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The Russian invasion of Ukraine as a contestation of the liberal script? - № 7

by Tatiana Zhurzhenko

№ 44/2022 from Mar 15, 2022

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a major challenge to the liberal script, not only for the country under attack but also for Europe. What are the implications for Ukraine’s borders and border regions? “What we see at the EU border with Ukraine in these days rather testifies for the resilience of the liberal script”, concludes Ukrainian researcher Tatiana Zhurzhenko.

Deaths, suffering, and mass displacement: Putin’s Russia war against Ukraine

Deaths, suffering, and mass displacement: Putin’s Russia war against Ukraine
Image Credit: Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash

This February, I was supposed to go to Ukraine for a research trip planned as the next phase of our project “Challenges to the Liberal Script in Ukraine’s contested border regions”. My planned destination was Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, forty kilometres from the border with Russia. I also intended to make interviews in smaller near border towns of the Kharkiv region. Due to a new Covid-19 wave I had to postpone my trip hoping that in early spring it will finally become possible.


Instead, this is already the third week that I am sitting in front of my computer watching a full-fledged war launched by Putin’s Russia against Ukraine and an immense tragedy of human suffering affecting millions of Ukrainian families. The city of Kharkiv, a flourishing academic and cultural centre, a largely Russian-speaking metropolis, my birthplace and home for several generations of my family, increasingly looks like Aleppo and is now half empty. As by March 8, only by train 600,000 residents left the city. While the horrific pictures I cannot stop watching evoke my grandma’s stories from Kharkiv during World War II, my Kharkovite friends and colleagues try to reach me from Lviv, Kraków, Joensuu, Berlin, or from nowhere near the Ukrainian-Hungarian border. The small towns in the Kharkiv region I planned to visit – Vovchansk and Kupiansk – are now taken by Russian troops; some days ago, videos of a desperate pro-Ukrainian protest in occupied Kupiansk went through the social media. Similar peaceful mass protests under Ukrainian flags were held in Kherson, Melitopol, Berdiansk and other cities currently under Russian control. Mariupol, Ukraine’s stronghold at the Azov Sea and a laboratory for post-Maidan reforms at the contact line with the so-called “people’s republics”, is besieged and systematically destroyed by the Russian army.

A new challenge to the liberal script

For Ukrainians, fighting this uneven fight is about the very existence of their state and the survival of Ukraine as an independent nation which president Putin has repeatedly referred to as “non-existing”. This fight is, however, also about liberal values and the right to decide where the country belongs to, namely to the European Union. It is for these values that thousands of Ukrainians protested on Kyiv’s Maidan in 2004 and 2013/14. For sure, post-Soviet Ukraine has had its issues with corruption and populism, it was a society haunted by divisions and radicalization at its political margins – like almost every country in (Eastern) Europe. But these challenges to the liberal script inside Ukraine cannot obscure the fact that the main challenge – not only for Ukraine, but for Europe – comes now from Putin’s Russia. With his war on Ukraine, Putin seeks to destroy the post-Cold War order and the very principles on which European societies are built. According to pro-Putin voices in Russia, the “Russian World” is fighting the “Western liberal order”. Ukraine is not a perfect model of the liberal script, but for years has offered an escape for Russian oppositional journalists and intellectuals; today as a country under attack it is still more free and democratic than the aggressor state Russia which has banned all independent media and currently sees an emigration wave of the educated class reminding of the exodus after 1917.

The West has something to lose

To repeat, Ukraine is not the only and maybe not even the main target of Putin’s Russia. As Russian oppositional journalist Maxim Trudolyobov just wrote, World War III is already underway, only that its battlefields are economic, media, digital, financial. Having learnt from the political impact of the refugee crisis of 2015 and having recently tested the weaponization of migration at the Belarusian-Polish border, Russia currently tries to destabilize the EU by pushing millions of Ukrainians out of their country. By destroying Ukraine and its pro-European aspirations, Moscow is punishing and humiliating the European Union, exposing its weakness, lack of strategic thinking and political determination. As the Western security alliance seems to be unable to stop the Russian aggression in Ukraine, it is losing its moral credibility. The collective West will exit this crisis with its soft power considerable weakened, especially in Eastern Europe. And to leave the military crimes of the Russian regime in Ukraine unpunished would undermine what several generations of Europeans came to see as the moral order established with the defeat of Nazi Germany and the Nuremberg Trials. Its collapse would be a major blow to the liberal script.

Implications for Ukraine’s borders

Now what about Ukraine’s borders, the object and the site of our research project? Here, too, we have to get the picture right. The independence and sovereignty of Ukraine in its existing borders was assured in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, with the Russian Federation as one of the signatories. Russia violated this agreement in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea and the hybrid war in Donbas, and now with the invasion of the whole country. Ukraine has become the arena of a full-fledged war threatening the lives, health and basic rights of millions of people – a major assault on the liberal script. By pushing civilians out of the cities and villages and insisting on an “evacuation” to Russian territory, Russia forces mass displacement of the local population and prepares the ground for radically redrawing Ukraine’s borders in the east and south. Belarus on the north is a tacit (albeit still reluctant) ally of Russia, and while Moldova has become an important transit country for Ukrainian refugees, the border with the de facto state of Transnistria in the south-west can easily become another military front against Ukraine.

Ukraine’s border with the EU, which according to my interviews last year were perceived as a symbol of stability and security, is now the only section that is geopolitically and militarily uncontested. The opening of the border since the Russian invasion has, however, confronted the border authorities on both sides with a wave of refugees they were not prepared for. Reports in the media and social networks testify for chaos and lack of clear rules, cases of bribery and discrimination. Due to martial law which prohibits adult men to leave the country, countless families have been separated at the border; families with children are given preference to foreign students and vice versa; non-Ukrainian citizens residing in Ukraine find themselves in a legal limbo. Scholars of critical border studies will recognize here the border as a “sorting machine”. Discriminations of this kind are certainly challenges to the liberal script worth studying. As a Ukrainian scholar, however, I find it important to do justice to the whole picture. What we see at the EU border with Ukraine in these days rather testifies for the resilience of the liberal script. This border has become the site of an unprecedented Europe-wide solidarity in response to the challenge coming from Putin’s Russia. And for Ukrainians, crossing this border means to reach a safe haven, a secure territory that Russian tanks and bombs most certainly will not reach.

Last edits for this blog entry were made on 14 March 2022, 4:17 p.m. CET

Dr. Tatiana Zhurzhenko is a researcher at SCRIPTS for the project “The Liberal Script in Ukraine's Contested Border Regions” based at ZOiS - Centre for East European and International Studies, Berlin.