War Makes the State111 views
What the War in Ukraine Has Revealed About Effective Governance – By Nataliya Gumenyuk
This article is part of a series examining what a year of war in Ukraine has revealed.
In July 2021, seven months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a group of researchers completed a major study of how Ukrainians viewed key events in their country’s recent history. The report, to which I contributed, yielded some striking findings. The first was that the population was not deeply divided over the country’s Soviet legacy or the 2014 Maidan revolution. Ukrainians of widely different backgrounds and regions, it turned out, shared a deep reservoir of common values and experiences on which they shaped their understanding of history. The second was that the country’s political institutions were generally held in low esteem. People across the board seemed to have a general lack of trust for the country’s leaders, no matter what party they came from, and they blamed many of Ukraine’s problems on its ruling class.
In the year since the war began, it has become a common refrain among Western commentators that the conflict has served to unite, almost for the first time, a previously fragmented society. But as the 2021 study makes clear, that assumption is flawed. Drawing on their shared experiences of hardship and resilience over many years, Ukrainians from all parts of the country have not been surprised that the conflict has brought them closer together. What has been unexpected is how this immense struggle has transformed the state itself.
After all, for centuries, Ukrainians have tended to identify more with grassroots movements or solitary heroes—the nineteenth-century poet Taras Shevchenko, say, or the anti-Soviet dissident Vasyl Stus—than with nonexistent or ill-defined national institutions. To defend themselves from imperial overlords, foreign invaders, and, after 1991, authoritarian governments that abused power, Ukrainians have tended to look not to Kyiv but to their own financial and political interests. Even after the 2014 Maidan uprising, when Ukraine finally became a liberal democracy, relations between civil society and the state remained antagonistic. There was an elected government, but it was often regarded as ineffective or corrupt by a distrustful public.
Today, after 12 months of almost unimaginable bloodshed, the picture looks very different. Not only is there far greater social cohesion but Ukrainians have also begun to view the state itself in a positive light. Of course, the war has played a direct part in this: a population in crisis has instinctively rallied around its leaders. Yet in recent surveys, many Ukrainians also express a real sense that despite the havoc of continual fighting, large-scale human displacement, and the constant threat of missile attacks, their national institutions have been redefined, and national governance has significantly improved. For almost the first time in their history, many people do not see the state as there to oppress them or take their wealth, but to serve their interests and save their lives. The question many Ukrainians are asking now is whether this shift is merely temporary or can provide the foundation for a postwar political order.
HARNESSING THE HOME FRONT
To some extent, the emergence of a strong state is a natural consequence of the war. To begin with, Russia’s assault on the country has affected people of all backgrounds equally, contributing to a sense that all Ukrainians, including top officials, are in the same boat. While I was interviewing the deputy mayor of Odessa in March 2022, an air raid began, forcing us to stay together longer than expected; she told me how agonized she was about her nephew, who was fighting with Ukrainian forces near Mariupol. In a similar exchange last month, the Ukrainian ambassador to a major European country mentioned to me that she couldn’t reach her husband, who was fighting on the frontline. Even now, the relatives of a Ukrainian cabinet minister remain in a Russian-occupied area. And on a train from Poland to Kyiv, I met the wife of a severely wounded war veteran who turned out to be a former minister from Ukraine’s leading opposition party who had left his business to serve in the army.
But there have also been tangible improvements in the way the country is run. In the past, Ukrainians tended to trust their own community leaders and civil society groups far more than the politicians and bureaucrats in Kyiv. Soon after the war started, however, it became clear to many that only a well-functioning state can survive such an onslaught. In a war in which troops in the field and civilians in cities are constantly being shelled, it has been essential to have an efficient and well-run healt- care system to treat the legions of wounded. When Russian forces have blown up a bridge over a major river, disrupted the water supply, or sent energy plants into flames with missile attacks, it has been up to the government to begin repairs as quickly as possible. And with the Ukrainian economy under extraordinary duress, both the state and private banking systems have had to find ways to prevent a slide into economic paralysis. All these pressures have led to a surprisingly adaptive public sector.
Take Ukraine’s transportation infrastructure. Since February 24, 2022, Ukraine’s airspace has been closed, its seaports have been blocked, and its ground traffic has been restricted. One result is that the national railway—which before the war was disparaged as uncomfortable, slow, and outworn—has become critically important for transporting people and goods. This has been especially true because for the Russian military, it’s harder to hit moving targets. So in addition to supplying the army, moving humanitarian aid, and getting refugees out of harm’s way, the railway has become one of the main means of basic transport in a county in which travel by bus and car is limited by curfews. One of the greatest surprises has been that despite the ever-present risk of attack, train delays are rare, and when military actions block the way, alternate routes have quickly been found. Notably, when territories have been liberated from Russian occupation, train service has rapidly been restored to serve large numbers of displaced people.
When asked for identification papers, Ukrainians are now able to show e-documents on the Diia mobile app, a state service that keeps electronic copies of personal documents. It was developed in 2020 but has become especially valuable in the war, during which it has been frequently updated. Thanks to this system, internally displaced people can easily re-register in different parts of the country. The same app can be used to pay tax and traffic penalties, receive official documents and apply for social benefits—all of which previously required visiting government offices and state agencies. Ukraine’s rapidly growing public digital infrastructure also offers new ways for people across the country to report damage from attacks and request compensation for lost housing.
Many more Ukrainians would have been killed over the last year had it not been for Air Alert, a mobile app for announcing air raids that was created within a week of the invasion. Similarly, since Russia began its systematic attacks on the power grid in October 2022, many Ukrainians have come to rely on an online service called Bright that provides an advance schedule of blackouts for every house address in major cities affected. With the onset of winter, many Ukrainians in areas without electricity also benefited from so-called “Unbreakable” points, centers installed in public buildings and in tents in parks where people can come and charge their devices, and use high-speed Internet connection.
Nowhere has the state’s role in Ukrainians’ lives been more omnipresent than in Kyiv itself. That some three million people have remained in Ukraine’s capital despite continual blackouts is not a miracle but a result of the common work of the national government, city administration, businesses, and ordinary people. The majority of residents returned after it became clear the siege of Kyiv was over in April 2022, and they have since been joined by residents of eastern and southern towns that have been destroyed or occupied. Since November, residents of the capital have experienced daily power cuts, a situation that has worsened with each attack. Yet this month, the management of the city’s main energy company announced that it had found a way to keep the system operating. For the third week of February, the city has operated as usual. Meanwhile, the city government continues to provide public transportation and municipal workers are keeping the streets clean. State and private banks, mobile operators, e-commerce retailers, grocery store chains, and restaurants have generally remained open, allowing normal life to continue as much as possible.
Of course, life is not normal. With curfews in force across the country—the schedule differs from region to region depending on the level of risk —people mostly stay home in the evening. In Kyiv the air raid siren alert rings on people’s phones on a daily basis. (There was one during President Joe Biden‘s surprise visit to Kyiv on February 20.) In cities with subways, the tunnels serve as air raid shelters, just as they did in London during the Blitz in World War II. The government still has a huge amount of work ahead of it, and there is now a general understanding that nowhere is safe as long as the war continues. Yet in most cases, emergency responders arrive within hours of attacks, and many Ukrainians now have much the same high regard for firefighters and rescue workers from the State Emergency Service as they do for members of the military.
Before the Russian invasion, there was a long history of antagonism between the Ukrainian government and journalists and members of civil society. In 2000, Georgi Gongadze, one of the country’s most prominent political reporters, was killed by a top official of the Ministry of the Interior. During the 2013–14 Maidan uprising, the Ukrainian riot police beat and shot peaceful protesters. Despite subsequent reforms, particularly in law enforcement, the state failed to investigate a car-bomb explosion that killed another journalist, Pavel Sheremet, in 2016, or the killing of Kateryna Handziuk, a well-known anticorruption activist in Kherson. After Volodymyr Zelensky was elected in 2019, his government was frequently criticized for hindering judicial reforms, and Ukrainian investigative reporters would argue with him at press conferences, accusing his government of misdeeds.
Since the war began, however, many have come to view the state—and the police in particular—as essential to their survival. It is the police who close roads after an airstrike, enforce curfews to protect civilian areas, help evacuate people from shelled areas, and even collect the bodies of those who are killed. By contrast, Russian forces have perverted local authority in areas under their control. After the towns of Balakliya, Izium, and Kherson were liberated from Russian occupation in the fall of 2022, Ukrainians discovered that the Russians had housed detainees at local police stations, where they were beaten, tortured with electric shocks, humiliated, poorly fed, and threatened with death. If Russian forces had captured Kyiv itself, its own large police building might have become a giant torture chamber, with almost every stratum of civil society—journalists, artists, activists, teachers, students, civil servants, and anyone with a relative serving in the army—potentially detained there. That Kyiv didn’t fall should not be taken for granted. It was the army that saved the city. Many Ukrainians lost their lives defending the capital in the war’s opening weeks. Now it is Ukraine’s air defenses that help prevent cruise missiles and drones from reaching the capital.
The searing reality of Russian occupation has exerted a powerful effect of its own. Instead of complaining about poor government services as they did in the past, many Ukrainians who are not on the frontlines view their task as making the state more capable and efficient. But they also know that the state is overwhelmed and that they have to organize some things themselves. For example, in late December, a photographer delivered bulletproof vests purchased with public donations to municipal workers in the besieged city of Bakhmut so that they could take the bodies of those killed to a local morgue. At the time, Bakhmut was probably the most dangerous place in the country. The photographer’s picture of four ordinary men wearing black flak jackets provided by the volunteers may be one of the most moving images from the last year. We now know that one of them was injured in a subsequent attack.
In the 2021 survey of Ukrainian public opinion, a negative theme emerged: people often didn’t seem to understand how their livelihoods and well-being depended on counterparts in other parts of the country. Now, such dissociation is no longer possible. With nearly one of three Ukrainians displaced by the war, a majority of them still in the country, every part of Ukraine seems interconnected. In April 2022, residents of the liberated Chernihiv region, close to the Belarus border, were asking about their compatriots in Bucha on Kyiv’s outskirts. In November, a woman celebrating the liberation of Kherson mentioned that she was still thinking about her friends in occupied Mariupol. In January, the city of Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine was helping utility workers in Kherson, around 35 miles away, provide municipal services. These connections run deep. But they also may raise the question of how durable the new Ukrainian state will be when the fighting stops.
For now, indications are promising. In December, a new opinion survey by the Kharkiv Institute for Social Research found not just high levels of solidarity but also growing political unity across different sectors of the population. Notably, few people seem to anticipate major social or political divisions erupting after the war. Even more striking was how Ukrainians now view their national institutions. One question posed by the researchers was, “Has your attitude toward the bodies of state power in Ukraine changed since the beginning of Russian aggression against Ukraine?” Forty-six percent said their attitude had improved, including 13 percent who said that it had improved a lot. The young were especially well represented in the latter group. By contrast, only 14 percent said their attitude toward bodies of state power had worsened, with three percent saying it had worsened significantly and 40 percent recording no change.
Of course, these views could swing the other way again if the government’s ability to keep the country going seriously falters or if war fatigue begins to color perceptions of the leadership. Ukrainian civil society and the independent media have grown more concerned about President Zelensky’s skyrocketing celebrity, which they fear could hinder democracy and pave the way for a new concentration of power after the war. Indeed, after months of avoiding controversial issues, Ukrainians are beginning to criticize the government, with newspapers once again running front-page stories about official corruption. But this time, the tone of the media has been more measured and the state has responded with greater seriousness, holding investigations and parliamentary hearings. If this renewed scrutiny is a harbinger of the future, at least it has shown that the war cannot be used to paper over government misdeeds.
Wars should never be romanticized, and certainly not one as brutal as this one. If Ukraine has become stronger as a nation, it has done so at an extraordinary human cost. Today, almost half the population has an immediate relative who serves in the army or law enforcement, and nearly everyone knows someone who has died in the war. At the same time, many Ukrainians are acutely aware that war destroys societies, even ones like their own that have turned out to be stronger and more resilient than anybody could have imagined. This is one reason that Ukrainians are desperate for the West to provide more help to win the war and end the bloodshed as soon as possible.
Remaining “normal’’ and human under the rain of Russian bombs is a form of resistance itself, but it requires strength and grit, which have their limits. It is impossible to say whether Ukraine’s newfound unity and the growing cooperation between citizens and the state can be maintained in the long run. What is clear is that the state and the people are interdependent. Russian propaganda used the so-called rifts in Ukrainian society and inefficiency of the Ukrainian state as a pretext for the invasion. Even international allies who had invested so much in reform efforts in Ukraine feared that when Russia invaded, the government might fall because of internal divisions and the lack of public trust. But Ukraine didn’t fall, and now its citizens have much higher expectations for the state and what needs to be done to rebuild the country. It will be up to both the Ukrainian people and their leaders not to squander the opportunity when the war is over.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
NATALIYA GUMENYUK, a Ukrainian journalist, is Co-Founder of the Public Interest Journalism Lab and the Reckoning Project.