Ukraine at the Crossroads, with Maria Popova & Oxana Shevel

Feb 22, 2024 33 min listen

Ahead of the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, McGill University's Maria Popova and Tufts University's Oxana Shevel, co-authors of Russia and Ukraine: Entangled Histories and Diverging States, join Doorstep co-hosts Nick Gvosdev and Tatiana Serafin to discuss shifting Ukraine-Russia war narratives and expectations.

How can Ukraine continue to rally support and challenge rising sentiment that Russia is "unstoppable"? What more can the media do to broaden perspectives and counter disinformation? What can we expect for Ukraine over the next year?

Ukraine at the Crossroads Doorstep Spotify podcast link Ukraine at the Crossroads Doorstep Apple podcast link

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, welcoming in a moment professors Maria Popova and Oxana Shevel to speak about Russia and Ukraine: Entangled Histories, Diverging States, their new book, and also important ahead of the second anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

Before we start, Nick, I want to welcome you back. You were gone last week traveling and thinking a lot about what is going on and what we should be thinking about ahead of this second anniversary. Can you share your thoughts?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think we are coping with the fact that some of our expectations two years ago about how quickly this would be wrapped up and how quickly it would be wrapped up in Ukraine’s favor are being challenged. The United States assumed that Russia would be much more crippled by economic sanctions, that there would be this massive wave of aid from the United States, that Europe would be able to step up, and that the United States was committed, as President Biden said on many occasions, to do what it would take.

We are finding today in 2024 that all of those assumptions are being questioned at a time when—and I think this is tied to Maria’s and Oxana’s book—people still have mental maps that do not quite extricate Ukraine from Russia, and therefore when things maybe are not going as well as we would have hoped it becomes easier to think about ceasefires, stalemates, and concessions.

I think it is critical to hear this perspective from our guests about the processes that are ongoing in Ukraine, particularly the changes in how Ukrainians are viewing their struggle—effectively it is a second war for independence—and to do this against a backdrop of particularly the Munich Security Conference this past week, where there is a sense that the West cannot do it or a lack of confidence in the ability of the major Western democracies to deal with change. I think our guests are also going to be addressing some of the sources of those beliefs, and I am looking forward to our conversation with them.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Let’s hear from Maria and Oxana now.

Thank you so much, Maria and Oxana, for joining us today on this pivotal day, a few days before the second anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, to speak about your book Russia and Ukraine: Entangled Histories, Diverging States, which is such a great read for those of us who may be getting disinformation from certain media outlets, who may not understand the conflict, or who may have flipped through it on social media quickly. You lay out not only the history in a succinct way, but you bring it forward to what it means today.

I would like to start out with what it means for today because we also just had the maybe expected but still shocking murder of Alexei Navalny, we have this anniversary, and we have perhaps nuclear arms in space. There is so much going on. If you were to write a “what is happening today” epilogue to this book, what would you say that we need to think about considering all that has happened this week?

MARIA POPOVA: It is a really good question. I think we would emphasize that the divergence between Russia and Ukraine that we outline in the book that took place over the last 30 years, the gap, is wider than ever. Russia has slid back even further into repression. You may have thought in 2022, How much worse can it get? Apparently it can get even worse. Ukraine continues to be very committed to avoiding reincorporation into the Russian world. The gap not only has not been bridged over these two years; it grew even wider.

When we think about how this situation could be resolved and how there could be lasting peace of some sort, we have to absolutely let go of the wishful thinking that there could be some kind of compromise, meeting halfway, or some sort of reconciliation. We have to understand and be very clear eyed that Ukraine is trying to extricate itself from the Russian world, and the questions we are now facing are: Are we going to help them or not, and what part of Ukraine would be able to extricate itself?

OXANA SHEVEL: I would agree with everything Maria said. I would just add that one of the drivers of divergence between Russia and Ukraine in our story is different identity politics and interpretations of where the boundaries of one nation end and begin. I think Putin has made it clear repeatedly since the invasion that he does not recognize a sovereign Ukrainian nation. In fact, the rhetoric became even more fratricidal, that “These people are really Russians, and whoever disagrees is a Nazi.” So there is really not, as Maria said, the possibility for some sort of compromise, meeting in the middle; it is just not there. In a way, the story of the divergence that we tell has accelerated since February of 2022.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I want to pick up on the theme of extrication and bring it to your experiences since writing the book, your interactions with media and with policymakers. One of the criticisms—and I think it is a very valid criticism—is that in the wake of the invasion you had media outlets that essentially took their Moscow correspondents and dropped them in Kyiv and essentially said, “We will take you from Moscow and the Kremlin and drop you here, and somehow you will still have a sense of what is happening.” For policymakers it still does seem that, along with Putin, they have this image, this map, this mental border in which the Soviet border is still operating as opposed to thinking of Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, and Germany as a Central European continuum.

In the work you have been doing and in the advice you have been giving to media, policymakers, and others in terms of your engagement, how are you finding this notion of extrication, that this is in fact a policy goal, that the old Soviet border is gone and that there is a border between Russia and Ukraine that is not soft, malleable, or it’s really all sort of the same thing moving forward? When you are interacting with people, how are people conceptualizing, as you said, this notion that the end goal is the extrication of Ukraine from not only the Russian world but, given some of the footage that we see from Ukraine with the old hammer and sickle coming back, it is not just seemingly the Russian world, but it is a kind of reborn Soviet Union as well? Your thoughts on that?

OXANA SHEVEL: That is a very good question. I will start on this extrication point.

You put it very well in the question about “mental maps:” How do people think of this part of the world? One of our colleagues asked our students to draw a map of Europe, so where is Ukraine on the mental map of Europe? It is one thing to say, of course, there are people that live on the fringe and the idea that there are international borders and that they matter is there. But then, when you think about do people really think these borders make sense and need to be preserved, that is where we get into this question: “Well, the Ukrainians and Russians are kind of similar. There is a lot of close history and commonalities and all of this.” That is of course true, but also there was history that was suppressed systematically by the Soviet and tsarist empires, so this notion, for example, that Ukraine was an independent state after the Bolshevik Revolution that the Bolsheviks crushed, many people do not know that.

We can go even further in history. [inaudible] Ukraine to extricate itself. The Ukrainian political class at the time and population was just suppressed, and people simply do not know it, so then it is like, “Well, you were together for 300 years.” All of these narratives that the tsarists, Soviets, and now Putin continue to push are really deeply held.

I think, hopefully, our book, even though it is not a history book, we do go over these different interpretations of past events as either a spin that we try to underscore this narrative of centuries-old unity or a deconstruction of these spins, saying: “Well actually, look here; there was a period of time when there were political leaders that tried to extricate Ukraine from Russian rule.” I think it is important, and historians of course are doing much more of this important education. That is one part of this extrication analysis that I would put forth.

MARIA POPOVA: One thing I would add here is that I think there has been some progress over the last two years in the media grasping that Ukraine and Russia are two different states, different nations, but what I am struggling with now in conversations with the media is challenging this deeply held assumption that whatever Ukraine may want ideally is not achievable because Russia is just too big and too strong and cannot possibly be defeated.

Now, as the second anniversary of the full-scale invasion is coming up, I am talking to journalists who want to write op-eds that recap the situation that literally call Putin “unstoppable.” I try to explain: “Look, they have not actually made significant gains in a whole year.” Just because Putin is powerful enough to murder a prisoner, would I call this “unstoppable?” No, not necessarily.

The West is dropping the ball on aid. That is why things are looking so dire, but I think that is an important dimension that also is related to whether Ukraine will be able to extricate itself, not just being perceived as rightfully belonging to a Russian sphere of influence, which is one problem, but also perceiving the situation as immutable, inevitable, and that cannot be solved.

OXANA SHEVEL: I think just yesterday I saw an opinion poll from a number of countries—actually it was published in the Ukrainian media—and the comments and posts from Ukrainians, they are upset. I think 10 percent of the population in the surveyed countries believe that Ukraine can win. Something like 70 percent support it, but only 10 percent believe that it can win. This is just to illustrate the point Maria was making.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I saw that poll too, and it upset me as well, but I think it has to do with the word that you bring up, the narrative aspect. It is this extension of the “big brother” and the “little country.” Also, part of this narrative is the disinformation campaign that Russia has ramped up, and it is getting traction in particular parts of the U.S. media—Tucker Carlson going to Russia to interview Putin and getting a whole lot of press about that.

You mentioned gaps. There is this media gap between left and right outlets, and it is increasingly politicized here in the United States. I am not sure if there is the same divergence in European media and politics, but certainly here we see it.

I am curious because it is such a flip. Two years ago we were talking about Putin being ill, there were pictures of him dying, and there was this whole “weak” narrative, that it was going to be over soon because he was so weak. This has completely flipped. I am wondering if you can pinpoint in your research what that inflection point was. When did that narrative shift? I do not think it is just today. I think it has been building. Was it when the march on Moscow failed? What is that tweak and shift, and how can we counter it?

MARIA POPOVA: This is an excellent question. It seems that the inflated expectations about the counteroffensive were part of the inflection point. People expected to see more major cities liberated and did not pay attention to the successes in the Black Sea. Obviously they also did not pay attention to the fact that Ukraine launched this counteroffensive with only modest military aid from us and not with full backing, even though I heard in the summer analysts say things like, “We have given the Ukrainians everything; let’s see what they achieve.”

Well, once you set it up like that, without mentioning that they have no air superiority, without mentioning that the long-range missiles are not there, and without mentioning that they are limited in where they can strike, should you be saying, “We’ve equipped them with everything?” No, but I think that was part of why people drew the conclusion: “We gave them the absolute best shot, and it did not work. It must mean that Russia is just too strong.”

OXANA SHEVEL: That is true. I would add that I think also part of the problem of the media in general, is that the focus is on the very immediate. Whatever is hot and happening today, then that is what the media focuses on.

We need a broader perspective. If you think about the situation, it parallels with the Second World War. Things maybe did not look that great for Britain in 1940. Was that a reason to say, “Okay, let’s throw in the towel,” which many are saying now? Clearly the danger from Putin prevailing in Ukraine is very long term, very severe, and that has to be—somebody who is a journalist writing about it today, “They captured another town and the Ukrainians did not capture that.” You have to also think about the costs, benefits, and dangers over the long term and at least contextualize today’s coverage with these broader questions in mind, and that sometimes is done but very often is not done.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Let me know if you are seeing the problem with contextualization is that the immediacy of a social media image is so powerful. At the beginning of the war we saw Zelenskyy in his fatigues and were so inspired. Everybody started copying how he dressed. He was eloquent. There was this “Zelenskyy effect” on everything. There was this glow.

I don’t know if it is media fatigue, that other events around the world have eclipsed it, or if it is literally the medium of delivery, that seeing an image on Instagram you quickly forget it. There is no memory instilled: You see an image, you like it, and then you move on. I wonder if this is hurting Ukrainians, who leaned into social media two years ago, but the management of it now does not seem to be the same. What are your thoughts on that?

OXANA SHEVEL: I don’t know. In a way I would agree with everything, Tatiana, that you just said about how the media reacts and the impact of social media.

On the other hand, what would we want the Ukrainians to do differently? To have some different spin on Zelenskyy? It seems to me that the effort should be on things that really matter, also on the battlefield, so in a way, yes, I am sure there are some public relations companies that could think of this and that other way, but ultimately also speaking as an academic I think what other, non-media people do is so important—the interviews that we give, the analysis that people write, what teachers teach in the classroom, so we should not be driven just by social media. That to some extent is going to be inevitable to some extent, but I think there is a lot of work to be done not to manage social media but to do all of this other work that we try to do with our book, that we try to do in interviews and our conversations with students, and that you do in your podcasts and other appearances. I think that is where the context comes in.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: On that, I think maybe also it is less what Ukrainians should have done or not. My concern is that people in the West on social media who thought that by playing things up they were helping the situation in fact created these inflated expectations, and sometimes well-meaning analysts in the West laying out “Crimea by summer of 2023”—it is not that Ukraine did something with a social media strategy but that in some ways it was Ukraine’s friends in the West on social media that created such an expectation for 2023 and the counteroffensive and perhaps, as you said, a lot of the aid was not in fact delivered. A lot was promised; not so much was delivered. Yet you had so many people on social media saying, “wall of steel,” and, “When the Leopards show up and the Bradleys show up we are going to see something different.”

In some ways the finger should be pointed at us for inflating expectations for Ukraine and now complaining that Ukraine has not met them on the timeline that we would prefer.

MARIA POPOVA: Yes. It is a tough balance to strike right. On the one hand, the talk about a “Crimean beach party” was in a way necessary in order to make people see that it is possible for Ukraine to liberate Crimea and that it is not the “red line” that is going to destroy the world that Russia seeks to communicate.

On the one hand, you have to push these maximalist great outcomes because you want to get it into people’s heads that this is plausible, that it could happen, but if you do it too much, if you over-promise it, then it sets you up for disappointment. It is almost a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” kind of situation that is impacted by this deeply ingrained idea of Russia as all-powerful that is clouding and hovering over all of the assessments.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Do you think among the younger generations the narrative has changed? We talk a lot about Gen Z and what they are thinking as they rise into political positions and decision-making positions at organizations, groups here—Razom, for example, a Ukrainian group run by Millennials and Gen Zs driving lobbying efforts here in the United States—is this younger generation the generation we should look to for change in Ukraine in terms of just creating this new image of Ukraine in the world?

Similarly, in Russia I worry because of the lack of outside information coming in and the narratives that Russian media is spewing, what is happening to the younger Russian generation?

OXANA SHEVEL: The generation question is interesting. On the one hand, the younger people clearly do not have the same sort of legacy. They did not grow up in the Cold War. Then again, whatever they read in the history books or hear on social media can have even more of an effect, and sometimes people may know very little but will seize on one thing.

Your question made me think of this example from my child’s middle school. They did like a borders project, and I looked at a few of the responses that children wrote—sixth grade—about the causes of the war. Several of them said, “Russia invaded because NATO is expanding.” Where did they get this idea? They probably googled it. I was talking to Maria about where is this coming from? They probably watched Mearsheimer’s interview, and they are like, okay. In sixth grade it is okay, and then hopefully in a higher grade they will be invited to think more critically, even though in sixth grade they should be doing that too. What I am trying to say is that somebody’s age only takes you so far as an explanation because it is what these people are going to learn and where they are going to learn it from.

In a way, these stereotypes could still be perpetuated. Nobody is immune to them. It is more that we would like to hope that now especially in the last two years, as Maria is saying, there is much more discussion about Ukraine, Ukrainian history, and the difference in identity and all these things, and people are not necessarily ideologically wedded, to some younger people, to some alternative narrative, so they can certainly be educated, invited to think about it, and all of this.

In Russia, I do not know. Again, the generation by itself only takes you so far. As you said, information is limited, but even before when information was not limited. I think this kind of imperial mindset toward Ukraine on the part of even young Russians was not just there. It is partly again the messages you get at school and home, this notion of a centuries-old unity and all of this, is there, and now that there are fewer alternative sources of information I would say we have fewer reasons to think that this generation will change in Russia and somehow will mysteriously solve the problems that exist in relations and that underlined and ultimately led to this conflict.

MARIA POPOVA: One thing I will add about the Western Gen Z is that one of the dangers that I see is that the knowledge base about the Cold War and about what the communist regimes looked like is not there to the same extent. They have no personal recollection of this being discussed. It seems that Gen Z is a bit more of a fertile ground for falling for the idea that maybe the Soviet Union was a progressive and anti-colonial force and maybe the restoration of it would not be so bad. There are some basics on the Soviet Union that I think are missing.

We also know that young people tend to be—I forgot what the exact phrase was; “If you are not a communist in your teens . . .”—anyway younger people are supposed to lean there. Without the knowledge there about what these communist regimes actually looked like it becomes a reservoir for potential understanding of where Russia is coming from.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I completely agree with you, which is why your book is so important. I want to again show Russia and Ukraine: Entangled Histories, Diverging States because context is important, history is important, and we need to be discussing these things as we look forward too.

From your vantage point of writing this book and looking at what is happening now, what can we expect looking ahead in 2024, over the next year? Across the globe there are elections in most of the world’s democracies. Over half the world I think is the statistic on who is going to be voting this year. There is a huge election here in the United States that may really change policy.

What are you most worried about, and what are you looking forward to in 2024? Where should we be looking for information? A three-part question.

OXANA SHEVEL: I will start on what we can expect, what we should be looking for, and being afraid.

Again, it goes to our discussion of the underestimation of Ukraine and overestimation of Russia. I think one thing we can definitely expect is that in Ukraine the determination to free itself from the Russian world and be a sovereign, independent, democratic state is going to be there.

A notion that troubles me in many accounts is that Ukraine can be made to do X, Y, and Z. I think we should not be thinking this way and we should be acknowledging Ukrainian agency and hopefully admiring what Ukrainians are doing, but even if one leans the other way I think this notion that somehow Ukraine can be made to do stuff—given where current population and popular support is, the people want victory, they want to see their homeland liberated. I think there was a poll from Ukraine just a couple of days ago that showed that only 4 percent of the population would find acceptable a settlement where Russia gets to keep the territory it occupied.

It is not this narrative that Zelenskyy is doing something against the will of the Ukrainian people, which is again part of the narrative. It is simply wrong. I think that is in a way kind of encouraging because clearly the hardship has been very severe and the toll on the society and the state has been very severe, and yet the determination to be free and to be democratic is there.

The things to worry about, just as you said, are the elections that are coming up. Things are looking pretty dire now with aid stuck in Congress, and if somebody like Trump is elected in this country and more populist leaders are elected in Western Europe that would make the challenge all the more severe. That is something I personally worry about. I am sure Maria will have things to add.

MARIA POPOVA: Drawing on what we argue in the book, one of the biggest fears for me is that the West will basically return to its usual policy since 1991, which has been accommodating Russia, seeking good relations, hoping the best for Russia’s political development, and thinking that Russia has these “legitimate interests” in the region, so to speak.

We saw it in 2022, and there was a lot of talk in Germany about the Zeitenwende, this radical reassessment, this opening of the eyes that we now see that Russia is expansionist, etc. I am afraid that we are seeing this dissipate and crumble and actually normal policy for the West throughout the last 30 years, contrary to what Mearsheimer may tell you about how the West was humiliating Russia. The exact opposite: We show in the book that the West was constantly bending over backward to accommodate Russia, and I am afraid that a Trump presidency will usher in more of that.

TATIANA SERAFIN: We hope to continue this conversation with you and see what will happen. Thank you for being with us on the eve of the anniversary of what I call the “second invasion” of Ukraine by Russia because, of course, things began in 2014. I know we did not get a chance to talk about that, but you can read about it in this great book, Russian and Ukraine: Entangled Histories, Diverging States by Maria Popova and Oxana Shevel. Thank you so much.


MARIA POPOVA: Thank you.

OXANA SHEVEL: Thank you.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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