The Battle for Sovereignty and Survival in Ukraine

Far from Brussels, it is in Ukraine that an often silent battle for Europe’s future is being fought amid the cacophony of other European crises. The difference is that Ukraine’s battle is not to define the terms of its engagement with Europe, but to get to Europe and separate from Moscow. For Europe combats the seemingly immutable forces of geography like few other parts of the world do. Nations are brought in, nations are taken out, and the values ​​that underpin the European neighborhood are constantly redefined and challenged by old and new members. In the early 2000s, Turkey was seen as a possible EU member state that could be “integrated” into the European fold. Unlike Turkey, however, Ukraine’s identity is distinctly and thoroughly European, and Kyiv’s commitment to the European project and Euro-Atlantic integration may even be greater than some of the older member states of the EU. As such, Ukraine has bled and devoted itself to the geographic 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 European powers and Mother Russia while acting as a pivot in wider geopolitical struggles. Currently, “no decision on Ukraine without Ukraine” has become Kiev’s business rallying cry. Ukraine’s leaders are keen to craft their own narrative of the Russian threat, lambasting Washington for its use of hyperbolic, fearmongering rhetoric that they see as out of touch with the reality on the ground. While Kyiv demands control of its own narrative, the most important thing Westerners can give Ukraine is agency. Agency for its own business and for its leaders and citizens to forge its own alliances. Agency to get closer to NATO and the EU or Moscow.

As Putin prepares for a potentially catastrophic invasion of Ukraine that could result in the death of many civilians, 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 as continuous conflict rages on its own territory. Unlike other post-Soviet conflicts, the one in Ukraine is far from frozen. Rather, it is driven by dynamic forces of an intercultural, 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 lines of demarcation between Ukrainian citizens have begun to blur after many years of struggle and occupation by the Kremlin. .

Much of the discussion of the current crisis revolves around NATO enlargement and Putin’s sense that NATO surrounded Moscow after the informal promise that the alliance would not move “an inch”. to the east. As ME Sarotte points out in his new book, “Not One Inch”, on the formation of Europe’s security architecture after the end of the Cold War, this verbal promise of then-Secretary of State James Baker, has come to assume a certain mythological significance for Russian leaders like Putin. The debate over NATO enlargement in the 1990s was not a marginal debate, but one that attracted foreign policy luminaries like George Kennan, who opposed it. As are the debates on enlargement from the Bucharest summit in 2008 and whether it was wise to declare that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO at an uncertain date without forming an action plan for membership.

Despite these legitimate debates, after the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO expanded slowly, cautiously and sought to cooperate with Russia whenever possible, forming places like the NATO-Russia Council to resolve disagreements . The many Soviet republics evolved at different speeds, with the Baltic states determined to embrace Euro-Atlantic integration and now establish themselves as model democracies with strong digital economies. Ukraine voted overwhelmingly for independence in December 1991 and safely dismantled the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal. With the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty was officially recognized by the United States, United Kingdom and Russia, which Moscow has since violated after its annexation of Crimea and its support for the Donbass separatists. Currently, Georgia and Ukraine are in the unique position of having their membership aspirations enshrined in a NATO summit, but without a formal path to membership. They exist in a kind of geopolitical vacuum, hampered by the machinations of Brussels and Moscow and with breakaway regions that remain a wedge between their past and their future.

Ukraine is also an indicator of support for the post-war international order 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 legally defined and bound by collective defense. When this sphere of influence officially collapsed in 1991, the new Russian Federation was left without a rudder, and NATO’s appeal to the former Warsaw Pact states was met with enthusiasm. Since then, for Putin, the borders and territorial integrity of the former Soviet republics have all been movable rather than fixed and guaranteed by international law. Crucial events such as the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq cemented for Putin a distrust of the West and a hypocrisy in which he was guilty of violate its own commitment to international standards.

As such, for Putin, sovereignty is a concept that demands some kind of fidelity and is malleable as long as conditions on the ground are favorable for a desired outcome. In this sense, Ukraine is not sovereign of Moscow but sovereign to Moscow, existing less as a state than as a breakaway province that still owes its allegiance to the Kremlin. Moreover, in Putin’s mind, Ukrainians are incapable of thinking for themselves or governing themselves properly, with all internal dissent from the Orange Revolution of 2004 to the Euromaidan protests being orchestrated by Western actors and not the result of organic discontent. For Moscow, conformity to the heart of Russian power is mandatory, individualism being a vice of rogue and capricious subjects who do not have their best interests at heart.

As the West approaches this moment, it is important to understand the importance of Ukraine to Moscow. This does not mean that Western leaders should kowtow to the Kremlin or show Putin undue respect or influence, as evidenced in particular by the unfortunate remarks of former German navy chief Kay-Achim Schonbach. On the contrary, the world as seen from Putin’s lens needs to be better understood. This world may be anathema to current security structures as well as to recent European history, but it is the world that acts as a hinge in the current conflict. For the former KGB agent who watched Moscow fall silent before his eyes while stationed in Dresden, the West’s goal should not be to silence Moscow again. NATO has no intention of moving closer to Russia’s borders, and enlargement to 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 defense arrangements. Moscow should never have a veto over the accession of new states to NATO, and NATO’s open door policy must be respected as an essential tool in which the sovereignty and free will of nation-state are paramount.

What makes the current moment so dangerous is that Moscow seeks survival in Ukraine, while Ukraine seeks survival in Moscow. The current struggle is an existential struggle in which Russia is unable to accept Ukraine as a Western-leaning sovereign nation, and Ukraine views Moscow’s freedom 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 short term, it is up to those in the West and Russia to coerce Putin into accepting the historical reality and conscious choices in which members of Russia’s Near Abroad have chosen to live in alternative 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 based on plausible denial and ambiguity. Seen from Moscow, Ukraine’s path has become unambiguous, leaving Putin the only choice to try to thwart and extract as many concessions as possible along Kiev’s determined and perhaps inevitable march towards progress. .

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of

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