Social Cohesion, the vital ground of the Ukraine war

Are Ukrainian societal fault linesholding against tectonic Russian pressure?

Russia’s short-term aspirations, frustrated by phenomenal Ukrainian resilience and unity, have turned to a longer-term approach. By continuously applying destabilising pressure, Russia aims to erode Ukraine’s social cohesion and weaken its resilient defiance. Russia’s aggression has targeted the full Maslowvian hierarchy to deprive Ukrainians of basic shelter and security, water, food and power, loved ones, and a clear economic future. On the front lines artillery strikes often target humanitarian aid agencies or the State Emergency Service of Ukraine (SESU). Daily shelling and airstrikes drive people into shelters across the country, and a deliberate targeting of power generation infrastructure has left even Kyiv with 4-6 hours of electricity a day. The number of war dead and wounded has reshaped Ukrainian society with a notable dearth of middle-aged men in the streets, Veterans and IDPs arriving in unfamiliar provinces and a mingling of culturally distinct East and West Oblasts.

Despite over two years of relentless pressure, the Ukrainian state and it identity as a David figure endure, but signs of strain, war-weariness, and community-state frustration are emerging.

In this article TAG examines these fault lines, exploring how resilience can be understood and bolstered to help Ukraine withstand this prolonged, inhumane pressure.

Ukraine: a current perspective

Ukraine presents a textbook case study in the balance between centrifugal and centripetal power. Since the full scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, (which I am regularly reminded was not the start of this war), the country has been pulled in both directions: rapid power centralisation to the Martial Government, delivered through Oblast-level Military Administrations, alongside the strong community level identity of Ukranians tied to their homes at the decreasingly powerful Hromada level.

The Ukrainian government has had to centralise certain aspects of military and administrative control to effectively respond to the Russian threat. This has been highly successful in areas such as cyber resilience of Critical National Infrastructure, where a rapid transition to a centralised cloud ecosystem has enabled a high level of defensive control by centrally patching vulnerabilities and enforcing updates.

But Ukraine continues to face challenges in ensuring that this centralisation does not erode democratic institutions and civil liberties in the long term. Most people left living in front line territories are retirees, whose only real connection to the central state is pension payments and humanitarian support brought by SESU. For them and their families, who refuse to leave war torn and heavily shelled towns, resilience is about the basic provision of food and water, the ability to farm fields now full of ordinance, and the mobile post office truck that allows them to collect their pension. Even here Russia attacks social cohesion, offering those in Temporary Occupied Territories (TOTs) 3x the pension than that offered by the Ukrainian state.

Mobilisation is the principal topic of contention among Ukrainians with the recent updates to the mobilisation law imposing heavy restrictions on men not yet called up. Many young people are actively avoiding military involvement, reduced to hiding in parents houses and not able to travel due to fear of being registered. Ham-fisted mishandlings by mobilisation enforcement officers have been splashed all over social media pages, showing men dragged from their homes in a stark contrast to the desired image of Ukrainian unity. The principal issue with mobilisation is that there is no end in sight, no vision of success clear in peoples heads. As the law currently stands once you are mobilised you fight till the end, be it death, injury or victory.

Ukrainian citizens in TOTs have already been “filtered” with the majority being forcibly mobilised or detained. Feeling cut off from the Ukrainian state, those who do continue to live in the TOTs sometimes find their way across the front lines and back into Ukraine, only to be subjected to further “filtration” from a cautious state security service. The Collaborators law is a contentious example of the eternal balance of national security and human rightswith many hostile Russian agents presenting a genuine threat amongst the majority of innocent civilians fleeing a hostile occupier. 

The military is the primary focus for the state, with up to 50% of basic resources heavily prioritised for the Armed Forces, leaving many civilians in need. This has led to informal coordination and prioritisation of resources between Oblasts and a growing power imbalance between military administrations at the Oblast level and local governance at the Hromada level.

The nexus between empowered local communities and a centralised Government is the vital ground of social cohesion. It underpins national identity while democratic principles provide the morale backbone of Ukraine resistance to foreign aggression. Historical examples underscore the importance of vigilance and the establishment of safeguards to ensure that the centralisation of power does not become a permanent feature and erode this trust and unity.

Social Cohesion; the vital ground between national security and resilience.

As the country seeks to balance immediate wartime needs with long-term resilience, building trust between the people and central and local governments is paramount. As the war drags on, questions arise regarding the importance of occupied territories, the cost of life that has been paid, the future of military aspirations, and whether the future is pro-European and pro-democratic. These pressures impact social cohesion, particularly at the intra-community level. Zelenksy’s declining approval ratings indicates a change in how Ukrainians relate to their centralised, western-backed, pro-Europe government. The question now is, how can Ukraine navigate this balance by engaging in bottom-up processes to address local priorities and ensue effective resource allocation? We have developed 7 principles that might relieve Russian pressure and support Ukrainian cohesion.

1. Ensuring Local Priorities in Recovery Planning

One critical aspect of building trust is ensuring that central government decisions reflect local priorities, particularly in recovery and liberation efforts. Local governments, even those in exile, need to have a voice in planning processes to ensure that grassroots’ needs and perspectives are considered. This approach not only fosters trust and legitimacy but also enhances the effectiveness of recovery efforts by aligning them with the specific conditions and requirements . Mechanisms to incorporate local voices and insights, such as the advisory and steering groups of one of our Ukrainian partner organisations Ednannia, help identify critical infrastructure needs and prioritise areas for reconstruction. This inclusiveness ensures that the central government’s efforts are perceived as supportive rather than imposing, fostering a collaborative spirit essential for national unity.

2. Prioritising Resources for Affected Communities

Effective resource allocation is another cornerstone of building trust. The central government must prioritise resources strategically, understanding and addressing the needs of those communities most affected by the war. Transparent criteria for resource distribution can help mitigate perceptions of favouritism or neglect, ensuring that all affected areas receive the necessary support for recovery and reconstruction. SESUs role in the humanitarian support of frontline communities is prominent but the perception of the Armed Forces being prioritised over the people creates tension now the war has entered a long-term siege mentality.

The allocation of resources should be data-driven, focusing on areas with the most significant damage and the highest needs. By doing so, the central government can demonstrate its commitment to equitable recovery and rebuild trust with local populations.

3. Improving Coordination and Connectivity

Enhancing coordination and connectivity between local and national authorities is crucial for effective governance. Technologies such as StarLink can play a pivotal role in maintaining robust communication channels, ensuring that local governments can consult with national authorities on recovery plans and major issues. Visible and effective consultation processes, involving community input on matters like public transport, road repair and job creation, can help ensure that post-liberation policies are grounded in local realities. This engagement can foster a sense of ownership and responsibility among local populations, further strengthening trust in the central government.

4. Developing a Locally Nuanced National Narrative

A critical component of fostering national unity is developing a narrative around national identity that resonates with local communities. This narrative should celebrate the heroic actions of citizens and highlight the historical significance of each community within the broader Ukrainian history. Collaborating with local media can help disseminate this narrative, creating a sense of civic pride and belonging. By acknowledging the contributions of local communities to the national struggle, the central government can build a more inclusive and cohesive national identity while facing pervasive Russian communication campaigns.

5. Enhancing Security and CIMIC

Visible and effective security, especially in border areas, is essential for maintaining stability and rebuilding trust. After incidents like the current Russian advances on Kharkiv, improving Civil-Military Cooperation (CIMIC) is crucial. Enhanced CIMIC efforts can help address the security concerns of local populations, demonstrating the central government’s commitment to their safety and well-being. A lot of the humanitarian load falls to SESU who as a civil entity under the MOI is required to coordinate directly with Military and Armed Force commands directly. This is particularly challenging where Brigade boundaries do not align with administrative boundaries, which is common along the frontline.

6. Supporting local government staff capacity and return

The central government must support and incentivise the return of local government staff to liberated and frontline areas. Understaffing and lack of expertise in provision of local services is a significant issue, particularly as many financially secure individuals and families with children have relocated to the West. Providing attractive incentives for these individuals to return can help address this challenge, ensuring that local governments are adequately staffed to manage recovery efforts.

7. Resourced evacuation and social services plans

Properly resourced evacuation plans for communities in vulnerable areas are essential for effective crisis management. Additionally, providing robust legal, security, and social services in liberated areas is crucial for addressing post-liberation concerns such as land ownership disputes, dealing with collaborators, and handling mass trauma.

These “soft” resources complement the “hard” infrastructure necessary for reconstruction, ensuring a holistic approach to recovery that addresses both material and social needs.

Conclusion

Building trust between central and local governments in preparation for post-conflict Ukraine requires a multifaceted approach. This must address local priorities, ensure fair resource distribution, enhance coordination, and foster a cohesive national identity. By focusing on these areas, Ukraine can navigate the delicate balance between centralisation and decentralisation, ensuring both effective governance and the preservation of social cohesion between local communities and their central Government. The solution does not lie in either consolidated central power or in distributed community empowerment but in balancing the two though a cohesive national identity, which is the moral component of Ukraine’s fighting power.