It is still difficult to shake off the disbelief: Putin is waging a brutal war in Ukraine. To the west of Ukraine, we are following the news updates, but we still find it hard to grasp that they are real. When the Ukrainians are fighting and looking for shelter, it may not be a good time to analyse the mistakes that have been made and reproach ourselves. But the unfolding tragedy raises the question of why we have so adamantly rejected the war scenario over the past years and decades.
Aspiration vs. Reality
All the time, the situation of which the West was a part, was played out on two levels. The first level was aspirational, organized around key political principles. For the West (conventionally understood), and for Ukrainians, it was the natural right of Ukraine to try to develop as a liberal democracy, with a tripartite government, an independent and non-corrupt judiciary, a social market economy and so on.
The second was the level of reality. It hinted at and severely limited what could realistically be achieved. Here, the room for manoeuvre had to be assessed in relation to geopolitical truisms: in the case of Ukraine, in relation to Russia, this meant reckoning with an undemocratic neighbour ruled by a former KGB agent.
Even the most aspirational, and well-intended wishful thinking cannot sidestep the harshness of reality. In the case of Ukraine, its pursuit of political goals led Putin, who professes a vision of ‘Greater Russia’ and fears democracy in his immediate environs, to feel provoked to the maximum. In trying to prevent Ukraine from moving closer to a liberal democratic form of government, he was willing to take any action. This included not only a whole range of propaganda and discursive instruments (state television at home and abroad, trolls, etc.), but also military intervention (annexation of Crimea, cutting off the ‘Donetsk’ and ‘Luhansk People’s Republics’ from Ukraine). Thus, the West had to consider both the development model chosen by the Ukrainians and the realpolitik dictated by Putin.
What the West Has Already Done
Meanwhile, the Russian moves prior to 24 February have either been misinterpreted or thinking on the level of the aspiration has obscured the vision as to the true cost of reality.
In the very first reactions to the war, the question of the aborted ‘neutralisation’ of Ukraine recurred in the Western media, especially the German media. This question, indignant from an idealistic point of view, arose not from the situation as it presented itself in real time. Due to the geographical location of Ukraine, thinking and acting on the level of the desired would only be possible with all available Western forces on board, and it would have to include military commitment, as the Russian side has made no secret of its readiness to use force. The pursuit of ideals supported by the West exposes Ukraine to greater military threat from Russia.
Ukraine was already confronted with this possibility in 2014. The West hardly reacted. After 2014, further military escalation had to have been foreseen. Nevertheless, in endorsing democratization, ‘soft’ support for Ukrainian civil society – NGOs, foundations, scholarships, loans – was extended, strengthening Ukrainian society’s drive to integrate with the West. In the words of the political scientist Herfried Münkler, the Ukrainians’ appetite for democracy was intensified, thus imperiling them to consequences. At the same time, the military option was always out of the question – not only because of the logical fear of Russian nuclear weapons but also because of a general aversion to war. Today, Ukraine is fighting alone. The West introduces sanctions and is beginning to send weapons; may they reach this country before it is too late.
The situation is dynamic and of course, it would be best if the Russians withdrew as soon as possible, and the Ukrainians regained their independence. But now one of the other possible consequences of this war may well no longer be the Finlandisation of Ukraine (i.e. its neutralisation, which could have been obtained despite Putin’s greater appetite), but its Iraqisation (i.e. the emergence of a long-term unstable conflict zone with repeated outbreaks of fighting and attacks).
As for the West – it has not consistently weighed both possible outcomes. Above all, however, it has not seriously considered the worst-case scenario. As a result, it has not pursued a viable, which does not necessarily mean fair, policy towards either Russia or Ukraine. After all, what is the point of being morally and ethically on the right side if you have no influence on the level of reality.
What the West Needs to Do Now
There are two clear consequences from the Ukrainian tragedy. First, the West must separate itself economically from the dominant authoritarian players, regional power Russia and superpower China. Thus, it must accept – to some extent – the consequences of the reversal of globalisation. Both Russia and China have only grown in power because of Western consumption and hunger for natural resources. However, this means that both countries are de facto still heavily dependent on the West. Only by disentangling itself from global economic systems can the West halt the growth (China) and stabilisation (Russia) of these authoritarian nuclear states while restoring greater independence from them. In the case of Russia, this will lead to the marginalisation of that country on a global scale. In the case of China, at least, it will lead to a significant slowdown of its growth. Of course, this will entail high costs and a change in lifestyle, but maintain values and security.
Secondly, Europe must re-arm militarily and become a defensively oriented military power. In view of the increasing orientation of US security policy towards the Pacific region and domestic political uncertainty (Trump’s presidency), this step seems necessary. It is not a question of replacing NATO, but the Alliance’s defence effort in Europe itself, especially in Eastern Europe, must not rest mainly on the already burdened shoulders of US troops. It must also be carried out effectively by European troops if necessary. Since no rapid EU agreement on the creation of such an army is to be expected, this will probably start with the rearmament of the individual states. France is the leader here, as it is the only nuclear power in the EU and has the strongest and most experienced army. Germany, as the economic leader of the continent, must significantly increase the number of its soldiers and invest in equipment (the situation began to develop in this direction; Chancellor Scholz announced a revolutionary turn in Germany’s defence policy). Poland has already announced an increase and modernisation of its armed forces. Close cooperation between states must continue, not only within the EU and NATO, but with the United Kingdom too.
The Future for Ukraine and Russia?
Finally, and most importantly, a word about Ukraine. In this text, we have taken the liberty of summarising the situation mainly from a ‘Western’ perspective (once again, please bear with us). In the most short-term perspective, hope for a positive turnaround in Ukraine, although it is very difficult to write these words, is at the moment nowhere near as high as we would like it to be. This is not about sowing defeatism. Peace talks will take place/are taking place between unequal parties, also, and perhaps above all, on a moral level. There is hope, of course, in the growing response from the West, but mainly in the brave defence of the Ukrainians – both of which, however, render Putin a wounded animal, his movements and demands harder to predict than ever before. If the war were to continue, however, in the somewhat longer-term, Putin’s plans could be thwarted by two factors: the creation of a vassal state at Moscow’s mercy may be much more difficult to achieve than Putin has assumed. The heroic defence of the country during those first days of the war will leave its mark, intensifying the decisive anti-Russian attitude of most Ukrainians. Second, Putin’s internal rule is also not cemented forever. Given how irrational his view of Ukrainian history is, Putin may also underestimate Russian civil society, which despite repression still exists and makes its presence known. It is possible that his gangster-style invasion of Ukraine marks the beginning of the end of his rule.
Lidia Zessin-Jurek is a Research Fellow at the Czech Academy of Sciences; Philipp Zessin-Jurek is the Scientific Coordinator at the Center for Graduate Studies at European University Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder