For more than a year, eastern Ukraine has been a military and ideological battleground. In the midst of competing narratives on the origins and nature of the conflict with Russia, more recent developments offer perhaps the clearest picture of the way in which Ukrainian officials themselves perceive the situation. The arrest of Ukrainian journalist Ruslan Kotsaba, a respected war correspondent for Channel 112, for posting a video online which expressed his desire for his countrymen to purposely avoid conscription, conveys the dangerously regressive impact of the fighting on social liberties in the country. But the treatment of Kotsaba also forms a working example of the necessity of civil dissent – not only in a democracy, but in any society wishing to minimise harm to its own citizens.
Expressed in the viral medium of the YouTube video, Ruslan Kotsaba’s declaration to avoid the draft has been dealt with severely by the Ukrainian security services. According to the authorities, the airing of his beliefs violated Articles 111 and 114 of the Criminal Code, committing the crimes of treason and espionage, respectively. If found guilty, 15 years of imprisonment await Kotsaba. To deem the potential penalty entirely incongruous with the ‘crime’ committed would be to entirely understate the state of affairs. His current arrest is indeed enough to shroud in doubt the moral standpoint of the Ukrainian authorities regarding the matter.
Certainly, to associate treason with one’s offering of an alternative perspective to that propagated by the governing party is, in a word, nonsensical. The equation of active, healthy scepticism of political policy with a tangible threat to domestic security belongs not in 21st century Europe, but in the absolutist monarchy of bygone days. Treason itself is doubtless an archaic concept, used in this case to repress public condemnation of a conflict which has thus far led directly to the deaths of over five thousand people. The Ukrainian authorities are guilty of unashamedly mobilising antiquated political rhetoric in order to protect themselves from an ever-increasing number of their own citizens calling for a return to peace.
Ruslan Kotsaba’s courageous act, in addition, unveils the necessity of citizens’ dissent to successful social organisation. In his celebrated text “Why Societies Need Dissent”, Cass. R Sunstein outlines the pertinent requirement of the active practice of a citizen’s right to dissent in a modern-day context. Indeed, many of his core arguments are visible in Ukraine, the most telling of which entails that, for dissent to have the desired impact, it must be given sufficient attention. Ukraine’s entirely transparent effort to limit the attention generated by Kotsaba’s dissent appears to have backfired. Because, in taking the swift action they did in imprisoning the journalist, Ukraine further intensified the international spotlight presently focused on the east of the country and increased attention for Kotsaba’s urge to dodge the draft. Consequently, Amnesty International, alongside various anti-war organisations, have publicly called for Kotsaba’s release.
Whilst a ceasefire agreement has now been signed, the thousands of lives lost, some in the most atrocious of circumstances, cannot simply be forgotten. Ruslan Kotsaba’s declaration was motivated by a desire to put an end to bloodshed and violence between his fellow countrymen. Without such active dissent, the tolerance of such acts appears to augment. Intolerance of public dissent is an ominous sign for Ukraine, and the legal duty to perform military service should always be countered by the moral duty to dissent from such bloody, brutal military action such as that witnessed on the Russo-Ukrainian border.