The EU's Crisis Diplomacy In Ukraine: The Matrix of Possibilities

This article presents findings from a three-year study of Ukrainian strategic narratives and perceptions of the EU. By identifying how news media and young Ukrainians narrate the international system and the role of their nation in that system, we can explain how and why they offer narratives about prospects for peace and the EU’s role as a potential mediator. This analysis combines strategic narrative and image theory to categorize Ukrainian narratives about possible futures for their country. We find that Ukrainian news media and young people understand their position primarily through the lens of identity. Their understanding of the international system and policy dilemmas, to them, depends on whether Ukraine can overcome its own difficulties as a nation-state. This suggests that strategic-narrative analysis of conflict states should focus on how local actors understand the identity of their own state and of external actors who might assist them.1

Natalia Chaban
Ben O'Loughlin
September 26, 2018

The current zeitgeist of disinformation and information wars has put international communication on the global public agenda. Yet, disinformation skirmishes around specific events—Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 (MH-17), the 2016 U.S. election, Brexit—are a product of, and are quickly woven into, longer and more embedded narratives that societies and their leaders hold about themselves and their identities. This entails moving from a focus on the circulation of (dis) information to a more rigorous analysis of how communication is used within more enduring contests about world order and relative prestige. International conflicts are foci for these strategic contests. In this article we offer a framework for approaching how external actors communicate with societies experiencing conflict. We focus on how the European Union (EU) may maximize the efficacy of its communication with Ukraine, one of many volatile actors in the EU’s neighborhood. Our arguments are based on a three-year research project called “Crisis, Conflict and Critical Diplomacy: EU Perceptions in Ukraine and Israel/Palestine” (C3EU), supported by the Jean Monnet Programme of the Erasmus+, which examines how different sections of Ukrainian society perceive and narrate the EU. Our purpose is to help fine-tune public diplomacy by showing how research can be used to diagnose expectations about how Ukrainians view the future possibilities for their society and what role they hope the EU will play. Our proposition is that to engage effectively with a conflict state, the EU—which could also be the United States, NATO, or China—must understand why certain sections of society hold a narrative and understand how they perceive the EU to manage expectations about what role it could play.

This analysis is important because understanding the narratives and perceptions—of selves and others—that actors hold gives us insight into how they are likely to respond in a conflict. The disinformation debate is reactive. But knowing actors’ narratives can help predict their future behavior and thus get ahead of the skirmishes. This is not as simple as identifying any single narrative. Any national identity and the narrative of its role in the world are formed through interaction between multiple perspectives, including by audiences who respond to that projected identity and may criticize or ignore it. We identified these narratives projected into and within Ukraine to allow a more nuanced understanding of why external communication with Ukrainians may be accepted, rejected, or contested.

In international affairs, we normally expect actors’ interests to explain their behavior. However, actors often behave in ways not exclusively driven by obvious self-interest. Their behavior is explicable only once we understand their identity, or how they conceive their role and character within the international system. Our focus on image and narrative allow us to explain how identities function and drive behavior at the international level.

Among the most recent conflicts in Europe is that between Russia and Ukraine. Ongoing since 2014, this conflict has included many dramatic and tragic events that followed the Revolution of Dignity on Maidan,2 including the annexation of the Crimea,3 the downing of MH-17,4 and a hybrid war in eastern Ukraine that has claimed 10,000 lives, according to the UN.5 Identity is central to this conflict. The narrative of “Ukraine’s European choice” indicates that the idea of Europe, and the values attached to it, are intimately linked to Ukraine’s self-image and self-definitions. Essentially, “the conflict in Ukraine was fundamentally about the EU.”6 Yet many Russians feel Ukraine is part of their nation, historically. How then is the place of Europe and the EU, in the multiple narratives about the Russia-Ukraine conflict, perceived and narrated by different sections of Ukrainian society?

The intersection of two international relations (IR) theories, image theory and the strategic narrative theory,7 inform our analysis.8 The former argues that actors in IR are perceived through a “constellation of meanings” constructed by the images of power (perceived capability of an actor), interests (perceived opportunities/threats), and superiority/inferiority (perceived cultural affinity). The post-Cold War world comes with a new reality of globalizing threats of traditional and non-traditional nature. Image theory is again a helpful model, this time to consider the new fault lines of conflict that are no longer confined to state-level actors.

Strategic narratives are a means by which political actors attempt to construct a shared meaning of the past, present, and future of international politics to shape the behavior of domestic and international actors.9 They are central to how states seek to establish and maintain influence in world politics. Narratives may be codified in texts, such as national security strategies, but emerge through historical experiences. Strategic narratives function internally to generate domestic legitimacy and support and externally to signal to allies or rivals what goals the state seeks to realize. The effectiveness of strategic narratives is relational; its efficacy depends on the interpretation and response of other actors.

Analysis of strategic narratives involves a focus on three types of narrative: System, Identity, and Policy.10 System Narratives describe the international system, which could be bipolar, multipolar, in a war of terror, in flux, and so on. Identity Narratives set out the character and trajectory of a political actor, its values, character, and its goals. Policy Narratives set out why a policy is needed and desirable, and how it will be achieved. The chances of influence are higher when an actor achieves coherence in these three types of narratives. In this study, we move strategic narrative theory forward by using image theory to bring nuance to our analysis of identity narratives. We ask how Ukrainians perceive the EU’s capability, what perceived opportunities the EU offers, and what cultural affinity is shared with the EU in the eyes of Ukrainians. Together, this forms a “matrix of possibilities” for external engagement with Ukraine, demonstrated by Tables 1 and 2 below.

Answering a call for “evidence, evidence, evidence” in the studies of international influence and identity, we present findings from two cases of the C3EU project: media content analysis of eight influential Ukrainian newspapers across the political continuum (six months of daily observation of the EU coverage in 2016: 1,692 articles) and Q-Sort analysis of youth opinion (focus group qualitative surveys with 231 tertiary level students from Central and Eastern Ukraine).11 Q-sort involves asking a group of around 20 participants to sort and rank a set of statements typical of those found in Ukrainian news media, using factor analysis to identify the more significant clusters of associated statements, such that the participants’ own narratives emerge in statistically valid ways.12

How Ukrainian News Media Perceive and Narrate the EU’s Image

Distinctly, only 0.8 percent of news items reported the EU as an actor on the global stage; 1.9 percent reported the EU as an actor who interacts with a third country, and 3.7 percent with regional actors. In contrast, 79 percent of portrayals of the EU had a Ukrainian “local hook,” where the EU was reported in relation to Ukraine.13 This preference in Ukrainian journalism may explain why the EU’s visibility in terms of capability, opportunity, and cultural affinity to Ukraine on the system narrative level was severely limited (Table 1). Ukrainian media does not narrate the EU in the context of the global order.

The heavy local focus of domesticity of EU media images suggests that the identity level is primary. Identity narratives presented the EU as an actor capable of transmitting a number of political values to Ukraine as well as an actor whose identity as a market power presents an opportunity for Ukraine (Table 1). In these instances, we observed metaphorical images of the EU as an authority (either benevolent, or imposing), teacher, and/or parental figure. Ukraine was metaphorically compared to a diligent student and a learning person who is reforming itself.

Policy-focused narratives firmly linked the EU to Ukraine’s concerns, priorities, and events. While this framing presents a chance to ground the EU in local Ukrainian contexts, it also poses a risk of exaggerated expectations on the EU in terms of capability and opportunity. Importantly, Ukrainians see the EU’s capabilities as limited in one important instance: conflict resolution and mediation. Positively colored images of opportunity are firmly linked to the issue-areas of trade, investment, and economy, while positive images of cultural affinity are present in reports of the EU as a cultural, development, environmental, and research/science/technology actor. Note that the frequency of those reports was limited; hence, issue-areas the EU may hope are most visible are in fact less visible.

Table 1: The matrix of possibilities for EU engagement with Ukraine according to Ukrainian news media

Table 1: The matrix of possibilities for EU engagement with Ukraine according to Ukrainian news media 

The Narratives and Perceptions of Young Ukrainians

Faced with an array of statements from their own national press, how did elite Ukrainian students re-mix and re-formulate them to form their own narratives about Ukraine’s past, present, and future?

As Table 2 shows, when deciding system narratives, Ukrainian students felt the EU had the capability to offer EU membership to Ukraine as a normal country, just as Eastern European countries had joined in previous decades. However, students felt Ukraine was reforming too slowly and faced internal problems that prevented it from taking that opportunity. Discussion of fitting into the international system was primarily a discussion about Ukraine itself, much like the Ukrainian news-media narratives. Unlike their peers in other countries where we have conducted similar research, young Ukrainians had little orientation toward considering the nature of power and order. By contrast, young Israelis and Palestinians had a keen sense of a shift to multipolarity and an order in flux.14

Table 2: The matrix of possibilities for EU engagement with Ukraine according to Ukrainian elite students. 

Table 2: The matrix of possibilities for EU engagement with Ukraine according to Ukrainian elite students. 

Young Ukrainians presented a degree of shared identity between the EU and their nation. However, Turkey had also been a relative about to join the family— since 1963 in fact—and was turned away. Participants across the three Ukrainian cities and universities worried that Ukraine faced a similar fate and felt the EU had a tendency to take the moral high ground. Finally, when deciding policy narra- tives Ukrainians felt that despite Europe’s problems with migration, terrorism, and Brexit, the EU was still economically powerful enough to offer a new “Marshall Plan” for infrastructure and democratization of institutions in Ukraine. This policy narrative drew wide attention, but students were divided on whether it was desirable and whether Ukraine deserved such assistance. Indeed, this discussion gave way to participants narrating a transition from a recent past of enthusiasm and hope to a more measured, realistic present and future in which expectations about what the EU could do for Ukraine would be based on “fewer illusions.”

Concluding Discussion: Assessing the Possibilities

When we compare the narratives present in Ukrainian news media and those formed by young Ukrainian elites, we find that global thinking is absent in narratives about Europe and the EU. Instead, we observe an extremely strong focus on narrative at the identity level, a finding that should be of no surprise since Ukraine is fighting for its survival. This observation suggests that the theorization of stra- tegic narratives in societies embroiled in violent conflicts should have identity as the main filter.

Importantly, understanding identity means paying attention to nuances. That is where image theory adds dimensions to strategic narrative theory. Attention to capability, opportunity, and cultural affinity enhances the analysis of character, which is a key component of narrative.

What narratives should the EU project in the meantime? What possibilities emerge from our matrix? First, the EU should find a way to communicate that it will not abandon Ukraine and that the EU is “in it for the long haul.” Here, an analogy to counter the “another Turkey” precedent is needed, an instance of the EU showing patience across a generational period. Second, the EU must find a balanced way to show recognition of the multiple identities within Ukraine. These identities are often linked to different generations—each generation having its own historical references which should be acknowledged and spoken to—as well as different regions that have differing geographical and historical links. That the EU can offer finite financial or little military assistance means it must work in this terrain of symbolism and analogy to keep Ukrainians looking to, and not disillusioned with, the EU; young Ukrainians have no illusions about the EU’s ability to affect the conflict. Finally, the EU can bolster its cultural affinity and alignment of identity narratives by demonstrating its recognition of what different Ukrainians want. This symbolic work may find fertile terrain as more Ukrainians take advantage of visa-free travel in the EU, and ties to Europe grow organically in the coming years.

Natalia Chaban is Professor and Jean Monnet Chair at the National Centre for Research on Europe/Department of Global, Cultural and Languages Studies at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. She is internationally recognized as a leading expert in the field of EU external perceptions within EU foreign policy studies. Professor Chaban is the President of the Ukrainian Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand, a co-editor of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of European Studies, and an Executive Member of the Advisory Board of the New Zealand EU Centres Network. Her email is natalia.chaban@

Ben O’Loughlin is Professor of International Relations and Director of the New Political Communication Unit at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is co-editor of the Sage journal Media, War & Conflict. His latest book is Forging the World: Strategic Narratives and International Relations. He was Specialist Advisor to the UK Parliament’s Select Committee on Soft Power, producing the report Power and Persuasion in the Modern World. In 2016, he won the Walter Lippmann Award for Political Communication at the American Political Science Association. He is completing a book on the 2015 Iran peace deal and narrative diplomacy. His email is [email protected].



1 Much of the analysis presented here has developed in discussions with Alister Miskimmon. We are grateful to comments from Laura Roselle, Thomas Miller, and Steven Livingston, as well as the anonymous reviewers.

2 “A wave of civil unrest...triggered when the Ukrainian President Yanukovych declined to sign an association agreement with the EU.” Mai’a K. Davis Cross and Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski, “What Type of Power Has the EU Exercised in the Ukraine-Russia Crisis? A Framework of Analysis,” Journal of Common Market Studies 55, no. 1 (2017), 4.

3 This was “the first land grab in Europe since the 1930s.” Taras Kuzio. “Ukraine between a Constrained EU and Assertive Russia,” Journal of Common Market Studies 55, no. 1 (2016), 108.

4 MH-17 had more than 300 people on board.

5 Kuzio (2016).

6 Cross and Karolewski (2018), 4. 

7 Richard K. Herrmann et al., “Images in International Relations: An Experimental Test of Cognitive Schemata," International Studies Quarterly 41; Richard K. Hermann, Perceptions and Behavior in Soviet Foreign Policy(Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009)

8 Alister Miskimmon, Ben O’Loughlin, and Laura Roselle, Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order (New York: Routledge, 2013).

9 Ibid.; Alister Miskimmon, Ben O’Loughlin, and Laura Roselle, Forging the World: Strategic Narratives and International Relations (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2017).

10 Miskimmon, O’Loughlin, and Roselle (2013); Miskimmon, O’Loughlin, and Roselle (2017).

11 Laura Roselle, “Contentious Narratives,” (paper presented at the conference “Contentious Narratives: Digital Technology and the Attack on Liberal Democratic Norms,” George Washington University, Washington, DC, 2–3 April 2018).

12 Sharon Spray and Laura Roselle, “Understanding Communication about the Environment: Narratives of Climate Change and Foreign Policy,” (paper presented at International Studies Association Annual Convention, San Diego, 1–4 April 2013; Simon Watts and Paul Stenner, Doing Q Methodological Research: Theory, Method and Interpretation (Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2012); Floor Keuleers, “EU and Chinese Narratives on Development and Cooperation: Reception by South-African University Students” (paper presented at the 8th Pan-European Conference on the European Union in Prague, June 2016).

13 Natalia Chaban and Anatoliy Chaban, “Communicating Europe Beyond its Borders: Imagining the EU in Ukraine Post-Maidan,” European Foreign Affairs Review 23 (2018), 133.

14 Natalia Chaban et al., “Understanding the Scope and Limits of EU Conflict Diplomacy: Connecting Strategic Narrative to EU External Perceptions Research in Ukraine, Israel and Palestine,” European Security 28 (2019 forthcoming).