Ukraine: The Reality of Sovereignty

Lee Jones argues that pursuing national sovereignty means keeping foreign powers out of your domestic politics not inviting them in, as Ukraine’s leaders have been doing for decades

Everyone seems to agree that the war in Ukraine is fundamentally about sovereignty – but does anyone really understand what that means? On the one hand, we see brave Ukrainian citizens rallying to resist the brutal Russian invasion, ostensibly to defend their national sovereignty. On the other, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked Brussels to admit Ukraine without delay to the European Union – an organisation that so constrains member-states’ sovereignty that the British people voted to leave it in 2016.

There is something decidedly odd about the fact that some Leavers are now cheering on the war in Ukraine, alongside not only the EU itself, but also die-hard Remainers who so despised the idea of restoring British national sovereignty that they were willing to destroy faith in democracy by organising a second referendum to overturn the first. These authoritarian liberals have treated the notion of sovereignty with contempt for 30 years, castigating it as an outdated concept linked to nationalism, fascism and war, while intervening everywhere from the Balkans to Baghdad in the name of cosmopolitan values. It boggles the mind now to hear them spout faux-Churchillian rhetoric in the name of Ukrainian sovereignty.

At the same time, the states that, until recently, most loudly proclaimed the values of sovereignty and non-intervention – China and Russia – have turned out to have the least respect for it. Before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, both states were widely criticised for their antediluvian attachment to sovereignty, their suspicion of human rights, and opposition to interference in states’ internal affairs. Now, we see Russia fatuously proclaiming the need for intervention to “prevent genocide”, while China stands silently by, or pretends to the unlikely role of peace mediator.

As real national sovereignty has decayed in recent decades, so the idea of sovereignty can clearly be appropriated by forces with no real interest in or respect for it. But to have any chance of lasting peace in Europe, we must foster greater respect for sovereignty – and the political realism that it necessarily entails. So: what is sovereignty, and what role is it really playing in the war in Ukraine?

The Meaning of Sovereignty

Sovereignty is a radically democratic doctrine, centred on the state’s representation of the nation. A sovereign state is one that recognises no higher political authority than the will of its own citizenry. Any sovereignty-constraining arrangements – such as the EU – are ultimately constraints on domestic democracy, because they undermine the people’s ability to change the laws and regulations through which they are ruled. And such arrangements also undermine the political authority of the state, because it is no longer seen to represent citizens’ wishes, but instead serves as the local enforcer of rules made in the remote chambers of interstate diplomacy.

Sovereignty is therefore an intrinsic part of effective democratic representation. A sovereign state is one that represents the collective will of a national population. The people see the state as “their” state because it is responsive to their wishes, and this underpins its authority to make and enforce laws.

The form taken by sovereignty is necessarily national. There is no global state capable of representing the world population and nor have regional institutions like the EU ever evolved into a new supranational state. Sovereignty involves a limited claim to political supremacy in a defined territory and population. Establishing sovereignty therefore involves cultivating a nation that, notwithstanding its many political disagreements and diverse characteristics, nonetheless sees itself as sharing a common fate and is willing and able to make collective decisions about how its people are to be governed.

Viewed from this perspective, we can see that the war in Ukraine reflects the degradation of national sovereignty. The Russian invasion is only the most obvious and violent manifestation of this. Ukrainian leaders are fighting against foreign aggression and occupation, which is surely a necessary condition of national sovereignty. But they cannot truly be said to be fighting for national sovereignty. On the contrary, the roots of the crisis lie in Ukrainian elites’ own failure to represent their nation and uphold its sovereignty – aided and abetted by the astonishing recklessness and irresponsibility of Western powers. True respect for Ukrainian national sovereignty necessitates a careful policy of national neutrality, and respect for this by foreign powers. The country’s leaders have for many years been doing their bit to ensure the opposite.

The Challenge of Forging the Ukrainian Nation

Like many post-Soviet states, upon becoming independent in 1991, Ukraine faced a serious challenge of nation-building. Ukraine is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual country with little historical experience of independent statehood. The west of the country was formerly part of Poland and the Austro-Hungarian empire while the east had been ruled by the Russian empire. It became a “national” unit only under the USSR, when it was granted Crimea and some eastern territory by Krushchev in 1954. Soviet Ukraine was highly integrated into the USSR, becoming the heart of its military-industrial complex and supplying many senior Soviet officials – Leonid Brezhnev was Ukrainian and Khrushchev spent much of his life there.

The Ukrainian nomenklatura were very reluctant to assert national independence when the USSR was falling apart. Relatively little thought was given to the borders and identity of the Ukrainian nation or what might constitute the basis for national cohesion. The country’s major ethno-linguistic groups include Ukrainians in the west and Russians in the east. But as two leading experts conclude from careful survey data, this is a “highly blurry divide”, with the vast majority agreeing that “Ukrainians are really not very different from Russians”. Many Ukrainians speak both languages and their histories and cultural practices are deeply intertwined with each other, and also with those of Russia. This gives rise to many competing ideas of what constitutes the Ukrainian nation and its history. Nonetheless, clearly, an atavistic nationalism that bases political authority on supposed ancient traditions of ethnic-Ukrainians alone would neither be consistent with reality, nor capable of uniting the whole Ukrainian people. The challenge of post-Soviet nation-building, then, was to craft a civic nationalism, based around citizens’ shared commitment to democratic self-government.

Sadly, Ukrainian elites completely failed in this task. Indeed, as Yulia Yerschenko documents in her compelling but depressing book, Ukraine and the Empire of Capital, they were too busy plundering the remnants of the Soviet economy, with ex-nomenklatura and their criminal-business networks transforming themselves into powerful, predatory oligarchs while the rest of their society fell into penury. From 1990 to 2000, Ukraine’s GDP fell from $81.4bn to just $31.2bn. Even today, Ukraine is the only post-Soviet state yet to recover to 1990 levels of GDP. Hyperinflation, peaking at 10,155 percent in 1993, destroyed people’s living standards, creating long-term unemployment affecting about a quarter of the population, hitting the young especially hard. Amid this economic disaster for ordinary Ukrainians, the oligarchs had little to offer citizens, relying increasingly on fraud, corruption and intimidation to stay in power.

In this context, reformers who took power after the 2004 “orange revolution” – mass protests against electoral fraud, aimed at the nomenklatura’s ancien regime – looked to the EU and NATO membership as a way to transform their society from without. This attempt to move “from Brezhnev to Brussels” has occurred widely in post-communist Eastern Europe. In Ukraine, reformers hoped that EU rules would discipline or destroy the oligarchs and root out corruption by imposing free-market reforms. Becoming “European” would help distance Ukraine from the kleptocratic authoritarianism of post-Soviet – and, by extension, Russian – politics.

But this was a very dangerous strategy. As Yerschenko observes, the EU-Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) signed in 2008 would, if fully implemented, devastate small businesses and workers by exposing them to continental competition. Furthermore, many oligarchs have found ways either to exploit market opening or limit liberalising measures that would damage their interests.

Moreover, pursuing internal reform by distancing Ukraine from Russia would inevitably exacerbate emerging east/ west divisions within Ukrainian politics. The east – the heart of the Soviet-era military-industrial complex – is home to more Russian-speakers and is more economically and socially integrated into Russia, with a particularly acute dependency on subsidised Russian gas imports. Easterners have often complained of being neglected and sneered at by the west, despite constituting a substantial share of Ukraine’s GDP and population. This region was also the base of many leading oligarchic-criminal networks, who established their electoral base around these regional interests and grievances. Accordingly, as early as the 1994 presidential elections, “Ukraine was sharply divided between an ethnically Ukrainian, and largely Ukrainian-speaking, west and centre and a south and east that had large ethnic Russian minorities, was largely Russophone, and supported candidates promising closer relations with Russia”.

The “east” – led by Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions – retook national power following the 2010 presidential election. The oligarchic faction behind this government was determined to avoid or subvert the liberalising reforms demanded by Western institutions and demanded closer ties with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Coupled with Yanukovych’s persecution of his political opponents, this drew the ire of Washington and Brussels.

Toxic Geopolitics

This growing internationalisation of Ukraine’s domestic struggles was especially perilous given the geopolitical context. Russia had stridently opposed NATO’s eastward expansion since the 1990s. Mikhail Gorbachev had asked Washington to disband NATO in exchange for the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. US Secretary of State James Baker promised the Soviets that NATO would move “not one inch eastward” in exchange for Germany’s reunification and membership of the bloc. In the 1990s, Russia’s new democratic president, Boris Yeltsin, asked for a new, inclusive security architecture that incorporated Russia into Europe, only to be rebuffed. Yeltsin warned the West that a Cold War was giving way to a cold peace, with NATO expansion entailing “nothing but humiliation for Russia”. When the West proceeded with expansion anyway, Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, made it clear that Moscow saw NATO expansion as being directed at Russia. In April 2008, a NATO summit declared that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members” of the Alliance. Putin invaded Georgia a few months later, rather than see it join this anti-Russian bloc. Nonetheless, from 2009, the NATO-Ukrainian Commission, established in 1997, began to “oversee Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration process”.

Although anyone mentioning any of this today risks being smeared as a “Putin apologist”, many Western analysts, from the Cold Warrior George Kennan to the realist professor of International Relations John Mearsheimer, predicted disaster if NATO continued to expand towards Russia’s borders. Even President Biden’s own CIA director, William Burns, issued similar warnings. In 1995, when stationed in Moscow, he told Washington that “hostility to early NATO expansion is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum here.” When the Clinton administration brought Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into NATO, Burns condemned the move as “premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst.” In 2008, when US ambassador to Moscow, Burns told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”

The same, to a lesser extent, applied to EU expansion. Putin described the DCFTA as a “big threat” to Russia, as it would allow EU exports to enter tariff-free, via Ukraine, and “choke” the Russian economy. EU officials insisted their cooperation with Ukraine was merely technical, refusing to recognise the geopolitical implications. But Putin was willing to expend substantial resources to avoid Ukraine flipping into the Western camp. While the IMF and EU refused to provide aid to Kyiv after 2011, when Ukraine was still reeling from the 2008 global financial crisis, Putin purchased $15bn of Ukrainian government debt and cut the price of its gas supplies by two-thirds in 2013.

The 2014 “Euromaidan” crisis saw the culmination of the toxic fracturing of the Ukrainian nation amid a deteriorating geopolitical context. Having removed an aspiration for NATO membership from Ukraine’s foreign policy doctrine in 2010, in 2013, President Yanukovych rejected the DCFTA, opting for closer ties with Russia’s EEU. This prompted widespread protests in Kyiv and other cities, which were egged on by senior EU and American politicians, despite the growing involvement of far-right nationalists. Eventually, amid escalating unrest and violence, Yanukovych fled to Russia. But while his opponents in western Ukraine celebrated, his eastern supporters perceived a “fascist” coup against their democratically elected president. The Ukrainian state’s authority collapsed in the east, allowing opportunistic pro-Russian separatists to seize power in many areas, while Russia reacted by seizing Crimea.

Instead of moving to reassure their fellow citizens and build an inclusive national project, Ukraine’s pro-western faction instead doubled down. Under the newly elected president, the oligarch Boris Poroshenko, the government purged eastern politicians and officials from the state, sending many fleeing into exile, and suppressed Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, intensifying the crisis of representation in the east. They also launched military offensives against the separatists, drawing in more Russian intervention, producing heavy casualties and a grinding stalemate. Neither Poroshenko, nor his successor, Volodymyr Zelensky, have implemented the Minsk accords agreed with Russia in 2014-15, which proposed to settle the conflict by granting autonomy to Donetsk and Luhansk.

Instead, the new government loudly sought full membership of NATO and the EU – measures that could only undermine Ukraine’s national sovereignty. After all, the EU is a constitutional arrangement that relocates decision-making and legal powers into supranational forums and entrenches neoliberal policies and fiscal austerity. Indeed, at the very time Ukraine was bidding for membership, protests against EU-enforced austerity were sweeping across southern Europe, and Britain decided to leave in order to recover its national sovereignty. The EU has not – and will not – actually admit Ukraine, as it is still reeling from the divisions induced by the last round of enlargement into post-communist Eastern Europe and does not want to take responsibility for a war-torn country. But it was happy to pretend otherwise, flattering Ukrainian elites while pushing neoliberal reforms on them.

The Poroshenko government enacted the EU DCFTA, rapidly introducing structural reforms to comply with EU rules. Facing rising debt amid economic decline, the Ukrainian state became economically dependent on the EU and IMF. Foreigners were brought in to run three ministries and IMF advisers were embedded with the central bank, entailing further losses of sovereignty. Austerity, neoliberalism and further privatisation benefited well-positioned oligarchs but did nothing to alleviate mounting poverty.

Far from reaching out to Ukraine’s ethnic Russians, Kyiv has actively promoted a narrowly Ukrainian, anti-Russian form of nationalism, reflected in language policy, “de-communisation” – attacks on Soviet-era heritage, extending to the political suppression of left-wing critics – and the secession of the Ukrainian Orthodox church from its Russian “mother” church. As Yurschenko observes, instead of reconsolidating the country, these measures only “further divided the broken nation”.

This hyper-patriotism helped to consolidate support behind a still-oligarchic regime, with Poroshenko making no real inroads against entrenched corruption and economic stagnation. The election of the populist Volodymyr Zelensky – a comedic actor who had played a fictional president in the TV show Servant of the People – on a platform of anti-oligarchic reform and peace with Russia expressed both Ukraine’s crisis of representation, and the widespread longing for economic transformation and an end to armed conflict. But the parliament and state apparatus remained dominated by rival factions of oligarchic elites. Anti-reform and pro-Russia elements regrouped in the Opposition Platform party, while Zelensky himself was heavily dependent on other oligarchs. This severely constrained his reform agenda, with selective attacks on pro-Russian oligarchs only serving to draw Moscow’s ire. Meanwhile, with nationalists of all stripes opposing implementation of the Minsk accords, no progress was made on the peace agenda, either.

On the contrary, Zelensky continued to pursue NATO membership. Indeed, Ukraine’s parliament had amended the country’s constitution in 2019 to commit the president to doing so. This is reminiscent of the EU’s “economic constitutionalism”, which limits the scope of democratic politics by locking in particular (neoliberal) economic policies, compromising national sovereignty. The scope for democratic contestation has also been narrowed since the invasion, with Zelensky banning eleven opposition parties for their “pro-Russian” stance. This includes the Opposition Platform, the second-largest parliamentary party after his own, which draws most of its support from the east.

At root, then, the crisis in Ukraine results from the failure of Ukrainian politicians to represent the whole nation, leading both sides to turn to foreigners to bolster their domestic position. The pro-Russian faction is backward and corrupt, offering little to inspire and unite the country, and ultimately relies on Russian intervention to prevent Ukraine slipping from its grasp. But nor can the pro-Western faction command the consent of the whole nation. It was prepared to overthrow a democratically elected president to get its own way, and has persistently sought to lock in its preferences against internal opposition by sacrificing Ukrainian national sovereignty to supranational organisations. This externalisation of factional struggle has brought ruin to the Ukrainian people.

Neutrality: The Only Route to Sovereignty

Russia’s role in this disaster is obvious. It has been interfering in Ukrainian politics for years, seeking to ensure the election of friendly governments that will not take the country into the Western camp. It is hardly surprising that Ukrainian nationalism has taken a sharply anti-Russian turn, given the annexation of Crimea, Russian support for separatist fighters, and Putin’s open contempt for Ukrainian independence and sovereignty – let alone the current brutal invasion. Russia’s own struggles to realise a coherent post-Soviet national identity give it no right to interfere in the affairs of neighbouring states, let alone violently annex their territory, regardless of the historical or cultural context. Clearly, Russia should withdraw from Ukraine and cease violating its national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

But the West has also contributed to this nightmare. Russia has made perfectly clear that it will not tolerate the expansion of the Western sphere of influence up to its borders. It wants at least a neutral buffer zone between itself and NATO, and ideally a friendly sphere of influence among its post-Soviet neighbours. We might wish this were not so, but it is an inescapable geopolitical fact. Russia’s willingness to use force to achieve its goals – at great reputational, economic and military cost – has also been beyond doubt since 2008. To put this into perspective, we can imagine how the US might react if Canada sought to join a Russian-led military alliance – or merely recall Washington’s reaction when Cuba did so in 1961.

The West’s response to Russia’s clearly stated position has been reckless and disastrous. It essentially had two strategic options. Either it could acknowledge and accommodate Russian interests, or it could defy them, ushering Ukraine into NATO and deploying overwhelming military power to deter Russia from using force. Instead, it did neither. It allowed its Ukrainian allies falsely to believe that they could rely on the EU and NATO, declining to clarify that Ukraine would not join NATO even as late as January 2022 when Putin was threatening to invade, while at the same time not making any serious effort to deter Putin militarily. This has encouraged the Ukrainian government to prioritise integration with Russia’s enemies over rapprochement with its own citizens, while fanning Russian anxieties.

The EU is not going to admit Ukraine as a full member. Nor will NATO admit Ukraine, because it could lead to direct military confrontation with the nuclear-armed Russia. It constantly dangles the prospect of membership, demanding various domestic “reforms” in exchange, but 13 years after declaring that Ukraine would become a member, there is still no timetable for its accession. In truth, NATO is only willing to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian. It will not commit its own forces, but will gladly pour arms and materiel into the country, hoping to grind down Russia in a bloody proxy war – a re-run of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The suffering this would inflict on the Ukrainian people is unfathomable.

The only solution to this crisis, aside from war and devastation, is for Ukraine to become a neutral state, as Finland was during the Cold War. The sovereignty of the Ukrainian people – their capacity to work out their differences and collectively determine their life together in a peaceful and democratic manner – can only be enhanced if all sides renounce their external ties, and foreign powers cease meddling in Ukrainian politics.

Liberals might object that if the Ukrainian people wish to join the EU and NATO, it would be a violation of their sovereign rights to refuse them. But this would only express liberals’ limited grasp of sovereignty. First, joining these organisations is less an exercise of sovereignty than a sacrifice of it. Indeed, this is precisely the attraction for pro-Western elites. They seek to impose on their domestic opponents what they cannot achieve domestically, by introducing EU and IMF strictures in economic policy, and farming-out defence and security policy to Washington.

Second, to be truly sovereign, the Ukrainian state must be seen to represent the whole national population. As of 2014, the population was evenly split on the question of Ukraine’s international alignment, with only 34 percent supporting accession to NATO. Even as Russian aggression has understandably pushed many more people towards the West, still only 54 percent support NATO membership in the latest polls. Moreover, given the existence of pro-Russian separatism and Russia’s deep hostility to Ukraine joining NATO, there seems little prospect of reuniting the whole Ukrainian nation or defending its sovereignty by pursuing this course. On the contrary, this policy is only tending towards the bloody partition of Ukraine.

The irresponsibility of this position is crystallised in President Zelensky’s demand that NATO establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine. NATO has rightly refused, because a no-fly zone would necessarily entail direct military conflict – i.e., war – with Russia. Zelensky then told NATO that “everyone who dies will die because of you”. This is an astonishing outsourcing of responsibility for his own people’s survival. To succeed, a policy of confronting Russia and integrating with its enemies clearly requires overwhelming support from NATO, up to and including a willingness from the alliance to risk World War III. That support is not, will not and should not be available. But rather than reckon with the realities of the situation, and adjust national policy accordingly, Ukrainian elites have knowingly courted disaster, and now blame the result on NATO. The Western alliance must bear much of the blame for not making it clear beyond doubt that they will not fight for or admit Ukraine. But Ukrainian elites have also been either astonishingly naïve or, more plausibly, dangerously reckless if they calculated that they could somehow bounce NATO into changing course.

This is a grim reminder that sovereignty does not imply total control over the state’s internal or external environment; it only entails self-rule, and this requires an adequate degree of political realism. This was a source of some confusion in the Brexit debate. Many Thatcherite Eurosceptics foolishly believed that the UK could restore its sovereignty – its capacity to make laws and adopt policies inconsistent with EU rules – while retaining full access to the EU’s single market. The EU had no interest in agreeing such attractive terms – on the contrary, its interest lay in making Brexit as painful as possible. Sovereignty implies trade-offs. Britain had either to choose greater democratic control over national economic life, or continue to sacrifice its sovereignty by playing by EU rules.

The Ukrainians clearly have no more “sovereign right” to join the EU or NATO than Brexit Britain had a “sovereign right” to full access to EU markets. Reflecting their own interests, these organisations will not admit Ukraine. As with Russia’s demand for a neutral buffer zone against NATO, this is simply another geopolitical reality that any government that was truly serious about Ukrainian national sovereignty would have to recognise. But the conduct of Ukrainian elites suggests a lack of seriousness about true national sovereignty. At best, they have confused national sovereignty with independence from reality; at worst, they have prioritised their own integration into the West’s supranational ruling class over the welfare of the nation. The Ukrainian people are now suffering the consequences.

For their sovereignty to be realised, Russia must, of course, withdraw its forces from Ukraine. But that is clearly not enough. All sides within Ukraine must cease internationalising their political conflict, and all foreign powers must cease their meddling. Although it will now be much harder to achieve than it was even a decade ago, armed neutrality – where Ukraine retains the capacity to defend its political independence from external attack but pursues a foreign policy of nonalignment – offers the only possible context in which Ukraine can restore its territorial integrity and secure peace. It also provides the only context in which pro-Western forces will be forced to reckon with their pro-Russian counterparts, and find a more consensual way to share their lives together.

Lee Jones

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