• James Richardson

Why Donald Tusk was right to call for unity in Ukraine

Photo source: https://www.unian.info/politics/10449267-ec-president-tusk-to-visit-ukraine-on-fifth-anniversary-of-revolution-of-dignity.html

On 19th February, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, was in Ukraine to give a speech to the country’s parliament (Verkhovna Rada). In his passionate presentation Tusk reaffirmed the European Union’s deep commitment to Ukraine’s safety, independence and prosperity. He also warned Kiev against using populist and nationalist tactics. What significance does Donald Tusk’s speech have? And, why is the problem of nationalism – belying many European countries at the moment– potentially an existential threat for Ukraine?

The end of February is an important time in Ukrainian politics. The period has become a symbolic time of remembrance for those who were killed during the final stages of the Maidan demonstrations. The so-called Heavenly Hundred were killed by police snipers in the last days of the disgraced ex-president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych’s rule. “I have come to you on the fifth anniversary of the dramatic Maidan events, on the anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity, to thank all Ukrainians and their representatives gathered here”, Tusk said as he opened his speech. [1] Donald Tusk’s speech strategically draws upon the solemn sentiments held by Ukrainians in this period. Beyond a tragic loss of life, the Maidan ‘Revolution of Dignity’ also signified a new chapter in Ukrainian political history. In rejecting the Kremlin-aligned President Yanukovych, the citizens of Ukraine sided for a future of independent political self-determination, (relatively) free from Moscow’s malign malintent.

Tusk certainly wasted no time in showing his (and presumably the EU’s) ideological position towards Ukraine: “There can be no just Europe without an independent Ukraine. That there can be no safe Europe without a safe Ukraine. To put it simply: there can be no Europe without Ukraine!", he said to a long standing ovation. [2] Though Tusk’s words may not be truly representative of EU policy towards Ukraine - and Tusk himself did recognise the failures of the EU during Ukraine’s turbulent period of 2014 - such a bold statement declaring Ukraine a part of Europe will certainly irritate some in the Kremlin for a number of reasons.

Firstly, for siloviki (top-ranking security officials) and politicians in Moscow, business in Ukraine falls within their sphere of interest [3]; secondly, EU support for an ‘independent Ukraine’ will be met by Moscow with serious suspicion as an ‘independent Ukraine’ is for the Kremlin synonymous with a US puppet state. [4] Finally, if we consider Moscow’s aversion to the categorisation of Russia as a European country (it much prefers the Eurasian category), then the europeanisation of a country that Russia regards as lying under its broader territorial control will be damaging to Russia’s self-perception. [5] Whether decision-makers in the capital will interpret Tusk’s words as a precursor for increased efforts to pull Ukraine towards the West is still up for dispute.

It is neither surprising nor shameful that the president of the European Council has sought to capitalise on this moment to show support for a Ukraine seemingly keen to edge closer towards democracy and rule of law–values that are constitutive for most European Union member states. But Donald Tusk has a much more genuine and personal attachment to Ukraine’s unshackling from the Kremlin’s chains of ‘brotherly’ compatriotship than his official title may suggest. As a student Tusk was an active member in the Solidarność (Solidarity) trade union movement.6 Founded in September 1980 by Lech Wałęsa, Solidarność became the symbol of Polish resistance during the final years of Soviet occupation.[7]

When Tusk personally addresses the Ukrainian parliamentarians - ‘Your story, like the story of my people, shows that internal conflicts in our two countries are the greatest gift for a third party’ - he draws parallels between challenges faced by both Poland and Ukraine in ridding themselves of a nasty neighbour with an aggressive imperialist complex.8 Where in 1980s Poland that neighbour was the liberator-cum-occupier Soviet Union, in 2019 Ukraine that neighbour is a Kremlin desperately trying to exert influence over what it claims is its legitimate ‘sphere of influence’.

With Ukrainians to go to the ballot twice in 2019, the Gdansk-born Tusk repeatedly emphasised the need for relative solidarity between competing presidential candidates and political parties in corresponding electoral periods, warning the parliamentarians to ‘not cause each other excessive harm in the next election [...] irrespective of party divisions, divergent interests or ideological disputes’. [9] Not only could bickering politicians draw criticism from EU politicians and potentially widen the rift between Ukraine and the bloc. But also a unified Ukraine, much like a unified West, is more equipped to fend off the subversive actions of the Kremlin that aim at sewing new, or harbouring pre-existing divisions in Western societies. [10]

During President Petro Poroshenko’s years in power, Kiev has sought closer ties with the West. Today the connection between top Ukrainian leaders and the EU representatives seems to be a stepping stone for Ukraine’s regime maintenance as the war continues rumbling on in Ukrainian eastern region. Yet a recent corruption scandal in the National Security and Defence Council has severely tainted the incumbent candidates support. [11] Though the support of Tusk may bolster Poroshenko’s presidential campaign, as things stand it is comedian-turned-politician Vladimir Zelenskiy (he is also a Russian speaker) who leads the polls. [12]

Donald Tusk also warned Kiev against using populist and nationalist tactics ahead of a presidential vote next month during a speech to Ukraine's parliament on Tuesday. "Go around temptations of radical nationalism and populism, as you have done so far," Tusk said in his speech. [13] Some populist candidates, like Oleh Liashko who is leader of the Radical Party, could make it to the second round of the presidential election; all parties will most likely make it into the next parliament. Ukrainian politicians and their Western partners need to remember about them if they want to keep Ukraine’s pro-Western course unchanged.

Ironically, Tusk’s post-nationalist speech has led to some pretty loud grumblings amongst conservatives in his native country, Poland.[14] The Pole’s flirting with neighbouring Ukraine has led members of Poland’s more conservative contingent to deem him “a traitor to Poland’s issues”. The parliamentary elections will soon take place in Poland; and politicians are ramping up the political rhetoric.It is rumoured that Donald Tusk could return back home after his term as president of the European Council comes to an end.15 He remains a symbol of Poland’s pro-European aspirations and has held the presidency of the European Council over the course of the EU’s most challenging period, while being the first representative of the post-Soviet EU member states to achieve such a high position. And this year Donald Tusk will be influenced by the European Parliament elections campaign while the populists all over the EU are doing better than ever.

Nationalism is growing despite it not resolving any serious issues. It continues to divide many nations including Ukraine and Poland. Taking into account future European elections, the EU needs to unify to be stronger. However, this doesn’t mean that post-national rhetoric is a proper solution to strengthening unity between EU member states. Similarly, nationalist preachers do not appear to have genuine solutions to the economic inequality produced by globalisation, opting for short-sighted scapegoating tactics.

When established centrist parties can’t cope with challenges, particularly at the national and local levels, we observe far-right parties riding the wave of popularity in Europe. While Poland may be able to sustain a lurch to the right, division in Ukraine may prove to be fatal. And a divided Europe may be unable to throw the nation a lifeline to keep it out of the hands of a bullish Russia.


[1] Speech by President Donald Tusk at the Ukrainian Parliament in Kyiv. URL:


[2] Tusk: No Europe without Ukraine (Video). URL: https://www.unian.info/politics/10452429-tusk-no-europe-without-ukraine-video.html

[3] See K. Giles: Moscow Rules: What Drives Russia to Confront the West. (Chatham House, 2019).

[4] See I.Yablokov: Fortress Russia: Conspiracy Theories in Post-Soviet Russia. (Polity Press, 2018)

[5] The theory of Eurasianism was made popular by Alexander Dugin, who wielded influence over Russian political ideology in the early 2000s. This concept is linked to National Bolshevism (under Eduard Limonov) and originates from Soviet scholar Nikolai Trubetzkoi.

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/09/donald-tusk-passionate-politician-poland-fight-against-communism

[7] https://www.rferl.org/a/1060898.html

[8] Tusk warns Ukraine against populism ahead of election. URL:


[9] Tusk: "Do not cause each other excessive harm in the next election". URL:


[10] This conclusion has been reached by policy analysts including Oskar Fridman and Keir Giles.

[11] https://www.unian.info/politics/10467582-poroshenko-dismisses-senior-nsdc-official-amid-probe-into-corruption-in-defense-procurement.html

[12] https://news.liga.net/politics/news/poroshenko-oboshel-timoshenko-v-prezidentskoy-gonke-opros-reytinga

[13] Tusk warns Ukraine against populism ahead of election. URL: https://www.france24.com/en/20190219-tusk-warns-ukraine-against-populism-ahead-election

[14] See Donald Król Europy pozdrawia po banderowsku! URL:


[15] Is it ta-ta to Tusk? EU chief Donald could QUIT council president role early to run for Prime Minister of Poland, say Warsaw insiders. URL: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6365401/EU-chief-Donald-QUIT-council-president-role-early-run-Prime-Minister-Poland.html

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