The politics of soft power that exploded in war
Mykola Riabchuk is a Ukrainian author and political analyst who has written extensively on Ukrainian national identity issues. Riabchuk, who is based in Paris, spoke to me earlier this week about the Russian invasion of his country and his frustrations with some of the ways the war has been covered by Western media. Ryabchuk was President of Ukraine PEN Center for four years, and has published numerous books on Ukrainian history and politics, as well as collections of literary criticism and poetry. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed how Ukrainian identity has changed in recent years, the shape of a possible negotiated solution to end to war and why the West should be more skeptical of what Vladimir Putin calls Russia’s legitimate security concerns.
Where are you now?
Currently I am in Warsaw because I came for a few conferences, but I also came to pick up my wife, who escaped from kyiv.
You once said that it was too simplistic to look at Ukrainian-Russian relations through the prism of Russia as an empire and Ukraine as a sort of colony. I’m curious what you meant by that at the time, and what do you think of it now?
I believe that any theory is simplistic. You have to emphasize something and marginalize other things in order to conceptualize. So it’s inevitable. Of course, Ukraine was a colony, but in the same way it was very atypical. If you look at the traditional colonies, that includes a racial component, which is fundamental, and of course that is the most important, the most crucial thing. But it was not present in Ukraine. However, if we look at colonies as the lack of agency and domination of one people over another and an attempt to marginalize the other to make them voiceless and invisible, there was of course a very powerful domination. It was an attempt to absorb them and force them to assimilate. These are all forms of domination, since the very emergence of Ukrainian national identity has been very heavily oppressed. I therefore believe that we can speak of colonial pressure and colonial oppression.
I’ve read a lot of stuff you’ve written lately and I feel like you’re trying to argue against this idea that the West and Ukraine have pushed Russia into a box around NATO expansion. What’s in this story that you don’t like?
Well, first of all, I believe that the very question, the very statement about Russia’s security concerns, frames the whole question in a very wrong way. The assumption here is that Russia has special security issues that other countries don’t. Thus, Russian security concerns are presumed to be far more important than the security concerns of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and so on. Russia is considered to have special rights, exclusive rights. Why? I believe that Ukraine, Georgia and other small states—smaller neighbors of Russia—have many other reasons to be concerned about security. They were invaded; they were threatened; they were intimidated by Russia and blackmailed and so on. So their security concerns are really big and really serious.
Russian security concerns are a bluff. Russia has no security concerns, because no one is threatening Russia. Neither Ukraine nor Georgia, nor even NATO threatens Russia, and I believe that Moscow knows that NATO is not a threat. It’s just rhetoric. It is just an attempt to justify an imperialist and expansionist policy. Of course, I understand the essence of this rhetoric: NATO is a threat to Russian imperial ambitions. It contains these ambitions. This does not allow Russia to expand further west and does not allow Russia to invade Estonia, Latvia or Poland. And, in this respect, of course, it is a threat, but it is not a threat for Russia – it is a threat for Russian imperialism. But that’s another matter. So let’s call a spade a spade, because one of our problems is that we don’t call things by their proper name. We do not call the Ukrainian conflict a war. It wasn’t a conflict, it was a war and it was a Russian invasion. But we use these false terms like “conflict”, like “crisis” all the time.
I think the counter argument is to say not necessarily that Russia had legitimate security concerns and the eastern European states did not—that would obviously be silly—but rather to say that Russia could to see its safety concerns this way. So it’s in the long-term interests of Eastern European countries not to do things that would anger Russia just because that’s what you’re saying, greater imperial power. And, therefore, the idea is essentially that, even if the claims of Russia have no more moral or ethical value than the claims of the Estonians, Georgians or Ukrainians, we must always be more careful with Russia – simply because if we’re not careful then we end up with things like the invasion of Ukraine.
If we use this logic, we fail to understand that these worries are absolutely groundless, they are false, they are made up. And yet we accept them and discuss them seriously. Everyone knows the Nazis said they were concerned about the Jewish threat, but that was wrong. Should we recognize the concerns as legitimate? Of course not. But the Nazis said they believed it, and Hitler believed that the Jews posed a threat to the whole world and specifically to Germany. So he had security concerns, the argument goes. Should we accept this? Should we accept Putin’s paranoia?
That’s right, or you could say that closer to home and further from Hitler’s analogies, when American security concerns are exaggerated or irrational or illogical or false, they should just be called as such.
I am not here to argue or to defend America. What I mean is that Ukraine is not responsible for any wrongdoings or missteps by America or the Western colonial powers. It’s not our fault. Why should we be responsible for it? Russia raises all these questions and examples saying, “We have to invade Crimea because they did it in Kosovo. Ukraine had nothing to do with Kosovo, so why should we be responsible for Kosovo? Why should we play this game because someone took over Kosovo or someone invaded Iraq? If Moscow has a problem with America, let them solve this problem with America, not with Ukraine. We are trapped by this fake rhetoric all the time. Moscow deliberately introduces all this bogus rhetoric and Westerners buy it. This is the tragedy, the real tragedy. We are seriously discussing all these false artificial frameworks established by Moscow.
One of the frameworks that Moscow – and not just Moscow or Moscow sympathizers – came up with was the idea that the West was pushing to bring in new member states, obviously with both the EU and NATO having developed during the thirty years which followed the end of the cold war and getting closer and closer to Russia. But I want to ask you, from the Ukrainian point of view, how you perceive these enlargements and how Ukrainians see the EU and NATO.
Well, first of all, I don’t accept this formula of getting closer and closer to Russia. They didn’t care about Russia. They did not approach Russia. Eastern European countries had their own problems and interests. Russia lost them because it didn’t have enough soft power. It was not hard power but a soft power competition. And the West had much, much stronger soft power. And the states of Eastern Europe were attracted by soft power. Moreover, they had very bad experiences with Russia and they wanted to get away from Russia. It was therefore not NATO move to Russia; it was Eastern Europe moving away from Russia. Again, let’s call things by their proper names.
Ukraine has been interested in European integration from the very beginning, and this has been stated by all Ukrainian presidents, including Viktor Yanukovych. It was Yanukovych who prepared this European association agreement, but stopped it under Russian pressure. Thus, all Ukrainian elites and society were fundamentally pro-Western. Of course, they were more lukewarm about NATOnot because they were against NATO but because they understood that it was a sensitive issue for Moscow, and they didn’t want to spoil relations too much. The Ukrainians were therefore rather reluctant to NATO at the time, but they were pro-EU from the start. There was no great controversy about the EU Basically, Ukrainians from the very beginning, from the very emergence of modern Ukrainian identity, understood that their identity was incompatible with Russia because Russia is incompatible with Ukraine. And they always had to look for an alternative, and they had to look for allies in the West, and they had to position themselves as a European nation.