Mar 01, 2023

Op-Ed: Ukraine’s Path from a Geopolitical No-Man’s Land to a Key European State

Continued, extensive military assistance, a new Marshall Plan to facilitate the country’s democratic, prosperous future, and a clear path to full EU membership: this way Ukraine will turn into a cornerstone for European security.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel attend a news briefing after EU summit, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine February 3, 2023.
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Twelve months ago, the fate of Ukraine as a free and democratic state seemed to be sealed. The Russian army would quickly overrun the Ukrainian defenses and conquer the entire country within days—that was the unanimous assessment of nearly all military experts. And yet, with their incredible courage and with massive support from their allies, the Ukrainians have achieved the impossible by fighting back Russia’s troops. However, there is little hope of the war coming to an end any time soon. Despite massive casualties, President Vladimir Putin’s regime remains committed to its goal of destroying Ukraine’s state- and nationhood.

Ukraine will continue to rely on our assistance for a long time to come. But our help is not merely an act of solidarity, it is the best investment there is in Europe’s security. For far too long we ignored the strategic importance of Ukraine for the stability of Eastern Europe and the entire European security architecture. Out of fear of provoking Russia, we have implicitly acknowledged Moscow’s thinking in spheres of influence and relativized the sovereignty not just of Ukraine, but also of Moldova and Georgia. In doing so, we have neither enhanced security in the region nor prevented Russia from attacking Ukraine.

The brutal invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 put the final nail in the coffin of the policy of leniency toward Russia. Only if Ukraine emerges victorious—in other words remain a free, democratic state with its territorial integrity intact—can a lasting peace be created in Eastern Europe. In order to prepare Ukraine’s path from a geopolitical no-man’s land to a key European state, we must start laying the groundwork now.

Three Points to Make Ukraine a Key State

First, we must continue to support Ukraine in building a highly modern and effective army. In the short term, this means enabling Ukraine to best defend itself against the threat of further Russian offensives and to liberate occupied areas. Modern Western weapons systems such as the Leopard 2 main battle tank will make a real difference here. Above all, however, in the months ahead international allies must ensure a constant replenishment of munitions, replacement parts, and new equipment.

Also, in the long term, a modern army that is professionally trained and well equipped is the best guarantee against Russia ever threatening the security, independence, and territorial integrity of Ukraine again. In this respect, Ukrainian forces should cooperate as closely as possible with NATO. Moreover, any sanctions that prevent Russia from massive re-armament should be permanently maintained and strictly monitored for the foreseeable future.

Second, we must start now with plans to rebuild Ukraine as a modern, democratic, economically, and socially stable country. Russia has been deliberately destroying the livelihoods of the Ukrainian people for the past 12 months. Countless Ukrainian towns and villages have been reduced to rubble, and large parts of the critical infrastructure have been damaged by Russian missile and drone terror. In addition to humanitarian and financial support, Ukrainians above all need hope for a better future. The millions of war refugees, too, need to know that Ukraine will provide them with a safe and attractive home again once the fighting is over.

To achieve this, Ukrainians need a new Marshall Plan, similar to the one for Western Europe, announced in 1947, which laid the foundations for security, democracy, and an economic recovery known in Germany as the Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle. In addition, we should be working with our partners to find legally secure ways to seize frozen Russian assets for the reconstruction of Ukraine.

Third, Ukraine deserves a realistic and honest timetable for full European Union membership. This should be accompanied by specific reform requirements as well as incentives such as enhanced access to the European single market. Swift EU accession is not an act of mercy toward Ukraine, but above all a win-win situation that is in our interests, too. That is why the accession negotiations should start in early 2024 at the latest, and be conducted with a great deal of ambition and sincerity on all sides. We cannot afford to keep a candidate country waiting once again out in the cold, as has been the case with the Western Balkan states over the past 20 years.

All EU partners must commit to this without any ifs or buts: The EU’s door is wide open to Ukraine. How quickly the country can actually become an EU member state depends on the concrete reform progress, but also on the course of the war. The government in Kyiv must resolutely continue on the arduous reform path—especially in the fight against corruption.

An Investment in Shared Security

This will all take time and a lot of money, but it is an investment in our shared security. A defeat for Ukraine would permanently destabilize all of Central and Eastern Europe and ultimately cost us much more politically, economically, and militarily. That is why, in the long run, Ukraine needs security assistance and guarantees against further Russian aggression. That is why we must already start with the reconstruction and transformation of the ravaged country now, in order to provide Ukrainians with a hopeful future. And that is why Ukraine needs to push forward with its reforms, which will soon lead it into the European Union.

Michael Roth is chairman of the German Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee and a member of the leadership council (Presidium) of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).


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