasons, the Ukrainian president has become the object of global admiration.
But the biggest challenge for Zelensky will come when the war subsides. In response to the Russian invasion, he has claimed emergency powers, earning him political capital and leading to a de facto domestic political truce. With politics mostly sidelined for now, the president and his team can call the shots with little resistance or constraint. The 2019 presidential election transformed Zelensky from an actor into a president. Russia’s war has turned him into a general. To secure Ukraine’s sovereign and democratic future, he must be prepared to return to being a democratically elected leader. Moreover, he must be prepared to accept the possibility that the country’s grief will manifest itself in anger, recrimination, and complaints about its leader. However fair or unfair Zelensky may perceive those complaints, he will have to relinquish some of his wartime powers and may need to exit the political stage after the next election in 2024 to demonstrate the endurance of Ukrainian democracy and to secure his own legacy.
Zelensky will need to show leadership in the face of rising public criticism rather than near-unanimous popular support. Doing so will sting. There will be many voices around him offering rationalizations for antidemocratic behavior, such as limiting freedom of expression, exerting control over the courts, or asserting executive privilege in the name of security, or attempting to install a hand-picked successor. There will be plenty of facially good reasons for tightening control, but none of them will be as legitimate as the need to defer to democracy, however capricious its whims may feel.
The biggest challenge for Zelensky will come when the war subsides.
Few leaders, especially those who have led their countries in war, have found it easy to give up power or office. George Washington’s example remains anomalous in American history and was strong enough to set a precedent that lasted a century and a half until another wartime president—Franklin Roosevelt—broke it. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is admired for his courage in standing up for a valiant cause in the face of an evil adversary, but he was dealt an electoral defeat just two months after World War II ended in Europe (and a month before Japan’s surrender). At the time, according to the historian Roy Jenkins, Churchill’s wife, Clementine, suggested that his party’s defeat might be a blessing in disguise, to which Winston replied with typical acerbic wit: “At the moment it seems very effectively disguised.”
Zelensky should remember Churchill’s example, and perhaps he, too, will return after an appropriate interval for a second stint as a national leader. The people of Ukraine need and deserve a democratic state that is both supported by and gives opportunity to a democratic society. Individual leaders can help build such as state, but they cannot become it.
These challenges will pinch no matter when they are felt. In a perfect world, Ukraine could deal with the war for as long as it takes and then deal with politics. That is not this world. As the war’s human toll mounts, as more civilians die in Russian rocket attacks, as rumors (well founded or not) proliferate about troops on the frontlines not getting the supplies they need because of poor planning or corruption, as soldiers return home in caskets and wheelchairs, the pressure will mount. The public support that Zelensky now enjoys will fray under the strain of so many of his compatriots’ funerals.
Whether because of rising discontent with the burdens of war, military setbacks and cracks in morale, or a deal with Russia that will inevitably feel meager in comparison with the sacrifices made by the people of Ukraine, anger and discontent are likely to return to Kyiv before the postwar period arrives. And when they do, backstabbing and political infighting will follow. The oligarchs will buy power through backroom deals and use their money to make political inconveniences vanish. For as long as Zelensky is riding high, he doesn’t need the oligarchs to secure his standing. But as politics creeps back in, these figures will once again offer their services, and old mutual dependencies between officialdom and the oligarchs will reemerge.
Zelensky the war hero is bound to become a more complicated moral figure before the war ends. The looming return of politics in Kyiv also creates a special challenge for Ukraine’s international partners, who need to be clear and disciplined in their messaging both to Ukraine and to their own publics. Ukraine has always struggled with the scourge of official corruption, and war shouldn’t create a free pass. But Ukraine’s partners need to be mindful that Moscow will both feed and benefit from focused discussions on Ukraine’s shortcomings. More important, they must consider how such discussions might corrode Western unity and domestic political support for rejecting Russia’s violation of the basic rules of the international system. Ukraine’s cause is pure; its internal politics is not. The latter shouldn’t undermine the West’s commitment to the former, even if it presents practical complications.
Ukraine’s cause is pure; its internal politics is not.
Even as Kyiv’s political forces remain suspended, political pressures in many Western countries are intensifying because of inflation and energy shocks driven by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the war. Western leaders still claim that Ukraine is the frontline for freedom and that the Ukrainians are waging a war not just for their own country but for the free world. But too few of these leaders seem to believe what they say. To show that they do, they should ramp up military and financial support for Ukraine to help it achieve the best possible outcomes in the war and, inevitably, in the settlement that will follow. They should also prepare to help the people of Ukraine midwife their democracy once again. Doing so matters, not only for them but for the long struggle for human dignity to which all democrats must be committed.
On my way home from Ukraine, I stopped in Poland to meet an old friend. He was relieved to hear my impressions of the current climate of unity in Kyiv. “That’s a relief; they always fall victim to their politics,” he said of the Ukrainians. The months ahead are likely to be more difficult. Ukrainians must overcome not only Russian aggression but also the temptation to turn against each other.
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