Podcast episode: Sociology says Ukrainians are consolidated
Kovalenko: Hello, everybody! You are listening to the podcast that is called “Russia-Ukraine War Decoded”. I am a journalist Viktor Kovalenko from the United States. I conduct audio discussions with experts from different Western countries. We talk about various aspects of the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, but also about security in Europe. Today I have another guest from Ukraine. His name is Petro Burkovskyy. He’s a political scientist and sociologist from capital Kiev and also an executive director of the prominent local foundation – The Democratic Initiatives. This foundation conducts sociological surveys of the public opinion in Ukraine on democracy related topics. The foundation is named after its late founder, Ilko Kucheriv whom I personally knew very well and much appreciated. Today with Petro Burkovskyy we will talk about how Ukraine resists the Russian invasion, what polls say about it, and what Ukrainians think about support and news coverage from the West. Petro, welcome to my podcast! And my initial question to you is about the first days of the war. How did it start for you and your family?
Burkosvkyy: Personally, for me, the day of the invasion was very unusual because at that moment I was abroad. I lived and worked in Qatar for more than two months. Two days before Putin held his Security Council meeting with his accomplices (now – war criminals) and they were saying their opinion on whether Russia should recognize the puppet regimes in the occupied territories of the Lugansk and Donetsk regions. At that moment, I realized that the war will happen. Even before that I gave an interview to the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, and it was published on February 11 and they presented my view as an expert in Ukraine. I said that the war is inevitable and Putin has made the decision to invade. But on February 22 I was stricken. I understood that it will happen. It’s like you see the storm, the hurricane coming to you and you cannot stop it. You cannot prevent it and you cannot run away. You just have to accept it and do what is proper. Before I left to Qatar, I hesitated. I didn’t want to leave Ukraine because I said to my wife “I will be in Qatar and you’ll be here – my family, wife and two children”. On the day of invasion, I called my family in Ukraine and said: “It’s better to leave”. Before, we agreed in case of invasion what road they would choose because the Russians would try to strike Kiev. And then I worked for 20 hours, so it was a very long day.
Kovalenko: What motivates the Ukrainians to fight and defend their country? Can we get an idea about it from the results of the sociological surveys done by your foundation?
Burkovskyy: Before the war at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation we conducted a number of polls and we saw that the Ukrainian society was getting more and more consolidated and mobilized. It was remarkable how far people would go and how strong they are facing this threat! At the end of December, about 9% of Ukrainians said that they are going to join irregular voluntary forces, and about 14% – the regular armed forces. It means that up to 23% of the people were ready to join the Army. It’s a huge number! And it was obvious to all that it would be a kind of an underdog fight, that Ukraine is an underdog in this fight. But despite understanding that Russia is much stronger in terms of military power, firepower and economic power, a lot of people were so determined to fight against the invasion that it’s give us a very strong sense of hope that it won’t be an easy walk for the Russian troops at all. In January, we presented these and other results of the polls that showed a great strength of the Ukrainian society, a great readiness to sacrifice their lives for the sake of defending the country and the family to a number of Embassies and Ambassadors. I can mention Canadian, German and French Ambassadors. We also met with all representatives of all the European Union on the premises of the EU delegation in Ukraine. More than 30 people were sitting in the room together with other experts. Some of them presented the military and defense aspects. I presented the social resilience aspects. The Ambassadors asked us “So what will happen if the Russians would attack Kiev? How long Ukraine will withstand?”
For me, as a political scientist, the plan to take Kyiv seemed quite strange. I explained to the Europeans why. I said that Kyiv is the best place of two incredible popular movements – two Maidans. People in the city of Kiev are highly motivated. Two times they rebelled in terms of a territorial coup d’état, and in case of attack they would be mobilized. Kyiv is too big to be taken very easily and the population would be very hostile toward invaders. A lot of volunteers would join the fight, whether actively joining military units or as volunteers helping or providing a shelter, or whatever is needed for the troops. So, it’s bizarre that the Russians were trying to take Kyiv as a primary target of the war. It sounded not very prudent, not very reasonable. But our explanation why it’s not a good plan for the Russians was perceived with – let’s say – a big show of skepticism by the Europeans. I just want to say that it turned out that we were right in our analysis. And the Western analysis proved to be wrong that Kyiv would fall in a number of hours or days. Still, we don’t know what were the main reasons for this Russian failure or our success in Kyiv. But in my opinion, one of the key elements of the Ukrainian success was this high preparedness, high civic motivation, and high national consciousness of the people who decided to withstand and to defend the capital and country in the very first moments of the war. Moreover, the more evidence arrive about the resistance, the more I am confident in my previous estimates of the resilience and civic awareness.
For instance, right now you can find videos of the journalists working in the Sumy region. This is the northeastern part of Ukraine, one of the regions which was invaded in the very first days. So, what local people are saying about the first days of invasion? They said that all Security Service officers and most of the police officers just left the city! You can imagine that people who were trained to protect civilians and had a combat experience left the city and the main burden of defense was laid on regular citizens. They self-organized themselves. They came to the those police officers who stayed in the city, and they were given arms, and they started to defend the city of Sumy together with the Ukrainian army units. And they were successful! It was so unexpected that they demonstrated so high level of defense! It was so unexpected for the Russians so after they entered the city they soon left it because of this resistance. And that’s how the city of Sumy was saved without regular law enforcement and Security Service officers just by common people and volunteers. They defended their own city, community, and their own country.
Kovalenko: It is not a secret that such enormous resistance of Ukrainians inspires many people in America where I live. For example, my neighbors asked me what if the Ukrainian military collapse the same quickly as Afghanistan military fell to the Taliban? I assured them that it won’t happen. And we all saw that. In particular, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his team of government officials didn’t abandon Ukraine. At the same time, there are accusations from some politicians in the U.S. that the Office of Zelensky was given intelligence and warnings but didn’t properly prepared the country. Your opinion, Petro, why did so many people expect the catastrophe but it turned out that Ukraine fights above and beyond any expectations?
Burkovskyy: I think that this war is a result of miscalculations. The Russians miscalculated about Ukraine and the western response. The West miscalculated about the Russian intentions and our resilience. But I think the most important thing is that we [Ukraine] miscalculated also about the scale of the Russian – I don’t want to say madness – but maybe arrogance in plans to conquer Ukraine. And we also miscalculated about our western allies. I will give the explanation. Yes, the US provided the intelligence. But the government of Zelensky and the Ukrainian experts said that in order to prevent the invasion, we need preventive sanctions and very strong preventive sanctions. And second, we need not Javelins, but more tangible things like what now arrives in Ukraine. In the first days of invasion we also asked for the “no fly” zone and it also means that we need more anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems. Nothing of this was provided before the war. If you give the intelligence, please give us the means to defend our country! Yes, Ukraine was not given this kind of sophisticated, lethal equipment because – according to intelligence assessments – Ukraine should have fallen in the very first days of the war.
In this respect Putin got an upper hand in his relations with the West. Since 2013, Putin – like Hitler in the last century – communicated with the West with a bluff and a bet. Since 2014, Putin made the bet openly and he communicated his bets to the West that Ukraine as a state would fail because of the internal problems, political problems, economic problems and that Ukraine inevitably would fall into the exclusive sphere of interests of the Russians. He communicated to the West that you should not invest in Ukraine because it would be a lost investment and Ukraine will be mine because of corruption, because of economic underdevelopment, because the society is divided, that there are many people who want to live in Russia. The second was a bluff. That’s very important! From 2014, Putin bluffed that I he’s capable of destroying Ukraine before you supply Ukraine with the weapons and before it would use them. That meant “Don’t supply weapons to Ukraine because I will win anyway and I will punish you for what you tried to interfere into my sphere of influence”.
If you go back to the 2015 and read very carefully what French President Francois Hollande said, what Angela Merkel said, they actually bought this Putin’s bluff. They believed that they cannot help Ukraine enough and it cannot resist Russian power and might and should bow to the Russian pressure and accept the Minsk agreements. Right now, Putin continues his bluff that he can destroy Ukraine before it will be too strong to defend itself. Right now, what we are seeing is that Putin is losing his bluff. Now, even the Western governments see that the more weapons came to Ukraine, the less chances Putin has to prevail. This conclusion arrived at a very high price for Ukraine. Also, collateral damage. Collateral damage is the lost Ukrainian trust in the West, in the United States, especially in Germany. Germany would never restore its soft power that it had in Ukraine. Now its power is in ruins.
And now it’s an open question whether the West would allow Ukraine to win the war and to restore territorial integrity. Because it also seems that the moment the Ukrainian troops approach Crimea, then the pressure will be from the West to stop and not to invade Crimea because the West would be afraid of a nuclear conflict with Russia, and Russia will try to use nuclear blackmail in order to keep occupied Crimea. So, there are many questions and very few answers. We also see that Europe is divided in respect to the energy security, to the harsh sanctions against Russia. And still they think that at some time in the future relations with Russia could be restored. Although, our sociological research is showing that it is just unbelievable that in next four or five decades relations between Ukraine and Russia would be restored unless Russia recognizes all the crimes committed and would recognize it in a way how Germany recognized its crimes made during the Second World War.
Kovalenko: My next question is about political messaging and narratives, because you work with them as a political analyst. Recently, I read several opinions of Western experts that Ukraine is starting to win the information war and the Russian propaganda is not as effective as before. I am more cautious and won’t say that. Ukraine definitely achieved informational successes, especially abroad. But a lot of things to be done in this regard. What is your opinion from inside Ukraine? Are you winning the information war or not yet?
Burkovskyy: Good question. First, I think that Ukraine definitely was winning informational war in the first months because of the fact that Russia was so arrogant and confident in the quick victory. Until the beginning of April, they were saying about success while Ukraine was not falling. Therefore, the successful defense gave Ukraine more credibility in the eyes of the Western audience that even skeptics and opponents had to concede that Ukraine is much stronger than it appeared, and that the Ukrainian point of view should be respected. Another argument on the Russian side is that the Russian army is bigger and Russia has more resources economically, while Ukrainian economy is in a very bad shape. That argument means that Russia can prevail in the longer conflict, and it is very appealing because it seems to be based on the facts. However, when I tried to explain in Qatar to the Arabic audience why Russia cannot prevail, I said “Compare the share of Russia in global GDP and share of the Ukrainian allies in global GDP. It’s like 3% and 20%. So, you can imagine who will prevail.”
Ukraine is not alone in this fight. It is backed by the European Union, NATO and the United States. Right now, the conflict is in a stage when Ukraine will not be left alone. So, the question is when it stops? Russia wants to create a perception that it will not stop until it destroys Ukraine and that the cost of the war would be too intolerable and high for the West.
I can tell you that Ukraine can survive. Our opinion polls this year – we conducted two polls in May in western and central Ukraine, and also this August in all regions except frontline and occupied areas – we see is that society is highly mobilized and the majority of the people say that they are ready to sacrifice their material, their welfare for the sake of defense of the country. So, I can be pretty confident in the Ukrainian people. But at the same time we don’t know what are in the minds of the European governments, what kind of sacrifices they are going to make. We are pretty sure that the Baltic countries, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania are ready to help Ukraine. But we don’t know what would be the position of the new Italian government after the elections. We still see that this “traffic light” government in Germany is divided and the parties in Germany are also divided. We see that France is looking for many ways to stop the war, even if Ukrainian territories are occupied. So, we have doubts about the governments in Europe. At the same time, I would tell you that Putin doesn’t have what Ukraine has. Putin is now viewed by common Europeans as a war criminal, a person who orders killings and mass deportations. More and more common Europeans from different countries see horrible things. For them, educated these are reminiscent of the Second World War, of what’s Nazis did in their countries. The common people trust Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and in many countries he is more popular than the local politicians. He has this credibility as a leader, an unexpected, brave person, a very young person. He is not a politician with no political background. And he can talk very strong and very unpleasant things very straightforwardly, and that is appealing to the common people in Europe. And I think that as far as Ukrainian president has this trust in many European societies, Ukraine can prevail because it can present its opinion and description of the situation on the ground. Ukraine can argue why it is right and why Russia is wrong, and it doesn’t need to use lies, fakes, or propaganda. You just have to present the facts of the Russian war crimes. This is so disturbing for many good people in Europe that I think they will not allow their governments to leave Ukraine alone.
Kovalenko: I would like to ask you the same question that I recently received from my fellow American journalists. One of them asked me how the Western media cover Ukraine during this war? I replied that now the news coverage is somehow better than it was during the first invasion in 2014 when they called this just a conflict of Kyiv with the rebels on the East. Also, eight years ago the Western media presented the Moscow propaganda as an alternative position to balance their journalistic articles. Today, at least, there is greater understanding that Ukraine is a victim of Russia. What is your opinion about the news coverage?
Burkovskyy: I also began my career as a journalist and observer in the business magazines so I can understand the logic, for instance, of Thomson Reuters – they are interested in working in Russia. I think that many Western media – not all of them, but many – are still interested in having a presence in Russia. Therefore they have to make a compromise. Inevitably, if they want to report from Russia, then they have to respect the rules that are imposed by the Russian government. At the same time, they have to remain popular with the Western audience and the audience is very demanding. So, they cannot report as if Russia hadn’t committed war crimes. It’s a hard choice. So, what so-called “gatekeepers” and editors and the senior and top management of the western media will do regarding this? Frankly speaking, I do not know. What should Russia do more in order to persuade the media that it’s not possible to continue this kind of sensitive approach towards Russia. In Mariupol, they killed hundreds of thousands of the people. Yes, you do not see the bodies, and Russians are trying to destroy the evidence. But it doesn’t matter. The Associated Press correspondents worked in Mariupol when Russians committed these crimes and they hit the maternity hospital, for example. Also, the Russians killed 50 prisoners of war in Olenivka. They were just burnt in the fire like heretics in the Middle Ages. They were live burnt. It’s a war crime. Prisoners of war were killed in a very severe and barbaric manner. What else the Western media want to see in order to cancel Russia? What kind of crimes do they want to experience? Chemical attack? Nuclear attack? What are the boundaries of this intellectual and managerial flexibility? I understand the logic behind the actions of the Western media, but I cannot understand how they can explain it from the moral position. In 2014, it was a pain to see and hear that the Western media reported about “a Ukrainian crisis”, “a Civil war”, “the Russian backed rebels and insurgents” while it was a Russian attack. No one asked for apologies. No one. The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal – they just pretended that nothing happens. I think it’s a good lesson. So, if you want to have a free press, the free press cannot talk to dictators and war criminals. So, if a person is a dictator and a war criminal, do everything in the media to depose or just to contain this leader and to help people to get rid of this leader. Because if you pretend that you are non-partisan, then you’re just helping all of these horrible crimes to continue and to go on and to go on.
Kovalenko: What do you think about the August article written by the retired U.S. Colonel Alexander Vindman in The Foreign Policy magazine, where he called to redesign the U.S. foreign policy into a Ukraine-centric instead of the Russia-centric?
Burkovskyy: I read this article, and I’m very grateful to Mr. Windman and to all Americans who raise their voice. What I can tell you? In the 90s, there was an American scholar Sherman Garner. He wrote a book about Ukrainian security and said that when Russia will become stronger, it was try to retake Ukraine, and one of the mechanism to prevent the conflict is a triangle of relations: Russia, the United States, and Ukraine. He said that the United States should play as a kind of broker in order to arrange a security agreement between Ukraine and Russia, so that Ukraine would not become a country hostile to Russia, and Russia would not endanger Ukraine’s sovereignty. This concept was not implemented and we see the big consequences of this. But now it cannot be done. I think that’s if the war goes longer, it means that the alienation and hatred would grow stronger and stronger. It will mean that the more radical means of warfare will become possible from both sides. It would be even much more dangerous for European security. But if Ukraine can prevail fast in the war, it will show Russia the limits of its power, the limits of power projection in the neighborhood. If Russia is defeated this year or in the beginning of the next year, it will remain hostile toward the West and Ukraine, no doubt. But it will rely more on the deterrence then on the active expansion to protect its interests. But if the war continues, then Russia would be encouraged to become more aggressive, especially towards the West, because it would see that the problem is not about Ukrainian resistance, but about huge Western assistance to Ukraine. So, Russia will try to stop this assistance by any means. If the West really wants to avoid the nuclear confrontation with Russia, it should help Ukraine to defeat Russia as soon as possible and to stop this war. I hope that in the beginning of September, the Ramstein meeting would show that there is a consensus to increase dramatically assistance to Ukraine and to prevent this very dangerous escalation and continuation of the war.
Kovalenko: At this moment, I am ending this episode of the podcast “Russia-Ukraine War Decoded”. I am Viktor Kovalenko from the United States, and my guest today was Petro Burkovskyy from Ukraine. He is an executive director of the foundation called The Democratic Initiatives. PeTro, thank you for coming to my podcast!
Burkovskyy: Thank you for your work and for all you are doing for Ukraine and all you are doing for the United States. We really appreciate it.