Ukraine – What Next? Is Civil Society the Answer?

Sergej Ljubownikow

Over a week into Putin’s war in Ukraine, speculation on why, for what reason , remain high – but also to what end.

Putin appears to have a variety of conflicting, and spurious aims (some only beknownst to him) with this invasion; both with regards to Ukraine, and highly likely beyond.

Western response has been focused on weakening the Russian economy, and the sanctioning of key individuals and oligarchs (though if you have several billion, and lose a few, you probably still have enough for a good life, even in Russia). Yet for a while now, the West has had time and opportunity to take preventative action. Punishing Putin for his 2014 annexation of Crimea. Taking steps to stop Putin from ‘practising war’ in Syria. Going after ‘dirty money’ earlier – it has been swamping places like the UK or Cyprus for years. Yet none of this excuses the acts of an increasingly isolated and volatile dictator.

Moreover, Putin felt emboldened to invade Ukraine because it has become near impossible to remove him from power using democratic mechanisms. So is civil society the answer?

Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, research has illustrated that Russia civil society has struggled to gain traction, particularly at the national level. Some of this is down to path dependencies created in the early 1990s. During that time, resources (mainly funding and skills training) were provided by western donor agencies such as USAID or DFID. These resources were directed primarily at rights-based issues, specifically human, women’s, the environment, which at the time did not resonate with the broader public who were struggling with the impact of economic shock therapy, and its impact on living standards. As a result, public engagement with NGOs remained low.

When Putin came to power, he set out to rebuild the bureaucratic system after the ‘chaos’ of the Yeltsin years. Yet this ‘rebuild’ did not address some the fundamental failings that emerged from the ‘chaos’ such as the importance of individuals above bureaucratic process, the ambiguity of regulations, and (intentional) haphazard regulatory enforcement. Through a series of legistalive instruments, Putin also sought to limit the activity of NGOs. In order to survive, NGOs now need to maintain (close) ties to various state organs, often substituting for them in the provision of welfare and services. This clearly limits such groups’ ability to openly oppose to the state. There are also harsh penalties for those who do. See the recent closure of Human Rights organisation Memorial, for example.  

At regional levels, NGOs can work with and oppose (regional) state authorities, but this is unlikely to challenge the regime at the Federal level. Although these regional experiences might be seen as green shoots that could come together to form a wider movement; whether these can grow into a nationwide movement over Russia’s vast geography, is questionable. Indeed, such growth would need to be fast to challenge the regime and its inhuman war in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, there are promising signs of anti-war demonstrations across Russia, although accompanied by the associated police crackdown on dissent seen in the past. In the meantime, we all hope for an end to this war to prevent further human suffering, and our thoughts remain with all Ukrainians.

Dr Sergej Ljubownikow, an expert in the former Soviet Union, is Lecturer in Strategic Management at Sheffield University and an ISR Visiting Fellow.

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