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Thursday, 14 April 2016

Gunboat Absurdity: What is the Kremlin up to in the South China Sea?

Chinese and Vietnamese Coast Guard ships confront each other in the South China Sea

It starts with vague rumours circulating among colleagues and then on the internet. The improbability of it leads you to dismiss the story as just more half-baked paranoia that sees the Kremlin's hand in every major event. Yet as the weeks pass more strange incidents, sightings of Russian personnel looking out of place in exotic locales and a sudden interest of Russian media in an issue it had once ignored begin to make you suspicious. Is it true? Could the Kremlin really be willing to take such an irresponsible set of risks? Would Putin really be willing to alienate this ally or that old partner? And then the rumours die down, the social media trail of Russian personnel runs cold and the attention of pro-Kremlin media abruptly moves on to other matters. But every once in a while...

In the past two decades there have been enough instances where initially unsubstantiated rumours dismissed by many journalists and Russia scholars have turned into very real moments of Kremlin escalation. In particular, Vladimir Putin's attempt to reassert Russia's position on the global stage by intervening in Ukraine and the Syrian civil war followed such a trajectory. Initial moves to establish a Russian or pro-Russian presence were developed covertly, often accompanied by mixed messages from the Kremlin to confuse external observers. At the same time a trickle of stories on the specific crisis the Kremlin was targeting turned into a torrent of propaganda to build Russian public support for intervention in an external conflict. Having prepared the ground, in the final stages the Russian military moved either covertly or openly to create facts on the ground that gave the Kremlin a decisive advantage in territory it deemed crucial to sustaining Russia's great power status.

Since the seizure of Crimea by the Russian military this form of strategic sequencing has often been misleadingly called hybrid war. In reality the hybridity of mixing limited military action with civilian activism is only an initial tactic designed to control the sequencing of a shift from peace to war or from non-involvement to intervention. This approach has of course been use by other states seeking to entrench their strategic position. Nevertheless, the autocratic structures that evolved since Yeltsin's shelling of Russia's parliament in 1993 have given the Kremlin a freedom of action that Western or Chinese leaders do not have. The Russian state's control of national media has enabled it to build public support for foreign policy adventures by controlling the domestic information space in a way that is impossible for European or American politicians. With Vladimir Putin centralising control over security strategy, the Kremlin also does not face the kind of collective decision-making that constrained the Chinese leadership until Xi Jinping's ruthless purge of Bo Xi Lai's faction in 2012 signalled the emergence of a new political order.

Though foreign policy adventurism provided the Kremlin with a significant boost in support among the Russian public, as conflict with Ukraine has ground on it has resulted in economic sanctions from the EU and US and alienated a sizeable neighbour with significant military potential. It is still difficult to ascertain the long term impact of Putin's air campaign in Syria. Yet reasserting Russia's seat at the Middle Eastern great power table by sustaining Bashar al Assad has come at the price of alienating Turkey and risking open conflict with Saudi Arabia. Facing economic problems at home, the temptation to seek another major foreign policy coup to sustain public support until the Duma elections (Russia's national parliament) in September 2016 must be strong. 

With the need to distract from the ambiguous outcomes of the conflict in Ukraine, now that Vladimir Putin has decided to limit direct Russian military involvement in Syria, there is a strong likelihood that his inner circle is looking to another geopolitical flashpoint in which to assert his claim that Russia truly is a global power. In the Autumn of 2015 meetings between Russian diplomats and representatives of the Houthi movement as well as supposed humanitarian aid flights to Sanaa indicated that there might at least be some consideration of providing support to Saudi Arabia's enemies in Yemen. More recently Foreign Minister Lavrov's threats to block United Nations consent to any European military operations in Libya as well as contacts with Libyan factions backing the Tobruk-based House of Representatives signal ambitions for a greater role in the Maghreb region.

There are also hints of Russian interest in a very different geopolitical flashpoint that could cement Putin's great power ambitions. Initially announced by Russian defence officials at Singapore's Shangri La security forum in May 2015, plans for a Russian naval exercise in the South China Sea are now beginning to take shape. Though the original announcement was not followed up by any systematic information campaign by pro-Kremlin media, since the beginning of 2016 there has been a trickle of reports and opinion pieces discussing the relevance of Russia to a region that has become a focus for great power rivalries in East Asia. Intriguingly, there also seems to be an ongoing effort to deepen political relations with Brunei, the weakest and most autocratically ruled state on the South China Sea. This includes a startling growth in Russian investment in this oil sultanate from a mere $31 000 in 2014 to over $25 million in 2015. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the planned Russian naval exercise in the spring and summer of 2016 will involve cooperation with units from the Royal Brunei Navy. With an upcoming summit in Sochi between Russia and the Association of East Asian Nations (ASEAN) there are signs of growing Kremlin engagement in a region where the risks of interstate conflict are high.

Even if this expression of Russian interest in developments in the South China Sea remains limited to high profile symbolism, the Kremlin would be wading into a fraught and complex crisis. Though giving the Russian Navy its own starring role after the army's adventure in Crimea and the Air Force's prominence in Syria may make sense in terms of interservice rivalries and domestic political propaganda, intervening in the Asia-Pacific region could land Russia with the kind of complex dilemmas it faces in Ukraine or the Levant. The South China Sea is a geopolitical space in which tensions are escalating between a Chinese state asserting extensive territorial ambitions through military means and other powerful states in the with their own claims to islands and reefs. With sea lanes crucial to global trade with China, Japan and Korea, the United States has come to play a pivotal role in trying to contain this wave of Chinese expansionism. At the same time, regular stand-offs between Chinese coast guard vessels and naval units from the Philippines and Vietnam over the control of islands or the provocative placement of oil drilling platforms have come very close to armed conflict since the summer of 2014. 

For the Chinese, Vietnamese and Philippine governments the South China Sea dispute has become the focus for popular nationalist mobilisation. As the struggle for domination of the Chinese Communist Party between rival factions has worsened, reasserting Chinese claims to a vast part of the South China Sea encompassed by the so-called Nine Dash Line has helped it to sustain public support. A Vietnamese Communist Party struggling to manage the impact of rapid economic change and a politically assertive population has found that resistance to Chinese encroachment on islands that it claims are Vietnam's under international law has helped maintain the Party's credentials as guardian of national independence. In the more democratic environment of the Philippines, defending Scarborough Shoal and other islands and atolls claimed by Manila against Chinese appropriation has become a political football, with no presidential candidate willing to risk accusations of weakness in the face of external pressure. Other states along the South China Sea such as Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and Indonesia are pursuing their own claims based on rival interpretations of how far their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) reach from their coastlines.

Competing territorial claims in the South China Sea

China's expansionism has pitted it against every major state in the region. Originally set out legally by the last Chinese Nationalist government in 1947, the Nine Dash Line is based on a set of claims that evolved from the early 1930s onwards to every group of islands and reefs from the Paracels south of Hainan right down to the Spratlys lying between Borneo, the Philippines and Vietnam. The mainland Chinese government has regularly reasserted these claims ever since, developing an elaborate legal case based on supposed evidence of sporadic Chinese settlement of these island groups from the seventh century onwards. In the late 1970s and 1980s tensions between China and Vietnam led to repeated skirmishes over atolls and islands, sometimes leading to casualties for both sides. After heavy clashes in 1988, both sides agreed to de-escalate naval operations without abandoning their disagreements over territorial control. In the ensuing two decades though every major state on the South China Sea filed legal claims over disputed territory to the Permanent Court of Arbitration for the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Beijing's focus on building strong economic ties with its neighbours restrained it from asserting its territorial goals through subterfuge or force.

This relative period of quiet ended with increasingly aggressive Chinese moves from 2011 onwards. Overshadowed by events in Egypt and Libya, East Asia saw a steady escalation of tensions as Chinese ships blocked, rammed and stormed Vietnamese vessels while attempting to cut the Philippine Navy's access to strategic reefs such as the Scarborough Shoal. By 2014 dozens of Vietnamese and Philippine naval vessel were engaging in high risk games of chicken with the Chinese coast guard as Beijing placed oil drilling platforms in disputed waters. At the height of the crisis, anti-Chinese riots sweeping Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City at the height of the crisis. Over the next eighteen months evidence also accumulated of a colossal Chinese land reclamation effort, turning reefs and atolls into full blown islands with naval bases, anti-aircraft batteries and landing strips for fighters that could assert control over every section of the South China Sea's shipping lanes. 

Such successive escalations since the ascension of Xi Jinping to a dominant position in Beijing have drawn a growing number of major powers into the South China Sea dispute. Concerned about the impact Chinese actions may have on international conventions that are fundamental to freedom of navigation, for the last six months the United States has run increasingly aggressive Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). In the process, US Navy ships and aircraft have come close to islands with Chinese military installations in order to demonstrate that Washington does not accept Beijing's attempt to create facts on the ground. Accelerating US naval activity, in cooperation with local partners as well as India, Japan and Australia, also reflects widespread concerns that these Chinese military installations could prove the first step to excluding all other major powers from a key waterway. As James Kraska has pointed out, these operations have become more unpredictable since the Chinese military has come to use fishing trawlers and other seemingly civilian vessels to obstruct US and Vietnamese warships. The increasing frequency and scale of these confrontations have turned the South China Sea into a geopolitical flashpoint where considerable efforts have to be expended by diplomats on all sides to prevent further escalation.

As tensions have worsened in East Asia, the Russian government has been forced into an uncomfortably ambiguous stance. The breakdown in relations with the EU and US after the seizure of Crimea has heightened the Kremlin's focus on building political and economic links with China. Desperate to balance the economic impact of  American and European sanctions, Putin has played a personal role in completing natural gas pipeline deals with Beijing and trying to encourage Chinese investment in Russia's economy. Though this process of economic engagement has had less than satisfactory results for the Kremlin, a whole range of military and naval cooperation initiatives have been put in place to shore up any potential rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing that could help challenge American dominance of the international state system. In the process, the Kremlin has abandoned any qualms it might have had over supplying advanced weaponry to a potential geopolitical rival and has permitted the sale of anti-aircraft systems and the newest Su-35 fighter bombers to China's Peoples Liberation Army (PLA). Particularly in the summer and autumn of 2014, Putin's attempt to court Xi was accompanied by a torrent of reports in Kremlin friendly Russian media praising China's leadership and condemning attempts to contain Beijing's ambitions in the South China Sea and other contested strategic spaces as driven by US jealousy of a rising power.

Yet hampering these clumsy Kremlin attempts to draw closer to a Chinese regime is the fact that Russia also has a long-standing military and economic partnership with Vietnam, Beijing's most intractable adversary when it comes to the South China Sea dispute. In the latter stages of the US-Vietnam War the USSR kept Hanoi afloat with extensive military and economic aid. During the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, Moscow's help proved crucial in enabling the National Vietnamese Army to survive a relentless Chinese assault along the Northern border. Such military assistance was led to wider links built fostered by the Soviet state, which have remained strong enough after the end of the Cold War to sustain a Vietnamese community of thousands of traders, businessmen and students in Moscow. Despite an economic shift through the Doi Moi reform programme after 1986, Russia has remained Vietnam's primary arms supplier. While the lifting of the US arms embargo on Vietnam in the past months may change this dynamic, in the last half decade Hanoi has ordered and received vast amounts of Russian weaponry, from advanced fighter-bombers and anti-aircraft systems to dozens of ships and submarines designed to give the Vietnamese Navy a fighting chance in any conflict with China.

While successive waves of Vietnamese arms procurement have been a financial boon to Russia's arms industry, the ongoing assistance towards the modernization of the Vietnamese armed forces since 2008 has also been of crucial strategic importance to the Kremlin. For all the recent talk of Sino-Russian friendship, Moscow has remained wary of China's foreign policy ambitions.These anxieties are fuelled by growing Chinese economic influence over states Moscow considers to belong to its Central Asian sphere of influence and the massive demographic imbalance between thinly populated oblasts in Russia's Far East and the large Chinese cities on the other side of the border. Faced with potential challenges from Beijing, the existence of various powers hostile to China's aspirations across the Asia-Pacific region remains useful to the Kremlin. Though Japan, India, Indonesia and the US are not states Russia can rely on, a strong Vietnam whose authoritarian political elite has close ties to the Kremlin is a partner that is more likely to provide some help to Russia if it ever comes under pressure from Beijing. It is no coincidence that Vietnam is one of the first non-Eurasian states to sign a trade agreement with Putin's pet Eurasian Economic Union project. For a Kremlin with few reliable allies, the survival of a strong partnership with the Vietnamese state has remained one of the anchors of stability in a foreign policy framework that has experienced tumultuous changes over the past half decade.

For all the superficial attractions of taking a more prominent seat at East Asia's great power table, a more interventionist approach in the Asia-Pacific region would put both emerging pragmatic cooperation with China and decades of friendship with Vietnam at risk. As long as Moscow has scrupulously avoided deeper commitments to geopolitical flashpoints between China and rival regional powers as well as the United States, it has not had to choose between either collaborating with Beijing or maintaining its alliance with Vietnam. Yet even a largely symbolic commitment such as a small base in Brunei or regular naval patrols in crisis zones in the South China Sea would radically change this equation. Where previously a distant Kremlin could simply get away with recommending de-escalation and negotiations, every regional and great power directly involved in the conflict would demand that newly arrived Russian interlopers pick a side in complex disputes. 

As Bonnie Glaser has pointed out, for external players trying to balance Chinese expansionism such as India, Japan or the United States the challenge the South China dispute represents is relatively straightforward. In trying to reassert freedom of navigation in the area while avoiding becoming too heavily associated with individual Vietnamese, Philippine or Malaysian territorial claims, these major players have converging interests that have led to intensified naval and intelligence coordination against perceived Chinese threats. At the same time, these external powers can focus on strengthening collective legal frameworks that could help reduce general military tensions in the region. With pre-existing commitments to both China and Vietnam, if Russia increases its presence in the South China Sea to assert great power ambitions the Kremlin will find it difficult to plot a similar course. 

Simply joining US led freedom of navigation operations together with Japanese,Indian and Australian ships would effectively subordinate any Russian contribution to an international effort co-ordinated by Washington. The sight of Russian admirals taking orders from the commanders of far larger US or Japanese naval contingents would jar with Vladimir Putin's efforts to present Russia as an adversary and geopolitical equal of the United States. Though Russian engagement in a wider effort to counter Chinese expansionism would bolster the Kremlin's relationship with Vietnam, it would also place relations with Beijing in which Putin has invested considerable personal prestige under unsustainable strain. Such a path to great power influence in East Asia would only provoke the ire of a state with which Russia shares a long land boundary that is almost impossible to defend. The costs of such a move would therefore be far greater than any benefits the Kremlin could possibly accrue.

By contrast, a more likely course even symbolic Russian intervention in the South China Sea would take would be one designed to obstruct the US Navy's attempts to defend key American strategic goals in the Asia-Pacific theatre. Running regular patrols in highly contested territory could disrupt efforts by the United States to run more aggressive FONOPs against islands under Chinese control. With Russian ships in the immediate vicinity, US or Japanese naval officers already dealing with aggressive Chinese counter-measures would be faced with a further unpredictable variable that could make access to key areas more difficult. With the ability of the British government to fully maintain its base in Brunei in question, a Brunei government looking for additional protection could be willing to provide the kind of permanent facilities the Russian Navy would need to sustain any effort in these waterways. In the process, the Kremlin could both strengthen an increasingly crucial relationship with Beijing as well as force itself in to a wider consultation and negotiation process that could determine the future of one of one of the most important sea lanes for global trade. Not only would such an approach based on disrupting an issue crucially important to US global strategy provide a further opportunity to reassert Vladimir Putin's obsession with great power status, it would also complement Kremlin propaganda targeted towards the Russian population that continues to portray Washington as Russia's primary adversary.

This more likely Russian approach towards the South China Sea dispute would not be cost free. For all the claims made by Russian analysts loyal to the Kremlin, it is unlikely that the Vietnamese government or public would accept any justifications that would portray a Russian Navy presence as purely designed to counter US attempts to assert global hegemony. Rather, the sight of Russian naval vessels openly or tacitly colluding with the Chinese would inevitably put at risk a close partnership with Hanoi that has lasted for sixty years.  As Jonathan London has pointed out, the Vietnamese public as well as much of the political elite have come to see the struggle for control of islands in the South China Sea as fundamental to the survival of Vietnam as a sovereign state. With a newly reconfigured Politburo in Hanoi under the continued leadership of Nguyen Phu Trong dependent on delicate compromises between factions, the Vietnamese government will find it difficult to resist wider pressure to resist some form of retaliation for Russian involvement in any further Chinese escalation. 

Though the Vietnamese Communist Party would be very reluctant to see a collapse in relations it would be unlikely to continue providing support to some of the Kremlin's key strategic projects. At the very least, continued indulgence in Hanoi of Vladimir Putin's pet Eurasian Union project would not survive such tensions. If Beijing manages to encourage Russian naval visits to Chinese bases on disputed islands in the region by playing on the Kremlin's obsession with great power status, it is quite probable that the Russian armed forces will lose access to Cam Ranh Bay and other facilities on Vietnamese territory. Recent moves by the United States to drop the remnants of its arms embargo on Vietnam also mean that if there is a crisis with the Kremlin Hanoi now has a clear alternative to Russian weapons systems when it comes to modernizing its military. Most significantly, in alienating Vietnam and pushing it into a regional alliance system co-ordinated by Washington and Tokyo, the Kremlin would lose an ally that would be willing to help if a more expansionist Chinese regime turned its attention to Russia's Far East. Losing Vietnam in a short term bid for great power status would in the long term make Russia dependent on Beijing in a part of the world in which the Kremlin has no other firm friends.

As is often the case, despite the hints and fleeting interest it is equally likely that in the foreseeable future the Kremlin decides to look for it's foreign policy successes elsewhere. The Russian naval exercises in the Asia-Pacific region could simply be another opportunity to advertise military equipment in a region with a growing number of potential buyers. And no doubt there are many in Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defence that have a strong commitment to friendship with Vietnam. Yet despite all the risks, the South China Sea is exactly the kind of geopolitical space in which Vladimir Putin would try to sustain popularity at home through the aggressive assertion of great power status abroad. As Stephen Blank has pointed out, much of Vladimir Putin's adventurism in Ukraine and Syria is driven by a need to mobilise the support of the Russian public for a Kremlin elite that is no longer able to guarantee economic prosperity or political stability. With Duma elections in September 2016 and presidential elections in 2018, the need for grand foreign policy successes is becoming more pressing. However absurd it seems, the Kremlin may see further gunboat diplomacy as the only way out of trouble. Facing a stalemate in Ukraine and a volatile equilibrium in Syria, military adventurism in the Asia-Pacific region that forces other great powers to engage with Russia would provide the Kremlin with the exotic TV footage and exciting headlines that can help keep the Russian public distracted from economic woes. 

Yet the dilemmas that the Kremlin would face if it chose the South China Sea as its next geopolitical crisis to achieve a short term foreign policy high illustrate how Vladimir Putin's quest for global prestige is sabotaging Russia's long term security. By disrupting an established regional order his gambles in Syria and Ukraine may force other powers to take Russia into account. But they also alienate states that benefit from the status quo. With his gambits in Crimea and Donbas, Vladimir Putin shot to unprecedented levels of public support at home at the expense of alienating key political actors in Germany that have begun to see Russia as a strategic opponent rather than a friendly partner. Through his brutal Syrian adventure Putin may have reasserted Russia's position in the Middle East by saving Bashar al Assad from defeat, yet he also destroyed previously cordial relations with the Saudi and Turkish elites for an unsteady alliance with an Iranian regime whose interests may diverge from those of Russia. Whether in Libya, Yemen, the South China Sea or Venezuela, an attempt to reassert global power status by disrupting a regional status quo would simply repeat a dynamic whereby short term successes alienate powerful states that had previously been friendly towards Russia. Yet whether Vladimir Putin will ever learn that there are some geopolitical tables that are just not worth sitting at remains an open question.  

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Searching for Stolypin: Democratization and the War against Corruption


Alexei Navalny at the 'Russian March', September 2011

At a time when the conflict over Crimea and skirmishing in Donetsk and Luhansk are driving an ever greater wedge between Ukrainians and Russians, the one political issue that seems to unite both societies is anger with endemic corruption. For the past decade, more or less robust social surveys have put corruption at or near the top of the list of issues that most concern the public in both countries. State dysfunction and social injustice that corrupt practices helped to entrench have undermined economic development in most societies struggling with Soviet legacies. The ways in which graft and bribery have become a feature of everyday life affecting every citizen have fostered deep public grievances against established elites that have a potentially destabilizing impact. 

In Russia, significant levels of public disquiet over the persistence of corruption lingered even as a political equilibrium put in place by Vladimir Putin's power vertical managed to limit the socially disruptive effects of graft between 2000 and 2010. As Vladimir Gel'man has pointed out, with memories of the social collapse of the 1990s still strong during the first Putin presidency the great bulk of the Russian population was willing to accept a degree of elite theft in exchange for a stable order in their everyday lives. The rapid increase in quality of life driven by a growing commodities boom helped to limit the extent to which public annoyance at tales of corruption seeping out from the Kremlin fostered discontent with an emerging authoritarian order. Yet the fact that the police and security services regularly made a show of arresting expendable members of the elite demonstrated the extent to which those ruling Russia were aware that public concern over corruption needed to be regularly assuaged in order to sustain Vladimir Putin's popularity. 

By contrast, until 2010 in Ukraine no one figure was able to entirely dominate the state. The competitive nature of a political system that sat somewhere between oligarchy and democracy survived during the first two decades of Ukraine’s independence despite Leonid Kuchma's moves to consolidate his position in the early 2000s and Viktor Yanukovych's attempt to manipulate the 2004 presidential elections. In both cases a mixture of popular and elite resistance stymied attempts to entrench a power vertical in Kyiv, helping to foster a relatively open society in which nascent activist networks and small enclaves of reformers within civilian and military institutions could lay the basis for reform of the state. Yet a parliament and presidency riven with factional rivalries also made it extremely difficult for reformers to make any headway in a political economy in which oligarchs were constantly fighting for survival. While Putin's power vertical set clear limits on the influence of economic elites, the lack of any equivalent power centre in Ukraine meant that graft, corruption and everyday bribery spiralled out of control in a manner that paved the way for the comeback of Viktor Yanukovych in 2010.

Despite these growing divergences between Ukraine and Russia, the financial crisis that began to unfold in 2008 created a range of social and political shocks that brought ever greater discontent out into the open. With a massive spike in gas and oil prices strengthening the hands of oligarchs more closely aligned with Russia, between 2010 and 2013 Viktor Yanukovich moved to consolidate power to an unprecedented extent. In Russia, the swift recovery in commodity prices enabled Vladimir Putin to invest massive sums in the military while still maintaining the ability to financially outbid any potential rival. Yet in both societies economic pressure after 2010 also heightened public frustration with the persistent impunity of those in control of the state and economy. Uniting the disparate groups involved in the mass protests in Moscow of 2011 and 2012 was anger at how the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency signalled a lack of will to reform a system built on brazen plundering of the Russian economy. While the Russian protest movement failed to attract sufficient support outside of Moscow to threaten the Kremlin, in the following years similar fury at systemic corruption helped fuel the Maidan protests in Kyiv that culminated in the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. 

Since the Putin regime’s manipulation of corrupt networks to achieve strategic goals in Donbas and Crimea a considerable proportion of the political elite in Kyiv now see the war against corruption as crucial to restoring national sovereignty and security. In Russia, the extent to which the Kremlin’s power vertical depends on corrupt deals between the security services and economic elites have led the opposition to primarily focus on anti-corruption activism, often at the expense of other key issues. Moreover, the extent to which key members of the Russian opposition such as Alexei Navalny have built their reputations on anti-corruption campaigning demonstrate how the war against corruption has remained one of the few issues that can still unite a fragmented opposition movement. 

As a consequence, many analysts and activists have come to see a war against corruption as an unproblematic component of any wider democratization process. When providing recommendations for the democratic transformation of both Ukraine and Russia, Western think tanks, scholars and prominent local figures continue to often place the suppression of corrupt practices as the central priority of any reform process. EU and US officials, scholars and analysts at think tanks from the Carnegie Foundation to the Brookings Institution regularly churn out recommendations for anti-corruption measures designed to restore the rule of law in the post-Soviet space. As the military situation in the Donbas region has stabilised, in Ukraine battles over corruption within the national government as well as on a regional level have shaped political debate, often determining the rise and fall of prominent leaders. While in Russia, the remnants of the non-system movement are trying to mobilise public support by emphasising the extent to which the corrupt practices so central to Putin's power vertical are compounding an escalating economic crisis.   

Yet however crucial anti-corruption measures are to the restoration of the rule of law, it is worth asking whether wars on corruption in themselves inevitably lead to democratization. Western as well as local analysts often assume that those prominent political figures fighting for an end to corrupt practices, often at enormous risk to themselves and their families, are also automatically going to push for the democratization. But demands for a "cleansing of society" or a "strong hand" to fight powerful interests that are stealing from the people and subverting the state can also degenerate into a search for the kind of quick solutions that are more likely to be found through authoritarian methods than slower processes of democratic consultation. 

The authoritarian potential of any potential war on corruption can be seen in the historical figures anti-corruption campaigners in both societies have cited as examples. After the collapse of the USSR encouraged a reappraisal of the pre-1917 Tsarist Empire, both conservatives as well as liberals in Russia have often pointed to Pyotr Stolypin as a figure who could provide a model for those trying to rebuild Russia in the 1990s. Until his assassination in 1911, as prime minister and interior minister Stolypin initiated reforms designed to save the Tsarist system in the wake of the revolutionary events of 1904. The apparently progressive nature of measures designed to foster the emergence of a rural middle class and a more responsive state led many Russian reformers to present Stolypin as the kind of figure those rebuilding a new Russia in the 1990s and 2000s should emulate. Yet Stolypin was also notorious for the ruthlessly repressive means he used to impose his own institutional goals. His relentless war on corruption went hand in hand with a campaign against various ideological opponents of the Tsarist system so brutal that the "Stolypin necktie" became a euphemism for the noose used to execute those accused of revolutionary terrorism. A war against corruption building on a cult of Stolypin may help unite those in the security services frustrated with a corrupt status quo with activists close to the opposition. Yet it also hints at a willingness among many anti-corruption activists to entertain an alliance with individuals or groups who could provide the "strong hand" needed to "clean up" their country.

Though some Ukrainian activists also cited Stolypin as a useful model for modern anti-corruption efforts in the 1990s, growing wariness towards Russia dampened enthusiasm for a politician whose main aim was to restore the strength of a Tsarist Empire focused on Moscow. Nevertheless, an authoritarian undercurrent can also be detected in some of the precedents many anti-corruption campaigners have pointed to as successful examples of reform that should be emulated. That some activists have pointed to Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew as an ideal for reformers despite his unflinching contempt for human rights indicates that quite a few anti-corruption warriors in Ukraine may be willing to cut a few democratic corners to achieve their goals. More recently, the popularity of Mikhail Saakashvili after his appointment as Governor Odessa by President Petro Poroshenko is a sign that a broad swathe of the electorate is willing to throw its support behind someone willing to do whatever it takes to fight corruption. That Saakashvili was toppled from the Georgian presidency in 2013 under a cloud of allegations over abuse of executive powers to coerce acceptance of reforms does not seem to unduly bother Ukrainian anti-corruption activists and voters rallying to his standard. 


Tetyana Chornovol at the Battle of Mariupol, September 2014.

Other prominent activists involved in anti-corruption campaigning in Ukraine have become heavily involved with openly authoritarian movements. The paramilitarisation of the Maidan movement under the pressure of brutal police repression in January 2014 drew civil society activists into contact with radical nationalist as well as self-defence units that protected demonstrators from the state. These groups went on to provide the nucleus for the volunteer regiments that spearheaded the attempt by the Ukrainian military to regain control of the Donbas region from increasingly blatant Russian military infiltration. In the process, anti-corruption campaigners helping to coordinate public efforts to supply the military have drawn close to paramilitary groups and other military units. 

A prominent example of this interaction between anti-corruption activists and nationalist volunteer regiments is the former journalist Tetyana Chornovol, who is now an MP in the Verkhovna Rada. Chornovol herself rose to prominence during the Maidan protests for her relentless investigation of the Yanukovych family's illegal assets. In the months after Yanukovych's fall, her husband joined the far right Azov regiment, and was killed in action near Ilovaisk. Following this personal tragedy, Chornovol  joined an Azov unit fighting to defend Mariupol from seizure by Russian and Russian-backed forces in August 2014. This strong personal link along with her continued association with figures connected to the Azov movement indicates how a commitment to fighting corruption can be built as much on an authoritarian understanding of how social transformation should be achieved as it can on a desire to preserve democratic pluralism.

As long as the European Union provides the prospect of even a partial integration process, there remain strong institutional incentives for Ukrainian activists and state reformers to frame their war against corruption in democratic terms. Having a battle over the reform of the Ukrainian state play out in an open debate in the media and parliament will also strengthen public understanding and elite acknowledgement that corruption is a symptom rather than a cause of a political crisis driven by deeply entrenched social injustice. As Mikhail Minakov and Vitaly Portnikov have pointed out, the potential risks of EU disengagement from a society in which there are no simple solutions to structural dysfunction are clear. In an environment in which old civilian elites are discrediting themselves and the power and prestige of the military is on the rise, there is a strong risk that the fury of Maidan activists at the survival of corrupt practices could reinforce authoritarian rather than democratic trends in Ukrainian society. 

While in Ukraine a public consensus in favour of an (often ill-defined) Europeanisation process provides an incentive to channel the war against corruption towards democratic ends, it is not clear whether similar external or internal pressures exist in Russia to prevent activists from being tantalised by the false promise of authoritarian solutions. Undoubtedly there are many key figures within the system and non-system Russian opposition who make great sacrifices in the hope of building a more open society. But the assassination of Boris Nemtsov removed a leading figure that still had the authority to sustain a commitment towards democratic goals among those frustrated with the status quo . With Nemtsov gone it remains unclear whether what remains of the Russian non-system opposition can produce a leader that can ensure that anti-corruption work remains part of a wider democratic project rather than becoming enmeshed with the authoritarian agendas of nationalist movements or factions within the state. 

Perhaps that most prominent Russian opposition activist to have flirted with the authoritarian agenda of the nationalist Right is Alexei Navalny. As a prominent opposition activist, Navalny has been very successful at using anti-corruption activism as a springboard towards building a national political profile. Most recently, Navalny played a central role in implicating Prosecutor General Yury Chaika in vast protection rackets that effectively turn the state prosecution service into a business partner of major organized crime groups. Throughout Navalny has had to overcome enormous pressure from the Russian state. Yet Navalny has also courted the support of Russian radical nationalists, even attending the so-called 'Russian March' in 2011, a notorious annual gathering of the Far Right in Moscow. In the process he has become difficult to pin down ideologically, at times espousing a national conservatism that would not seem out of place in the Lithuanian or Polish parliaments, at others indulging in the kind of opportunistic populism that would make Ukraine's Oleh Lyashko proud. This ideological ambiguity coupled with cooperation with deeply authoritarian radical nationalists is an indication of how prominent anti-corruption campaigners such as Navalny will not necessarily prove reliable supporters of any messy democratic Russian experiment that may follow a collapse of Putin's power vertical.

For democracy is not necessarily an inevitable outcome of any revolutionary moment that may unfold if the Putin regime is unable to reverse Russia's downward economic trajectory. The deeply corrupt relationships between the security services and business elites that provide the structural foundation for Putin's power vertical make both highly exposed to any public backlash that could emerge if Russia experiences internal destabilization. But there are other state institutions that have not been as weakened by the predatorial instincts of the Putin regime. In the last decade the military in particular has become ever more central to national life, profiting from rapidly expanding budgets while enjoying ever greater social prestige as celebration of the army becomes entrenched in cultural institutions and school curricula. With the personalized nature of Vladimir Putin's rule hollowing out a whole range of other state and political institutions, after his fall the military may be the only truly national institution able to act as a unifying force. 

In this context, over the next decade those Russian activists fighting the war against corruption may be faced with a difficult set of choices. They could embrace a democratic transition that will involve complex political deals with many powerful figures who had prospered under the previous regime. Such a scenario would also put clear limits on the extent to which any crackdown against corrupt elites can ignore property law and human rights. Or they could work together with military leaders and radical nationalists willing to use all means available to crush business and security service networks that have stolen Russia's future for the last twenty years. The tendency of many Russian activists to see corruption as the primary cause of Russia's ills, rather than as a symptom of deeper social and economic injustice, is a worrying sign that a significant proportion of Russia's opposition may very well be tempted by men in uniform who promise to do whatever it takes.

While the EU still has a wide range of incentives to ensure that anti-corruption warriors in Ukraine respect democratic norms, it is difficult to see how European states can influence the fateful choices activists fighting the war against corruption in Russia may have to make in coming years. A concerted effort to embed anti-corruption measures into a wider democratization process could help weaken the ability of established elites to manipulate economic reforms to their advantage. Such a success could mark a crucial step towards building the foundations for a more stable and just society. Yet in the chaos of the next Russian revolution it is entirely possible that rather than finding its Havel or Walesa, Russia's opposition may simply choose to fall in behind a Stolypin instead.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Coming to Terms with Odessa Ukraine: How Maidan Reshaped the Ukrainian Diaspora

Canadian Cossacks at Dauphin's Canadian National Ukrainian Festival, 2011.

For over a century Ukrainians facing economic deprivation and political instability have left their homeland to find work in distant countries. As successive waves of mass migration gained momentum Ukrainian communities emerged in Europe, North America and even farther afield. From its very beginning, Ukrainian emigration to Europe and North America in the nineteenth century took place in parallel with the first attempts by Ukrainian intellectuals to construct a shared sense of nationhood. A Ukrainian nation-building project that hoped to unite divided territories through a shared linguistic and cultural heritage became intertwined with processes of transnational migration and community-building. This expanding Ukrainian diaspora played a key role in debates over Ukrainian identity as the boundaries of what constituted a possible territorial space for Ukrainian statehood remained contested.

Starting with clusters in Austria or Germany of so-called Ruthenians from Halychyna and Bukovyna who were heavily influenced by nascent forms of Ukrainian nationalism, by 1900 tens of thousands of migrants who self-identified as Ukrainians went on to settle in Canada and the United States. During the subsequent twenty years, war and revolution displaced further thousands of Ukrainians from the former Austrian-Hungarian lands as well as a fragmenting Russian empire, with the reach of Ukrainian diaspora networks spreading to Brazil, Argentina and Australia. These transnational communities became increasingly politicised, as political exiles including the followers of Hetman Skoropadsky, Nestor Makho or Simon Peltiura set up rival politcal structures in diaspora communities to gain recruits for the political comeback in Soviet-controlled Ukraine they pined for. 

This increased politicisation of disapora milieus was reinforced by particular patterns of migration experienced by Ukrainians from Halychyna and other parts of Ukraine controlled by Romania or Poland. In Canada in particular, the mass internment of citizens from Austro-Hungarian territories, including Ukrainians, helped reinforce the importance of community organisations working to protect members of the diaspora from the state. While most Ukrainians from these Western regions settled permanently in their new places of residence, a significant number engaged in circulatory migration to non-Soviet Ukraine until 1939. Individuals or even whole families would spend a few years in North America before returning to Halychyna or Bukovyna. In Europe intellectuals and labourers would regularly move back and forth between German, Austrian or French cities and their home regions. As various radical Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalist (OUN) factions rose to prominence in the 1920s, the ideas of influential figures aligned with the movement such as Stepan Bandera and Dmytro Dontsov began to spread to diaspora milieus. By 1939 the political life of the Ukrainian diaspora mirrored religious and political trends reshaping non-Soviet Ukraine. This dynamic helped to anchor a set of linguistic and ethno-nationalist assumptions about Ukrainian identity that shape the stance of most diaspora organisations to this day.

The strong cultural cohesion of Ukrainian communities in North America meant that their institutions were in a position to integrate a large influx of refugees that fled Ukraine after the Second World War. The arrival of many supporters of the OUN and the Ukrainian Patriotic Army (UPA) who had fought Germans, Soviets and Poles in turn helped reinforce a romanticised ethno-nationalist historical narrative in churches, Sunday schools and youth movements such as CYM (Спілка Української Молоді/Ukrainian Youth Organisation) or the Plast scouting federation. Stepan Bandera's presence in Munich until his assassination in 1958 and Dmytro Dontsov's exile in Montreal until his death in 1973 meant that diaspora milieus came into direct contact with the dominant figures of interwar Ukrainian nationalist thought. Though a surprising number of Ukrainian-Canadians and Ukrainian-Americans were able to visit Soviet Ukraine after the mid-1960s, the barriers to regular interaction between Ukraine and its diaspora led to significant cultural divergences between the two sides. In Germany, communities that were predominantly the product of refugee migration contained many senior OUN/UPA activists. Strong community ties with West European conservative movements and security services reinforced deep hostility to any aspect of Soviet society right up until the collapse of the USSR.

Cold War texts promoting the Ukrainian national cause

Nevertheless, the collapse of the Soviet Union had a very different impact on the diaspora in Germany than on Ukrainian communities in North America. Though both Canada and the United States saw renewed growth in immigrant numbers from Ukraine, it did not fundamentally reshape community institutions. By contrast in Germany a numerically smaller community was overwhelmed by new immigrants that continued to circulate back and forth between Ukraine and the cities they had moved to in a way that would have been impossible before 1990. As a consequence, while North American diasporas only had a limited degree of contact with the cultural and political context of post-Soviet Ukraine many of the tensions over language, identity and national myth that were a crucial feature of 1990s Ukrainian politics had a strong impact on the internal development of communities in the EU.

These structural differences need to be kept in mind when approaching diaspora responses to the Orange and Maidan Revolutions. Since 1990, Ukrainians in Canada and the United States remained largely insulated from the cultural shifts that led to the emergence of what one could call a Russophone Odessa Ukraine nationalism that now complements what Andrew Wilson once defined as Ukrainophone Halychyna Ukraine nationalism and linguistically mixed Dnieper Ukraine nationalism. Within the diaspora in the EU, however, frustration with highly corrupt state institutions was more central to shaping attitudes towards developments in the homeland. In order to understand how the diaspora in North America has responded to the emergence of a militant civic Ukrainian nationalism since the occupation of Crimea, we therefore need to reflect on how these differences in social structure and identity narratives between the diaspora in the EU and in North America has led to distinct patterns of engagement with the politics of post-Maidan Ukraine.

A collective reframing of identity narratives among diaspora communities as well as in Ukraine was already apparent at key moments of escalation during the Maidan protests. The adoption of the symbols of the Bandera OUN by both Ukrainophone and Russophone demonstrators who had not previously been associated with nationalist ideologies led to ambivalent responses among many diaspora organizations and international support groups for the protest movement. Undoubtedly the revival of aspects of Stepan Bandera and Dmytro Dontsov’s radical ideology among Ukrainian nationalists and their adoption by many Russophone Ukrainians after Maidan was endorsed with enthusiasm by certain diaspora milieus. Even in the 1990s, quite a few diaspora activists in Canada would have seen the revival of Bandera symbols as a sign of national renewal. Yet in 2014 key stakeholders within the social mainstream of diaspora communities such as the Ukrainian Canadian Congress were perfectly aware of how fraught a revival of OUN symbols would be within Ukraine as well as with EU partners.

Ukrainian Youth Association meeting in Acton Ontario, 2012

Once armed conflict gained momentum in the Donbas region an exclusive focus on the Ukrainian language, another pillar of diaspora identity discourse, also became a problematic basis for mobilizing support to halt Russian infiltration. Contrary to deep suspicion over the loyalty of Russophone Ukrainians harboured by much of the diaspora in North America, many volunteer fighters and regular soldiers came from communities in which Russian was the predominant language. As a consequence, Ukrainian-Canadian and Ukrainian-American organisations pledged to defend the dominance of the Ukrainian language found themselves fundraising for nationalist volunteer battalions dominated by Russian-speakers. This dynamic was reinforced by a shaky interim Ukrainian government doing its best to shore up the support of Russian-speakers after self-inflicted propaganda disasters over the language issue. In this context, while the preservation of Ukrainian as a language of state was still seen as a crucial means of differentiation from neighbouring societies, Russian-speakers were also recognized as fully Ukrainian if they adopted a set of shared symbols and cultural norms defining the relationship between the individual and the nation.

While Ukrainian communities in Europe had already struggled with the integration of Russian-speakers since the early 1990s, the notion of Russian-speakers willing to fight and die for Ukraine represented a fundamental challenge to ethno-nationalist assumptions underpinning diaspora identity in North America. With a profound threat to Ukrainian independence after the loss of Crimea forcing swift action by civil society to compensate for state paralysis, diaspora organisations engaged with efforts to contain the crisis in the Donbas region in a way that gave them little time to openly oppose an increasing emphasis within Ukraine on the civic components of Ukrainian national identity. As a consequence, diaspora networks acquiesced to the priorities of Ukrainian military, political and civil society leaders rather than trying to actively reshape the debate to reflect their own priorities. The depth of the crisis of 2014 and the way in which Russian-speakers became a key component of a rapidly expanding Ukrainian security sector forced diaspora communities to accept a redefinition of Ukrainian identity that until then had largely been resisted in North America and evaded in Europe.

Yet there were also social and institutional factors that helped diaspora communities adjust to a shift towards a civic basis for Ukrainian identity while still retaining a sense of cultural continuity that integrated Maidan, the struggles for Odessa and Kharkiv as well as the Donbas war that followed into a familiar historical narrative. In searching for explanations why civil society, business milieus and even established political factions had been willing to engage in tenacious acts of protest, many diaspora activists emphasised a long standing national foundation myth that located the basis of modern Ukrainian nationhood in Cossack polities of the sixteenth century that were the product of fierce defiance of external authority. This shared Cossack myth was also appropriated by volunteer battalions attempting to bind an often diverse range of recruits into an emerging post-Maidan military ethos.

Cossacks at the Euromaidan protests, December 2013

This emphasis on a Cossack myth familiar to anyone with experience of diaspora church and educational structures helped link a brutal and confusing war with a recognisable narrative of betrayal, survival and liberation. By providing shared symbols that could link diverse milieus in Ukraine with European and North American diaspora communities, the Cossack myth provided a means through which more problematic aspects of Ukrainian identity discourse could be put aside. Building on a tradition going back to Hrushevsky’s initial historical works of the late nineteenth century, in the process deeply problematic aspects of early modern Cossack history such as Khmelnytsky’s pact with the tsars of Muscovy or anti-Jewish pogroms were glossed over. Rather it was the image of a Cossack republic made up of self-organized bands that decide the fate of their Hetman that helped a diverse range of milieus in Ukraine and the wider diaspora build a shared identity narrative in the face of crisis during the Maidan protests and the military campaigns that followed.

When witnessing the Maidan protests first hand or from afar through social media, diaspora commentators quickly recognised the symbolic and rhetoric allusions to the Cossack myth that permeated Maidan from its very beginnings. It was this shared imagery of the Cossack warrior defending his or he freedom from a tyrannical ruler that enabled diaspora communities to reconcile their own traditionally ethno-nationalist narrative of Ukrainian identity with the multi-lingual and multi-religious realities of early twenty first century Ukraine that manifested themselves in their country of origin. Key moments such as clashes between Maidan protesters and Berkut police units for control of Hrushevsky street or the final street battles of late February 2014 were interpreted with familiar frames of reference based on the Cossack myth that enabled diaspora observers and supporters to revise their assumptions about Ukrainian society while still retaining a sense of cultural continuity. The appearance of protesters in Cossack dress, the ritual “warning” drumming on Hrushevsky street, the creation of relatively disciplined paramilitary units within Maidan self-defence that consciously modelled their structure of military organization on the Cossack bands, all these factors were key to enabling this enormous conceptual leap from one model of identity to another in a very compressed period of time.

Maidan 'Hundreds' in front of the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament), 22 February 2014

This use of the Cossack narrative to reinforce shared narratives of identity despite linguistic and religious diversity gained redoubled importance in the military mobilisation efforts that followed the fall of Yanukovych. With the Ukrainian Army in a near terminal crisis in April and May 2014, the use of Cossack titles, symbols and language provided a unifying element that could anchor a chaotic war effort with a familiar warrior ethos. This shared symbolic resource became a key feature of volunteer battalions, in terms of dress, rhetoric and symbols to the extent of even shaping responses to combat on the battlefield. Despite the often underrated ideological differences between various nationalist battalions as well as within the Ukrainian military and intelligence services, the language of the Cossack myth helped instil a particular warrior codex that could be presented as uniquely Ukrainian. From the perspective of diaspora networks not particularly familiar with the ideological worldview shaping volunteer battalions or the neo-Soviet traditions of regular military units, the Cossack myth again provided a key theme that provided a point of identifiable connection with a wider effort for communities in North America that were both geographically and culturally distant from the social order of contemporary Ukraine.

Troops from the 79th Airmobile Brigade mock Vladimir Putin in the summer of 2014 by re-enacting Repin's 1891 painting, 'Reply of the Zaporizhian Cossacks to the Sultan'.

While the Cossack myth was a crucial symbolic resource that strengthened the commitment of Ukrainian diaspora communities to Ukraine's fraught national mobilisation efforts, it was the survival of the modern Ukrainian state that proved crucial in shaping the form this engagement took. In and of itself the Maidan Revolution was to a large extent driven by a profound distrust of state institutions that came to be seen as corrupt and oppressive. Both the popular defiance of police intimidation and the seizure of administrative buildings after the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) enacted the so-called Dictatorship Laws of 16 January 2014 represented the culmination of deep popular resentment over the extent to which the state was failing its citizens at home and abroad.

This hostility to Ukrainian state institutions found considerable resonance across the diaspora. Many members of Ukrainian communities in North America who have worked or lived in Ukraine over the past two decades have come away with a profound sense of disillusionment as the realities of an oligarch dominated society clashed with the myths of their own identity narrative. For large swathes of the Canadian and American diaspora, Kuchma’s equivocation about the role of the Russian language and Yanukovych’s comeback in 2010 were taken as profoundly frustrating signs that the state was dominated by Russified elites unwilling to protect Ukrainian culture. By contrast, for Ukrainian communities in EU member states the disillusion was often more the result of regular contact with corrupt state institutions that  obstructed business projects, property purchases and other forms of engagement with day to day life in Ukraine. In this context, the Maidan movement's demand for state reform resonated strongly with diaspora communities disappointed in the fact that the post-Soviet Ukrainian state had not built the Cossack utopia that nationalists had yearned for when dreaming of an independent Ukraine.

Despite such profound disappointments diaspora organizations and activists engaged with civil society initiatives focused on reform of existing state institutions rather than a utopian vision of dismantling them and starting anew. Though more radical milieus within diaspora communities actively supported nationalist groups such as the Svoboda Party or Praviy Sector, the main community organizations in Canada, the United States, the UK and Germany worked with organizations and state institutions that had a reformist rather than a revolutionary emphasis. Similarly, in the rush to rebuild Ukraine’s security infrastructure after March 2014, diaspora communities provided far more aid to volunteer regiments that cooperated with the state such as Donbass, Dnipro-1 and even the radical nationalist Azov rather than units such as Praviy Sektor or Sich that openly threatened to use violence against institutions that did not fulfil their demands.

Euromaidan Canada fundraising dinner in Toronto, 26 April 2014.
Note the ticket price.

By contrast, indications of how the diaspora could have responded had Maidan protests or Russian military operations led to a complete collapse of the Ukrainian state can be seen in the traumatic experience of other immigrant milieus. From Turkish guest workers in 1980s Germany through to transnational networks from various Arab societies over the last two decades, a crisis resulting in a collapse of trust in the state has often had a radicalising effect on diaspora communities. Such knock-on effects of destabilisation in a country of origin has regularly drawn deeply alienated immigrant communities into civil conflicts on the side of political movements whose actions accelerated a conflict spiral. Other diasporas faced with armed conflict in their countries of origin have often become a major source of funding and personnel for movements that operated outside state control. In societies where the state has collapsed such as Yemen or where an armed group at war with the state becomes politically dominant as in the case with Kurdish communities, diasporas have often become enmeshed with insurgencies that fostered profound hostility towards state institutions of their country of origin. With considerable levels of population circulation between EU member states and Ukraine as well as a rose-tinted view of the ethno-nationalist legacy of Stepan Bandera in Canada and the United States, in the hyper-charged atmosphere of 2014 the risks were high of a similar radicalising effect on diaspora milieus feeding back into events in Ukraine. 

While the Maidan protests were driven by mass defiance of state authority, the speed of President Yanukovych's fall ensured that hostility within diaspora communities towards Ukrainian state institutions dissipated quickly. Though such diaspora support efforts were initially linked to civil society and volunteer paramilitaries resisting Russian aggression, these groups gradually connected this mobilisation with a wider effort to restore state power in a framework based on the rule of law. This shift was also reflected in a level of engagement with state institutions in countries of settlement not seen since the Cold War, as diaspora organisations in the EU and North America worked hard to lobby their governments to provide weapons and financial support to a Ukrainian state struggling for survival. For many diaspora activists and organisations support for an uprising against the misuse of state power swiftly shifted to a support effort for a national mobilisation effort to save Ukrainian statehood.

The past two years have not just proven a remarkable period of turmoil in Ukraine, they have also fostered a shift in attitudes among large parts of the Ukrainian diaspora that would have been considered barely imaginable for previous generations. Even a decade ago, many diaspora organisations in North America pushed Ukrainian governments to adopt a more clearly defined ethno-nationalist agenda and looked at what they considered to be the neo-Soviet tendencies of the Ukrainian state with great scepticism. For Ukrainian communities in the EU, a deep disillusion with the deep-seated corruption that had created the conditions necessitating emigration also fostered scepticism over national identity debates that dominated Ukrainian politics and state institutions impervious to change.

Odessa Ukraine Nationalism: Russophone Ukrainian Patriots

The Maidan protests helped accelerate a cultural and political process of reassessment among diaspora communities in both the EU and North America. The intensity with which both supporters of civic models of Ukrainian identity as well as ultra-nationalist groups for which language debates only played a secondary role helped drive the Maidan protests forward had a profound impact on identity discourses within diaspora milieus. Increasingly it seems that intellectual debates within Ukraine are coming to reshape diaspora attitudes as well, fostering acceptance that a Russophone Odessa Ukraine could be as loyal and worth defending as more established forms of Dnieper Ukraine or Halychyna Ukraine identities. The manner in which a diaspora mobilisation effort became linked with the defence of Ukrainian statehood also revived a focus on institutional engagement and reform that had largely gone into abeyance after profound disappointment set in over the stagnation of the 1990s and the failures of the Orange Revolution.

Crucially, by reaching back to the Cossack myth to build a shared framework for debate and defiance, the movements on the Maidan and the military units struggling to defend Ukraine against Russian aggression used a symbolic resource that was immediately recognisable to diaspora communities that were not necessarily familiar with the complexities and nuances of contemporary Ukrainian society. By building their symbolic Cossack fortress, the Maidan protesters not only used a shared ideological language that could mobilise resistance within Ukraine, they also created a dynamic that is transforming identity discourses across the diaspora in ways that will continue to resonate over the coming decades.