Can Ukraine Catalyse Something Better?

With the war in Ukraine in danger of turning into a protracted conflict, there is an opportunity for like-minded states to come together and secure a peace based on shared interests.

13 June 2022 ·   6 min read

Can Ukraine Catalyse Something Better?

What if we are poised now at the equivalent of November 1939, believing falsely that the worst is behind us, and that peace is imminent in Europe?

If the parallel holds, a potentially long and fraught path to peace lies ahead unless the world gets behind Ukraine, and on the right side of history. Doing so will require Europe to stick together and those governments currently on the fence to be candid about the price of their support for the West.

The view of Europe and the rest of the West — representing nearly three-quarters of global economic production — is forged on the painful experience of two world wars and the history of European empire, the most recent version of which only collapsed with the demise of the Soviet Union 30 years ago.

Despite Ukrainian bravery, and fierce and (to the Russians at least) unexpected resistance, we are seeing devastation and great ongoing uncertainty. Today the chances of protracted conflict are very high, with little prospect for peace given — in part — the absence of universal pressure on the belligerents.

Governments representing more than half of the world's population — including India, South Africa and much of Africa and the Middle East — do not accept the Ukrainian/Western narrative, for various reasons including self-interest and concerns about Western double standards.

This division has its roots in ideology and, in turn, the struggle for independence, which continues to shape this world's imagination and reality in at least two respects.

First, there is a reflexive support for the Soviet Union and now Russia, without taking into account the vast geopolitical changes there, never mind whether these models meet the development needs of former colonies; and second, there is an instinctive hostility towards the West, especially the Europeans and the US, even though these are primary sources of recovery and reform in terms of trade, technology and capital.

If these two opposing sides — those supporting Ukraine and those taking the Russian side — can come together, this might not be just a moment to survive, but instead a moment of momentous change — perhaps not the end of history, but the beginning of a new history in global relations.

But what would it take to turn this crisis into opportunity?

Following German reunification, Chancellor Helmut Kohl noted that 'for the first time Germany is surrounded only by friends and partners'. Now the opposite holds. Europe is faced not only with an old enemy in the east, but one sufficiently emboldened to invade its neighbour.

As such, the war in Ukraine will and should change Europe.

Although the war caught the continent's leaderships militarily, politically and psychologically unprepared, Europe now seems determined to escape the state of sleepwalking which used to characterise its foreign policy.

However, the EU's current structure and institutional framework is not facilitating a decisive geopolitical shift. Unless it fixes its functional problems and implements overarching and far-reaching institutional changes, the Union will not be able to turn itself into a credible player with a single voice and strong deterrence capability.

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"There is a need for the West to link up with those currently sitting out this existential struggle for values — the 60% of people who account for 30% of global economic wealth"

And so, the more some things change, the more others remain the same.

Some commentary is still defined by 'too bad, so sad' analysis rooted in a combination of self-referentialism and European appeasement: for instance, the argument that a 'bad peace is better than no peace at all' and talk of 'offramps' for Vladimir Putin which compromise Ukraine's international borders. (The size of the area suggested amounts to nearly half of the size of the UK, in the expectation that somehow this will slake Moscow's thirst for territory and create a workable peace.)

Another version of this 'peace' is the notion that Ukraine is somehow 'prolonging' the agony and destruction by resisting. This was the tone, for instance, of the letter written in April 2022 by some 30 German intellectuals to Chancellor Olaf Scholz requesting that he not supply Kyiv with heavy weapons. The position advocating Ukraine ceding territory for peace was emphasised, for example, at the Davos May 2022 meeting by veteran US statesman Henry Kissinger.

Such proponents seem to forget that among Putin's key aims is to split the West in forcing concessions from Zelenskyy's Ukraine. Those Europeans imagining such a peace, made through expediency rather than on principle, should consider what would be acceptable in their own circumstances: would Rhodes and Crete be a price that Greece would be willing to pay in the event of a war with Turkey; or the Baltics for a Polish peace?

Such parallel realities — where what is good enough for Kyiv is not good enough for Europe — did not start with Ukraine, however. Such sentiments were there in Afghanistan, where the international community constructed a system of governance based on external military support rather than a fundamental political deal between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. As a result, when that external military support was removed, the unwieldy structure came crashing down under Taliban pressure.

The willingness to upgrade geopolitically should not, however, prevent Europeans from seeing the obvious. US power remains indispensable for Europe's security, and this will be so for a long time. Washington's role has been crucial, as ever, supplying twice as much hardware to Ukraine as all other countries put together. As Max Hastings has put it, 'The EU, excepting Poland and the Baltic states, has failed miserably to support Ukraine as it deserves'.

Regardless of the war's endgame, Russia will be economically devastated and diplomatically isolated, with the damage to its reputation being hard to bear. The West's standing will be strengthened, while Russia's prestige will be eroded. At some point, the cost to Putin may become too great to bear. This does not necessarily mean that Putin will go. And even if he does, nothing guarantees that his successors will champion democracy and multilateralism.

Ensuring that Ukraine emerges stronger from the war should remain Europe's key aim. The war is not just a moment of security crisis, but also one of democratic crisis. Putin's war is primarily an act of Soviet restoration and imperial revival. It's an illiberal assault on democracy. His regime's external aggression depends on domestic repression.

Once the war is over, Europe has the responsibility to help Ukraine rebuild itself according to European standards and reform requirements.

According to recent polls, Ukraine's EU accession aspirations are endorsed by the vast majority of its people. Consensus among EU member states has also been reached. However, EU membership cannot be granted overnight. The road to Brussels for Kyiv is expected to be long.

In the meantime, impetus should not be lost. Emmanuel Macron's 'political community' proposal could be a parallel mechanism which supports and even accelerates the accession process. To do otherwise would be to give hope to Putin and his authoritarian ilk.

There is also a need for the West to link up with those currently sitting out this existential struggle for values — the 60% of people who account for 30% of global economic wealth.

"If African countries mean what they say about sovereignty, the sanctity of borders and a fairer international system, they need to step into these debates, not stay out of them"

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There are several points of intersection between these worlds.

The first is in the rapidly increasing prices of food, fuel and fertiliser. Already, the war has cost Ukraine nearly one-quarter of its forecast oilseed production, or one-eighth of world exports, while its grain output will reduce this year from 2021's record 86 million tonnes to a predicted 50 million tonnes. Throw into this a dramatic rise in the cost of exports to around half the sale price of corn, for instance, and record prices for wheat and oil have followed. This is only likely to worsen as Ukrainian farmers cut back on production.

With one in five Africans facing food insecurity even before the current crisis and an estimated 300 million Africans being malnourished, such cost increases could have devastating impacts. Already, major African millers are warning of record price increases.

This situation will not change without improving Ukrainian commodity flows via Europe, currently at less than a quarter (1.45 million tonnes) of the required monthly figure. Caving in to Russian demands for territory and the relaxation of sanctions as the price of opening Odesa would offer a fix, but would effectively grant Russia a hold on these markets and commodities.

There is a second common aspect: public support for democracy and the imperative of decolonisation, in Africa as in Eastern Europe. Most Africans, for instance, prefer democracy to other forms of government, even though their leaders may not share this view. Europe should seek a pressure point by more closely aligning with these populations — rather than seeking favour with the ruling elites — not least by speaking out loudly when elections are not free and fair.

A third shared interest concerns the need for reform in the representativeness of global institutions, especially the UN, which has largely gone AWOL in this crisis — and not for the first time.

If African countries — comprising nearly half of the 40 states which did not support the West in the UN resolutions condemning the invasion of Ukraine — mean what they say about sovereignty, the sanctity of borders and a fairer international system, they need to step into these debates, not stay out of them. They also need to be clearer to Western capitals on the price of their support.

Until now, the combination of narrow interests, denialism, selective and fake reporting and self-censorship has reduced the pressure for Moscow to be held accountable and, indeed, for peace. And the absence of peace would make Ukraine's revival very difficult, not least in terms of evicting a dug-in Russian army in Donbas, the costs of which would be borne in some of the poorest places in the world.

Such an inclusive path to peace would also recognise the strategic reality of Russia's global role, and that this war, while pro-Ukraine, is not anti-Russian.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is one of those rare historical moments that forces the world to rethink its past and reinvent its future.

In recognising this opportunity, the world might just realise it has more in common than it believes.

This article originally appeared on RUSI

Photo: manhhai Flickr