The crisis in and around Ukraine marks an important turning point in European security. The events in Crimea and Donbas since 2014 challenge the European security order as it was established in the end phase of the Cold War in 1989-1990. Almost seven years after the violent outbreak of the conflict, the war in parts of Eastern Ukraine still goes on and has led to more than 13.000 casualties as well as an enormous amount of displaced people and massive physical destruction. Looking closely at the roots of the conflict, it becomes clear that they are profoundly embedded in a much larger Russian-Western confrontation. In particular, it is not possible to understand the current tensions without having a deeper look into contrasting historical narratives that are held by (parts of) the public in Ukraine, Russia and in the West. Those competing, radically divergent historical narratives on Russian-Ukrainian relations and on the evolution of European security since the end of the Cold War are a major stumbling block for an effective search for a way out of the current confrontation between Russia, the West and Ukraine and a return to diplomacy, dialogue and cooperative security. The perception and interpretation of the related events does not happen in a historical vacuum but is immanently shaped by historical narratives in which historical and political events, media discourses as well as personal/family experience are intertwined. In cooperation with the Institute for Law and Public Policy, ILPP (Moscow), inmedio implemented a German-Russian dialogue project in 2018 which was developed into a trilateral Ukrainian-Russian-German format in 2019 and 2020, including the Ukrainian NGO Ideas for Change (Kyiv) as a partner.

The projects were funded by the German Foreign Office under the ‘Expanding Cooperation with Civil Society in the Eastern Partnership Countries and Russia’ programme.

Our approach

Using a mediative dialogue approach, 18 experts from academia, think tanks and NGOs as well as journalists and dialogue practitioners met in Berlin in November 2019. They analysed and reflected on Western, Russian and Ukrainian narratives on what went wrong since the end of the Cold War regarding the deterioration of relations between the respective countries. Although partly used for the manipulation of public opinion, the discussed narratives reflect deeply held beliefs, which do have their basis in individual and collective experience. To understand better how an opposing narrative unfolded, does not mean to agree with it. However, the attempt to understand helps to prepare the ground for effective negotiations searching for ways out of the current crisis.

Using a timeline of historical and recent events as a starting point, it was agreed, through an interactive process, to focus on the following five topics which are seen as most relevant in order to foster an in-depth understanding of the narratives regarding Ukrainian-Russian-Western relations: Holodomor / Big Famine of the 1930s and its impact on the idea of Ukrainian independence; 1991 – different perceptions on the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian independence; attempts and failures of cooperation with NATO; opposing narratives on Euromaidan, Crimea and Donbas.

A narrative refers to the way in which historical facts, political events, media representations and personal experiences are interwoven and given meaning in the reproduction of history. Among other things, by highlighting certain events and facts and blanking out others, different interpretations arise. The term thus reflects subjective truths.
The comparison of narratives is not primarily about the attempt to recognize the objective historical truth. Rather, the comparison acknowledges that each narrative focuses inevitably on particular events and facts against the background of different life realities, and that individual biographical backgrounds also influence which facts are perceived in particular.

Narratives are both genuine and strategic. The media, politicians and other powerful stakeholders have an influence on which interpretation of history prevails. This means they can be guided by unconscious interests or even conscious propaganda in order to legitimise their own goals. However, at the same time, narratives often reflect deeply internalized beliefs that are based on well-developed intellectual thought processes.

In case of conflict, narratives are increasingly "sealed", which means that contradictory facts tend to be made to fit; new perspectives, new starting points are not integrated.

Reconstructing and deconstructiong the narratives from a meta-perspective proved to be highly effective and fostered constructive discussions. This helps to refrain from discussing what is wrong or right about the respective interpretation/portrayal of events. Rather, it enables one to outline step-by-step the diverse interpretations by assuming the perspective of the different narratives one after the other. This approach does not negate differences but helps to find a way of describing and interpreting perceptions of events (and the creation of meaning that comes along with these perceptions) from a meta-perspective.

The mediative approach to dialogue creates a space for in-depth dialogue which focusses on learning about the other’s point of view (rather than consisting in a mere exchange of statements). It is guided by an appreciation of each participant’s perspective and the acknowledgement that each has the right to be voiced and heard.
It goes further by focusing not only on the factual level, but also on the interpersonal level. The moderators/facilitators ask questions to understand the background of the statements, attitudes and perspectives of the participants. The approach builds on the consideration of the participants’’ personal and biographical backgrounds. Therefore, it is usually conducted in smaller groups and over longer time period in order to allow for a process-oriented format that fosters trust building.
A core element of the Mediative Dialogue Approach is a facilitated change of perspective. Changing perspectives means that the participants can truly/honestly understand (maybe even feel) why other participants hold their points of view, with which they may not at all agree.

Respect and real, honest listening shall not be confused with justification of problematic behaviour. Especially in emotionally heated situations, conflict parties worry that they automatically approve the reasons of the other’s behaviour if they try to understand them. Therefore, to be on the safe side, they avoid any attempt to understand the backgrounds, feelings and fears of their opponent.

Understandably, in political discussions, this is difficult, as public discourses are often following the “demonization” strategy of political enemies, and the willingness to understand is equated to agreeing and labelled as naïve and weak. The term “understanding” gets a negative connotation. It is often perceived that dialogue even rewards the opponent for his misdeeds, that dialogue is appeasement and strengthens the opponent. However, the central principle is: Being willing to understand the other’s perspective does not mean being in agreement! Understanding does not mean agreeing! Rather, the dialogue processes acknowledges that “there are always 1000 ‘good’ (=humanly plausible or comprehensible) reasons for ‘bad’ (=destructive or violent) behaviour. The goal of a dialogue is to reveal these 1000 reasons.

See also

Inmedio/Ideas for Change/ILPP (2020): Methodology – the Mediative Dialogue Approach. In: Gaps and Overlaps. Navigating through contested German-Russian-Ukrainian narratives. Beriln/Kyiv/Moscow: 2020, page 9f.

Kruschwitz/Sayko (2019): On the Methodology – the Mediative Dialogue Approach. In: inmedio/ILPP (eds.): Russian-Western Blind Spots. From Dialogue on Contested Narratives to Improved Understanding, Berlin/Moscow: 2019, page 64 – 70.

Splinter, Dirk (2020): Was ist schiefgelaufen seit Ende des Kalten Krieges? Blinde Flecken im Dialog zwischen Russland und dem Westen. In: Wüstehube, L./Splinter, D. (Hrsg.): Mehr Dialog Wagen! Eine Ermutigung für Politik, gesellschaftliche Verständigung und internationale Friedensarbeit. Metzner: Frankfurt a.M.