Ukraine’s Fight Is also a Fight for the West’s Future
Ukraine cannot afford to lose this war—it is fighting for its survival as a political nation and a state. It is also fighting for the West’s security and the future of democracy on the European continent and globally.
On February 24, the Russian Federation launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The atrocities that the Russian army has committed in Ukraine leave one shocked and speechless. The civilian population, including women and children, have become the primary victims of the Russian military attack. Schools, kindergartens, hospitals, and maternity wards along with civilian buildings have been targeted by Russian missiles and bombs. The destruction of the city of Mariupol has already given grounds to calling these developments a genocide. The scenes from the town of Bucha near Kyiv, which was liberated from Russian occupation in early April, show the shocking scale and character of war crimes that Russia has been committing in Ukraine. This is a huge tragedy not only for Ukraine, but for the entire post-World War II peace order in Europe and beyond. Yet, Ukrainians are paying the highest price in this war.
The West has been doing a lot to support Ukraine, but not enough to stop Putin and prevent further war crimes. This is the result of a lack of understanding about the fact that Russia is waging war not only against Ukraine, but primarily against the West and everything it stands for: international rules and norms, its peace order, and European values. Consequently, Ukraine is defending these values, while fighting for its own sovereignty and freedom. By extension, it is fighting for the capacity of the European Union to live up to its own objective of promoting peace, freedom, and stability in Europe and for European security. This lack of understanding about what is at stake has led to the failure to commit to investing all possible resources in helping Ukraine to withstand the attack and force Russia to pull out of Ukraine.
From Euromaidan to a War of Independence
For many observers and politicians in the West, Russia’s war against Ukraine started on February 24, 2022. Indeed, the full-scale invasion we have witnessed since then is unprecedented, something that nobody could imagine would happen in the 21st century. This has served as a wake-up call for German foreign and security policy and perhaps for many other Western leaders. Yet, a closer look suggests that the full-scale invasion in February 2022 can be seen a part of a broader plot that unfolded earlier.
Back in November 2013, Ukraine was supposed to sign an Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union. This document, which had been negotiated since 2006, was intended to make Ukraine an integral part of the European normative space and eventually a part of the EU’s single market in some areas. Apart from the symbolic value of the document, which was about Ukraine’s civilizational choice (democratic, prosperous, and technologically advanced EU versus the autocratic and resource-based economic model of Russia), many Ukrainians saw this agreement as a tool for Ukraine’s domestic EU-oriented transformation. Moreover, it would ensure Ukraine’s drifting away from the Russian zone of influence in the form of the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, which later transformed into Eurasian Economic Union and included additional post-Soviet countries.
The Russian President Vladimir Putin was very clear about what was at stake for the Russian neo-imperial project. A few days before the historical EU summit in Vilnius in 2013, where the AA was to be signed, the Ukrainian government under the leadership of its President Viktor Yanukovych announced a change of the course. The preparations for the signature of the agreement with the EU were suspended. In exchange for this, Ukraine was supposed to receive a $15-billion loan and a lower price for gas supplies from Russia. Had this plan succeeded, Ukraine would have become a vassal state of Russia, similar to Belarus and, to some degree, Armenia.
As it turned out, Ukrainian society, unlike its government, had a different vision of its future. People took to the streets and launched what initially was labelled as Euromaidan, but soon became known as the Revolution of Dignity. After three months of protests during the cold winter of 2013/2014, in which 78 protesters and 13 police officers lost their lives and which forced the President Yanukovych flee to Russia, Ukraine woke up to the new reality.
Crimea and parts of Donbas were respectively annexed and occupied. Russia started the war, which in the course of eight years left an estimated 15,000 people dead, 1.5 million people displaced, and hundreds of people persecuted and imprisoned for their political views, for preserving a Ukrainian political identity, and for stating the truth: that Russia had violated international law and order by having occupied the territories of a sovereign state. Yet, Russia’s key objective, that of undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty, was not achieved through the 2014 invasion. Despite the occupation of some 7 percent of its territory, Ukraine put itself even more firmly on the pro-European path. It concluded the Association Agreement with the EU, its citizens received the right to visa-free travel to the Schengen areas, while its public opinion became decisively pro-European: Since 2014 over 50 percent of Ukrainian society has consistently supported accession to the EU and less than 14 percent accession to the Russia-led Customs Union.
The so-called Minsk Agreements, which Ukraine was forced to sign under military pressure from Russia in September 2014 and February 2015 were Russia’s tool to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty in a different way. The idea was that the regimes installed by Russia in the parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the so-called “peoples republics,” once reintegrated into Ukraine, would enable Russia to exercise control over Ukraine from within. This was seen in Ukraine as a Trojan Horse. That is why Russia insisted on the special status and elections in these territories before Ukraine could regain control over its border with Russia. Ukrainian society and subsequently its government could not accept these terms. Therefore, Putin’s plan did not work.
The full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022 was the last option that Russia had at its disposal to bring Ukraine back into its orbit. As the “blitzkrieg plan” did not materialize due to the strong resistance of Ukrainians, Russia opted for the war of total extermination, whereby whole cities and towns have been destroyed, and mass killings of civilians have taken place.
Just like during the Revolution of Dignity, when Ukrainians fought for their right to determine their future as a member of the European family of states, today Ukraine is fighting again for the same right. Yet, today the scale of this fight is much bigger and the price is much higher.
European Values and Security at Stake
In this war, for Ukraine it is no less than its survival as a state and a political nation that is at stake. Historically, this is nothing new, since Ukraine has a long history of being suppressed by Russian imperialism, be it Tsarist Russia or the Soviet Union. The country suffered through centuries of Russification and decades of Stalin’s extermination of Ukrainian intellectual elites, farmers, and dissidents. What is more, modern-day Russia continues to act and think as a colonial power. Vladimir Putin’s article “On the historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” published in July 2021, openly questions Ukraine’s right to statehood. It was followed by an article by the former Russian president and prime minister Dmitry Medvedev in October of the same year, where Ukraine was called a “vassal” state of the West. In this context Russia’s full-scale military invasion can be seen as an integral instrument of the imperialist policy.
Moreover, Ukraine is fighting for the political system of pluralism, freedom, and human rights—the values that the EU stands for. Unlike Russia, Ukraine has experienced regular changes of political power through elections. While it has suffered from corruption, oligarchic power, and the lack of independent and fair judiciary, it has been a largely pluralistic society with political contestation, free media, and a vibrant civil society. These are exactly the values that have no place in the authoritarian political system of Russia. What is more, the space for these values is shrinking inside the EU, as the April 2022 re-election of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary shows. Preserving Ukraine and these values in Ukraine is in the vital interest of the EU.
The consequences of Russian rule for the lands it occupies serve as a warning against giving in to the aggressive military power. Take Crimea after it was annexed by Russia in 2014. Human rights violations and war crimes have been committed en masse on the peninsula. These include forced disappearances, torture and cases of inhuman treatment by local “authorities,” political prisoners, and detainees, as well as the suppression of association and free expression. In particular, the indigenous people, including Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians, have become the targets of state violence. Similar abuses have taken place in the occupied parts of Donbass. The award-winning film by the Ukrainian film director Sergei Loznitsa “Donbass” shows well how lawlessness and impunity look like.
The 2022 invasion has brought more of such war crimes and violation of basic rights and freedoms to Ukraine. Human rights organizations have documented the persecution of local government officials, journalists, religious leaders, volunteers, and civil society activists in the territories of Ukraine temporarily occupied by the Russian troops since February 2022. Many were kidnapped and found dead. Ukrainian troops who retook the entire Kyiv region in early April were met with shocking devastation, including bodies in the streets, evidence of execution-style killings of civilians, mass graves, and slain children.
Finally, Russia uses the lands it occupies to enhance its military power, which threatens the security of Europe. Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia has been consistently developing the Ukrainian peninsula into a military base. The potential for destruction concentrated in occupied Crimea in the form of missiles has already led to an absolute military strategic advantage for Russia in the Black Sea region and represents a projection of power as far as the southern Caucasus, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. Missile bases in Crimea have already been used for shelling of Kyiv and Western Ukraine. With these bases Russia also has the potential to launch nuclear strikes against targets in most of Europe. The EU cannot afford to allow these Russian military offensive capabilities to move even closer to its borders.
The West Must Act
Putin will not stop, unless he is stopped by the joint efforts of the West (NATO and the EU) and Ukraine. The delivery of weapons to Ukraine, any that can give the Ukrainian military an advantage over the Russian army, combined with strong economic sanctions should serve this end. Moreover, Ukraine needs the prospect of EU membership in the form of being granted EU candidate country status.
All these measures require that the EU and other Western countries move out of their comfort zone. Economic inconveniences and stress, resulting from the need to go beyond the usual bureaucratic procedures, are part of the price that needs to be paid. Yet, if the West is aware of what is at stake and sees this war as its own, then this price is not too high. After all, Ukrainians are paying a much higher price. Ukrainians have no choice, since they are defending their country. But the West has no choice either—it is about its future as a community, driven by values and the ability to project these values globally. Eventually, this is an investment in transatlantic strength, coherence, and security.
Iryna Solonenko is Senior Fellow at the Zentrum Liberale Moderne (LibMod) in Berlin.