This report has traced the transformation of Ukrainian civil society, which has fundamentally changed its relation towards the state in general and the security sector in particular. This transformation can be regarded as remarkable. Up until 2014 the relationship between the state and civil society was largely antagonistic, with the latter positioning itself in opposition to a system that appeared to be designed primarily to maintain political stability and control over the population rather than providing safety and security. The 2014 Euromaidan protests and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine had already markedly changed this dynamic, with civil society coming to the aid of the state and stepping in to fill important gaps in the provision of both internal and external security. It also gained more access to decision-makers and spearheaded reforms, but certain Soviet-era legacies in the security sector such as the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and the habit of preferring secrecy over transparency nonetheless remained resistant to change.

The year 2022 changed everything, both due to Russia’s full-scale invasion and Ukraine’s perspective of EU and NATO membership. Ukrainian civil society now appears to have found a ‘fast track’ straight to the top of Ukrainian security sector governance and the state is much more responsive to its demands and suggestions. This is driven by a strong common sense of purpose, both to ensure the survival of the Ukrainian state and to pursue its aspirations of Euro-Atlantic integration. As a result there is a window of opportunity in which civil society increasingly fulfils a number of important functions with regard to the security sector that provide entry points for the support of international partners. It is important to note that nothing can be taken for granted and sustained efforts remain necessary to keep the pace of reforms and to prevent ‘backsliding’.

The international community in general and the EU in particular is supportive of the new dynamic of multifaceted interaction and the growing trust between civil society and the authorities – and it is important to reinforce it through financial assistance to both, civil society and public sector. After decades of relative disengagement, Ukrainian society now has high expectations of the State. To preserve the common sense of purpose and the high levels of trust that have emerged as a result of the war, it is important that civil society also manages these expectations and that the State is able to deliver on them. This applies particularly to the local level, where public capacity is even more limited and civil society is therefore even more needed.

Recommendations for Ukraine’s international partners

Strengthening of not only civil society itself, but also the institutional mechanisms would enable a more sustainable form of the current constructive and high level of participation. This includes instruments for the cooperation of CSOs with the Ukrainian Parliament, thereby building on the experience with the Temporary Special Commission on the use of international military assistance. It also requires robust consultative mechanisms within sectoral ministries that also include a feedback loop. The Civic Councils within sectoral ministries are currently not trusted and would require a significant overhaul and extension of their mandate. Networking sessions with both state and non-state actors in the security sector have proven useful in establishing constructive working relationships and could be further incorporated in regular government qualification programmes.

In order to ensure that Ukrainian authorities can meet the high expectations of society and preserve the newfound trust, it is important to invest not only in the monitoring of State performance, done by the CSOs, but also in increasing the civil servants capacity to improve that performance at the national and local level. In their choice of employment conditions international organizations should also avoid contributing to a brain drain out of the public sector.

Since the authorities are operating in short-term crisis mode and have limited capacity for research or strategic thinking, there is a clear need to support CSOs that assist the authorities with fact-finding, analysis and specific expertise. This particularly concerns the many complex requirements demanded by the European Union as part of Ukraine’s EU integration process, including within the security sector. Ukrainian CSOs could benefit from much more exchange with their EU counterparts.

The authorities and civil society should be encouraged and supported by international partners to jointly negotiate and regularly revise the balance between security-related restrictions on the information space and the freedom of the media. A strategy particularly needs to be developed on how Ukraine can transition back from the current restrictive Telemarathon format to a more diverse and media landscape that is also able to secure its own funding.

International support is needed to enable civil society to meet the pressing and short-term need for the care and reintegration of demobilized military personnel, veterans and the families of the fallen, as state initiatives might take too long. This could include promoting job opportunities, small grants, education programmes and the inclusion of veterans on advisory boards on security-related matters.

By building on the positive experiences with the creation of NAKO as a specialized, civil society-led commission in the security sector, international partners can contribute to increasing transparency in military procurement and in the reform and governance of the military-industrial complex, including former UkrOboronProm subsidiaries. This example shows that a combination of oversight and constructive partnership for reform is a realistic possibility, if it is sufficiently resourced, truly independent and endowed with an effective mandate.

International partners could help to explore the possibilities for the reintroduction of a specialised military court and justice system in Ukraine. Close attention to the role of civil society in Ukraine’s military justice system, will contribute preventing human rights abuses being committed both by and against the armed forces.

Despite the adverse security environment, the reform of the SBU needs be resumed without delay and with the full participation of non-state oversight actors. This should focus, among others things, on the depoliticization of the organisation, the transfer of the authority to investigate financial crime to another institution and allow for a review of the integrity of SBU employees. Clarifying boundaries with regard to state and non-state oversight, with a particular focus on how to deal with classified information will benefit democratic practices and safeguard national security. An exchange of practices with institutions such as the Dutch Parliament’s Committee on Intelligence and Security can be considered.