At first glance, the entire Trump impeachment probe looks like terrible news for Ukraine. With Russian forces still firmly entrenched in the Donbas and Russian President Vladimir Putin eager to exploit the inexperience of the country’s new president, the last thing Ukraine needs now is a crisis in relations with its most important ally.
While the potential security implications of impeachment are ominous enough in their own right, the optics of the scandal are arguably even worse. As US coverage has intensified, Ukraine has become a byword for graft and political sleaze, with Trump’s defenders frequently dismissing the nation as “one of the most corrupt countries in the world.” This is not a winning message, by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, the fact remains that in the space of a few short months, the impeachment story has garnered Ukraine far more international attention than the country has enjoyed in the previous twenty-eight years of its independent existence. The question Ukrainians should now be asking themselves is whether there really is no such thing as bad publicity.
The true significance of the current global spotlight only becomes apparent when viewed in the context of Ukraine’s historic problems with international anonymity. This low profile is no accident. It is the product of longstanding and remarkably successful Russian efforts to suppress Ukrainian identity and prevent the emergence of a separate Ukrainian polity. Russia’s motives are not hard to grasp. After all, Ukraine’s perceived closeness to Russia involves issues of security, geography, ethnicity, and religion stretching back to a common foundation myth that sees both modern nations trace their roots from the early medieval Kyiv Rus state. This makes possession of Ukraine, along with Kyiv as the “mother of all Russian cities,” central to Russia’s own sense of self. Indeed, when viewed through the Russian prism, the real separatists in today’s Ukraine are the Ukrainians themselves.
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Since the seventeenth century, such thinking has led to everything from language bans and rigorous russification policies to mass deportations, population transfers, and forced famines. The drive to absorb Ukraine reached a tragic crescendo in the 1930s, when the Soviet authorities deliberately starved millions of Ukrainians to death while systematically executing the moral and intellectual leadership of the Ukrainian nation. Incredibly, Ukraine survived. However, evidence of this grim inheritance remains all too easy to identify. It is apparent in the complex political divisions of the diverse Ukrainian state that emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union and lies behind the continued dominance of traditional Russian historical narratives among outside audiences trying to make sense of the country.
The press frenzy surrounding the Trump impeachment inquiry presents Ukraine with an unparalleled international stage upon which to share its side of the story. There is certainly much to tell. Ukraine’s long journey toward statehood is an epic in its own right with the capacity to shock and awe even the most seasoned of observers. In the more recent past, the country’s volunteer miracle of 2014 appears tailor-made for Hollywood. The success of HBO’s spring 2019 Emmy award-winning television miniseries “Chernobyl” proves that there is an international audience for Ukrainian dramas. The challenge now is for Ukrainians themselves to take on the role of storytellers. This is not just a task for filmmakers and TV producers. On the contrary, everyone can get involved in the storytelling process, from journalists and academics to students and activists.
Beyond the banner headlines of Ukraine’s traumatic and triumphant national story, the country also has an abundance of contemporary hipster narratives that would instantly appeal to the Instagram generation. Indeed, representatives of Ukraine’s vibrant music, fashion, and tech scenes may never have a better chance to grab the global limelight. In doing so, they will also be helping to demonstrate that there is much more to Ukraine than lazy stereotypes of corruption and war.
Even if Ukraine fails to capitalize on the present bout of impeachment mania, the exposure the country is receiving could still prove to be a turning point. In the short period since the scandal first erupted, leading international media outlets including the BBC, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Financial Times have all officially adopted the Ukrainian-language “Kyiv” spelling when referring to the nation’s capital. This small but symbolically significant gesture offers a hint of the broader shifts in outside perceptions that are already taking place.
Eventually, the 24-hour news cycle will move on to the next big scandal and the details of Ukraine’s involvement in the whole impeachment affair will begin to fade. However, the boost to Ukraine’s brand recognition will linger on. Countries regularly invest millions of dollars in PR campaigns in the hope of securing a fraction of the attention Ukraine is currently enjoying. For a nation that has spent centuries struggling to emerge from the shadows of Russian imperialism, such international exposure is quite literally priceless.
Peter Dickinson is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and publisher of Business Ukraine and Lviv Today magazines. He tweets @Biz_Ukraine_Mag.
UkraineAlert Sep 26, 2019
Explainer: Five things about the Ukraine controversy you need to know (plus a freebie)
By Melinda Haring
Many of the names in the Ukraine controversy are new to general readers, so we attempt to answer a few basic questions. If you have others, please drop us a line on Twitter.