Ukrainian and Russian Narratives Must Evolve for Diplomacy to Succeed
Diplomats should focus as much on the Ukrainian and Russian narratives as they do on the substance of the negotiations.
As the war in Ukraine grinds on, entering a deadlier stage with a protracted stalemate in the offing, both sides are gaining strength from their narratives. But these narratives are also blocking the compromises necessary to end the bloodshed and economic devastation.
Narratives are stories we tell ourselves and share with our communities to justify our views, behavior, and collective actions. While simple narratives that paint the other side as the villain mobilize the collective action necessary to defend territory or sustain an attack, they also make the restoration of peace difficult. Only the more complex and diverse stories that allow for more nuance and each side’s perspective can shift this dynamic.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has very effectively promoted a unifying narrative, galvanizing Ukrainians—traditionally divided on a number of issues—to collectively stand up to one of the largest and best-equipped armies in the world. Zelensky has also managed to garner some of the most significant support ever provided by Western nations to a country at war.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin has been hard at work spreading his own narrative—one of loss and exclusion. This narrative holds that the West never recognized the enormous sacrifices Russians made to help defeat the Nazis, instead turning against Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed. With the enthusiastic support of the Russian Orthodox patriarchate, Putin portrays Western liberal ideas as corrupting forces. He has employed every tactic to enforce this narrative—from controlling the press and social media to crushing dissent and imprisoning opposition figures.
Putin has made Ukraine the linchpin of recovering Russia’s lost glory. Ukraine was the second-most powerful Soviet republic, and the two peoples have intertwined histories. Ukraine falling back under Moscow’s control would show the world that the Russian empire is back. As such, Putin has taken to proclaiming that Kyiv is controlled by Nazis, accusing Ukrainians of committing genocide against Russians, and portraying today’s Russian army as a liberator, just as in World War II. This approach has worked: recent polls indicate that the war has broad popular support in Russia.
Changing this dynamic to advance peace negotiations will not be easy. But, helping both sides acknowledge and incorporate more complex narratives can lay the groundwork. In war, there is a victim and a villain, whereas peace demands that more diverse stories become visible. It also calls for both parties to avoid demonization and to de-escalate polarizing issues so that they are no longer framed as existential.
In Ukraine, these polarizing issues include, among others, the country’s neutrality, its decentralization, and the use of the Russian language. Rather than seeing neutral status as a defeat, stories should emphasize that many highly successful countries are neutral, including Finland, Sweden, and Austria. Similarly, rather than portraying decentralization and the differentiation of each region’s status according to the composition of its population as a loss of sovereignty, stories could point to the examples of the United Kingdom and Indonesia—countries that have given a higher level of autonomy to certain regions as a way to manage their multiethnic nations.
It will be very challenging for Ukraine’s government to switch to a more diverse narrative without demobilizing combatants after a month of war. Moreover, Zelensky cannot give the impression that he is giving in, especially after the revelation of evidence of a civilian massacre in Bucha. But the status he has earned in leading Ukraine’s extraordinary resistance provides him with important leeway that he needs to use skillfully.
The war is currently popular in Russia, just as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were popular in the United States when they began. However, the narrative will start changing when the toll of war hits home and it becomes apparent that Russia has not achieved all its goals. Despite its efforts to hide the truth, the Kremlin will soon have no option but to adjust its narratives about Ukraine. Many signs suggest it is already starting to do exactly that.
Russians need to hear multiple narratives of hope that move them away from the narrative of loss and humiliation attached to the breakup of the Soviet Union. They need to hear that Russia has the potential to be a great and respected nation through economic development, less corruption, and the sharing of Russian culture with the world. Such narratives need to show that grandeur is possible without having to recreate the old Russian colonial empire. The cracks in the official narrative that are starting to show could create the opportunity for such stories to reach the broader Russian public.
Opinion leaders in Russia and Ukraine—including Russia’s West-leaning intelligentsia, who have begun to leave the country en masse—have an important responsibility in shaping and spreading these more complex narratives. Western governments and media can support such efforts by platforming a more open and less polarizing discourse. And geopolitical mediators, such as Turkey and Israel, should remind each side of the importance of the issue.
As the war evolves, and outsiders seek offramps, diplomats need to focus as much on the narratives as they typically do on the substance of peace negotiations. After all, each side’s capacity for compromise depends on the stories that they are embedded in. Only more complex and diverse narratives will make such compromises possible.
Alexandre Marc, the former Chief Specialist on Conflict, Fragility and Violence at the World Bank, has worked extensively on using narratives to promote peace as a member of the Institute for Integrated Transitions’ Inclusive Narrative Practice Group.