Yevhen Mahda: Moscow’s Hour Has Not Struck Yet

Russia is like a registration employee in a hospital. This person has the medical documentation of all the patients and knows their weaknesses. So the registration employee knocks the patients’ heads together and unleashes them on each other—says Yevhen Mahda, a Ukrainian political scientist, interviewed by Zbigniew Rokita.

ZBIGNIEW ROKITA: Four years have passed since the annexation of the Crimea and the beginning of the war in the East Ukraine, which has already claimed several thousand lives and created almost two million internal refugees. I will ask you perversely— what are the positives of these events?

YEVHEN MAHDA: The Russian aggression against Ukraine is stimulating for our country. And I mean here not only the Association Agreement or our declarations about our willingness to join the EU—the Ukrainian domestic and foreign policy has really changed due to the critical situation in our country and the Russian intervention in Syria. Obviously, having lost the Crimea and part of the Donbas, we did not start to develop faster, just as a man who had his leg amputated can’t say that he is completely healthy. But after 2014, the pro-Western factor in Ukraine was strengthened, many more Ukrainians want to join the European Union and NATO.

I will quote the data: according to the latest survey of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, 46 percent of Ukrainians support EU accession and 41 percent support NATO accession. Only 9 percent want Kyiv to integrate with the Russian project of the Customs Union (CU), while 32 percent want Ukraine to remain both outside the EU and the CU.

And you know what in my opinion would be an indicator of readiness to join the European Union apart from meeting formal criteria?


If rational Euroskeptics appeared in Ukraine—people who would speak critically about joining the EU, who would not demand a rushed, immediate accession. The case of our Euro-integration is a situation where the process is more important than the outcome. I believe that once we make this path and stand at that threshold of Brussels, the importance of EU accession will diminish in importance. For if we change our reality—the economy, social life, and so forth—to a degree satisfying the formal criteria, then even without joining the EU we will feel like Europeans. And this integration is progressing. We already have visa-free travel.

The Donbas and Crimea electorate, which supported (generally speaking) pro-Russian forces, has to a large measure disappeared. Many intellectuals, especially from the west of Ukraine, claim that there is an alternative: either European integration or territorial integrity. So to what extent did the new situation help Ukraine to become a more Central European country, shifting its center to the west?

It is true that the constituency of Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of the Regions has vanished. On the other hand, another process is going on: Ukrainian society is very tired of the war. In Ukraine there is a higher demand for populism, for quick fixes, than in an average European country. And there is another thing that makes us different: although our society waits for the end of the conflict in Donbas, an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians do not ask for peace at any price. My Western colleagues say that if a conflict in their countries would claim so many victims, negotiations with terrorists would have already started. But Ukrainians will not make such a decision.

You once said that no European integration project without Ukraine could be complete— what did you mean by that?

How Europe can call itself united if one of the largest countries of the continent remains outside the EU? The V4 countries made their European choice, but so did Ukraine.

How can you be helped in this escape from the East by Visegrad countries and the Visegrad Group as a whole?

These states should be the main partners of the Ukraine in the EU. All of them, and especially Poland, have shown how to achieve success through integrating with the European Union. In Ukraine we know how big benefits it has brought— we look at them across the fence. But the attitude of the V4 countries to Kyiv has changed in recent years. If at the economic forum in Polish Krynica in the autumn of 2016 there was a meeting of the Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman with prime ministers from the Visegrad Group (also Jarosław Kaczyński made an informal appearance there), today the V4 has become perhaps not an obstacle, but definitely not an area most favorable to Ukraine.

In what sense?

For Ukraine, the Visegrad countries are not a fragment of a motorway where it can achieve a higher speed of integration with the European Union. The changes we see in the rhetoric of Hungarians, to a lesser degree Poles, and to a still lesser degree Czechs and Slovaks are a problem for Ukraine.

What has this change resulted from?

From the fact that Ukraine is reforming itself. Because as long as we were weak
and made some vague declarations, our neighbors were calm about it, thinking
that it was just talk. But once our country started becoming more muscular, it sparked a sharp reaction among our neighbors. Our neighbors want to defend their interests and their instruments of influence in Ukraine.

So in your view your neighbors are afraid that a strong country will emerge next door?

We can’t expect that our economy will suddenly shoot up like a rocket. The reforms are not always successful, the war is going on—even if fewer people are killed than, say, three years ago, they are still killed every week, sometimes every day. Ukrainian defense spending is more than five percent of the GDP—none of our Visegrad neighbors lays out so much for this purpose. All this hampers our development rate. But the potential of Ukraine is large. And the V4 countries understand that very well.

When exactly did the attitude of the V4 countries to Ukraine change?

Recently. Sometime in the late 2016 and early 2017. It became obvious that Ukraine would survive. I suspect that the Kremlin made a behind-the-scenes offer to the Visegrad countries to join the partition of Ukraine. Taking control over our whole country is a hard nut to crack for the Russians, but its dismembering—it would be a triumph of Russian diplomacy. But I will tell you something that will surprise you—for Kyiv the change of attitude of the V4 countries is a good sign.

The Kremlin has learned to exploit democratic procedures for its purposes.


It shows that Ukraine has become an equal actor in interstate relations.

Okay, but what is there to be joyful about? The lesser support of EU members for your Euro-integration and strengthening Kyiv?

I don’t believe that Visegrad countries will withdraw their support for the integration
of Kyiv with the West. Especially from the point of view of Poland and to a slightly lesser degree Hungary, which have long borders with Ukraine, moving the eastern frontier of the European Union 1000 kilometres to the east is good. The countries of the region will define their positions: in some issues they will support us and in some not.

To what extent did Russia succeed in supporting the creation of a negative image of Ukraine and Ukrainians in Visegrad countries after the dignity revolution?

It is true that Russia is involved in that, but its role in the process is not decisive. Because anti-Ukrainian sentiments exist anyway: mainly in Poland and Hungary, and to a lesser extent in Czechia and Slovakia. The two former countries have longer borders with Ukraine (the Czechs don’t have it at all) and more developed economic relations with Kyiv, and this makes them more susceptible to such sentiments. And now look—both Warsaw and Budapest have tense relations with Brussels, but they can’t afford to completely destroy them. So they have to show to their voters that there is a country where it is worse and at the same time it is a country close to home. Ukraine perfectly ts this prescription.

Let’s go back to the Russian influence.

Russia is like a registration employee in a hospital. This person has the medical documentation of all the patients and knows their weaknesses. So the registration employee knocks the patients’ heads together and unleashes them on each other. Poland feels the presence of roughly one million Ukrainians. For an almost monoethnic country it is a challenge. True, migrants from across the Bug don’t look like those from Africa or the Middle East, but they still can annoy Poles by their presence. The Russians have a full menu at their disposal, containing historical problems, playing on the fear that Ukrainians will take away jobs from Poles, xenophobia and so forth. On top of it, Moscow supports various radicals and Poland and Hungary, who promote this ideology.

And in your view the Visegrad countries are aware of the threat posed by Russia?

I have an impression that from the Visegrad perspective, what is sometimes called the “dictate of Brussels” seems more dangerous than Russia. The latter generally does not make hostile gestures against Visegrad countries. The hour has not struck yet when Moscow will demonstrate to what extent it is able to influence the European Union. For I think that the EU sanctions imposed on Russia will be weakened in December 2018. In order to achieve that, the Kremlin will use the influence it has on Euroskeptics in the EU, and downgrading the sanctions will show the weakness of the European Union, strengthening the populists and the Euroskeptics before the elections to the European Parliament planned for May 2019. The Kremlin has learned to exploit democratic procedures for its purposes.

The attitude of the V4 countries to Kyiv has changed in recent years.

A lot is said about what Visegrad countries can give to Ukraine—for example the transition experience. Less is said about what Kyiv can offer in return. But it occurred to me that it could also share a certain experience— how to run a hybrid war. You wrote two widely publicized books about it.

Yes, and we can show this experience not only to the V4 countries, but to all those which are interested. We have paid the highest price for this knowledge. For us the Visegrad countries may serve as an airlock through which European ideas, investments and business will flow into Ukraine. Who in the European Union understands what Ukraine is better than the V4 countries? And your integration experience is a lesson for us, for here not all politicians—let alone ordinary citizens—understand that Euro-integration is a difficult process.

It is not integration with Russian structures.

Integration with the EU requires unpopular decisions. There will be no more popular reforms, only the unpopular ones remain to be implemented.

And is there a feeling in Ukraine that some leaders of the Visegrad countries don’t treat you with respect? Such as Viktor Orbán, who in the era of the annexation of the Crimea calls for autonomy for the Hungarian’s in Transcarpathia. Such as Miloš Zeman, who says the war in Donbas is a civil war Russia is not interfering with. Such as Jarosław Kaczyński, who reduces entire bilateral relations to history, claiming that “we will not enter Europe with Bandera”; and so forth.

They address these words mostly to their voters. You speak about Kaczyński, the same person who during the dignity revolution a few years ago shouted “glory to Ukraine” at the Maidan. Ukraine will not beg for respect. Instead it should act in such a way that this respect would simply appear.

So if there is no fundamental change of circumstances, when could your accession take place?

In some 10 or 20 years. Let’s say that in a “10+” perspective.

After the revolution of dignity people started talking about a possible joining of the Visegrad Group by Ukraine as a full member. It was postulated by Petro Poroshenko and supported by the Polish Foreign Minister of that time, Grzegorz Schetyna. Do you think there were chances for that?

It is obvious that a format where four countries belong to the EU and NATO
and the fifth does not, is not very realistic. Therefore in the context of the V4 cooperation a good idea would be to copy the model existing in the relations between Ukraine and NATO—we are the closest partner of the alliance among the countries outside it.

Polish leaders meet the French and German ones under the Weimar Triangle. Perhaps an equally good idea as the V4 cooperation would be an analogous Vilnius-Kyiv-Warsaw triangle? After all, there are more common issues between these three than Kyiv has, for example, with Prague.

Yes, it would be good to create such a format of cooperation. And we have things to build on—like the several-thousand-strong Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian brigade. But it would be better for the initiative of calling up such a triangle to come from Lithuanians or Poles as members of the European Union.

And what is the place of the Visegrad countries in the Ukrainian foreign policy?

United States come first, then European Union as a whole, then Germany. And the fourth place is occupied perhaps not by all Visegrad countries, but definitely by Poland.
In Ukraine only experts are aware of the V4’s existence. The soft power of this organization is also limited, it boils down to the International Visegrad Fund grants for non-governmental organizations. You will not find the V4 logo in Kyiv. Ukrainians perceive your four countries separately. And there is no channel for information flow which would help Ukrainians to get to know the V4 countries.

How could we change it?

We need an information agency, a kind of Visegrad-Info, and a mechanism for information transfer. It is important that at the level of Ukrainian districts and regions (for example through local press) we are able to learn about your Euro-integration experience, to get to know our Visegrad neighbors and to find a common language. And the best method of fighting against fake news in this context is not restrictions, but making sure that Ukrainians know more about their neighbors.

Yevhen Mahda

is an Ukrainian political scientist, director of the Kyiv Institute of Global Policy. Author of im- portant books, including Гібридна війна: вижити та перемогти (Hybrid war: to survive and win), Kharkiv 2015.

Zbigniew Rokita

Zbigniew Rokita is a Polish reporter. He specializes in the issues of Central and Eastern Europe and Upper Silesia. In 2021, he was awarded the Nike Literary Award for the book Kajś. Tales about Upper Silesia (2020).

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