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At the end of 2023, the peoples of Ukraine and Belarus stand at very different points on their European journey.

While our Ukrainian neighbours continue to repel a criminal invasion now in its tenth year, so that they can rightfully enjoy the gains of their revolution of dignity and prepare for membership of the European Union, Belarusians remain shackled by a brutal dictatorship, their democratic opposition forced into exile. The countries’ fates may be tied by history, geography, and culture but, for now, they are separated by a war that neither of them chose. And yet, one existential battle unites them profoundly, a battle that the European Union, too, will need to win in the years ahead. The battle for the truth.

Truth is the lifeblood of any human democracy. When we establish and share a common factual reality, we can begin to build a culture together. We develop language and story so that we can understand the world around us; we organise our people and resources so that we can solve our problems as a community; we create public institutions so that we can share power, debate the future, and solve our disputes peacefully. Our community holds together by the beliefs and values we hold to be true.

In the moments between our European wars where we have made halting and fragile progress towards a shared guarantee of freedom, dignity, and solidarity, we have encouraged freedom of thought, scientific inquiry, the rule of law, and the free press to pursue the truth to the very end. By expanding our knowledge and understanding of the world, and by exposing the injustices and abuses of human power, we have given strength and moral purpose to the diverse political movements which have made our societies more open, more productive and, over time, a little fairer.

This is not to absolve European nations of their past crimes, from the slave trade to colonialism and then, ultimately, to the abject horrors of the twentieth century; our work of remembrance and justice is not yet done. Nor does it suggest that any people becomes more truthful over time. The line separating good and evil, as Solzhenitsyn said, passes not through states but ‘right through every human heart’.

Nonetheless, at their best, European democracies have patiently built the institutions – from our public-service broadcasters to the great independent newspapers, from our impartial courts and judges to the jury service of citizens, from our autonomous universities to the life-saving programmes of publicly-funded research – which have all enshrined the pursuit of truth within their public mission. These institutions embody our best ideas, passing them on from one generation to the next.

Today’s moment feels very different. While the European Union as a whole seems to have weathered a decade of crisis and, arguably, emerged stronger – a view supported by recent opinion polls – its democracies are still grappling with the age of anger, a prolonged fragmentation of our culture and politics, perhaps only in its infancy. Trust and cohesion have suffered, our social fabric frayed.

While Russia and China seek to exploit our disarray, not least by aiming their disinformation at the cracks in our societies – often with the help of local proxies – the behemoths of our surveillance economy continue to profit from our addiction to the screen. Talk of a ‘post-truth world’ is wrong and dangerous but reveals how much is at stake, and hints perhaps too at the depths of our cynicism.

In a darkening world, it seems curious that the core values of the European Union, laid out in article 2 of its Treaty – ‘respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights’ – make no mention of the truth. Not a word about our human pursuit of it, or its vital role in our democratic life; not even the suggestion of a basic human right to reliable public information. Article 11 of the Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights briefly states that the ‘freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected’. What have we lost here?

Is the idea of the truth so vast, so obvious, that we no longer see it? Is it assumed, in silence, to be a national competence that sits with the public goods of health, education, and security? Is truth best left to our Member States? Or have we become so squeamish, in our jaded secular societies, that we dare not engage with an idea that faintly smacks of the religious?

To think about what this means today, for Ukraine and Belarus, and for the European Union they will one day join, we might return to the nuclear catastrophe of 26 April 1986, which took place at the Chernobyl power plant, less than seventy miles from Kyiv – and which spread most of its radioactive contaminants over the border into Belarus. According to the 2011 report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer were reported by 2006 in the children and adolescents who were exposed. ‘More cases can be expected during the next decades,’ says the report.

To the Ukrainian communist party leaders, intellectuals, and economists who had all argued for nuclear power, Chernobyl meant modernisation. Progress. The future. Critically, however, the project was run from Moscow, its senior managers and technicians brought in from outside. If Ukrainian officials joined the commission managing the consequences of the accident, they held little sway; they were not allowed to inform the local population about the enormous risks to human health. On the first of May, when a change in the wind blew radioactive clouds towards Kyiv, Ukrainian authorities wanted to cancel the annual workers’ parade. Moscow refused.

It was only on 14 May 1986 that the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, spoke on television to explain what had happened. He rightly paid tribute to the scores of workers at the plant as well as the emergency services who had effectively sacrificed their lives. Of the 600 workers at the Chernobyl site, 28 died within three months of the accident. Gorbachev also claimed that the central authorities had acted as quickly and efficiently as possible, and, in one of the final broadsides of the Cold War, he castigated Western powers for ‘sowing new seeds of distrust and suspicion towards the socialist countries.’

Writing on the 20th anniversary of Chernobyl, Gorbachev reflected on how the events had sounded a death knell for the Soviet Union as a whole: ‘The Chernobyl disaster, more than anything else, opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression in the Soviet Union, to the point that the system as we knew it became untenable. The experience made starkly apparent how important it was to continue the policy of glasnost. Personally, I began to perceive time in terms of pre-Chernobyl and post-Chernobyl.’

If the disaster revealed how state secrecy, pursued at the cost of its citizens’ lives, quickly corrodes the legitimacy of a regime, it also shone a new light on relations between the centre and the Soviet republics; between Moscow and Kyiv and Minsk; between the Party and the people. It stimulated public debate and a new political energy, which coalesced around a nascent ecological movement. Beyond its first human suffering, Chernobyl united the people against a Moscow-led elite.

If a decaying Soviet regime needed to hide the truth from its own people, the Putin regime is barely different today. Only, Putin has gone further. While snuffing out dissent and opposition at home, he has put disinformation at the centre of his war on the West. Each new assault on international law – the use of nerve agents on British soil; the downing of flight MH17 and its 298 victims; the deployment of brutal mercenaries in central Africa; the support of the Assad regime and its use of chemical weapons; the interference in elections across Europe and the US; and ultimately the criminal invasion of Ukraine, to name but the most egregious examples – all came shrouded in a fog of lies.

For Putin, disinformation serves not only to confuse and disrupt the opponent; it aims to undermine the very notion of truth. If there are many different accounts of every event – see how Moscow multiplied its explanations of MH17 – then how can we possibly agree on anything? Every fact has its alternatives; only might can be right; the dictator dictates the truth. And so, to justify the invasion of Ukraine to his domestic audience and allies abroad, Putin fabricated a new fictional history to claim that Russians and Ukrainians were ‘one people, a single whole’; that ‘modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era’; and the man-made famine of 1932-33 that killed between four and ten million Ukrainians was not a Stalinist policy but a ‘common tragedy’.

Putin’s myth not only denies the democratic choices that Ukraine has made over the last three decades, starting with the resounding vote for independence in 1991 and culminating in the Euromaidan revolution of 2014; it denies more profoundly that the unending complexity of the entire region’s history – where one empire gave way to another, bringing war and conflict but also new languages, cultures, religions, and trading routes – has ultimately led to new political identities on the Ukrainian territory which are anything but a product of the Soviet era. Like all of its western neighbours, modern Ukraine is a work in progress, its most significant frontiers not drawn on any map but woven deep into its culture.

It is this complexity and the gradual emergence of new identities which swirl like a kaleidoscope in The Gates of Europe, the internationally acclaimed history of Ukraine written by Serhii Plokhy, Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University. At the end of his account, Plokhy argues that the country’s claim to independence ‘has always had a European orientation, which is one consequence of Ukraine’s experience as a country located on the East-West divide between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, central European and Eurasian empires, and the political and social practices they brought with them. This location on the border of several cultural spaces helped make Ukraine a contact zone in which Ukrainians of different persuasions could learn to coexist.’

What is such a fate if not the story of modern Europe? What is the story of our modern European nations if not their survival – or reinvention – after the fall of empire? And if we all share one story, it is that of a certain form of human progress – gradual, complex, fragile, messy, but ultimately free and democratic – a story that Vladimir Putin will never see and never accept.

In the tenth year of his invasion, Putin’s disinformation is as toxic as ever, Ukraine’s struggle for the truth only more vital. The Kremlin continues to deny its bombardment of civilians, obscures the risks of nuclear disaster at the Zaporizhzhia power plant, and uses its state-run media to spread propaganda across African countries even as its war on Ukraine leaves them hungry. Before 2022, Ukraine’s exports of grain fed more than 400 million people around the world.

The struggle for the truth may only get harder. The dizzying advance of machine learning – and its widespread availability, for free, on our phones – brings new urgency to the questions facing European democracy, and to the existential challenges facing Ukraine. If Putin, Xi, Trump, and their proxies so effectively stoked anger and distrust via the traditional platforms of television and social media, what might they achieve with the next wave of AI software? Should we become overwhelmed by a limitless deluge of fake imagery, unable to certify the truth of any source, the autocrats and their mercenaries will smell blood; they will quickly convince themselves and their supporters that the truth never existed in the first place. At the end of 2023, is any government remotely prepared for the ethical, political, and social confusion that awaits?

Democracy cannot be digitised. Here lies hope – or the first steps of resistance. Over decades if not centuries, our democratic pursuit of the truth has always been the most human, the most bodily endeavour. The journalist on the front lines, the protester on the barricades, the lawyer investigating the corrupt politician – every woman and man who hunted for the truth was putting their life at risk. It is the story of the Maidan in 2014 and of Minsk in 2020. The moment we choose death over submission, as Albert Camus saw it. It is never enough to refuse the dark; at some point we march into it.

We have certainly used technology when it helped. From the printing press to the internet, mass communication has shrunk the distance between us, making our conversation global and, ultimately, instantaneous. Good ideas, good books, and effective vaccines have spread more quickly. And yes, even social media once promised a new freedom when the Arab Spring was dawning. But no technology gave us courage or hope. No technology roused our defiance. Our thirst for the truth, like our urge to invent, always comes from deep within. We must look to these instincts today.

If artificial intelligence asks, Who can we trust?, let us remember how we answered that question – with remarkable success – in the past. When the great independent newspapers and public-service broadcasters began their work, building a new public good that would underpin, nourish, and protect our civic life, they won the trust of millions. A trust that became the lifeblood of democracy. A trust that lay not in the ink, the paper, or the screen, but in the thousands of people who had sweated and risked their lives to deliver the news.

The journalists who decided in November 2021 to launch the Kyiv Independent continue this tradition. Fired by the Kyiv Post for defending the principle of editorial independence, they wanted to rescue that paper’s legacy. Today, the Independent is a living, breathing manifesto: it ‘serves its readers and community, and nobody else’. The ‘newsroom will decide and execute the publication’s editorial policy in the community’s best interests. Attempts to influence it from outside will not be tolerated.’ The paper works with The Guardian and other European outlets to explore new models of funding that respect editorial independence.

What can we do to help?

The European Union may be modest in its treaty but, in practice, it has found legitimate and useful ways to support freedom of the press. Its antitrust laws have tried (and sometimes failed) to restrict the market power of commercial news organisations. Its media laws have recognised and affirmed the unique role of public-service broadcasting.

Now, building on the Union’s new laws that protect citizens in digital markets, the European Commission has proposed a Freedom of the Media act. It includes safeguards against political interference; a commitment to the independence and financial sustainability of public-service media; new rules on the transparency of ownership; measures to protect the integrity of editors; and a European Board for Media Services that aims to prevent commercial dominance. This autumn, a healthy majority in the European Parliament voted to strengthen the core of the act, underscoring both pluralism and independence.

In parallel, the Union has shown leadership as it builds the world’s first legal framework for artificial intelligence. If the final negotiations between Member States and the European Parliament are straining the proposals to their limits, we should not be surprised: governments are trying to reconcile the safety of citizens and the integrity of the public space with the urge to innovate and compete for investment. OpenAI struggles to do the same. The more these battles play out in the open, the better.

Ukraine and, one day, Belarus, will adopt these laws as they prepare to join the European Union. The courage of their journalists and activists shows that the commitment to freedom and independence runs deep. The Union must support their efforts, just as it must listen to those who have fought bravely against Kremlin disinformation. We have much to learn.

At the international level, the greatest contribution to the struggle for truth will come from the tribunals that investigate Russia’s crimes of war. In April 2023, G7 foreign ministers were clear:


‘There can be no impunity for war crimes and other atrocities such as Russia’s attacks against civilians and critical civilian infrastructure. We further condemn the unlawful transfer and deportation of Ukrainians, including children, and conflict-related sexual violence against Ukrainians. We reiterate our commitment to holding those responsible to account, consistent with international law, including by supporting the efforts of international mechanisms, in particular the International Criminal Court. We support exploring the creation of an internationalized tribunal based in Ukraine’s judicial system to prosecute the crime of aggression against Ukraine.


Vladimir Putin, his regime, and his supporters will not escape the truth. Their crimes across Ukraine are well documented, the witnesses numerous. This year, the International Criminal Court indicted Putin and his ‘commissioner for children’, Maria Lvova-Belova, for the mass abduction of Ukrainian children. How could we not see here the poignant symbolism of the family? A million Ukrainian families, in their shared flesh and blood, won the Revolution of Dignity on the Maidan and chose the path to Europe.

Justice can never return the tens of thousands of children, women, and men who have since lost their lives; nor will it rebuild their homes. But it will mark a critical moment for Ukrainian democracy and its place within the family of European nations as they struggle together through this age of anger – a moment that reminds us of who we are and what we believe in. It will also herald a moment of renewal, as the end of war sometimes does; a renewal of our commitment to the truth, and a recognition that our democracies cannot survive without it.

Author: Jonathan Hill – CEF Co-Founder

Photo: Pexels

Date of publication: December 5, 2023