Weak government, strong society

In post-Maidan Ukraine, failing governmental action is substituted by voluntary work. While the Ukrainian state is failing in many aspects, Ukrainian society is very strong. 

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Typically in post-Maidan Ukraine, failing governmental action is substituted by voluntary work. While the Ukrainian state is failing in many aspects, Ukrainian society is very strong. There are self-help and voluntary organisations for almost everything – from taking care of the old, veterans, refugees, provision of community services, to supplying the army. Many aspects of civil life would not function properly if it were not for voluntary organisations.

Many aspects of civil life would not function properly if it were not for voluntary organisations

This is good and bad at the same time. It is good, because regardless of which direction the central state goes, there is a strong and well organised civil society that would serve as a corrective – even in case of another Maidan. But on the other hand, people start to expect less and less from the ever dysfunctional state. Instead of demanding functional institutions, they are substituted. Few citizens think of participating in politics – either in one of the reform-oriented parties or as an independent new party – and this political apathy grows bigger the further away one is from Kyiv.

One of the most urgent issues voluntary organisations have to work on is the situation of the refugees. The numbers of refugees or Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) presented by the Ukrainian government is much too low. Because of the low trust in the state and the fear of being drafted into the army, only those who expect some benefits register: orphans, teenagers, retirees, disabled people, pregnant women or women with small children. The rest, especially men in the working ages, do not register officially. They just try to find a job somewhere. But there is a need for almost everything: from housing to baby food to medical equipment. The Kharkov oblast alone hosts around 300,000 refugees. In the whole of Ukraine, about 1.3 to 1.6 million people are IDP and most of their needs are provided by their fellow Ukrainian compatriots.

The most striking feature when visiting refugee relief workers is the absence of EU assistance programmes. Germany and Poland are visible basically because they have at least some people on the ground. Germany provides container villages, care for housing projects and items for the daily use and as they have people on the ground, they are able to assess needs and react. The most visible actor is USAID – not necessarily because of their huge budget, but because they have a most personnel in the region and therefore provide aid quicker and more tailored to the situation on the ground. Dropping money in Kyiv is not always the wisest way to help.

Fear is omnipresent in Eastern Ukraine and contributes to patriotism. The stories told by refugees from the Donbas makes people aware of what they stand to lose if they come under Russian control. While in Kharkov the Russian narratives on the conflict still have some resonance, the mood in the south eastern Ukraine (Dnipropetrovsk, Mariupol, Kramatorsk, etc.) is very much pro-Ukrainian.  Support for national defence is high, despite the dysfunctional state. While people complain about their government and don’t trust the Ukrainian authorities, they still want to fight for Ukraine. They know that even if things are not perfect in Ukraine, it can only get worse with the “separatists”.

While people complain about their government and don’t trust the Ukrainian authorities, they still want to fight for Ukraine

This “we do it ourselves” mentality in the east is one of the reasons why the voluntary military forces are so strong. Most voluntary soldiers (aside from those from Kyiv) are recruited in the regions around Dnipropetrovsk. Local battalions are part of the regional identity and have very strong support amongst the population. They have private arrangements with NGOs, hospitals, local authorities, businesses on supply, payments, administration, and even medical evacuation and treatment. Hence they are better off than most of Ukraine's regular soldiers in terms of supply and wages. If the Russians want to invade this area (the feared “land bridge to Crimea”), they will encounter fierce resistance.            

This heavy reliance on voluntary or even non-governmental structures even in defence might shock the Western reader. But as I’ve written previously, the official armed forces structures were subverted by Russian spies or destroyed by negligence and incompetence by previous Ukrainian governments. Even Western aid is distributed via voluntary organisations, because the normal MoD structures are too inefficient and unreliable to handle them. There is modern bookkeeping and accountability in these NGOs – something that the army lacks. The army needs voluntary and private organisations for all supply issues but large-calibre ammunition and missiles. NGOs provide clothing, medical assistance, medical training, food, shelter, vehicle-repair, maintenance, weapons- and vehicle-upgrades, night-vision devices and communication equipment.

The incorporation of the voluntary battalions into the formal army structure also meant that some of the logistic enterprises are formally incorporated into the MoD. This should help to solve some of the problems of the old double structure: the formal supply chain was not trustworthy, but had the legal permission to buy and supply lethal weapons; the private supply chain was trustworthy, but could only handle commercial, off-the -shelf equipment. However, there is a lot of envy and suspicion of the old structures against the new ones, and it is not quite clear whether they will be able to come together.

In terms of leadership and professionalism, there is a huge gap between younger Ukrainian officers and the old Soviet-type generals. The younger ones are busy, have international experience (participating in NATO/EU missions, serving with the Polish contingent in Iraq, etc.), and have a professional working ethos. Unfortunately this cannot be said about all of the generals in Kyiv. Many in the old guard – especially in the supply chain and the medical service – just want to keep their opportunities for additional income and are opponents of the new government and entire reform project. In the worst case scenario they work for Russian intelligence.

This means that many of the younger, experienced commanders try to avoid the central structures make arrangements with local supply structures and voluntary organisations, preferring to trust young civilians than older generals. It would, in fact, be better if many generals in Kyiv were to be retired. They would do more good sitting fishing on the Dnipro River on expensive pensions than continuing to hamper the work of MoD. Many former Warsaw pact or post-Soviet countries cleaned up their defence apparatus by retiring the entire older class of officials, and Ukraine should do the same.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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