Reforming Ukraine’s large security sector and overcoming its Soviet-era legacies has been a major challenge since independence. Ukrainian civil society has been vociferously demanding a transition towards a transparent and well-governed security sector that upholds the interests of the population rather than keeping it under control. This is also a priority for the Ukrainian Government and its international partners, as a prerequisite for further integration with the European Union and NATO. This report therefore analyses the changing role of Ukrainian civil society by investigating seven examples of key reforms of the security sector and puts forward recommendations for Ukraine’s international partners regarding their cooperation with Ukrainian civil society organisations (CSOs).

The previously antagonistic dynamic between the security sector and the public had already markedly changed in 2014 after the Euromaidan protests and Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Civil society came to the aid of the state and stepped in to fill important gaps in the provision of both internal and external security. It also gained more access to decision-makers and to reforms, but certain Soviet-era legacies in the security sector such as the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) nonetheless remained resistant to change. Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022 gave this already changing dynamic a new impetus. Ukrainian civil society now appears to have found a ‘fast track’ straight to the top of Ukrainian security sector governance, driven by a strong common sense of purpose to ensure the survival of the Ukrainian state and to pursue its European integration aspirations.

Civil society now acts as an intermediary between the authorities and the public. It provides advocacy and educates the public about the dilemmas and strategic choices faced by the authorities. This has at least partially reversed a long-held pattern of mutual distrust of the citizenry and the security sector. CSOs also directly support the under-resourced authorities with much-needed expertise and analysis, which is essential when the capacity of the civil service to formulate strategic choices is severely strained. CSOs and volunteer movements even exercise a degree of ‘direct oversight’, raising matters of concern first behind the scenes and through the media or with international actors if they feel that this is warranted. They are therefore an important part of democratic control over Ukraine’s armed forces, especially in a situation of martial law where regular Ukrainian politics are temporarily curtailed and power is concentrated more in the hands of the President and the National Security Council. This ‘fast track’ nonetheless appears to somewhat bypass Parliament. There is a clear need to further institutionalize the mechanisms through which civil society participates in security sector governance.

An investigation of seven examples of how civil society has contributed to security sector reforms shows a mixed pattern of success and remaining challenges where international engagement remains crucial. Through initiatives such as the Independent Anti-Corruption Commission (NAKO) there have been significant improvements in military procurement and, to a lesser extent, the transformation of Ukraine’s sprawling military-industrial complex (formerly known as UkrOboronProm), but this process is not yet complete.

The same applies to safeguarding the human rights of the armed forces, since the underdeveloped military justice system requires significant reform. Civil society actors and volunteers also sometimes take over service delivery from the State and directly provide invaluable assistance to the military in terms of logistics, medical aid and care for veterans and demobilized personnel – for which more international support is urgently required. In some cases the State may have even outsourced too much to civil society and is only now re-establishing its role. After an unruly decade in which volunteer battalions were instrumental in defending the country but posed potential risks to its internal stability, these battalions have now largely been successfully integrated into the armed forces and territorial defence structures.

In terms of internal security, civil society has been very effective in cooperating with international actors such as the EU Assistance Mission (EUAM) to reform the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the police, but less so in reforming the inherently secretive SBU. Crucial legislation that was painstakingly drafted with input from civil society and international partners was withdrawn due to the full-scale invasion. The external and internal threats posed by Russia are of such a pervasive nature that a further reform of the SBU in wartime is extremely complicated. Those who resist reforms due to vested interests can point to the war as the perfect argument to block reforms, which makes it all the more important that civil society has access to policy debates – and as much information as is reasonably possible in an adverse security environment.

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. While there is a clear need for continued oversight and monitoring to combat corruption and prevent backsliding, there is an equally large need for capacity-building, expertise and support. This applies particularly to the local level, where capacity is limited and constructive civil society involvement is even more needed.

The report concludes with eight 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.

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 capacity of civil servants to improve that performance at the national and local level.

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.

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.

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.

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.

International partners could help to explore the possibilities for the reintroduction of a specialised military court and justice system in Ukraine.

Despite the adverse security environment, the reform of the SBU needs to be resumed without delay and with the full participation of non-state oversight actors.