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Mar 31, 2022

Russia’s War in Ukraine and the Future of Global Security

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is the largest security and humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II. Yet the West is not doing nearly enough to discourage Putin’s deadly ambitions.

General view of the site of a bombing at a shopping center as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine March 21, 2022.
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Contrary to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims, ever since it gained independence in 1991 Ukraine has been consistently breaking away from its Soviet legacy and striving for political and economic liberalization. Over these 30 years, and particularly since the Maidan Revolution of Dignity in 2014, Ukraine has managed to achieve more democratic progress than the majority of other former Soviet states, while also fighting Russian aggression in Donbas.

Ukraine has established transparent anti-corruption institutions, decentralized state power, deregulated business, improved governance of state-owned enterprises, and cleaned up its banking system. The country has also achieved steady economic growth, significantly enhanced its energy efficiency and independence, enabled the development of free media and a vibrant civil society, as well as made tangible progress on its aspirations to join both the European Union and NATO, both of which are established in Ukraine’s constitution and supported by 86 percent and 76 percent of Ukrainians, respectively.

Putin’s heinous military aggression against Ukraine, backed by half of the Russian society, could nullify this progress and, along with it, the West’s vast contribution thereto. It has the potential to throw Ukraine back decades economically and delay its capacity to address imminent challenges common for young democracies, including the fragility of institutions and oligarchic influence on policy-making. This can, however, be averted if the West realizes that Russia’s invasive agenda reaches much farther than Ukraine, and acts swiftly.

The West’s Disastrous Appeasement Strategy

Despite the growing unity and severity of Western sanctions, making Russia the world’s most sanctioned country, they are evidently too weak and too slow to deter the Russian invasion. These measures would have been proportional and adequate in 2014 when Russia annexed the Ukrainian Crimea, invaded Donbas, and downed the MH-17 flight. In fact, the imposition of this level of pressure back then, from an embargo on Russia’s oil and gas to long-overdue disconnecting from SWIFT, would have served as a deterrent for the overwhelming and largely unpunished atrocities that Russia is committing right now in Ukraine. Instead, just to terminate the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which Ukraine had for years insisted was a strategically important element of Russia’s weaponized energy sector, took a fully-fledged attack against a peaceful European independent state.

A long history of the West’s permissive response to Russia’s aggressive moves toward Transnistria, Ichkeria, Georgia, Donbas, Crimea, and Belarus, combined with persistent delays in Ukraine’s EU and NATO integration—partially for technical reasons, but also for purely political ones—has led to Putin’s justified expectation that his attempted Ukraine takeover would go largely unpunished.

The Many Revelations of this War

Against all the odds, however, the war that Russia launched has failed to follow any of the scenarios predicted. Despite the grim blitzkrieg forecasts, made by Russia and Ukraine’s Western allies, for five weeks now Ukraine has been giving a remarkably strong response to the world’s second largest army, with none of Ukraine’s major cities having fallen to the Russians.

As a typical dictator, Putin has fatally underestimated Ukraine, both the capabilities of its armed forces and the morale of its resilient society. These mistakes are now coming at a high price, as Russia is already estimated to be facing significant casualties—Ukraine’s army reported on March 29 that it was over 17,200, although that figure has not been independently verified. The United States government had said that its conservative estimate was of 7,000 troops killed in the first three weeks of fighting. What is clear is that Russia’s military has suffered more losses in this war than during the 10 years of the USSR’s war in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Russia is now experiencing a rapid economic decline, resulting from the avalanche of sanctions.

The Russian invasion has brought to light the tremendous perseverence of the Ukrainian people, enduring a catastrophe with utmost dignity and refusing to yield to the enemy. Weathered by centuries of subjugation and their struggle for freedom, Ukrainians know how to unite, and they did so immediately. On day one of the war’s outbreak, they were lining up at ATMs and food stores, gas stations, and pharmacies. Already on day two, they were queuing at blood donation centers and military conscription units, with more volunteers to join the army than it could possibly admit.

This war has also demonstrated the impressive combat capabilities and morale of the Ukrainian armed forces seasoned by eight years of Russia’s war in Donbas and enhanced by numerous defense advisory programs conducted by bilateral partners and NATO. Since 2014, Ukraine has implemented hundreds of NATO standards, introduced critical changes to its military doctrine, terminated defense partnerships with Russia, cleared out Russian influences from its armed forces, intelligence, and special services—and these efforts have clearly paid off.

The first five weeks of the war have also revealed the crucial role of Ukraine’s territorial defense, a standalone branch of the army formed by volunteer civilians. Territorial defense and, quite phenomenally, unarmed local citizens—who heroically blocked Russian tanks and took its troops captive with their bare hands—have significantly assisted the army in retaining Ukraine’s control over its major cities and strategic objects. They have been an integral part of Ukraine’s resistance, and have highlighted the fact that Russia would have little chance of maintaining its occupation of temporarily captured areas. Finally, it has exposed the plainly mythological nature of Russia’s military might, maintained by secrecy, massive propaganda efforts, and the lack of actual combat experience with a strong rival.

Aftermath of the Invasion

That said, the forces are ill-matched. Five weeks in, the invasion has already brought about the largest-scale destruction since World War II, wiping out Ukrainian cities and towns and killing at least 1,300 Ukrainian soldiers and thousands of civilians, including 144 children. In the besieged southern city of Mariupol alone, local authorities reported burying over 5,000 civilians in mass graves amid ongoing shelling.

Russian forces are struggling to prevail against the Ukrainian army and are taking their revenge on civilians. They bomb maternity hospitals and kindergartens, museums and churches, orphanages and nursing homes, and shoot dead columns of mothers and children attempting to evacuate from their burning towns. They abduct city mayors and forcefully deport thousands of people kidnapped from bomb shelters to economically depressed regions of Russia, reviving the Nazi practice of filtration camps. At least 15,000 Ukrainians have been reported abducted from Mariupol alone.

Every fourth Ukrainian has had to leave their home, not knowing if they will ever be coming back. If the war continues, many of them will have to build a new life abroad and many, particularly those whose cities and towns have been destroyed by Russia, will not return, adding to Ukraine’s pre-existing demographic challenges. According to the latest polls, 44 percent of Ukrainians are currently separated from their families due to the war. Ukrainian women and children flee the country, while men aged 18-60 have remained in Ukraine as they are liable for conscription. The ways this forced separation will affect the fabric of the Ukrainian society, both in the immediate future and in the long term, remains uncertain.

The Ukrainian economy has also been hard hit by the Russian invasion, with 56 percent of companieswhich are members ofthe European Business Association in Ukraine reporting that they have ceased operating during the war. The direct losses already inflicted on Ukraine are estimated at over $500 billion. The UN says 90 percent of the country is at risk of a “freefall into poverty” and extreme vulnerability.

The World’s Indecisive Response

Amid the appalling destruction and the atrocities Russian army is committing in Ukraine, the West continues holding off on a proportional response, with some states still blocking provision of Ukraine with further military assistance and some unsure how swiftly they can cut energy ties with Moscow. Since the invasion’s outbreak Germany alone has paid Russia over €4.5 billion, i.e., nearly €140 million a day, for gas. 

It would seem that the international community still sees the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine as a bilateral conflict, a regional crisis—anything but a full-fledged war in the heart of Europe with far-reaching consequences for global security and with a clear potential of turning into the World War III. The fact that there is a very specific price tag to every human life depending on their country’s economy and place on the international arena, is rarely as apparent as now.

The foreign media’s rhetoric surrounding this invasion gives reasons to fear that international community has already made peace with the possible scenario of Ukraine losing, despite the actual dynamics of this war. Ukraine is effectively going on the offensive to recapture towns outside the capital Kyiv, forcing Russia to scale back its ambition and to focus on Ukraine’s East. If Ukraine’s defeat is conceived as an option, then the West must also be prepared for an imminent spillover of this aggression to the larger Europe. Western states must prepare to be next.

What the West Can Do to End the War

Today, the world is astonished by the incredible courage of the Ukrainian people, sacrificing their future for Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty. It is now high time to turn this admiration into the tangible support Ukraine so desperately needs. Ukraine’s ability to defend global democracy against Russian aggression will determine the future of Europe and the West at large. Yet it is the West that determines whether in the decisive weeks to come Ukraine retains its military capabilities.

The West’s response should, therefore, be eminently stronger and faster. This, first and foremost, means closing Ukrainian sky for Russia—by introducing a no-fly zone over Ukraine and providing Ukraine with advanced defensive weapons. These measures would enable the safe evacuation of millions of Ukrainians stranded in the war zone, prevent further civilian losses, which are already massive, and safeguard critical infrastructure.

It is also crucial to fully disconnect Russia from SWIFT, impose a trade embargo on Russian oil and gas as major revenue generators financing the war in Ukraine, boycott companies still operating in Russia, and sanction Russia’s banks, including Sberbank, Gazprombank and over 300 others that have largely evaded the previous waves of Western sanctions. The West should also expand the sanctions list of Russian political actors and oligarchs, banning them and their families from entry to their respective states, expelling their children from Western universities, and freezing their assets abroad as future reparations for Ukraine’s recovery.

Furthermore, it is critical that the Financial Action Task Force blacklist Russia and Belarus as state sponsors of terrorism and block all international transactions with them. The West should immediately cut off diplomatic ties with Russia, exclude it from all international organizations and fora, and isolate Putin’s bloody regime politically and economically.

It is also important that the European Union delivers on its commitment to fast-track the process of Ukraine’s membership application. Ukraine has paid an unthinkable price to defend European values of freedom and remains on the very frontlines of European security, fighting one of the world’s largest armies. Ukraine’s accession to the EU would send a strong signal to Russia, reiterating that Ukraine is an integral part of the European family.

That being said, economic and diplomatic moves, however critical, should not be overestimated. Russia has multiple times proved to Ukraine and the West that it neither speaks nor understands the language of diplomacy. The only language it does understand is the language of force. It is, therefore, most important for Ukraine’s and global security that the West enhance military assistance to Ukraine in order to strengthen its negotiating position in the virtually stalled peace talks with Russia and help Ukraine continue its ongoing battle. With over 1,100 missiles already fired into Ukraine since February 24, it is in acute need of advanced air and missile defense systems, fighter aircrafts, and drones to protect its sovereignty and independence.

Finally, Ukraine needs long-term guarantees of security. With the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on security assurances proving unenforceable and NATO accession remaining a distant prospect, NATO member states should increase their military presence in Poland and the Baltic states and support Ukraine in joining a strong security partnership such as United 24 recently proposed by Ukraine’s President Zelensky.

The threat of a larger war that the West seems to be so desperately trying to avoid, is already there, as Putin is openly threatening use nuclear weapons if faced with Russia’s “existential threat,” while his troops are capturing Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. He isn’t provoked by a military response. It is the lack of a proper response that provokes him. As a classic thug, he is encouraged by the perceived weakness of his victim. And NATO’s cowardly reaction to this unthinkable massacre in 21st-century Europe, as well as concessions that the West is urging Ukraine to consider, may further reinforce Putin’s obvious desire to expand this aggression to NATO member states. In fact, we are already witnessing how the lack of military response to the war in Ukraine is affecting other conflict-prone regions, particularly catalyzing China’s aggressive ambitions toward Taiwan.

The international community should continue supporting Ukraine through non-military means, particularly by increasing its macro-financial assistance and simplifying access to protection for the Ukrainian refugees who have fled in search of safety. However, it is even more crucial to address the military root cause of the Ukrainian catastrophe—not merely its economic and humanitarian consequences. Western allies should provide Ukraine with a strong military backing. Otherwise, they will be left to deal with new waves of humanitarian and refugee crises with millions of displaced Ukrainians in the near future and their own economies increasingly strained. The West is still approaching this desaster in reverse order, mainly addressing its overwhelming aftermath and thus enabling Putin’s further aggression.

Ukraine and the New Global Order

Russia’s war in Ukraine has in many ways become an eye-opener for those looking on. Yet the most sobering disillusionment is that of complete inadequacy of international security mechanisms and institutions created after World War II when it comes to dealing with the current foreign policy challenges and modern-day warfare, conventional and hybrid. With existing security fora, a single war criminal in charge of a nuclear state can uninterruptedly terrorize a 43-million nation and pose an existential threat to Europe.

As rightly argued by the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, at last week’s Doha Forum in Qatar, “if a strong country could impose by force, on a neighbor that is not threatening him, whatever he wants, passing through war crimes, destroying a country, making Mariupol the ‘European Aleppo’ and making Ukraine a second Syria, then the whole world is in danger.” Putin is creating a precedent with a globally destructive potential.

Russia’s barbarian war in Ukraine should serve as a wake-up call to the civilized world, leading to the development of a new security architecture and strengthening international peacekeeping legislation to safeguard democracy against dictatorship and terror. Only then, will we have a chance of a secure and prosperous future—in Europe and globally.

Ukraine will inevitably recover from this hideous invasion, just as it always has throughout its perilous history. It will accelerate its integration in the Euro-Atlantic community, enhance security partnerships, banish Russian influences from its political and information space, and curb high-level corruption. Ukraine will recognize its true identity, further unite as a nation, strengthen its democratic institutions, rebuild its scenic cities destroyed by Russia’s aggression and become a proud member of the European and global community. For that to happen, though, the West must finally awaken and dare to see Russia for the terrorist state it is.

Olena Prokopenko is a Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) a and a Co-chair of the Transatlantic Task Force on Ukraine. .