Ukraine Crisis can Help Catalyse a Better Global Future
Ensuring that Ukraine will emerge 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, of imperial revival. It's an illiberal assault on democracy.
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 sticking together and those governments currently on the fence being 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, some 30 years ago.
We cannot forget the crisis in Ukraine has been caused by a Russian invasion. Strategically, Vladimir Putin has failed in his central premise. Ukraine had not read the Russian plan and fought back, not only demonstrating that it's a country, but in so doing instigating the fifth Nato enlargement on Putin's watch. And while Nato is now more united than ever, Russia is increasingly autocratic and dangerous.
Despite Ukrainian bravery, and fierce and (to the Russians, at least) unexpected resistance, we are seeing the devastation and great ongoing uncertainty. Today the chances of protracted conflict are very high and with great uncertainty and huge costs.
Governments representing more than half of the world's population, including India, South Africa and much of Africa and the Middle East, do not however accept the Ukrainian/Western narrative for various reasons including self-interest and concerns about Western double standards. Such doubts are actively fuelled by Moscow's bots, trolls and television, creating a perception that Nato is the aggressor and Russia the victim.
This division has its roots in ideology and that, in turn, in the struggle for independence, which continues to shape this world's imagination and reality in at least two respects. First, in terms of 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, an instinctive hostility towards the West, especially the Europeans and the United States, even though these are primary sources of recovery and reform in terms of trade, technology and capital.
If these two opposing sides — those for 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 run 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 not only faced 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. Even the very concept upon which the European Union was founded has toppled. Interdependence failed to guarantee a liberal peace and collective security. Europeans are now realising that war is possible in their own time and on their soil. It is less important how Europe reached this moment, than how it exits it.
European governments will have to act decisively; to behave as navigators, limiting the consequences of the unexpected. The great, invisible forces of history will no longer determine its course. Stability and success will depend, just as after the Second World War, on the emergence of a different and stronger Europe.
The identity of this new Europe has already begun to take shape, albeit reluctantly. Putin's aggression has triggered a sense of urgency about enhancing Europe's capacity to act in light of the return of geopolitics and growing competition among great powers; it mobilised Germany to rise above its guilt complex and pursue an extrovert foreign policy, committing an extra €100-billion to defence; it encouraged Finland and Sweden to alter their core foreign policy foundation and apply for Nato membership. Fear of escalation and a spreading sense of trepidation have made such previously unthinkable events unfold more quickly than anyone could have imagined.
Putin's policy of aggressively laying claim to what he perceives as Russian territory, together with his rhetoric about unconventional weapons, affected dramatically not just the European security order but also the European mindset. With Putin in place, a new “post-war” will be defined by constant uncertainty, increased suspicion and a new arms race; without Putin, the way is clearer to common values, markets and systems.
Although the war caught the continent's leaderships militarily, politically and psychologically unprepared, Europe seems now 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.
And so, the more some things change, the more some 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, that a “bad peace is better than no peace at all” and of talks of “offramps” for Putin which compromise Ukraine's international borders. (The size of the area suggested amounts to nearly half of the size of the United Kingdom, 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 Davos' May 2022 meeting by veteran US statesman Henry Kissinger.
Such proponents of peace through pieces seem to forget that one of Putin's key aims will be to split the West in forcing concessions from Zelensky's Ukraine. For 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?
This is unconscionable for Greece, the Baltics or indeed Ukraine.
However, such parallel realities — where what is good enough for Kyiv is not good enough for Europe — did not start with Ukraine. 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, this unwieldy structure came crashing down under Taliban pressure.
The willingness to upgrade geopolitically should not, nevertheless, prevent Europeans from seeing the obvious. American 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 the 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.”
The past three months have proven that Europe and the US understand that a renewed, future-oriented and deterrence-based transatlantic partnership is key for tackling effectively the challenges of “Putin's world”. The shared goal to prevent a modern nuclear arms race may well accelerate such a development.
The invasion was perhaps Putin's greatest miscalculation. Regardless of the war's endgame, Russia is going to be economically devastated and diplomatically isolated, with its reputational damage being hard to bear. Also, Nato will most likely be expanded and empowered, the EU further integrated and the transatlantic alliance emboldened. 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.
Regardless, Europe should prepare for the day after, whenever it comes and whatever its realities. To do so, it's imperative that Europe forge a new identity which will allow it to adapt to the post-Ukraine-war world; an identity based on political integration, a new concept of sovereignty and new hard power capabilities, without downplaying its traditional priorities, however.
Ensuring that Ukraine will emerge 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, of imperial revival. It's an illiberal assault on democracy. His regime's external aggression depends on domestic repression.
Kyiv's Mayor Vitali Klitschko said that Ukraine is “fighting right now to defend not just our houses and our families and our children, but we defend our values and our principles”. Ukraine's defeat is hence a defeat of democracy. And defeat of democracy is a defeat of the fundamental principles Europe was founded upon.
Once the war is over, Europe has the responsibility to help Ukraine rebuild itself according to European standards and reform requirements.
Indeed, Ukraine successfully completed the initial steps of the accession process quickly. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said that “Ukraine belongs to our European family”. This statement sent a powerful signal that, in fighting for its sovereignty, Ukraine is fighting for the European project and the values it stands for.
According to recent polls, Ukraine's accession aspirations are endorsed by the vast majority of its people. The 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 a long one.
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In the meantime, impetus should not be lost. Macron's “political community” proposal could be a transitional way to boost cross-sectoral strategic cooperation between Kyiv and Brussels, working as 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.
And, too, there is a need for the West to link with those currently sitting out this existential struggle for values, the 60% of people who make up 30% of global economic wealth.
There are several points of intersection between these worlds.
The first is in the ramping 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 now 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 before now facing food insecurity and an estimated 300 million Africans 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 about one-quarter (1.5 million tonnes) of the required monthly figure. Caving in to Russian demands for territory and the relaxation of sanctions as the price of opening Odessa 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, and not seek favour with the ruling elites, not least by speaking out loudly when elections are not free and fair.
And a third common interest concerns the need for reform in the representivity of global institutions, especially the United Nations 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.
A peace process in Ukraine that offers more than just an opportunity for Russia to draw breath before recommencing its military campaign would be easier and more likely to stick with greater global support. Until now the combination of narrow interests, denialism, selective and fake reporting and self-censorship has reduced the pressure for Moscow's accountability and, indeed, for peace. And the absence of peace would make Ukraine's revival very difficult, not least in evicting a dug-in Russian army in the Donbas, the costs of which would be borne in some of the poorest places in the world.
Such an inclusive path to peace, too, would recognise the strategic reality of Russia's global role, and that this war, while pro-Ukraine, is not anti-Russian.
Russia's invasion in Ukraine is one of those rare historical moments that force the world to rethink its past and reinvent its future. Certainties have been shattered. The unthinkable has not just become possible; it has actually happened.
In recognising this opportunity, the world might just realise it has more in common than it believes.
This article originally appeared on Daily Maverick