Ukraine is a clear-cut and important case of civil society adopting a geopolitical perspective.1 From the Revolution of Dignity and the Russian hybrid aggression in 2014 to the full-scale Russian invasion launched in February 2022, Ukraine’s civil society has taken on a high-profile role. It is important, however, to put an immediate caveat on the use of the term “geopolitical rivalry” in Ukraine’s case. This concept can be too easily confused with Russian propaganda messages, which aim at portraying Ukraine as a territory without agency. Yet, geopolitical rivalry in this context lies in the contest between Ukraine’s existence as a free and democratic state, on the one hand, and Russia’s vision of the country as its own stateless periphery, on the other.
In this struggle, Ukrainian civil society has come to the fore over the last decade. Ukraine’s post-2014 civil society influence has two elements, corresponding to formal and informal civic activism. While in relatively peaceful times, professional nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are most prominent, at times of existential threat, informal civil society steps forward—especially in those parts of the country under occupation. These trends in civic activism, evident from Ukraine’s recent history of wars and revolutions, have led to the label of a dormant civil society—a powerful undercurrent that manifests itself at times when it is needed most.2
Significantly in the context of this volume, Ukraine’s civil society has served as a defense and resistance actor. This is an atypical role for civil society in its classic interpretation and one that reflects geopolitical challenges. While professional civil society organizations (CSOs) have preserved their watchdog and advocacy functions, other civic actors have played a rearguard action role since 2014—and even more so under the current Russian invasion. In this sense, it can be difficult to draw a line between where society ends and civil society begins, as a wide range of civic actors engages directly with geopolitical dynamics.
The Formal Face of Ukraine’s Civil Society
Several CSOs in Ukraine, especially think tanks like the New Europe Center, the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism,” and the Razumkov Center, engage directly with geopolitics. Many others link their work to geopolitical interests, mainly through a focus on cooperation with the European Union (EU) and support for a liberal, prodemocracy agenda. Civic activists who work on environmental issues, women’s rights, or local government accountability have generally linked their actions since 2014 to promoting Ukraine’s choice of a pro-European path. These activists defend and promote these issues as European values directly opposed to Russian authoritarianism. The 184 Ukrainian organizations that belong to the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum focus on policy areas from education and entrepreneurship to the rule of law and human rights.3
Ukrainian CSOs have increasingly concentrated on European integration as the path to the rule of law and prosperity and a counter to Russian attempts to undermine and destroy the Ukrainian state. At the same time, Ukrainian CSOs stand against Russia for the sake of Ukraine itself and do not see resisting Russia as synonymous with campaigning for European integration. Yet, the geopolitical context has led more and more CSOs to take an interest in the process of EU cooperation.
This trend has produced a sandwich effect in the cooperation between Ukraine’s civil society, government, and international partners: CSOs that are oriented toward professional advocacy pressure the government from below, while the country’s Western partners do the same from above.4 Since 2019, Ukraine’s pro-European society and European integration course have been included in the country’s constitution, making it easier for Ukraine’s stakeholders to push through reforms when they have a European label attached.5
Contrary to many external perceptions, Ukrainian society is not deeply split on this pro-European outlook. Virtually all parts of civil society perceive Russia as having a clear negative role.6 Pro-Russian NGOs are in a marginal minority.7 Ukrainian civil society is increasingly pushing to raise the profile of geopolitical imperatives in Ukraine’s relationship with the EU; geopolitics has become part of civil society’s toolbox. Ukrainian CSOs work with the government to criticize the EU for its lack of support, and they work with the EU to press the government for reforms and to develop capacity-building and resilience programs with a geopolitical element.
Ukrainian CSOs cooperated with the EU to build an anticorruption infrastructure through institutions like the National Anticorruption Bureau, the Specialized Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office, the National Agency on Corruption Prevention, the State Bureau of Investigation, and the High Anticorruption Court. Over 130 Ukrainian civil society experts in the Reanimation Package of Reforms, an NGO, produced and drove forward a road map of reforms.8
Civil society also played a major role in the campaign for Ukraine’s EU candidate status. In July 2022, 200 organizations from across Ukraine signed a civil society appeal for the EU to grant Ukraine this status.9 Numerous Ukrainian CSOs have been involved in developing arguments for EU policymakers, advocating in EU capitals, and providing expertise to help the Ukrainian government fill out the questionnaire that the European Commission sends to prospective EU member states. Ukraine’s authorities openly sought CSOs’ help in the application process both in preparing answers to the questionnaire and in advocating a positive decision on Ukraine’s candidacy in EU member state capitals.10
Crucially, CSOs have sometimes pushed to make sure that realpolitik-driven geopolitics do not overshadow human rights and democratic reform. Ukrainian human rights organizations were strongly critical of Western partners over reform of the Security Service of Ukraine. While the EU approved of a government bill for making partial progress toward reform, local human rights organizations condemned the draft legislation for containing new clauses that were potentially even more discriminatory than the current law.11The Center for Civil Liberties, a renowned human rights NGO, criticized Western partners for not pushing hard enough to free Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia because, according to the center’s representatives, the West relies exclusively on the rule of law, while Russia dismisses this concept.12
Notably, CSOs have retained this kind of critical focus even during the current invasion. Ukraine’s professional civil society has maintained its watchdog function throughout the war. Since February 2022, NGOs have invested much effort in international advocacy for weapons for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia, but domestic criticism of the Ukrainian government and authorities has remained. Some of this criticism relates to the war and defense issues; for example, the potential rejection of Ukraine’s aspiration of membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in favor of a compromise with Russia, discussed in March 2022, provoked a fierce reaction from activists.13 But anticorruption campaigners have continued their work, too, lobbying for a new and more independent, committed head of the Specialized Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office and criticizing the government’s new anticorruption strategy as too soft.14 CSOs are alert to the risk of the war becoming a pretext for a setback to democratic reforms.
It should be highlighted that since February 2022, Ukraine’s civil society has acquired another dimension: internationalization. According to the United Nations, as of October 2022, some 7.7 million Ukrainians had been displaced as refugees, mostly to the EU, and around 4.5 million had registered for temporary protection in Europe.15 While many of these physically and psychologically traumatized people might not be ready to immediately take voluntary action for a social cause, existing Ukrainian networks abroad have incorporated newly arrived Ukrainians and reinvented or boosted their purpose. The most notable examples are Vitsche Berlin in Germany, which organizes protests and engages in raising awareness and cultural work, and Ukrainian activism in Poland led by Natalia Panchenko, who has been active for at least a decade, from organizing protests and demonstrations across Europe in support of Ukraine to blocking Russian trucks on the Polish-Belarusian border.16
Ukraine’s Informal Civil Society
Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, triggered a more prominent form of activism from Ukraine’s informal civil society, as opposed to professional NGOs. While in 2021, 85 percent of Ukrainians did not belong to any civic or political association and only 4 percent were actively involved in a CSO, this situation was reversed after the Russian attack.17 Since the war started, some 80 percent of Ukraine’s population has been involved in defending the country in one way or another, with 45 percent donating money, 35 percent volunteering, and 18 percent participating in information resistance.18 Ukrainian society has become a de facto defense actor.
Back in the early 2010s, Ukrainian community organizations had already begun to provide hard security by establishing self-defense units during the Euromaidan demonstrations and volunteer battalions after the beginning of hostilities in eastern Ukraine. These organizations helped procure military equipment for the troops and provided logistical services like medical or clerical work, even at the front lines. And they were increasingly involved in the monitoring and oversight of defense-related issues and military operations in Ukraine’s Donbas region.19
Civil society has therefore performed the function of security provider, which is normally a state monopoly—and it is precisely because Ukraine’s state institutions were weak that civil society had to intervene. It is important to underline that most of these efforts have been informal, both in 2014–2016 and since February 2022: at times of war, when human lives and state sovereignty are at stake, action eclipses formality in importance. Moreover, informal activities are the only possible type of activism in Ukraine’s occupied territories. There, civil society’s defense functions have merged with civic—that is, unarmed—protest and resistance.
While in Ukraine’s free territories the country’s civil society can operate freely and register its organizations without hindrance, in the occupied territories only informal civil society—unregistered groups and individuals—can act. If civil society can be defined as “an intermediary sphere that works as a transmission belt between society, business and the state,” in the words of writer and activist Michael Edwards, then informal civil society in Ukraine’s occupied territories engages in establishing links with the legitimate state, rather than the occupier state.20 With some 20 percent of Ukraine’s territory occupied as of June 2022, this part of civil society is extremely important, because it is in the occupied territories that geopolitical rivalry is most acute.21
The formal NGOs in the occupied parts of Donbas were forced to leave the region over the course of 2014, and most civil society leaders did so for fear of being captured and detained. Some, however, remained, like Ukrainian writer Stanislav Aseev, who until 2017 had lived in Donetsk and published columns on life under occupation in the Ukrainian weekly Dzerkalo Tyzhnia. He was detained by occupying forces in 2017 and spent almost three years in captivity before being released as part of a prisoner exchange. He later wrote a book about his imprisonment in an art space that had been converted into a concentration camp by the occupiers.22
There are other people like Aseev who still live in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. These people engage in silent protests, like painting anonymous blue and yellow stripes on walls or roads to symbolize the Ukrainian flag.23 Both before and after February 2022, Radio Liberty received calls and messages from the occupied territories, first as questions or stories and more recently as intelligence about the Russian forces’ whereabouts.24
Informal civil society has been active in the newly occupied territories of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts, too. Kherson civil society has been resisting the occupation since day one. Horizontal and informal networks, like those established during the Euromaidan demonstrations, and a lack of coordination—specifically, the absence of designated resistance leaders or a command structure—made this resistance possible.
The public protests that continued in Kherson, Kakhovka, Melitopol, and other cities in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia for several weeks represented one form of resistance.25 When Russian forces used weapons against the protesters at the end of March 2022, the protests decreased in size but continued in the form of seemingly spontaneous actions, like unconnected people walking in a park and then suddenly getting together, putting up a banner reading “Kherson is Ukraine,” taking a photo of themselves, and walking away again.26
Other civil society activists focused their efforts on volunteering that was geared toward procuring food and medicines for those in need, providing psychological and informational help, and so on.27 Further into the occupation, the resistance took the form of a guerrilla movement that put up flyers threatening the occupiers and organized online demonstrations. The group Yellow Ribbon was one of the key protagonists in this movement.28 Other examples of resistance included lonely pickets, for example a disabled elderly man who played the Ukrainian national anthem at full volume in the Kherson central market.29
While European aspirations as such did not play a significant role in either the discourse or the actions of this resisting society, the image of a pro-EU flyer in occupied Melitopol went viral on Ukrainian social media. The text of the poster read, “Fellow city residents! Don’t watch the Russian news! Ukraine continues to fight! On June 24, Ukraine will get EU candidate status” (see figure 1). Although Ukraine’s candidate status was not guaranteed at that point, the flyer speaks to the extent to which EU support was important for the morale of Ukrainian society in the occupied territories.
Russia deliberately targets civic activists in the occupied territories precisely because of their active positioning: civil society leaders have been detained, kidnapped, tortured, and killed. According to Ukrainian local authorities, at least 300 activists had been detained in Kherson as of July 2022.30 In October, Russian occupiers publicly hanged a woman in the occupied city of Skadovsk, allegedly for her pro-Ukrainian position.31
In Ukraine, geopolitical factors are self-evidently paramount and directly relevant to civil society actors. For CSOs, the choice is not merely between two geopolitical vectors but between existence, sovereignty, and prosperity, on the one hand, and extermination and subjugation, on the other. This situation prompts both cooperation with and opposition to the Ukrainian government, and it has thickened civil society links, especially given the internationalization of Ukrainian civic activism. In these circumstances, Ukrainian civil society has adopted an increasingly prominent and active role on these geopolitical factors and become an influential player in issues normally beyond the scope of CSOs. In short, Ukrainian civic activists’ geopolitical positioning and role reflect a nation’s struggle for survival. The extreme geopolitical circumstances have turned Ukrainian civil society into a powerful actor.
In some ways, this trend has pushed CSOs and informal groups to take on unfamiliar functions in the realms of security and foreign policy. At the same time, CSOs have doubled down on their more traditional role as watchdogs over state corruption, because they see state reforms as even more necessary to defend Ukraine against an aggressor. Overall, civil society has engaged formally and informally; across demographic characteristics such as place of residence, age, education, and gender; and in both free Ukraine and the occupied territories, becoming a security and defense actor in its own right. Civil society has become an integral part of Ukrainian responses to Russian hostility and incursions.
Kateryna Zarembo is an associate fellow at the New Europe Center in Kyiv, Ukraine; a lecturer at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine; and a guest researcher at the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany.
The Carnegie Endowment thanks the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Ford Foundation for generous support that helps make the work of the Civic Research Network work possible. The views expressed in this publication are the responsibility of the authors alone.
1 The data in this chapter come from open sources available online as well as interviews, anonymized at the interviewees’ request, conducted for this chapter and for the author’s forthcoming book on pro-Ukrainian social movements in the Donbas region.
2 Eric Martin and Kateryna Zarembo, “Did Ukraine’s Civil Society Help Turn Back the Russians?,” New Eastern Europe, May 4, 2022, https://neweasterneurope.eu/2022/05/04/did-ukraines-civil-society-help-turn-back-the-russians.
3 “EaP CSF Membership Database,” Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum, https://eap-csf.eu/membership-database.
4 Described, among many others, by Ole Elgström and Natalia Chaban in The Ukraine Crisis and EU Foreign Policy Roles: Images of the EU in the Context of EU-Ukraine Relations (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2021), 143.
5 Author interview with a Ukrainian member of parliament, December 2020.
6 See Gergana Noutcheva and Kateryna Zarembo, “Normative Power at Its Unlikeliest: EU Norms, Soviet Legacy and Security Sector Reform in Ukraine,” forthcoming.
7 Vitaly Martyniuk, “Громадські організації: як ще один фронт гібридної війни Росії” [Public Organizations: As Another Front of Russia’s Hybrid War], Ukrinform, October 21, 2019, https://www.ukrinform.ua/rubric-society/2803059-gromadski-organizacii-ak-se-odin-front-gibridnoi-vijni-rosii.html.
8 Roadmap of Reforms 2019–2023, Reanimation Package of Reforms, November 2018, https://rpr.org.ua/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Roadmap-of-Reforms.pdf.
9 “Як зберегти віру в ЄС і дати поштовх реформам. Спільне звернення українських організацій” [How to Maintain Faith in the EU and Give Impetus to Reforms. Joint Appeal of Ukrainian Organizations], European Pravda, June 2, 2022, https://www.eurointegration.com.ua/articles/2022/06/2/7140485.
10 Author interview with a Ukrainian official at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, June 2022.
11 For the debate, see, for example, “Не створюйте нову ФСБ! Правозахисники закликали внести пакет правок до законопроєкту про СБУ” [Do Not Create a New FSB! Human Rights Activists Called for a Package of Amendments to the Bill on the SSU], Ukraine Crisis Media Center, November 18, 2021, https://uacrisis.org/uk/ne-stvoryujte-novu-fsb-pravozahysnyky-zaklykaly-vnesty-paket-pravok-do-zakonoproyektu-pro-sbu.
12 Author interview with a representative of the Center for Civil Liberties, July 2022.
13 Serhiy Sydorenko and Hanna Shelest, “Альтернатива НАТО: чим загрожує відмова України від Альянсу за домовленістю з Кремлем” [Alternative to NATO: What Threatens Ukraine’s Withdrawal From the Alliance as Agreed With the Kremlin], European Pravda, March 23, 2022, https://www.eurointegration.com.ua/articles/2022/03/23/7136465.
14 “Блокування конкурсу щодо САП: Офіс генпрокурора виставив оголошення, але вже прибрав” [Blocking of Competition Regarding the SAP: The Prosecutor General’s Office Posted an Advertisement but Has Already Removed It], Novynarnia, July 16, 2022, https://novynarnia.com/2022/07/16/blokuvannya-konkursu-shhodo-sap-ofis-genprokurora-vystavyv-ogoloshennya-ale-vzhe-prybrav; and “Антикорупційна стратегія ухвалена: що з неї зникло перед голосуванням?” [The Anticorruption Strategy Was Adopted: What Disappeared From It Before the Vote?], Institute of Legislative Ideas, June 21, 2022, https://izi.institute/en/antykorupczijna-strategiya-uhvalena-shho-z-neyi-znyklo-pered-golosuvannyam.
15 “Ukraine Refugee Situation,” Operational Data Portal, https://data.unhcr.org/en/situations/ukraine.
16 Vitsche Berlin, https://vitsche.org/en; and “Activists Blocking Trucks on Poland-Belarus Border, Queue Stretches for Tens of Kilometres,” Ukrinform, April 8, 2022, https://www.ukrinform.net/rubric-society/3452449-activists-blocking-trucks-on-polandbelarus-border-queue-stretches-for-tens-of-kilometres.html.
17 “Missing Out on Opportunities? Despite Potential Benefit, Citizens Are Skeptical About Engaging in CSO Activities or Supporting Them Financially,” Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, November 15, 2021, https://dif.org.ua/en/article/missing-out-on-opportunities-despite-potential-benefit-citizens-are-skeptical-about-engaging-in-cso-activities-or-supporting-them-financially.
18 “The Eighth National Poll: Ukraine During the War (April 6, 2022),” Rating Group, April 8, 2022, https://ratinggroup.ua/en/research/ukraine/vosmoy_obschenacionalnyy_opros_ukraina_v_usloviyah_voyny_6_aprelya_2022.html.
19 Rosaria Puglisi, “A People’s Army: Civil Society as a Security Actor in Post-Maidan Ukraine,” Italian Institute of International Affairs, July 2015, 3, https://www.iai.it/sites/default/files/iaiwp1523.pdf.
20 Michael Edwards, Civil Society (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2004).
21 “Speech by the President of Ukraine in the Chamber of Deputies of Luxembourg,” President of Ukraine, June 2, 2022, https://www.president.gov.ua/en/news/promova-prezidenta-ukrayini-v-palati-deputativ-lyuksemburgu-75533. Since June 2022, the Ukrainian Armed Forces have almost fully liberated Kharkiv oblast and made advances in Kherson oblast, but exact calculations of the share of liberated territory have not been published.
22 Aseev’s columns, written under occupation, were published as Stanislav Aseev, В ізоляції [In Isolation] (Kyiv: Luta Sprava Publishing, 2018). His account of his imprisonment was published as Stanislav Aseev, Світлий шлях. Історія одного концтабору [The Torture Camp on Paradise Street] (Lviv: Old Lion Publishing House, 2020).
23 Olga Omelyanchuk and Lidia Golosko, “Ми є” [We Are], Reporters, January 24, 2022, https://reporters.media/tykhyi-sprotyv/?fbclid=IwAR0s50qHT3taQuYD5jj0xPbey9d-kxkTSPTWL1xCzToM_QOS_Suhqw4k7ys.
24 Author interview with a journalist of Radio Liberty, April 2022.
25 “У Херсоні і Каховці мітинги проти окупантів: Забирайтеся додому” [In Kherson and Kakhovka, Rallies Against the Occupiers: Go Home], Ukrainska Pravda, March 20, 2022, https://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2022/03/20/7333020; and “У Мелітополі і Приморську – акції протесту цивільного населення проти російської присутності” [In Melitopol and Primorsk, the Civilian Population Protested Against the Russian Presence], Radio Liberty, March 10, 2022, https://www.radiosvoboda.org/a/news-zaporizka-oblast-protesty/31746598.html.
26 Author interview with a local activist from Kherson, June 2022.
28 “Громадська організація «Жовта стрічка» організовує онлайн-мітинг на підтримку українського Херсону” [Public Organization “Yellow Ribbon” Organizes an Online Meeting in Support of Ukrainian Kherson], Elle, June 10, 2022, https://elle.ua/ludi/novosty/gromadska-organizaciya-zhovta-strichka-organizovue-onlayn-miting-na-pidtrimku-ukrainskogo-hersona.
29 Olexander Scherba (@olex_scherba), Twitter post, July 3, 2022, https://twitter.com/olex_scherba/status/1543689118814797825?s=20&t=J1GXU6r-xqGDZ4f_L52jmQ.
30 “На Херсонщині окупанти викрали 63 посадовців і близько 300 активістів” [In the Kherson Region, the Occupiers Kidnapped Sixty-Three Officials and About 300 Activists], Zmina, July 25, 2022, https://zmina.info/news/na-hersonshhyni-okupanty-vykraly-63-chynovnykiv-i-blyzko-300-aktyvistiv.
31 “«Щось в рота залили і повісили». Що відомо про розправу окупантів над жителькою Скадовська?” [“They Poured Something in her Mouth and Hanged Her.” What Is Known About the Killing of a Skadovsk Local by the Occupiers?], Radio Svoboda, October 24, 2022, https://www.radiosvoboda.org/a/novyny-pryazovya-skadovsk-zhinku-okupanti-vbyly-povisyly/32098107.html.