While the drumbeats of war reverberate it is often mentioned that Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, annexed Crimea, and occupied parts Donbass. The future of Ukraine must not be one-sided, even if some parts of Ukraine have been turned into a battlefield. It is wrong to describe Ukraine as a battleground between competing spheres, and to limit its autonomy.
In recent opinion polls, Ukrainians were asked to identify a word that carries positive values for their country. “Freedom” came by far first, leaving far behind concerns about insufficient purchasing power or lack of trust in public institutions. Ukraine chose to be a European nation with democratic and liberal institutions seven years ago and not a Russian satellite.
Western commentators may see the current tensions from the perspective of Vladimir Putin, which is a game of military and strategic chess. Instead of first considering the legitimate demand by Ukrainians for self-determination. This right must not be compromised. The West should not use Ukraine as a tool to limit Russia’s ambitions. Ukraine must be able to rely on solidarity and to join a network of democracies when it is dealing with its troublesome neighbor.
Putin’s rhetoric is not meant to challenge NATO expansion. However, Ukraine has the right to make sovereign decisions and forge alliances that will help it prosper. So many decisions are denied to anyone living under Russia’s “sphere of influence”.
Putin’s specialty in division is his ability to bring about division. He was able to do this through warlike maneuvers that brought the West to him over the heads both of the Ukrainians as well as of their European allies.
It is perfectly acceptable for the United States to have discussions with Russia about military matters. Washington and Moscow were open to discussing the possibility of deploying weapons at any time, even during the Cold War. However, the future of Ukraine and Eastern Europe is not a bilateral issue between Russia and West. This is the path that all parties must follow together, including the elected representatives of the Ukrainian people and representatives from the civil society. Putin is a aggressor because he knows that the goal of a peaceful, democratic society is unreversible.
Ukraine has a strategic goal – to join NATO and the EU – foreseen in the Ukrainian Constitution, although it will probably not be achieved for many years. Russia believes that this issue will be resolved soon.
It has already de facto prevented NATO and EU member, scaring European governments into believing that they would be drawn into a conflict. He exaggerates the likelihood of NATO membership as a way to hide his true ambitions. Putin speaks of the need to stop the deployment of offensive arms in Ukraine. However, they are only there for defensive purposes due to Russia’s ongoing occupation of eastern areas.
Moscow would like to revive Brejenivian concepts of “limited sovereignty”, whereby countries that are “near foreign” can partly manage their affairs but must let Moscow set the borders and potentially punish them for insubordination. This is a fate Hungary or Czechoslovakia have once suffered.
Accepting these conditions will spell disaster for Eastern Europe. NATO is not looking to expand to consolidate an ideology. Russia is putting pressure on countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, whose sovereign territories are under threat.
In a perverse manner, the Kremlin encourages these public demands to join the Atlantic Alliance. Today, more than 60% of Ukrainians want to join the Atlantic Alliance, as opposed to 20% in 2013. Putin has, in a sense, become the principal promoter of the Alliance.
Ukraine has many problems – debilitating corruption, weak governance, lack of judicial fairness – but it has a strong asset: a strong civil society, which constantly comes up with innovative initiatives to resist authoritarian reaction. The accountability of leaders is increasing, oligarchs and their prosecutions are intensifying, power has been subjected peaceful alternation, and pluralist elections were held. It is all of this that Putin is desperate to eradicate, as he does in his entire “sphere of influence” – from Belarus to Kazakhstan. Putin fears that Russia will adopt these good practices.