Public Commentary / 13 April 2022

Ukrainian and Russian Narratives Must Evolve for Diplomacy to Succeed

Diplomats should focus as much on the Ukrainian and Russian narratives as they do on the substance of the negotiations.

As the war in Ukraine grinds on, entering a deadlier stage, with a protracted stalemate in the offering, both sides are gaining strength from their narratives. But these narratives are also blocking the compromises necessary to end the bloodshed and economic devastation.

Narratives are stories we tell ourselves and share with our communities to justify our views, behavior, and collective actions. Simple narratives that paint the other side as the villain mobilize the collective action necessary to defend a territory or sustain an attack but make the restoration of peace difficult. Only more complex and diverse stories that allow more nuance for each side’s perspective can shift this dynamic.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy President Zelensky has very effectively promoted a unifying narrative, galvanizing Ukrainians – historically known for being divided on a number of issues – to collectively stand up to one of the largest and best-equipped armies in the world. Zelensky has also managed to garner the most support ever provided by Western nations to a country at war, short of entering the war themselves.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin has made Ukraine the linchpin of recovering Russia’s lost glory. Ukraine was the second-most powerful state in the Soviet Union and the two peoples have intertwined histories. Ukraine falling under Russia’s control would show the world that the Russian empire is back. As such, Putin has taken to proclaiming that Kyiv is controlled by Nazis, accusing Ukrainians of committing genocide against Russians, and portraying today’s Russian army as the WWII liberator. This approach has worked – recent polls out of Russia indicate that the war has a good amount of popular support.

Changing this dynamic to advance peace negotiations will not be easy. But, helping both sides acknowledge and incorporate more complex narratives can lay the groundwork. In war, there is a victim and a villain, whereas peace demands that more diverse stories become visible. It also calls for both parties to avoid demonizing the other and to de-escalate polarizing issues, so they are no longer framed as life-or-death matters.

In Ukraine, these polarizing issues include, among others, the country’s neutrality, its decentralization, and the use of the Russian language. Rather than seeing neutral status as a defeat, stories should emphasize that many highly successful countries are neutral, such as Finland, Sweden, and Austria. Similarly, rather than portraying decentralization and the differentiation of each region’s status according to the composition of its population as a loss of sovereignty, stories could point to the example of the United Kingdom or Indonesia – countries that have given a level of autonomy to certain regions as an accepted way to manage their multiethnic nations.

It will be very challenging for Ukraine’s government to switch to a more diverse narrative without demobilizing combatants after a month of war. Also, Zelensky cannot give the impression that he is giving in, especially since evidence has emerged of a civilian massacre in Bucha. But, he status he has earned in leading the extraordinary resistance in the war provides him with some leeway that he needs to use skillfully.

In Russia, the war is currently popular, just as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were popular in the United States when they started. It is when the toll of war hits home and it becomes apparent that Russia has not achieved all its goals that the narrative will start changing. Despite its efforts to hide the truth, the Kremlin will soon have no option but to adapt its narratives on Ukraine. Many signs show it is starting to do exactly that.

Russians need to hear multiple narratives of hope that move them away from the narrative of loss and humiliation attached to the breakup of the Soviet Union. They need to hear that Russia has the potential to be a great and respected nation through economic improvement, better management of the economy, and less corruption, and sharing an outstanding culture with the world. Such narratives need to show that grandeur is possible without having to recreate the old Russian colonial empire. Cracks in the official narrative that are starting to show could create an opportunity for such stories to reach the broader Russian public.

Opinion leaders in Russia and Ukraine—including Russia’s West-leaning intelligentsia, who have begun to leave the country in mass—have an important responsibility to shaping and spreading these complex narratives among the broader populations. Western governments and media can support such efforts by being open to more diverse and less polarized discourse. And mediators, such as Turkey and Israel, should remind each side of the importance of the issue. As the war evolves, and outsiders seek offramps, they need to focus as much on the narratives as they typically do on the substance of peace negotiations. After all, each side’s capacity for compromise depends on the stories that they are embedded in. Only more complex and diverse narratives will make such compromises possible.

Originally published in The National Interest.

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