Remembering and Forgetting the Conflict in Ukraine: Recollections from a Grimshaw Trip

Julia Slupska, a 3rd year international relation student, led a Grimshaw delegation of eighteen LSE students to Kiev, Ukraine and Warsaw, Poland in March.

When the other trip organisers and I were brainstorming risks in the trip we were planning to Kiev and Warsaw, we imagined scenarios we knew where unrealistic: separatist attacks, FSB abductions, sudden imposition of martial law.[1] In the end, the parts of the trip that were the most concerning were logistical difficulties (dividing a dinner bill in between eighteen broke students seemed at least as tense and complicated as the negotiations surrounding Minsk 2) and how quickly it ended.

A mural in Kiev.

A mural in Kiev.

I had initially been spurred to organize the trip by the gap in the way the problem was perceived in Poland – where Putin’s actions represented an obvious and serious threat – and London, where it was increasingly seen as last month’s crisis: something confusing happening in a cold, faraway place. This was the most frustrating among my more loudly lefty friends, who had happily retweeted photos and slogans from Maidan as an exciting example of students fighting the Man, but now, when the conversation turned to long-term aid, sanctions, and military strategy, would mutter vaguely about nationalism and regrettable Cold War mindsets. I wanted to travel to Kiev and meet as many people as possible to clarify my own opinion amidst the mess of facts and counter-facts, but also to drive home the importance of this conflict to as many of my fellow students as possible.

Grimshaw members at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square.)

Grimshaw members at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square.)

Consequently, when perhaps I should have been trying to glean insights on the crisis, I was very interested in the impact of the meetings on our motley LSE delegation. We had an interesting group: largely British, American and Polish, but also a Peruvian, Korean, Ukranian and several of the four-nationality mixes you commonly find in IR departments. Considering the wide variety of perspectives, one thing that surprised me was the relative lack of critical opinions: the cynical explanation being that in a group with three Polish leaders, people felt reluctant to ask skeptical questions about the Ukrainian government or Russian aggression. The Russian ambassador in Warsaw seemed deeply committed to cementing our preconceptions: gruff, vaguely threatening, faithful to the official line, and flanked by a goateed bodyguard in a shiny suit. He was beautifully contrasted by the diplomatic aide who showered us with coffee and cakes before the meeting, chatting cheerily about the lavish décor of the Embassy (telling us about the high fashion catwalk that had been set up there last year). A real life teddy-bear diplomat, he made us want to pat him on the back and assure him we would one day visit Crimea as he suggested.

Grimshaw members at the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.

Grimshaw members at the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.

A less cynical, and I think truer, explanation was that the members of the trip, myself very much included, were genuinely convinced by the meetings and the work people we met with described, especially those that represented the new, young Ukrainian government. For example, Inna Sovsun, the Deputy Minister of Education (and the youngest Deputy Minister in Ukraine’s history) talked frankly and intriguingly about the frustration involved in tackling corruption leftover from the previous leadership when the judicial system itself is still largely corruptible. It was difficult to feel anything but empathy and admiration for Inna, which her copious swear words, big clunky glasses and astounding humility: when asked if she had been involved in Maidan, she responded “not at all” – because in fact she had been stuck in an office coordinating a civil society watch group to guard over those injured protesters who had been taken to hospitals, in case the Yanukovych government tried to seize them from their hospital beds. She seemed like a poster child for a hopeful future – too good to be true. Yet she had not been suggested by some savvy member of the hypothetical Ukrainian propaganda machine: this was a meeting we had arranged almost by accident, because a friend of mine worked with her secretary.

Ripped up cobblestones at Maidan.

Ripped up cobblestones at Maidan.

The entire week was fast and exhausting: we would rush to up to four meetings a day on foot, by taxi, and via Kiev’s Soviet-era tube system. Kiev, compared to us, seemed serene: a common comment among trip members was ‘Ukraine does not seem like a country at war.’ Despite several soldiers we saw walking around, and the carts raising donations for the war effort, Kiev was sunny and peaceful. At the same time, everyone we met with was living in various aspects of the conflict: so we felt like we were living it too. Various debates we had never been aware of (and might never have found interesting) became fascinating when presented by practitioners: Ukrainian monetary policy, the issue of creating Russian language television stations, which territories the OSCE is able to access, the differences between the British and American diplomatic approach.

However, the moment we got on the plane to Poland, the mood of the trip changed significantly. For one thing the problems of language, currency, and transportation would ease now that we were in Warsaw, a city we (the trip organisers) knew well. But the tone of the meetings transformed as well: the conflict in Ukraine seemed much more distant, less urgent. The discussion shifted to the interests of other actors: Poland, the EU, even China. At the European Council of Foreign Relations, a researcher told us the fundamental problem in the conflict was that Ukraine simply matters more to Russia than it does to the EU, no matter how much Polish and Baltic delegates may disagree. The problem lies at least partially in a democratic deficit: many of the sanctions against Russia were passed without the permission or even interest of EU majorities. This seemed reminiscent of the complaints of the Ukraine Media Crisis Center, which had been set up during Euromaidan to inform Western and domestic audiences, and felt constantly outgunned by the innovative disinformation campaign that springs up mysteriously around each breaking news story. These campaigns do not necessarily aim to convince the reader of any particular approach – in fact there seemed to be five or six explanations for each event – but rather to create confusion and simple mental exhaustion in anyone attempting to follow the events. These stories created the illusion of a moral grey area in a faraway, cold, and above all bewildering place, pushing Western audiences to disengage.

One of the trip leaders, Christopher Cmoch, showing the group around Warsaw.

One of the trip leaders, Christopher Cmoch, showing the group around Warsaw.

I thought I felt a similar frustration after the trip ended: after the exhausting, beguiling week, everyone returned home, concentrating on getting some semblance of rest before the oncoming flood of exam revision and job applications. And the tangle of details, contradictions and nuances I had amassed faded into memories rather than pressing realities: the strongest insight I had retained seemed to be that combatting Western crisis fatigue was in some ways a problem as pressing and complicated as Russian tanks. But, of course, I had gained much more than that: a network both of professionals in Kiev and Warsaw and of students which a strong interest in the conflict. Furthermore, I believe I have a much better understanding of the region and the conflict, and much more respect for International Relations as a fascinating and useful subject. Although it was a huge effort, I highly encourage anyone (even if you were not previously a Grimshaw member) who is interested to lead a Grimshaw trip; please contact myself or Nia Clark (our Trip Officer) for more details!

Julia Slupska / President / J.Slupska@lse.ac.uk

Nia Clark / Trip Officer / N.L.Clark@lse.ac.uk
[1] I did end negotiating the effects of Poroshenko’s proposed martial law with our insurance company in by far the most surreal service call I’ve conducted.

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