KYIV, Ukraine—Painted white body outlines cover the ground at the intersection of Mykhaila Hrushevskoho Street and Petrivs’ka Alley in Kyiv’s city center; a grim reminder of where protesters died during Ukraine’s 2014, pro-European revolution.
Nearby, a building that overlooks the intersection bears the mural of a girl peering through binoculars. Representing Ukraine’s national colors, the blue and yellow scarf around the girl’s neck is blown backward by the wind in her face. The binoculars’ glass reflects an image of what the girl is looking at from a distance—it is the EU’s flag.
“While the United Kingdom has supposedly learned the price of staying in the EU, Ukraine is willing to pay it, no matter how high it is, just to escape the long-term grasp of Russia,” Ukrainian diplomat Markian Lubkivskyi told The Daily Signal.
At the cost of about 130 lives, Ukraine’s February 2014 Revolution of Dignity toppled a pro-Russian president and set the country on a trajectory toward one day joining the European Union.
Today, after more than five years of constant combat against a combined force of pro-Russian separatists and Russian regulars in its eastern Donbas region, Ukraine is still paying the price for its pro-European pivot away from Russian influence. To date, the war has killed more than 13,000 Ukrainians.
“Ukraine is trying to move away from an aggressor and its long-time overlord that killed millions of Ukrainians, repressed them, and is still manipulating them today,” Lubkivskyi said.
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of Europe, the U.K. remains embroiled in a messy divorce from the EU after 51.9% of British voters chose to leave the bloc in a June 2016 popular referendum.
“We have a joke—that for the European Union, it will be rather easy to change U.K. to UA,” said Ukrainian diplomat Anna Kozyarska, referring to Ukraine’s two-letter acronym.
It’s clear that Ukraine and the United Kingdom are on diverging paths when it comes to their future relations with the EU. So, at face value, it seems like Britons and Ukrainians are fighting for antagonistic dreams. Yet, these two stories underscore what many experts say is a larger trend of pro-sovereignty, anti-establishment movements taking root among democracies worldwide.
“I would say that Brexit and the Revolution of Dignity are two faces of a great class shift that is occurring in our societies, with new social classes battling out for the soul of their country, with different consequences—but revolutionary ones—in the two cases mentioned,” said Thibault Muzergues, a European political expert and author of the book “Class Quarters,” which examines social class upheavals in Western societies.
“The political representatives of these new classes wanted to take back control—and to a large extent managed to do so,” Muzergues added. “We see these trends very clearly in every other country in the West.”
In December 2013, protests erupted in Kyiv’s central square, the Maidan, over widespread discontent with the decision by Ukraine’s president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, to ditch a trade deal with the EU in favor of closer economic ties with Russia.
By February 2014, those street protests had escalated into a revolution calling for Yanukovych’s ouster.
For many Ukrainians, their country’s pro-European trajectory is an expression of a sovereign right to chart their own future free from Russian overlordship.
“The choice of [trying to join the] EU by Ukraine is indeed a re-establishment of Ukrainians as a European nation, as non-Russians—a certain juxtaposition to Russian overlords,” Ivan Lishchyna, deputy minister of justice of Ukraine, told The Daily Signal.
Conversely, the share of British voters who opted for Brexit largely see the EU’s overreaching bureaucracy as an affront to their national identity.
“If I was a Ukrainian, I would want to join the EU. If I was a Brit, I would want to leave,” said Luke Coffey, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy.
In Ukraine, mostly young, urban, intellectual activists have spearheaded the national movement to ditch Russia’s contemporary influence and erase the legacy of the Soviet Union. However, studies show that older, middle- and working-class British voters drove the “leave” vote on the Brexit referendum.
Despite the different demographics involved, many experts say that the same bedrock issues are responsible for the parallel upheavals of the political status quos in the U.K. and Ukraine. For one, the citizens of both countries are searching for the right balance between preserving national sovereignty and doing what’s best for their own economic and security interests.
“Every country In Europe has to ask itself when joining the EU if the benefits it receives from membership are worth the trade-off in sovereignty,” Coffey said.
“For a country like the U.K. … the trade-off in national sovereignty is probably not worth the benefits of EU membership,” Coffey said. “For other countries like Ukraine, who have a very difficult geopolitical and historical situation … the more layers of Western institutions they can be a part of, the more secure they will feel.”
Moreover, British and Ukrainian voters have both thumbed their noses at what they perceive to be aloof, elitist political establishments.
For Britons, that anti-establishment fervor led to the “leave” vote prevailing in 2016. For Ukrainians, rebuking the political establishment has shown itself in different ways. First, the 2014 revolution symbolized Ukrainians’ rejection of Yanukovych’s pro-Russian bent, as well as their disapproval of the corrupt, oligarchic system that had dominated Ukraine’s post-Soviet democracy.
On Sunday, Ukrainians continued their upheaval of the post-Soviet political order by electing a comedian with no political experience to be their next president. A native Russian speaker of Jewish heritage, Volodymyr Zelensky won by a landslide against incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, who has been a fixture on Ukraine’s political scene since the 1990s.
Poroshenko has been a champion of Ukraine’s aspirations to one day join the EU and NATO. Zelensky, for his part, said he’s committed to maintaining Ukraine’s EU membership aspirations.
Yet, Zelensky’s victory marked a sea change in Ukraine’s post-Soviet politics, showing that voters are hungry for change and willing to consider candidates outside the mainstream political caste.
“I can see [a] certain similarity between Brexit … and the popularity of Zelensky,” Lishchyna said.
Initially, the EU was conceived in the wake of World War II as a means to interweave the economies and interests of European countries for the sake of a durable peace.
The U.K. voluntarily joined the European Economic Community—the EU’s predecessor—in 1973. Ukraine, on the other hand, was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922 after a bloody civil war.
Ukraine achieved independence from Soviet rule in 1991, but Moscow still maintained strong influence over the country for nearly a quarter century.
“The United Kingdom was sovereign, independent, and later became a part of the EU, while Ukraine only got its independence 28 years ago from an oppressing state of the Soviet Union. The country didn’t have a chance to yet experience the EU, and is willing to make great changes to have this experience,” said Lubkivskyi, the Ukrainian diplomat.
In the months that followed the 2014 revolution, Russia invaded and seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and launched a war in the country’s eastern Donbas region. More than five years later, the conflict has not reversed Ukraine’s pro-European pivot.
In fact, a February constitutional amendment enshrined in law the country’s long-term geopolitical objectives to join the EU and NATO.
“I see my own strategic mission as to guarantee the irreversibility of the European and Euro-Atlantic integration. To submit an application for EU membership and to acquire a plan of action for NATO membership no later than 2023,” Poroshenko, the country’s outgoing president, said in an address to parliament.
Against that backdrop, the U.K.’s trade-offs in sovereignty for the sake of EU membership pale in comparison to the sovereignty Ukraine is trying to regain by abandoning Moscow’s dominion for the sake of a possible future in the EU.
For her part, Kozyarska, the Ukrainian diplomat, contested the notion that EU membership requires a trade-off in sovereignty. Brexit “is not about gaining historical sovereignty, it’s about a deep, internal political crisis,” Kozyarska said.
With World War II’s toll fading as a living memory, the security reasons behind the EU’s conception have taken a back seat to the bloc’s contemporary economic utility for its members in a globalized market.
For the U.K., therefore, EU membership is no longer seen as a hedge against another war with Germany. Rather, the question of whether to quit the bloc has centered around the impact on the U.K.’s economic bottom line and the preservation of national identity.
“I would not necessarily agree that the movement is to ditch an overreaching overlord in the case of Britain, mainly because Britain was much more independent from the EU than Ukraine from Russia,” Muzergues said. “But what is interesting here, I think, is that there are parts of the population that were dissatisfied with the status quo and were numerous enough to push—and impose—change at the national level.
Ukrainians generally don’t share Western Europeans’ historical amnesia when it comes to the threat of another war in Europe. After all, Europe’s only ongoing land war has been fought on Ukrainian soil since 2014. And, for Ukraine’s middle-aged and older generations, the Soviet Union is still a living memory.
Today, many Ukrainians see Russia as a former colonizer and a contemporary invader.
The war, for its part, has propelled Ukraine’s economic and social divorce from Russia and galvanized the country’s democratic civil society to flourish in ways it never had in the post-Soviet quarter century.
Consequently, many Ukrainians regard membership in the EU not only as a path toward prosperity, but as a defense mechanism against Russian aggression, too.
“We are ready to fight further, ready in which case we will again defend our land,” said Bogdan Fedyn, a 24-year-old Ukrainian war veteran.
Since the 2014 revolution, “the percentage of conscious, patriotic people has increased several times, so we will not allow a change to our European vector,” Fedyn said.
No Turning Back?
Brexit was supposed to happen on March 29, but political infighting left London without a deal with Brussels on the terms of its departure. To avoid a so-called no-deal Brexit, British and EU lawmakers have approved two delays to the final withdrawal date. The current deadline is Oct. 31.
The debacle of Brexit negotiations has raised the specter of another referendum on the matter, as well as the prospect of a watered-down settlement, in which Brussels would retain some of its sway over the British economy.
Critics of Brexit say that advocates of the 2016 referendum painted a deceptively rosy picture of what leaving the EU would look like in practice, and it appears as if popular support for quitting the bloc has waned.
A recent amalgamation of six British polls from March to April put British support for Brexit at 46%, while 54% of respondents said they’d rather stay in the EU.
For their part, Ukrainians are more single-minded in their support for joining the EU than the British people are for leaving it—but not by much.
A poll released in January by the International Republican Institute, a U.S. think tank, found that in December 2018, 47% of Ukrainians had “warm” feelings toward the EU—down from 54% in June 2017.
Similarly, the share of Ukrainians with “warm” feelings toward the U.S. dropped from 47% in June 2017 to 36% in December 2018.
According to the International Republican Institute poll, 53% of Ukrainians currently support joining the EU, and 44% support joining NATO.
Many Ukrainians say that a return to Russia’s sphere of influence is impossible—after five years of war, there’s simply too much bad blood to reverse course.
However, Ukraine’s divorce from Russian influence does not guarantee a wholehearted embrace of the West. Massive Chinese investments in Ukraine’s transportation infrastructure as part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative provide a countervailing tug on Ukraine’s geopolitical priorities, which could siphon political energy away from European integration efforts.
It’s clear the geopolitical momentum of today is not an irreversible trajectory for either country’s future.
However, despite all the headwinds, Ukrainians and Britons now find themselves in the middle of historic changes, which might have seemed unlikely, or even impossible, just a few years ago.
“I believe the U.K. and Ukraine are both setting foot on a new and beneficial paths individually … both of them seek to move away from the old ways and find economic development, peace, and prosperity,” Lubkivskyi said. “No matter what is the final choice of the people, both countries are reasserting their sovereignty.”