Serhiy Kvit, President of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Professor at Mohyla School of Journalism
Ukraine’s struggle for independence from Russia has become truly global from the perspective of mass communications. This war is universally covered in the world media. It is extremely visible. It is a war that demands the expression of public judgment, thus becoming a point of political identification. The current confrontation between Russian and Ukrainian media discourses is not an ordinary clash of warring parties propaganda rhetoric. In this war, Western civilization is searching for an answer to a question of utmost importance: can it withstand within its own value framework – or is it no longer able to do so.
The idealistic self-image of the Western world and the system of international security which was shaped after World War II have gradually receded into the past. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a wave of corruption that was no longer deterred by the Iron Curtain and by Russia’s aggressive politics fully destroyed both the image, and the system. At the beginning of the 21st century, the “Ukrainian question” created a new global context in which political time is accelerating with kaleidoscopic speed: many political leaders do not have enough time to orient themselves and change their rhetoric to adapt to new circumstances that are often unsustainable.
“Convenient” Russia and unusual Ukraine
In fact, before finally beginning to understand the causes of the current Russian-Ukrainian war (it started during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014) as the result of many centuries of confrontation between the two countries (their political cultures and civilizational choices), the convenient and supposedly understandable Russian context, which was finally shaped in the times of the Cold War, began to fall apart in the mindset of the Western world. Michael McFaul outlined the emergence of this new global confrontation, connected with Putin’s regime, as a transition from Cold War to Hot Peace.
In its reset confrontation with Russia, the Western world, in 2014, was surprised to see Ukraine on its side as a player guided by idealism. That seemed strange to practice-oriented and materialist thinking Western politicians. Moreover, they had not seemed to ask Ukrainians for anything. Over time it became clear that now nobody would be able to remain silent or hide from the new realities.
It should be noted that not everyone understood this at once. For instance, in 2017 Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly President Pedro Agramunt did not realize in time that the days of such high profile pro-Putin politicians and well-paid managers as Gerhard Schroeder are over. After his trip to Syria with a delegation of Russian parliamentarians and meeting with the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Pedro Agramunt was stripped of his powers after the Council passed a vote of no confidence against him. The benign image of Russia and Russian institutions is still psychologically perceived by many Western leaders as part of the global order and a necessary element of international stability.
Even the Vatican sometimes has difficulty distinguishing between good and evil, what is black and what is white, who is the victim and who is the criminal. The symbolism with which the Vatican decided to have a Russian woman and a Ukrainian woman carry a cross together during a Good Friday procession presided over the Pope Francis, in the face of numerous crimes against humanity being committed by the Russian army in Ukraine and despite an uproar by many Ukrainians, could only stem from the fear of calling things by their rightful names.
The non-contextuality of the Vatican was evidenced by the Pope’s dubious allusions and vague retellings of Russian-Leftist conspiracy narratives about NATO’s “guilt”, “other states” that provoked the war, and the possible “harmfulness” of arms aid to Ukraine. It is also unclear how the 5 million Ukrainian refugees forced out of their homes by Russia’s war should react to the Pope’s remarks that they are better received in countries where they’ve sought refuge because they are white. The inability to express oneself or the unwillingness to understand the roots of the tragedy constitute the crisis of the contemporary West, a crisis which includes an almost complete lack of responsibility and an absence of genuine leadership.
One of the most dangerous and cartoonish manifestations of the West’s values-related crisis was the letter from a “group of German intellectuals” to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz demanding that Ukraine be capitulated. It must be understood that such logic, or rather its absence, is common not only in Germany with its complicated guilt over the crimes of Nazism, the legacy of the omnipresent East German political police ‘Stasi’, and their usual policy of loyalty to Russia, a policy that has already passed into the realm of tradition. It should be noted that under the influence of the Russian-Ukrainian war, dramatic ideological changes are taking place within German society and the Germans’ business as usual views of the world order are being reviewed.
The above-mentioned eighteen authors of the letter to Chancellor Scholz demanded that the chancellor stop supplying weapons to Ukraine as Ukraine would likely lose the war anyway. Likewise, Russia is demanding that Ukraine stop resisting the Russian military offensive and its occupation atrocities. According to these politicians, diplomats, singers, and writers, a recognition of the occupation of Crimea, the “independence” of Ukraine’s eastern regions, and addressing Russia’s “legitimate security interests” would reduce the number of victims and limit the destruction of Ukrainian cities. It is important that Olaf Scholz did not agree with the demands of this letter.
Crisis of international organizations
In this context, it became clear that regardless of viewpoints – professional, conceptual, or moral and ethical – the policy of many international organizations regarding Ukraine and Russia was completely irrelevant. Perhaps, the most striking example is the OSCE’s lack of understanding of the fact that Russia has no freedom of speech, no independent media, no professional journalism, and that today one can differentiate specific Russian media only as either still-authoritarian or already totalitarian.
At the time of the Revolution of Dignity, Russian media was completely dismantled and became part of the state propaganda system, which was described in detail in the classic work “Four Theories of the Press.”  Putin’s Russia saw a return to the Soviet totalitarian models of control over any public information, but in much uglier forms.
In particular, the phenomenon of the so-called “Aesopian language” disappeared, along with the extremely small intellectual layer of society, whose members learned to “read between the lines” of the Soviet propaganda press (no other press existed in the USSR), searching for true messages there. Also, the Russian public mind saw the discrediting and burial of the memory of Gorbachev’s short-lived “glasnost” (transparency) – the small ray of freedom permitted from the top across the entire history of Russia. Instead, since the beginning of the current Russian-Ukrainian war, the OSCE has gone to enormous effort to organize cooperation between Russian and Ukrainian journalist organizations in order that they understand and collaborate with each other.
Since 2014, representatives of Ukraine’s Independent Media Trade Union, the Ukrainian National Union of Journalists, and the Union of Journalists of Russia held regular meetings to “raise professional standards and improve the safety of journalists in and around the crisis in Ukraine”, particularly, expressing “their belief that common sense and professional solidarity will be able to overcome the stereotypes and attempts of politicians and propagandists to divide journalists of both countries and turn them into an instrument of manipulation.”
Interestingly, the manipulator in this project was not only the OSCE as the organizer but also the well-known organization Reporters without Borders. These respected media professionals criticized Ukraine for trying to defend its independence from the propaganda impact of the aggressor state: “Information warfare with Russia has had negative consequences that include bans on Russian media and social media, cyber-harassment and treason trials.” It also put the blame for the state of affairs in the Russian-occupied Eastern Ukrainian territories on Ukraine, presenting the situation as an interior problem: “The separatist-controlled east of the country is still a no-go area without critical journalists or foreign observers.”
In other words, both above-mentioned international organizations worked mostly within the framework of the Russian propaganda discourse, promoting the interests of the aggressor state in the Ukrainian journalistic community. On the other hand, the irresponsible behavior of the leadership of Ukraine’s National Union of Journalists turned into open lobbying of Russian interests in the Ukrainian media sphere. Thus, Union chairman Serhiy Tomilenko condemned Ukrainian sanctions against TV channels NewsOne, ZIK I, and 112, which were controlled by Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian politician close to Putin.
Transparency International followed the same road, constantly representing Ukraine as a country more corrupt than Russia. According to the Corruption Perception Index 2021, Ukraine was three points ahead of Russia. This was convincingly refuted by the very course of hostilities in late February 2022. The Ukrainian Army, unlike the Russian army, has been proving itself to be competent, motivated, and better provisioned. It is quite obvious that Russian corruption is one of Ukraine’s main allies. It was this corruption that turned the Russian army into a gang of morally corrupt killers, rapists, and looters of civilians.
The lack of professionalism among international organizations in their attitude towards Ukraine is rooted in the lack of understanding of the role of a powerful civil society in all spheres of Ukrainian public life, from the high level of public demands on the authorities, the public impact on the progress of necessary reforms, the fight against corruption – and the huge mobilization potential of the volunteer movement. According to a survey conducted by the Rating sociological group on April 6, 2022, about 80% of Ukrainians support their country financially or by volunteering.
Armed civil society
If the West wants to understand Ukraine better, it should start with Ukrainians themselves, because today it is Ukrainian society that acts as the real leader of the country, forcing the politicians to adjust to its demands. Over recent years, this society has been restructuring itself.
Today local communities and their leaders have demonstrated extraordinary endurance and resilience, even under Russian occupation. These are the fruits of Ukraine’s successful decentralization reform. Incredible Ukrainian self-organization, mutual assistance, trust within society, and the ability to deploy a decentralized armed movement to resist Russian aggression – these very phenomena should primarily interest Western experts.
The military volunteer movement deserves special attention. It even has a separate definition in the Ukrainian language – ‘dobrovoltsi’ meaning good willed. During this war in particular, Ukrainian territorial defense units and other volunteer formations were often more effective than the so-called elite Russian troops. These are not mercenaries or some alternative paramilitary formations. In modern terms, we are talking about an armed civil society.
To understand the origins of this movement, we should look back to the roots of the deeply respected traditional Ukrainian values of personal rights and freedoms, the history of the democratic political culture of Kyivan Rus (early Middle Ages), the military culture of the frontier land, which was the basis for the formation of the Ukrainian nation in the 16-17 centuries (Early Modern era), the national liberation movement of modern and contemporary history, and finally the Ukrainian revolutions of the 21st century: the Orange Revolution (2004) and the Revolution of Dignity (2013-2014).
As we can see, in order to truly understand, one needs to know a fair amount. The phenomenon of post-truth has forced us to rethink how postmodernism differs from lies, how much of a modernist project is the return of history with its accompanying wars, and whether the global conflict of interpretations over the nature of justice can ever be truly resolved. Finally, the lethal considerations over what is more important – law or justice – helplessly sketch out the skepticism of the world’s largest states about the prospects of democracy.
China and the Russian Federation, the two largest states on our planet, question the effectiveness of democracy. (Russian president Vladimir Putin long ago made it clear that democracy needs to be “managed” and he has been doing exactly that since he came to power.) China and Russia want the era of “western domination” to end and to replace it with their own domination. There is, of course, considerable shame in the history of Western civilization. However, the West has the capacity to look at itself from outside, to self-criticize and consider an array of opinions, to reconsider its actions and eventually, to renew itself. China and Russia would never dream of giving in to such dangerous self-analysis.
Some say that democracy and international law are nothing more than a means of domination invented in the West to the detriment of other countries that also want to dominate. A new global critique of modernization and westernization as a kind of evil intent, now opposed by a different, undisguised malevolent intent. And because again there is no place for an idealistic Ukrainian society seeking truth and justice, Ukrainians are expressing their views on the battlefield.
From the perspective of the clash of concepts and public rhetoric, Ukrainians’ courage and the responsible leadership and actions demonstrated at the national level by Poland, the Baltic States, the United States, and the United Kingdom, require a deeper comprehension toward finding a new common political language and global understanding. Civilized nations do not impose themselves on others with their “brotherhood” or supremacy. They should only respect each other and agree on rules for cooperation and conflict resolution. They should help each other in difficult circumstances. These simple truths must be embodied in a new public discourse that would be acceptable and understandable to everyone.
 Ministerium für Staatssicherheit.
 Fred Siebert, Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Schramm (1963). Four Theories of the Press: The Authoritarian, Libertarian, Social Responsibility, and Soviet Communist Concepts of What the Press Should Be and Do. – University of Illinois Press: https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/?id=p724213
 Two countries – one profession. The proceedings of the meetings of representatives of journalistic organizations from Russia and Ukraine under the auspices of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Wieden, 2016: https://bit.ly/3LBh2QO