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Six years after the Maidan Revolution, Ukraine still faces multiple challenges

Martin Aust, chair of Eastern European and Russian History and Culture at Bonn University, Germany.

1. What is Russia’s ultimate goal in Ukraine? Can we assume that Russia has in place an ongoing geopolitical neo-Eurasianism project to rebuild the Russian State within the boundaries of the Former Soviet Union? Did Russia use the neo-Eurasianism ideological concept to justify its incursion in Ukraine since 2014?

The processes of decision-making in Russia’s presidential administration are not that transparent. So we have to interpret various steps and speeches by Russian President Vladimir Putin, other politicians, and contributions by Russian media and think tanks. Viewed, all in all, it seems to me that there is no Eurasian masterplan to rebuild a state within the borders of the former Soviet Union. The influence on Russian policies that some attach to Aleksandr Dugin’s visions of Eurasia seems to be exaggerated. The Eurasian Economic Union looks like an attempt at rebuilding a commercial space under Russian guidance – without the ideological significance, Dugin would like to see.

In my eyes, Putin’s policy vis-à-vis Ukraine is informed by three currents. First, there is the concept of the Great Russian nation, which claims to unify the Eastern Slavic nations of the Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians under the umbrella of the Great Russian nation. Since the 19th century, this tradition has taken close ties between Ukraine and Russia for granted. Putin’s thinking is steeped in that tradition. His speech from March 18, 2014, in the Kremlin, is informed by it. Second, geopolitics have played a role. In February 2014, with a new Ukrainian government emerging and articulating Ukraine’s desire to take the road to the West, discussing Ukraine’s perspectives to join the EU and NATO, Russian politicians felt alarmed at the prospect of yet another neighboring country aspiring to become a member of NATO. Russia’s annexation of Crimea – which in itself could also be viewed as a project of the Russian nation – and the non-declared war by Russia in Eastern Ukraine were, in essence, moves to establish territorial conflicts on Ukrainian ground. NATO rules exclude countries with territorial conflicts from becoming members of NATO. Crimea and the Donbas serve the Russian government’s purpose to block Ukrainian membership in NATO. Third, it seems to me that Putin’s response to the Ukrainian Majdan was also informed by fear. Putin has always criticized color revolutions in Russia’s neighborhood. In Russia, the government had cracked down protests against fraud in Russia’s parliamentary elections in 2011 and against the way Putin retook the office of president in 2012. Against that background, Putin was not ready to endorse the Maidan revolution, which drove Yanukovych out of office whom Putin had envisioned as a president who should secure close Russian-Ukrainian relations.

2. What is your view on political rehabilitation and heroization of the OUN and the UPA? What are the risks for Ukraine? What is your opinion on de-communization in Ukraine? Has it been a failure or success?

OUN and UPA are part and parcel of Ukraine’s past. As such, they have to be included in Ukrainian history textbooks and Ukrainian public debate on how to understand Ukrainian history. My attitude towards Ukrainian history laws is skeptical. They favor OUN and UPA while at the same trying to disentangle the pasts of Ukraine and the Soviet Union. The OUN, UPA, and the Soviet Union all have played their roles in the Ukrainian past – for better and for worse. OUN and UPA have upheld the notion of Ukrainian nationhood and sovereignty and were instrumental in killing Jews in the Holocaust and Poles in the mass atrocities of 1943. The Soviet Union supported policies of Ukrainian nation-building in the 1920s, committed the horrendous mass crime of Holodomor in the 1930s, and established Ukraine’s borders in the 1940/50s, which signified Ukrainian territorial sovereignty in 1991. So when it comes to the OUN and the UPA and the Soviet Union as well, there are light and lots of shadows in both cases. Historians can submit them to academic research and hope that public debate will pay attention to historians’ findings. Finally, my view of the heroization of OUN and UPA is outrightly disapproving. I am aware that it is the Ukrainians’ decision whom to consider heroes and whom not. However, cherishing organizations and their members as heroes from which emerged collaborators in the Holocaust leaves me frustrated. Doing so, Ukrainian politics of history run the risk to trouble Ukrainian-German relations and to produce images that all those will use who try to misportray post-Maidan Ukraine as a fascist regime. However, viewed from an outside analytical point of view, it might come as no surprise that a country attacked by its neighbor develops very nationalistic policies of history, turning a blind eye on the dark side of its national movements in the past. In modern times, wars have always driven nationalization and radicalization.

3. What memory politics should the Ukrainian government pursue? What lessons can Ukraine learn from its past to build a better future? What mistakes should it avoid?

That is ultimately the decision of the Ukrainian government in dialogue with Ukrainian society. Being a historian, I am fascinated with the diversity of languages and religions that are implicated in Ukraine’s past. Naive as it may sound, I still think that Ukraine’s past bears the potential to make Ukraine the Switzerland of the East in terms of uniting various languages, religions, and regions under the umbrella of Ukrainian citizenship. President Zelensky’s speech on New Year’s Eve seemed to go into that direction, highlighting unity in diversity. As far as I can see, the promising prospect of the Maidan is still unfulfilled: to replicate Ukrainian society’s pluralism in its political system.

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