Pray for Ukraine


The conflict cannot end until Ukraine is part of the West

June 7th 2023
On a recent trip to Kyiv, the talk along Ukraine’s corridors of power was decidedly different from those in Washington and European capitals. Far from focusing on the much-discussed counteroffensive Ukrainian forces are about to launch, senior government officials were instead more concerned about the country’s long-term future.

“Ukraine will survive,” a very seasoned spymaster told a group of former senior officials who traveled to Kyiv from the United States and Europe. “The most difficult point will come after the war,” he added.

At its core, the war in Ukraine is a fight not over territory but over the country’s future. Russia is determined to control Ukraine’s political destiny — if not its territory. And in this, Russian President Vladimir Putin is not unique, representing a historic Russian tradition of seeking security in empire — which, at a minimum, includes Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Even if Ukraine succeeds in pushing Russia’s military forces all the way back to its 1991 borders, the conflict won’t truly end. Ukrainian intelligence officials estimate that if the fighting were to stop this year, Russia would already be able to reconstitute sufficient capabilities to restart the war by 2027-2028 — even with economic sanctions remaining in place.

So, in order to truly end the conflict, Russia will have to understand — or be made to understand — that Ukraine’s future will be decided in Kyiv, not Moscow. And Kyiv has made it abundantly clear that it sees that future in the West, as an integral part of the Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Ultimately, for Kyiv, finding a guaranteed place in the West is more important than securing control over all its territory through military means — though it does, rightly, insist that full independence and sovereignty requires complete control of all the territory within its 1991 borders.

Thus, Putin’s strategic failure will only be complete if Moscow comes to understand that Ukraine is permanently lost — lost physically, economically, politically and strategically. And ensuring that failure should be the ultimate objective — not just for Ukraine but for the West too.

There are many reasons why Ukraine’s future is in the West.

The political case is straightforward: Ukraine has fought not only for its own security but for those of its neighbors. It wants to be part of the European Union and has been invited to start the accession process. It was also promised NATO membership in 2008 and, having fought against the alliance’s biggest adversaries, it wants to join history’s most successful security organization as soon as possible. After all Ukraine has done, after all its citizens have suffered, they deserve to be part of the West.

Meanwhile, the strategic case for including Ukraine in the West goes to the core of the conflict: Without Ukraine’s integration, Putin — and whomever succeeds him — will continue to believe they have a chance to control it. Indeed, by defeating him militarily in Ukraine, as well as by integrating the country into the West, Russia’s strategic failure will be realized. And this will help restore a degree of order — demonstrating that aggression doesn’t pay — as well as send a clear signal to Moscow that there’s no future prospect where renewed aggression would be successful.

There’s a practical case for Ukraine’s Western integration too, as the alternative would prolong the conflict and pose new security challenges. Even with all the military support from the West, postwar Ukraine will be a nation on edge — facing a neighbor three to four times its size, with the national resources to reconstitute a formidable military down the road. Left to its own devices, Ukraine’s society will then become more thoroughly militarized, less open and more paranoid, preparing for renewed war.

The West may try to reassure Ukraine by promising to provide it with all the means necessary to defend itself — as it has to date — but absent Ukraine’s integration into the Western alliance, the country will become like Israel: self-reliant, distrustful of its neighbors, singularly focused on its own security, willing and able to take preemptive action whenever it deems necessary, even possibly seeking its own nuclear weapons.

A Ukraine unmoored could become a rogue actor — which would be a security problem in the middle of Europe. Hence the former intelligence official’s warning: “The most difficult point will come after the war.”

Security is at the core of Ukraine’s future. Its economic reconstruction and transformation, its eventual EU membership — it all depends on the country being secure. The Marshall Plan couldn’t have succeeded — and the European Community wouldn’t have been formed — without the creation of NATO. Except for neutral states, none of the 15 nations that have joined the EU since the Cold War’s end did so without becoming a NATO member first. Thus, Ukraine’s ability to emerge as a strong, vibrant, prosperous nation after the war crucially depends on its security. It’s what this war is about.

Security support — the commitment to provide Ukraine with the means to defend itself for as long as necessary — will be vital, both during the current phase of fighting and once it ends. Led by the U.S., many Western countries are fully dedicated to providing this long-term support, and those efforts should be detailed in binding memoranda to be signed with Ukraine.

However, on its own, security support is not enough, as it may not deter Moscow and is unlikely to reassure Kyiv. What Ukraine wants — and needs — is real security guarantees: a commitment to come to its defense under agreed circumstances. But while NATO membership may be possible in the future, it isn’t likely to be forthcoming anytime soon, as it’s difficult to see how a nation at war, with contested borders, would be allowed to join an alliance that commits its members to come to the aid of any one if them that’s subject to armed attack — as Ukraine is now.

Yet, it’s important that NATO countries — individually and collectively — signal to Ukraine that they not only understand its desire to join the alliance but that they’re committed to making this a reality as soon as conditions allow. Even without a formal end to the war, let alone real peace, the U.S. and other NATO countries need to make clear that they’re committed to Ukraine’s security and that they will explore interim arrangements — just as they did for Finland and Sweden — until it becomes a full member.

The debate about NATO membership risks obfuscating a larger truth: Ukraine’s security lies with — and in — the West, and the conflict cannot end until Ukraine is part of it. The question is not whether Ukraine should become a part of the West, but how and when.

Credits to Politico, Ivo Daalder

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