Title: Ukraine’s Democracy Must Withstand Scrutiny Amidst Wartime Challenges
Subtitle: The Failure to Blow Up the Chonhar Bridge: Questions of Responsibility, Competing Political Interests, and the Role of Civil Society
Since Russia initiated its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of last year, Ukrainians have put aside their political disputes and embraced national unity. However, as time passes, an increasing number of citizens believe that the unspoken ban on discussing controversial topics has outlived its purpose. Ukraine is not only fighting to maintain its statehood, but also its democracy, and the freedom to question those in power is a crucial component of any democracy worthy of its name.
Former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko stirred controversy when he recently addressed the public, drawing attention to a legislation he had proposed in 2021. The proposed legislation emphasized the need to prepare for the destruction of the Chonhar bridge, a critical communications link between mainland Ukraine and the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula, in the event of a war. This bill did not pass parliament, and Poroshenko’s statement was seen as a direct criticism of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership during wartime.
The Responsibility for the Failure:
At the center of the controversy lies the potential accountability of the Ukrainian government for a significant strategic failure. During the initial days of the invasion, the Russian army swiftly occupied a large portion of the southern Ukrainian region of Kherson, facilitated through their passage over the Chonhar bridge. This bridge was supposed to have been destroyed, as planned by the Ukrainian army. The reasons for its failure to do so continue to perplex the country’s politicians, military personnel, journalists, and government investigators working on the case.
The Silence and Potential Secrecy:
Late last year, Ukraine’s domestic security service (SBU) confirmed the ongoing investigation into the failure but declined to comment on its progress since then. Some analysts and politicians, including former Zelensky adviser Oleksiy Arestovych, propose that the Supreme Court rule that the investigation’s results should be kept secret for national security reasons. However, this suggestion may face resistance from Ukraine’s vibrant civil society, which is vital in the country’s democratic functioning. Amidst the ongoing counteroffensive against the Russian forces, questions surrounding the case persist, exacerbating institutional rivalries that could shape Ukraine’s political landscape in the future.
Potential Culprits and Competing Interests:
Was the failure to destroy the Chonhar bridge the fault of the SBU, which was led at the time by a childhood friend of Zelensky (subsequently fired), or was it a result of pure negligence on the part of the military, headed then and now by Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, a non-partisan figure widely perceived as Zelensky’s most significant rival? With rumors of Zaluzhny considering entry into politics, the situation becomes further complicated. The suspension of elections under martial law further intensifies the uncertainty.
Civil Society’s Call for Transparency:
Despite the intricacies and potential political exploitation of the issue, lawyer Masi Nayyem advocates for the continuation of investigating possible treason and fighting corruption even during the war. Nayyem emphasizes that civil society, not the army or presidential administration, should be in charge of Ukraine’s democracy and demands transparency. Nayyem’s view aligns with the need to prevent future mistakes and maintain accountability in the country’s governance, even amid the turmoil of war.
Ukraine’s Democratic Resilience:
Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Russia, where critical voices and uncomfortable questions are suppressed. Ukraine must demonstrate that it can rise above such practices and hold its officials accountable. Scrutinizing failures of government is necessary for a healthy democracy, and the country’s culture of democratic resilience should be upheld even during wartime.
Ukraine’s fight to preserve its democracy includes overcoming challenges beyond the battlefield. The failure to destroy the Chonhar bridge raises questions of responsibility, competing political interests, and the role of civil society. While it may be tempting to silence uncomfortable questions and discussions during wartime, the ability to scrutinize those in power remains crucial. Through resilience and accountability, Ukraine’s democracy can emerge stronger from the shadows of war and set an example for others.