Russia’s recent attack on Ukraine has caught many by surprise. E&M author Sandra Sirvidytė shows how this outcome was to be expected given Russia’s previous actions and a relatively weak and divided response from the West. Ultimately, she argues, there is a lot to be learned from Ukrainians about the importance of standing up for the principles we all cherish.
24 February, 2022 – the day that will go into history books as the day of Russia‘s military invasion of Ukraine. A barrage of propaganda lies from Russia‘s government set up this unprecedented geopolitical situation in Europe, which threatens the continent‘s security. Whatever Putin does next, his war already threatens the international rules-based order. Now, Ukrainian people are fighting courageously to defend us all. They do not fight just to defend Ukraine, but to also the values that we all cherish in democratic countries – sovereignty, territorial integrity, freedom and the right to choose independent governments within internally recognised borders.
This war is unprovoked and most importantly unjustified. It violates international commitments and obligations agreed on by Russia after WW2. While the majority of the world condemns the war, Ukrainian people are defending their country with all their hearts just like they did in 1941 against the Nazis and later in 1991, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin’s fears of European Ukraine
Despite regaining its independence, Ukraine, a country of 40 million people, has experienced many political struggles that kept the country in stagnation for years. People who fought against the Soviet regime, state oppression and forced Russification, quickly came to realize that to be free is not merely to cast off one‘s chains. Instead, it is to actually live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. Ukrainian people had hard choices to make and many of them were not exactly beneficial for the further development of this newly emerging democracy. This would explain why by 1995, post-communist politicians had quickly entered now democratic Ukrainian parliaments. This led to corrupt governments, informal decision-making, while the majority of the countries’ state owned companies went to the hands of oligarchs. Deeply rooted internal problems have prevented the country from achieving beneficial reforms that would have brought the country closer to the EU and NATO. Some of Ukraine’s neighbours, also post-Soviet countries, set an example that a better, more prosperous future is also possible in Ukraine. Its citizens were showing more and more support for the European Union.
If there is one thing that he is truly fearful of, it is a regime change in the East. If Ukraine were to successfully join the European Union and improve its citizens’ quality of life, it could push Putin into a corner and perhaps even challenge his rule.
Ukrainians’ enthusiasm towards the West was met with fear by Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin. If there is one thing that he is truly fearful of, it is a regime change in the East. If Ukraine were to successfully join the European Union and improve its citizens’ quality of life, it could push Putin into a corner and perhaps even challenge his rule. Political scientists describe Ukrainian politics until 2014 as flirting with the East and the West, but its citizens quickly came to realize that they have to choose between Kremlin’s style of governance and the democratic West. This realization came into being in 2014 during the Maidan Revolution.
The Maidan Revolution was the culmination of a series of violent protests in Kyiv against the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who refused to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union. Instead, he chose to pursue a Russian bailout and closer ties with Russia which effectively pushed Ukrainian people further away from joining the EU against their will. Protests quickly became violent with Ukrainians showing the same courage they are showing today – defending their right to belong to the part of the world that cherishes democratic values, free speech, the right to choose and determine one’s future. Illegitimate actions by Yanukovych were met with anger and resilience, eventually leading him to flee to Russia. The Russian federation never recognised the Ukrainian people‘s decision to overthrow their government and considered it an illegal coup. This was followed by wide protests against the Maidan Revolution, especially in the Eastern and Southern regions of the country. In 2014, this sparked Russia‘s military intervention in Ukraine and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.
The West’s response to Russian aggression
In response to Russia’s military intervention in 2014, Western leaders called on Russia to stop the attacks on Ukraine, which was considered a violation of international law. It led to other countries suspending Russia from G8 and imposing sanctions, which included economic punishments: travel bans, restrictions on loans and government entities and businesses. However, Europe‘s dependence on Russian gas and oil made things complicated, so these sanctions were limited. Imposing stiff sanctions on Russia would have hurt both sides, so the West was fearful of the economic consequences that it might bring to its own nations.
Many Eastern European countries were disappointed and advocated for stricter measures on Russia. For decades, their leaders have been warning that Putin‘s regime might be more ambitious. They argued that we either need to address this problematic Russian intervention or be faced with greater consequences. Western leaders would meet such speeches with skepticism claiming that Eastern Europeans suffer from post-soviet trauma and collective paranoia of Russification. They did not perceive Russia’s intervention in the East as problematic as it perhaps was.
Decision-making in the EU, whether regarding sanctions or other interventions, takes long discussion and requires consensus by all member states, making it hard to achieve. When Putin made a decision to start a war in Ukraine in 2014, his regime was met with medium size sanctions but nothing major to shake up his political or economic position. In Russia, his public rating improved and he once again demonstrated himself to be a strong leader defending the country from ‘Ukranian Nazis’.
As Putin began building up Russian troops near the Ukrainian border in late 2021, many Western leaders warned him that in the event of a further attack more sanctions would be imposed. Some leaders described those sanctions as unbearable, yet could not provide any details. Sanctions in 2014 showed Putin that Russia‘s economy can endure them because they did not include two measures that could cause real financial pain for Putin and his associates – restricting the energy exports and the access to the international banking system.
First of all, many Western leaders expected Russia to only invade a tiny part of Ukraine, the Eastern territories of Luhansk and Donetsk. Second of all, the very same leaders have worked on sanction packages for many years and they knew how hard it is to agree on specific sanctions. Europe’s dependence on Russia‘s gas and oil brought even more hesitation that sweeping sanctions could be introduced. At the same time, US and British intelligence services were warning that Russia might be planning a full-scale invasion, and that by their calculations Ukrainian people would not have a chance to resist for more than 2 or 3 days.
Successful Ukranian resistance proved that it is not the size of the military equipment that matters but people‘s willingness to commit and bear responsibility to defend their nation.
Strength lies in unity
As we watched the events unfold, the world quickly came to realise that Ukrainian people, motivated by love and respect for their country, are ready to join the democratic world and will fight fearlessly to defend their right to freedom and independence. This, and only this, sparked an unprecedented response from the West – by the 28th of February Russia was banned from all major sporting and cultural events. The EU, US and Canada shut down their airspace to Russian airplanes. It was also disconnected from the world financing system SWIFT. Mirrored sanctions between the EU, US and the UK targeted Russia‘s oligarchs and imposed sanctions on Russia‘s state propaganda outlets in the EU. Many major companies have stopped their operations in Russia and will no longer sell their products in the country.
Unity in the West brought measures on Russia that have never been seen in a major world economy. This came as a surprise not just for Putin‘s regime but for Westerners too. This led to many public discussions on the EU’s and NATO’s strength which haven‘t been seen before. Putin‘s ambitions were to invade Ukraine quickly and split Western nations in response. So far, he has failed at both. Successful Ukranian resistance proved that it is not the size of the military equipment that matters but people‘s willingness to commit and bear responsibility to defend their nation. We have seen such examples in the past, and we see it in Ukraine today.
Ukraine today still has its darkest days ahead. It can sustain its resistance for decades to come, yet Putin is furious at his military failure and he will fight innocent Ukrainian people until the Russian army gets a bloody victory. While they are teaching us today that Western nations can be as united as ever, NATO failed to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Ukraine for a decade. If Ukrainian people have managed to resist until now, the West can step up their game and stop fearing Putin‘s bluster about his nuclear arsenal. Russia’s leaders have no interest in a nuclear war nor WW3, which they know they would certainly lose. Ukrainians are teaching us today that they are not afraid and that the NATO alliance should not be either.
By fighting the imperialist Russian state, Ukrainian people have demonstrated immeasurable heroism and have proved that Western countries can be coordinated, efficient in their decision-making, and most importantly united. They are teaching us today that anything is possible and that our strength lies not in our military capacities, natural gas reserves or made-up ideologies based on barbaric lies. Our strength is our unity, the understanding of our responsibility to act and help each other, and most importantly, our willingness to fight and defend what‘s ours.
Nations are built on stories, so let’s help Ukrainians continue writing their own without Russia’s interference.
Cover photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash