What is in store for Ukraine a year after the start of the war?


It’s been a year since Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion began. The West was Kiev’s arsenal and banker, but what role would it play in a conflict that could last for generations?

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Saturday 18 February 2023 at 13:00 GMT

The West has supported Ukraine on a scale that Vladimir Putin, and perhaps the West itself, never expected in the year since the Russian president began his invasion. The West has been Ukraine’s advocate, refuge, arsenal and banker, if not its full-fledged military ally. We found a way to be a decent friend to Ukraine while Ukraine is under attack.

But a tougher test lies ahead when the West must decide what kind of friend it will be to a vulnerable, half-ruined country where fighting has largely stopped but where war has not gone away and may not go away for generations .

In maybe a year, if not sooner, the West — that vaguely defined ensemble of prosperous North American and European democracies that somehow includes Australia and Japan — will have to face a question it’s dodged: How far will we go? defend Ukraine in the long term?

In the murderous blindness of Putin and the casually genocidal announcers of Russian television, there is clarity about Ukraine’s future place in the world. They think it shouldn’t have, except as a region of Russia with a heavy police folkloric edge. But what does the West think about Ukraine’s future place? If we are the good guys in the West, where is the clarity or debate about our capacity for the toughest task before us? The task today is not to deliver ammunition, however vital, or to rebuild tomorrow, but to be future guarantors of Ukrainian freedoms for decades to come. Do we have the will? Can we be trusted?

Countries tend to understand each other through clichés, and for most of its existence Western Ukraine has had little to match. Ukraine suffered from our chronic inability to distinguish between a cliché that contains an element of truth and a cliché that is the whole truth. In the flickering Western stereotype of a country that was poor, mismanaged, corrupt, stagnant, and chronically divided between a nationalist West and a pro-Russian East, there was rarely room for a “yes, but…”.

Refugees from Ukraine are queuing at Berlin Central Station in March 2022 to get a free SIM card for the German mobile network. Photo: Fabrizio Bensch/Portal

Popular uprisings in 2004 and 2014, in which intellectuals and the emerging middle class played a leading role and European bourgeois-democratic ideals came to the fore, failed to alert the West that the old, simplistic framework of a nationalist versus a Soviet- nostalgic division in Ukraine was collapsing. Too many in the West were still willing to believe that Ukraine in some sense “belongs” to Russia. When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and sent troops to eastern Ukraine to salvage the failed armed insurgency there, there was concern, hand-wringing and lenient sanctions in the West, but no serious consequences for Putin.

Last year’s invasion shocked the West and provided us with a whole new set of stereotypes: Ukraine, the brave, the defiant, the brilliant, the suffering, the innocent screaming “why?”. over the body of a dead newborn. Ukraine, the defender of civilizational values; Ukraine keeping calm and moving on as the original writers of the slogan envisioned, Ukraine taking tanks with tractors, fingering a battlecruiser and sinking it. Fleets of Russian tanks pouring in rigid formation down Ukrainian highways are being blown apart by a handful of daring Ukrainian improvisers on quads with donated Western anti-tank missiles and drones ordered online.

The sense of purpose and righteous mission this has produced in the West is real and has broad public support, but it has a short time horizon. Even the overall strength of Western support for Ukraine since the invasion began masks radical shifts in Western perceptions of the country. In the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as the extent of Putin’s ambitions became clear, horrified observers in Europe and America anticipated the days leading up to the country’s inevitable demise. When Ukraine held Russia at the gates of Kiev a few weeks later, the country’s resilience was amazed and surprised.

President Zelenskiy at a press conference at the European Commission in Brussels on February 9, 2023. Photo: Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

As the brutal nature of the Russian occupation surfaced in cities like Bucha, a shiver of pity, anger and shame ran through the West, and support for arming Ukraine grew noticeably. Russian withdrawal from Kiev and north-eastern Ukraine raised hopes; Doubts about Ukraine’s ability to push Russia further; in the fall, the Ukrainians swept Russia from Kherson and Kharkiv, Western arms began to flow, and complete victory seemed plausible; The Russians dug in and began destroying the Ukrainian economy with systematic waves of missiles.

There will be more war. With the sacrifice of tens of thousands of fresh troops and the remnants of its greatly reduced but still large armory, Russia will seek to hold the parts of Ukraine it has conquered and take the rest of the four south-eastern regions that Putin has declared to belong to Moscow. Ukraine will try to drive a wedge between Russian forces in Crimea and Donbass in order to sweep them out of the country. Neither effort is likely to be entirely successful. Russia mobilized its people and industry, but incompetently and half-heartedly; The West has been rifling through its old stocks to arm the Ukrainians, but has done little to build capacity to replace them. Sometime in the next year or two, the most brutal, destructive phase of the Russian offensive seems to be coming to an end, without even remotely achieving Putin’s goals, but without Ukraine being able to drive every Russian soldier and sailor out of Ukraine.

This does not mean the end of the war, but a settlement of the front lines, with Russia holding Crimea and much of the Donbass. This could lead to a truce, which could then lead to peace talks — peace talks that could go on indefinitely given the fact that the sides would be so far apart. “Any territorial compromises would weaken us as a state,” Volodymyr Zelenskyy told John Simpson last week. In Russia, where textbooks have already appeared that present seized or claimed territories—including territories that Ukraine still holds—as Russian, Putin reiterated a few days ago: “These are Russian territories.”

Ukrainian military vehicles pass through Independence Square in central Kiev on February 24, 2022. Photo: Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images

How big is the obstacle to peace? The world is littered with grassroots wars that ended in a mood of hatred, unforgiveness, and a desire for vengeance, and have not resumed despite the lack of formal, comprehensive treaties. Zelenskyy’s insistence that Russian forces must leave every square inch of Ukrainian territory, including the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s base in Sevastopol, could ring forever unfulfilled, as could Putin’s insistence that Ukraine must be expelled from Kherson and Zaporizhia .

However, there is a key difference between the two sides, and it’s not just that the Ukrainian position is just while the Russian position is criminal. Ukraine rejects the Russian invasion but does not reject the existence of Russia, while Russia does not accept the mere idea of ​​Ukraine as a country. Zelenskyy does not trust Putin, but he does not question that he is the rightful leader of his nation, while Putin does not see his Ukrainian counterpart as an equal and treats the Ukrainian leadership as if it came to power illegally, installed squarely and fully subordinate to the United States. No wonder Ukraine is so suspicious of peace talks and territorial concessions: for example, how can it consider an agreement on Crimea’s special status with a negotiating partner who does not recognize its right to be part of the rest of Ukraine?

Many of those in the West most desperate for an early start to peace talks with Russia seem to believe that the stakes are in how much forcibly seized land Putin will be allowed to keep. If only, writes the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, that the West had made it clear at the beginning of the war that Russia need not withdraw further than the borders of the country conquered in 2014, real negotiations could begin. This is a misinterpretation of Russia’s consistent message for the last period of Putin’s rule: whichever parts of Ukraine Russia absorbs, it sees itself as permanently entitled to some measure of control over the rest. Russia got involved in Donbass in 2014, not because it desperately wanted to own the region, but because it appeared to offer a means of politically controlling the entire country – turning it into a vassal state like Belarus.

A long ceasefire could be disrupted not only by peace talks but also by waves of Russian missiles, drones and cruise missiles

Russia will treat negotiations with Ukraine and the West – and Putin will do his utmost to make the latter his interlocutor and not Kiev – as consenting to his conquests. The Kremlin will make talks the springboard for unilateral demands for a leading role in defining Ukraine’s future, its constitution, elections, the size of its military, and seek to join forces with Washington, Berlin and Paris in a post-Second World War emulation division of Europe.

This is clearly not acceptable; Should Russia keep some parts of Ukraine by agreement or by boot, Kiev would rightly expect the West to support it and make it clear that it would not matter in the rest. And yet the West has barely begun to formulate a coherent vision of how its preferred future Ukraine would fit into this dangerous world. With a precedent set in recent months, a long truce between Russia and Ukraine could easily be disrupted, not just by peace talks but by waves of Russian missiles, drones and cruise missiles being launched to try to recover a struggling country building country to slow down.

President Zelenskyy addresses a joint session of the US Congress in December 2022. US Vice President Kamala Harris (left) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hold a Ukrainian flag signed by soldiers in Bakhmutto. Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images

If Putin’s ideal Ukraine is a shrunken Russian vassal, Ukraine’s own ideal is security against Russia and integration with the West, to which the West replies: not yet. Not yet – maybe never – to NATO, not yet to the EU, not yet to a powerful air force. If the West is to remain loyal to Ukraine and encourage it to accept any loss of territory — to one day in the distant future lay the foundations for the good relations it should have with a better-run Russia that has learned to lose its contempt for the Neighbor’s statehood – he must make a better offer than “not yet”. It will be extraordinarily difficult as the offer would have to include a military element of peacekeeping forces or air forces that will infuriate Putin and trade terms with the EU that will be politically difficult for Europe.

It will be expensive, it will be unlimited, and it will face constant and furious political attacks from within the West and from without. It will be hostage to the future policies of Ukraine, Russia, the USA and Europe. It’s worth it. A year ago, the world doubted Ukraine’s survival; Now it’s time to plan how to help him live and thrive.


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