Far from Brussels, Ukraine is where an often-silent battle for the future of Europe has been waging amidst the cacophony of other European crises. The difference lies in the fact that Ukraine’s battle is not about crafting the terms of its engagement with Europe, but about getting to Europe and separating itself from Moscow. For Europe battles the seemingly immovable forces of geography in a way that few other regions of the world do. Nations are brought in, nations are extricated, and the values that underpin the European neighborhood are constantly being redefined and challenged by members old and new. In the early 2000s, Turkey was thought of as a possible EU member state that could be ‘brought in’ to the European fold. Unlike Turkey, however, Ukraine’s identity is distinctly and wholeheartedly European, and Kyiv’s commitment to the European project and Euro-Atlantic integration may even be greater than some of the oldest EU member states. As such, Ukraine has bled for and devoted itself to the geographical and ideological pull of Europe in a way that few other states have in the 21st century.
Ukraine has straddled this space before, wedged between the European powers and Mother Russia while acting as a lynchpin to broader geopolitical struggles. In the current moment, ‘no decisions about Ukraine without Ukraine’ has become Kyiv’s rallying cry. Ukrainian leaders are keen to craft their own narrative of the threat from Russia, castigating Washington for its use of hyperbolic and alarmist rhetoric they view as divorced from the reality on the ground. As Kyiv demands control of its own narrative, the most important thing that those in the West can give Ukraine is agency. Agency for its own affairs and for its leaders and citizens to craft its own alliances. Agency to move closer to NATO and the EU or to Moscow.
As Putin gears up for a potentially catastrophic invasion of Ukraine that could lead to many civilian deaths, it is important to remember that Ukraine did not ask for this battle. Kyiv has fought valiantly in recent years to secure fruitful relations with the West while an ongoing conflict has raged within its own territory. Unlike other post-Soviet conflicts, the one in Ukraine is far from frozen. Rather it is guided by dynamic forces of a cross-cultural, ethnic, and linguistic nature that are determined to pursue a European future. The Ukrainian coalition against Putin has solidified in the eight years since the Maidan uprising, and the stark dividing lines amongst Ukrainian citizens have begun to wither after many years of struggle and occupation from the Kremlin.
Much of the discussion of the current crisis revolves around NATO enlargement and the sense by Putin that NATO has encircled Moscow after the informal promise was made that the alliance would move ‘not one inch’ eastwards. As M.E. Sarotte outlines in her new book, ‘Not One Inch’, on the formation of Europe’s security architecture after the end of the Cold War, this verbal promise from then-Secretary of State James Baker came to assume a degree of mythological importance for Russian leaders like Putin. The debate over NATO enlargement in the 1990s is not a fringe debate, but one that has drawn in such foreign policy luminaries as George Kennan, who famously advocated against it. As are the enlargement debates of the 2008 Bucharest Summit and whether it was wise to declare that Ukraine and Georgia will become NATO members at an uncertain date without forming a Membership Action Plan.
Despite these legitimate debates, after the fall of the Soviet Union NATO enlarged slowly, cautiously, and sought cooperation with Russia whenever possible, forming venues like the NATO-Russia Council to resolve disagreements. The many Soviet republics moved at different speeds, with the Baltic states determined to embrace Euro-Atlantic integration and now establishing themselves as model democracies with strong digital economies. Ukraine overwhelmingly voted for independence in December 1991 and safely dismantled the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal. With the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty was formally recognised by the U.S., the UK, and Russia, something Moscow has since breached after its annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in the Donbas. At present, Georgia and Ukraine are in the unique position of having their membership aspirations enshrined in a NATO summit, albeit without a formal pathway for accession. They exist in a sort of geopolitical limbo, hobbled by the machinations of Brussels and Moscow and with breakaway regions that remain a wedge between their past and their future.
Ukraine is also a bellwether of support for the postwar international order that was established by the United States and other powers. The Cold War created a useful dichotomy between the United States and the Soviet Union, not to mention a ‘sphere of influence’ for Moscow that was legally defined and bound by collective defence. When that sphere of influence formally collapsed in 1991, the new Russian Federation was left rudderless and NATO’s appeal to the former Warsaw Pact states was met with enthusiasm. Since then, for Putin the boundaries and territorial integrity of the former Soviet republics have all been movable rather than fixed and guaranteed under international law. Pivotal events such as NATO’s 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 cemented for Putin a distrust of the West and a hypocrisy in which it was guilty of violating its own commitment to international norms.
As such, for Putin, sovereignty is a concept that demands a sort of fealty and is malleable so long as conditions on the ground are favorable to a desired outcome. In this sense, Ukraine is not sovereign from Moscow but sovereign to Moscow, existing as less of a state and more of a breakaway province that still owes its allegiance to the Kremlin. Furthermore, in Putin’s mind, Ukrainians are unable to think for or properly govern themselves, with all internal dissent from the 2004 Orange Revolution to the Euromaidan protests being orchestrated by Western actors and not the result of organic discontent. For Moscow, compliance to the core of Russian power is mandatory, with individualism a vice of rogue and wayward subjects who do not have their best interests at heart.
As the West tackles this moment, it is important to understand the significance of Ukraine to Moscow. This does not mean that leaders in the West should kowtow to the Kremlin or show Putin undue respect or influence, as notably witnessed in the unfortunate remarks of Germany’s ex-naval chief Kay-Achim Schonbach. Rather, the world as seen from Putin’s lens needs to be more fully understood. That world may be anathema to the current security structures as well as recent European history, but it is the world that acts as a hinge to the present conflict. For the former KGB agent who saw Moscow go silent before his eyes while stationed in Dresden, the goal of the West should not be to make Moscow silent again. NATO has no intentions of moving closer to Russia’s borders, and enlargement to any new states is unlikely in the immediate future. Coexistence within a new European security architecture must be the new goal, with the important caveat that any sovereign state, including Ukraine, is free to choose its own collective security and defence arrangements. Moscow should never have a veto over new states joining NATO, and NATO’s open-door policy must be respected as a critical tool in which the sovereignty and free will of the nation state is paramount.
What makes this current moment so dangerous is that Moscow seeks survival in Ukraine, whereas Ukraine seeks survival from Moscow. The current struggle is an existential one in which Russia is unable to accept Ukraine as a sovereign, Western-leaning nation, and Ukraine views freedom from Moscow as a necessary condition for its future survival as a state. It is unlikely that Russia under Putin will be able to formally recognize and respect Ukraine’s sovereignty. In the near term, it is up to those in the West and within Russia to compel Putin to accept the historical reality and the conscious choices in which members of Russia’s near abroad have chosen to live within alternate settlements. Russia’s influence, from its disinformation campaigns in the West to its use of mercenary forces in the Wagner Group from Mali to Syria, is built on plausible deniability and ambiguity. When viewed from Moscow, Ukraine’s path has become unambiguous, leaving the only choice for Putin to attempt to stymie and extract as many concessions as possible along Kyiv’s determined, and perhaps inevitable march to progress.