Ukrainian elites should focus on building up the country they live in
Lubomyr Luciuk is a professor of political geography at the Royal Military College of Canada, in Kingston, and a fellow of the Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Toronto. He is the author, editor, or co-editor of 31 books dealing with Ukrainian and Ukrainian Canadian issues, a frequent contributor of opinion-editorials to Canadian and foreign newspapers, and an active member of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association. In 2019 he was distinguished by Ukraine with the Cross of Ivan Mazepa for his services in the international arena. He is currently completing work on a major manuscript for McGill-Queen’s University Press on Soviet counterinsurgency operations and the Ukrainian nationalist movement as well as writing his memoirs.
1. What is your assessment of Zelensky’s presidency? Has he moved Ukraine in a positive direction?
He has done better than many expected. Craving power is one thing, it morphs into something quite different when you have to harness it after gaining office. We all know President Zelensky earned a commanding mandate in a free and fair election. But to stay where he is, he will have to demonstrate that he is doing everything possible to help Ukraine remain in its rightful place within Europe. Heaven forbid he turn away from that path. Any deviation would plunge Ukraine into chaos, an uprising even greater than the Euromaidan Revolution, almost certainly even more violent. Much of this new reality has to do with the continuing Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. The invasion changed the mentality of Ukrainian society forever – to put it more prosaically, let me remind your readers of the nursery rhyme that recalls how “all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again.” There is no going back. How President Zelensky will be remembered in history will be all about how successful he is, not just in blunting the imperial project of the KGB man in the Kremlin, but in leading Ukraine out of the desert of its still-lingering Soviet legacy – and from there to “the promised land.” He has a chance to be remembered as Ukraine’s Moses.
2. What do you think about Canada’s military and political support to Ukraine? Is there room for improvement?
I am proud of Canada, which has contributed significantly to Ukraine’s independence by providing military and political support over many years. Our two major parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals, have both confirmed their ongoing support for Operation Unifer, which has definitely assisted Ukraine’s armed forces become more combat-proficient while enhancing their growing interoperability with the West’s militaries. But it must also be underscored that Canada’s armed forces and those of our NATO allies have also benefited considerably from their interactions and training with Ukrainian soldiers, men and women who have become battle-hardened while defending Ukraine against Russian aggression. So it’s a two-way street, as much to Canada’s benefit as to Ukraine’s.
From my point of view, the time has now come for Canada to expand and deepen the CAF’s engagement within the context of Operation Unifer, allowing our troops to move closer to the frontlines of this conflict. There they can become even more familiar with Russian hybrid warfare techniques and how to blunt them. The Ukrainian armed forces have a lot to teach their Canadian, British, and American brothers and sisters in arms.
A final point: Ukraine has now been an independent state for 30 years. That is a remarkable achievement. Aid to Ukraine, whether military or otherwise, costs Canada’s taxpayers. I think there is still room for improvement in the realm of ensuring that whenever aid is sent it gets precisely to where it is needed. Canadians insist on more accountability from their Ukrainian counterparts. My impression of the Ukrainian military is that it has become, by force of circumstance, ever-more capable, resilient, and professional. This is certainly true of the soldiers in the field, and their officers – where there is still a problem is with some of those in the more senior levels, the relics of the Soviet-era, those still harbouring a “Soviet Man” mentality. Their kind have learned how to mouth all the platitudes they know Western ears want to hear. So we need to be on guard against being fooled, against being taken. By adopting a more pragmatic approach to how, and to whom, and when and where, we provide military and political support, we can ensure Canadian dollars spent in Ukraine go to help those who need it. Here the priority must be to provide whatever those standing on the front lines need, including lethal weapons. These men and women are defending their country and, by doing so, are, in fact, protecting Europe. They need to be well-armed to fulfill their defensive mission, well-cared for when they suffer wounds while doing their duty, and well-taken care of when they retire to civilian life. Ukraine finds itself on the geopolitical frontline of Europe, threatened by a revanchist and rogue Russian state. So, as much as some Canadians might like to further various other social and cultural initiatives in Ukraine, my view is that the imperative for Canada and our NATO partners is to concentrate available resources on ensuring Ukrainians can continue to resist the aggressor. And, of course, I believe strongly that Ukraine must become a member state of NATO, join the EU, and do both soon. I have been arguing that position for years.
3. What is your opinion on de-Communization in Ukraine? Has it been a failure or success?
One of the most heartening experiences of my life has been to witness Ukraine re-emerging from the Soviet empire and, slowly, resuming its rightful place in Europe. Over these past three decades of Ukrainian independence, a new generation has grown up, and these young women and men will never be dragged back to the stultifying stupidity of Soviet life – such an outcome is now quite unthinkable unless Mr. Putin is willing to risk a Third World War (which he would most certainly lose). That said, there are still traces of the Soviet virus infecting Ukrainian society – corruption and nepotism remain festering problems – but, as has been said before, demography is destiny. The “Old Guard” (that is folks of my vintage) are now dying off and, once they are gone (and good riddance to those who hindered Ukraine’s return to normality, the likes of Yanukovych), the new generations will finish charting their own course. They have already started and, clearly, want to shape and secure a liberal-democratic and inclusive society in tune with all of the currents of modern European civilization. Think about just how remarkable this transformation is, and it came about in just 30 years!
Now I have always insisted Ukrainian society would have to experience a Biblical “40 years of wandering in the desert” before Ukrainians reach “the promised land.” Add 40 to 1991, and you get 2031. By that year, I predict Ukraine will get to where it needs to be. I hope to be around to see it happen. But even if I don’t, I will have lived long enough to look down from the proverbial mountain top, from where I can already see that they will make it. It’s frankly rather pleasant to be able to say so since I spent much of my early years in a world where some insisted “there is no Ukraine” and where the hopes of so many in our diaspora about Ukraine’s independence seemed to be nothing more than wishful thinking. It has been very fulfilling to see how those of my parents’ generation, all gone now, people who always believed Ukraine would one day be free, were proven right. As a boy, I remember singing Ukraine’s national anthem and wondering about its words, what exactly did it mean when we sang Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished – I just didn’t get it. It didn’t sound particularly heroic, seemed odd to be crooning on about how we had somehow managed to not yet be dead. Now I get it. Ukrainians endured. Theirs was a long struggle. But they won.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s foes, all of them, lost. The “evil empire” that once smothered the Ukrainian nation is in the dustbin of history, its loss un-mourned, except, of course, for that KGB creep in the Kremlin. And, lest you think it rather unsporting of me to refer to Mr. Putin that way, allow me to remind your readers that no less a statesman than US President Joe Biden has referred to Putin as a “murderer.” Quite on point, that descriptor.
4. What do you think are Russia’s ultimate objectives in Ukraine?
I don’t think the so-called Russian ‘Federation’ (which still exhibits many of the characteristics of a settler-colonial system albeit a much-reduced one when compared to what the Soviets once lorded over) has the ability to conquer Ukraine militarily, not without launching a Third World War, and I don’t view Mr. Putin as suicidal. But I do believe there is a concerted effort being made by Moscow’s men, and their fellow travellers in the West, to undermine Ukrainian independence through various economic and propagandistic campaigns, portraying Ukraine as some kind of “failed state,” mired in corruption, poverty, and in a hero-worshipping of so-called “fascists” from the Second World War era (i.e., those who, in fact, took up arms in resistance to the Soviet occupation and fought for Ukraine’s independence, meaning they were not villains but actually the heroes of their day). From a realistic, geopolitical perspective, the biggest “failed state” of the post-war period is none other than Russia, which wallows in corruption, launches wars against neighbouring countries, celebrates a ruinous Soviet past, and even fawns over a mass murderer like Stalin, all the while suppressing democracy, free speech, even assassinating those brave souls who advocate for religious, social, and political freedoms. Who would want to live in today’s Russia? In contrast, Ukraine is a creative and peaceful member of the international community, far from perfect, of course, but heading determinedly in the right direction even as Russia goes in the opposite way. As someone of Ukrainian heritage, I must admit I sometimes feel sorry for our “little brothers” to the north-east. With exceptions, of course, they seem to be rather lemming-like in their rush to turn away from Europe and go hording together off some Eurasian cliff. I once hoped Russia would join Europe. Now I wonder about how much longer it will be before a real Russian Revolution takes place. It’s long overdue.
5. What can Ukrainian elites do to preserve and strengthen Ukraine’s sovereignty?
They can start by behaving like elites and building up the country they live in, instead of considering it as just some place to source wealth from, which they then usually park beyond Ukraine’s borders. I think to some extent, this realization is slowly starting to sink in. After the Revolution of Dignity, it has become ever more clear, even to those who had never previously spent much time considering the needs, hopes, or prayers of the hoi polloi, that if they kept ignoring the latter, things might not end up well for them, could, in fact, see them losing everything. Again, and here I repeat myself, the Euromaidan Revolution and then the Russian war against Ukraine really changed everything. The men and women, and there are now tens of thousands of them, who have sacrificed so much, have seen their comrades in arms wounded or killed while defending Ukraine, these Ukrainians have been transformed into members of a new and patriotic constituency, one that will never tolerate a return to the status quo ante. They want change. Indeed they demand reform and will have it. The elites (with some exceptions) now get this. And, ironically, despite the troubling social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and particularly the disheartening loss of life, there has been one unanticipated and rather positive outcome to this plague. International travel all but ceased – meaning many of those whom we call the elite were obliged to remain “in the homeland” – they have, over almost two years, been denied the kind of easy travel abroad, to wherever they secreted their riches. When you have to “stay at home,” you want to ensure doing so is as pleasant as possible. So some of Ukraine’s elites have responded appropriately, by actually investing more in Ukraine, supporting Ukraine’s military – knowing that it defends them; championing a civil society that provides for the rule of law and so helps secure their status, and even providing, as it were, alms to Ukraine’s national churches, helping sustain a moral compass for those who belong to this community, who have a shared sense of historical experience and a belief that they will also have a future together.
Of course, some of those whom I shall refer to as the “dinosaur oligarchs” will never get it, but, overall, Ukrainian society has been experiencing a rising tide of expectations for many years – the younger generations are remarkably open to the world, are emerging as successive cadres of very well-informed, educated, and experienced citizens, are members of a nation forged by war and revolution. They take pride in the undeniable accomplishments of their independent Ukrainian state, which is recognized internationally. These young men and women know what has been achieved over these last three decades and recognize how only their sacrifices and hard work can ensure their future prosperity and freedom, along with that of their country. That is why I am so confident they will reach “the promised land.” Again, I must emphasize, I am very grateful I have been privileged to witness all of this in my lifetime. Thinking back, I would have to say that it was not a curse that I actually have lived in such “interesting times.”