Ukraine’s veterans can transform the country’s postwar political landscape

What kind of Ukraine will emerge from the horrors of Russia’s invasion? While it is obviously difficult to make any specific predictions amid ongoing hostilities, it already seems clear that postwar Ukraine will have a vastly strengthened sense of national identity as a democratic country firmly embedded within the wider European community. It also looks likely that the evolution of Ukraine’s postwar democracy will be shaped by a new generation of military veterans entering the political arena.

Millions of Ukrainians have served in the country’s armed forces since the onset of Russian aggression ten years ago. This large pool of veterans has the potential to transform Ukraine’s political landscape. Military veterans can bring a range of qualities to Ukrainian politics including patriotism, pragmatism, accountability, and an acute awareness about the costs of corruption. Crucially, Ukraine’s military veterans also enjoy unprecedented levels of trust among their compatriots.

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Since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022, a number of Ukrainian MPs and local officials have joined the military. Their experiences will inevitably influence their future political activities and may result in increased attention to issues including national security and the rights of veterans. However, these serving politicians are likely to form a small percentage of the military veterans active in postwar Ukrainian politics.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are currently defending their country against a threat that most view as existential. With Russia openly denying Ukraine’s right to exist and erasing all traces of Ukrainian identity in areas currently under Kremlin control, the stakes could hardly be higher. This experience is transforming Ukraine and producing an entire generation of Ukrainians defined by the courage and sacrifices of the struggle against Russian aggression.

Many of Ukraine’s military veterans will seek to continue serving the nation in the postwar environment. They will be driven by a profound sense of duty and by a deeply felt desire to build a Ukraine that will honor the memory of their fallen comrades. These veterans will be highly sought after by Ukraine’s existing political parties, but they also have the potential to become a potent political force in their own right.

The single greatest political asset Ukraine’s military veterans possess is the trust of their fellow Ukrainians. In a country where faith in the political classes is notoriously low, military veterans enjoy an enviable reputation for trustworthiness. One recent survey conducted in March 2024 found public levels of trust for different categories of veteran ranging from 84 to 96 percent. In contrast, a January 2024 poll found that 75 percent of Ukrainians distrust state officials.

An influx of military veterans into the political arena would not necessarily create a more militarized Ukraine. Instead, it would likely enhance democratic accountability while also bringing valuable practical experience along with patriotic judgment that prioritizes the national interest. This has long been the case throughout the democratic world, where military veterans have frequently pursued political careers. For example, almost 20 percent of currently serving Congress members in the US come from military backgrounds.

The Ukrainian authorities should now be looking to create the conditions for more military veterans to play a role in building the country’s future. This means safeguarding their rights and status, while making sure they and their families enjoy maximum government support. State programs, private grants, and international initiatives should offer veterans free education. Efforts should also be made to improve employment opportunities, including initiatives to hire veterans in public service positions.

In light of the major challenges Ukraine will continue to face for many years to come, including the twin threats of further Russian aggression and economic instability, the active engagement of veterans in Ukrainian politics is more crucial than ever. Their proven commitment to serving their country, coupled with their firsthand knowledge of the realities of war, make them highly qualified to lead Ukraine.

From Dwight Eisenhower to Charles de Gaulle, there are many examples in modern history of military men who have gone on to become pivotal political figures in the democratic world. In many ways, it would be entirely natural if Ukraine’s own evolution as a European democracy follows a similar path.

Ukrainian policymakers need to recognize the potential of the country’s military veterans and provide them with opportunities to take on leadership roles in the political arena. This will allow Ukraine to tap into the wealth of talent, dedication, and experience that veterans can offer, while also strengthening the country’s democratic institutions and rebuilding public trust in the political classes.

Kateryna Odarchenko is a partner at SIC Group Ukraine.

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The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center’s mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

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Image: Murals in Kyiv, Ukraine on April 7, 2024, amid the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict. (Photo by VESA MOILANEN/LEHTIKUVA/Sipa USA)