ZOiS Spotlight 4/2023

The Puzzle of Ukrainian Resilience: Hidden Factors and Potential Risks

by Yuliya Bidenko 22/02/2023

Ukrainian resistance on the battlefield is unthinkable without the resilience of Ukrainian citizens. This resilience rests on a bedrock of civil society engagement in the years since 2014, which spurred reforms and the wider societal changes that made such a coordinated response to the Russian invasion possible.

Dnipro, Ukraine: Volunteers provide food to people during a search and rescue operation at an apartment block hit by a Russian rocket. IMAGO / Ukrinform

The feisty resistance Ukrainians have shown since the full-scale Russian invasion of their country a year ago came as a surprise to many onlookers. There are various pieces to this puzzle of resilience, ranging from the Ukrainian military’s capabilities to confront ‘the world’s second most powerful army’ to the unprecedented cohesion of citizens within and outside Ukraine. The strength of civil society is one of the main factors behind Ukrainian resilience that were misunderstood before 24 February 2022 – by both Russia and the West. The Kremlin has never perceived Ukrainian citizens and their organisations as either partners or opponents; and while appreciative of their work, many Western countries took NGOs for granted and failed to recognise their contribution to the defence sector and crucial reforms.

Civil society as a catalyst for reform and resistance

According to the Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index (CSOSI) and Freedom House, Ukraine has one of the most developed civil societies in the region. After Euromaidan in 2013/14, civil society actors started to be taken more seriously as the cocreators of reforms, not only by Ukrainian elites but also by major international donors. Volunteerism among ordinary Ukrainian citizens has risen steadily since then. NGOs and volunteers were the main actors in the initial humanitarian and military response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and aggression in Donbas in 2014. It is therefore no wonder that in 2022 these networks played a leading role in resistance, sharing their best practices and experiences with newcomers. In less than a year, the number of organisations operating in Ukraine under the United Nations’ humanitarian response umbrella increased almost six-fold from about 120 at the beginning of 2022 to 700 by the end of the year, 60 per cent of which were local NGOs. That single fact confirms that the development of a thriving Ukrainian civil society predates the full-scale war.

But the bubble of professional NGOs (one-third of which are registered in the capital city) and experienced volunteers alone cannot explain the quality of Ukrainian resilience. In addition to the massive expansion of civil society and a flurry of activism in 2022, in recent years Ukraine has seen the overhaul of the whole system of relations between the civic sector, business, and state institutions. Some of these new relations resulted from reforms launched after Euromaidan in the areas of public services, education, decentralisation, and digitalisation; others were stimulated by the current war.

In the context of a strengthening of civic identity, Ukrainian attitudes towards the Russian language, media and cultural products have changed. In the year since 24 February 2022, some Ukrainians have begun to speak Ukrainian more, while others continue to use Russian in their private lives. But even among Russian speakers, a growing majority agree that Ukrainian should remain the only official state language. These identity shifts are complemented by the behavioural patterns of a broad-based civic culture: as of May 2022, more than half of all citizens declared that they had donated money to the armed forces or humanitarian initiatives, assisted internally displaced persons, or volunteered themselves. By the end of the year, up to 20 per cent of Ukrainians were involved in volunteerism on an ongoing basis.

Ukrainian businesses turn to societal issues

As Ukrainian businesses struggled to cope with the drastic economic toll of the war and the destruction of the energy grid, they broke their habit of political lobbying overnight and became more oriented to the needs of consumers, communities, and the military. Together with growing economic ties with EU member states and a willingness to maintain transparency in private business partnerships, this turn by corporations and SMEs to societal issues could pave the way for a future Ukrainian socio-economic system that leaves crony capitalism behind it for good.

While overwhelming voter support in 2019 allowed Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyi to form the majority in the Ukrainian parliament and thus to control the government, martial law allows him to extend this power to local authorities, which had previously enjoyed considerable economic and political autonomy as a result of recent decentralisation reforms. Although Zelenskyi’s party did not perform as well in the 2020 local elections, which mostly swept regional forces to power, absolute majorities of mayors and councils remained loyal to Ukraine in 2022, even in the occupied territories. The cumulative effect of decentralisation, changes to the electoral code, and societal aspirations post-Euromaidan brought new leaders (including female and civic activists) into local politics. But it also made it more community-oriented. This is another factor in the resistance shown in frontline or occupied cities and in the resilience of western Ukrainian cities, which became hubs for internal migrants, humanitarian supplies and relocated businesses.

Potential threats to resilience

The resilience Ukraine has shown in the year since the full-scale Russian invasion cannot be taken for granted. The risks of burnout among activists in Ukraine and war fatigue among Western allies are real and could influence the outcome of the war and post-war reconstruction. Mass mobilisation, business, and political consolidation could be threatened by corruption scandals, a rise in poverty, inequalities, and the already huge loss of human capital. To give just one example, the number of people in need of humanitarian aid increased from approximately 3 million at the start of 2022 to nearly 18 million a few months later. This figure could rise even further in the case of a renewed Russian military offensive.

Potential beneficiaries and losers among cities, social groups, economic clusters, and political actors are already emerging due to the uneven distribution of the burdens of war and the different intensity of Russian attacks. Old and new inequalities might be compounded in the process of reconstruction, which could lead to the rise of populism and a democratic rollback in Ukraine and other European societies. Hence, Ukraine and its partners need not only a clear understanding of the desired victory, but also a vision of a recovery process that is inclusive, egalitarian and transparent.

Political scientist Dr. Yuliya Bidenko is a visiting researcher in the project Ukraine Research Network@ZOiS.