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Ukraine proved it can halt Putin. Now it needs Europe

Putin will not stop in Ukraine. The reason for this is quite simple. He is waging a war to restore the Russian empire.

March 5, 2022 - Volodymyr Valkov - Hot TopicsUkraineAtWar

Ukrainians blocking Russian forces in Enerhodar to protect Europe’s largest nuclear power plant - Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, March 2. Russian soldiers committed a war crime by shooting at civilians and later caused fire at the nuclear plant.

In his address to the nation on March 3rd, one of many regular messages that the Ukrainian president now delivers to the country engaged in a heroic struggle for its existence, survival and liberty, Volodymyr Zelenskyy described Putin’s decision-making process by saying that “psychological disorders lead to missile orders”.

This applies not just to Vladimir Putin, but to the Russian political establishment as a whole. This applies to Russia. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was approved unanimously by the Russian National Security Council and the Russian parliament on February 21st and 22nd, respectively.

French President Emmanuel Macron called Putin on March 3rd and only several hours after Zelenskyy’s statement announced that “the worst is yet to come in Ukraine” and Putin “wants to take control of the entire country”. Unbelievably, Putin denied conducting airstrikes in Ukraine. I live in Kyiv. I have not left the capital. I have been listening to the sound of explosions from Russian airstrikes for the last ten days. They keep getting more frequent.

Putin will not stop in Ukraine. The reason for this is quite simple. He is waging a war to restore the Russian empire.

Putin used the phrase “Russian empire” six times in his February 21st address when he tried to elaborate a historical and moral justification for the invasion, which was about to start three days later. He talked about the “space of the former Russian empire”. Putin described the totalitarian state built by Stalin as “beautiful”. He expressed sadness that the strict centralisation of power over its territory had not been fully codified in the laws of the Soviet Union, and even complained about the totalitarian regime’s supposed “ultra-democratic” appearance. Putin spoke angrily about the Soviet system’s purported failure to remove any legal basis for the future sovereignty and independence of its members, referring to the desire for independence of each of the different nations as “utopian, destructive fantasies”.

This is the type of personality with which Europe is dealing. This is what Russia is like under Putin. It is an existential threat to Ukraine, Poland and the rest of Europe. Why would Putin stop in Ukraine? He is just getting started with Europe.

The Kremlin has constructed a regime that cannot be sustained without aggression. In Putin’s plans for Europe, Ukraine is not the only target. In his speech, which essentially constituted a declaration of war, the Russian dictator pointed at parts of Poland as having been gifted by Stalin in poor judgment. This is undoubtedly a preview of his intentions. However, the rest of Europe is Russia’s next target not because of possible territorial claims or historical revisionism, but primarily because the “Russian world” model cannot co-exist with democratic neighbours.

In addition to Putin’s twisted interpretation of history and fabricated claims of “genocide” in Donbas, Putin’s primary objection was Ukraine’s consolidating democracy. Putin sent his army to defeat “radicals” who were implementing democratic reforms and creating transparent government institutions. The list of his grievances about Ukraine includes specifically the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office, and the High Anti-Corruption Court. Is Ukraine supposed to “undemocratise” as well to satisfy Russia?

After eight years of the Donbas occupation and annexation of Crimea, Ukraine was naïve to preserve hope that Russia would not make an epic mistake of launching a full-scale invasion. At the Munich Security Conference, Zelenskyy said: “When we talk about the Russian Federation, we talk about an entire people. I believe they cannot go to war against the Ukrainian people.” Zelenskyy tried to avert the catastrophe until the very last minute. But the reality is that the Russian Federation is not a democratic nation. The will of the Russian people makes no difference.

Poland and the European Union cannot afford to be naïve about Russia any more. They cannot wait or watch from the sidelines. They cannot prioritise economic concerns at this time. The economy can be restored relatively quickly. Can freedom?

Ukraine needs the rest of Europe right now. This means EU membership. And NATO membership. This means all available security assistance, including comprehensive air defence systems and airplanes. This is what is necessary to live up to the goal of Europe “whole and free”.

Europe also needs Ukraine. Europe needs Ukraine’s faith in democracy and its brave soldiers. The European Parliament has already recommended candidate-country status for Ukraine with 637 votes on March 1st, the sixth day of the invasion. This symbolic gesture has inspired Ukraine and given additional asymmetric edge over the incessant flow of the Russian army. But everyone understands these are just words. A special and legally binding procedure to grant EU membership to Ukraine will be a truly remarkable show of solidarity and friendship at this moment of nightmare. Just imagine the effect it could have on the Ukrainian soldiers, but also deal an equally powerful blow against the Russian invaders. The EU has that power right now.

Ukraine’s united and powerful resistance to Russian invasion marks a change in the European security architecture. One of the principal ways in which it has transformed is that Ukraine is no longer a gray zone or buffer between the West and East, or the EU and Russia. Ukraine is a defender of Europe. Ukrainian people are no longer divided in their civilizational choice. Russian invasion only strengthened the Ukrainian nation’s resolve to return to their home in Europe.

As of March 2nd, an estimated 86 per cent of Ukrainians want to join the EU, and 76 per cent want to join NATO. The Russian winter is turning into Ukraine’s spring. More than 500 missiles that Russia launched at Ukraine in the course of its invasion have not intimidated Ukrainians and have had the opposite effect. Ukrainian soldiers have used western military technology with extreme mastery and precision. In the skilful hands of the Ukrainian army, 300 Javelin anti-tank missiles destroyed 280 Russian tanks. Ukraine destroyed 39 Russian planes and 40 helicopters. Russian Su-25 and Su-30 planes bombed residential neighbourhoods in cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Irpin, Okhtyrka, Sumy, Chernihiv, Bila Tsekva, Borodianka and many others. Russia has indiscriminately attacked schools, hospitals, and kindergartens across Ukraine.

Russia bombarded civilian sites in the town of Borodyanka in Kyiv oblast on March 1. Photo: Telegram

The Ukrainian army and the society have responded with bravery, unity and fortitude. In Enerhodar, citizens bravely walked out against Russian armoured vehicles to protect the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant – the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. In Kherson, people refused to take packages of fake Russian humanitarian assistance and participate in the filming of Russia propaganda, despite food and water shortages. Russia has sought to destabilise Ukraine, but instead 93 per cent of Ukrainians support president Zelenskyy. Eighty-eight per cent of Ukrainians believe in victory, a recent survey has showed. These are the examples of dignity and faith the Ukrainian nation can bring to the European Union. Ukraine will only strengthen the EU.

Ukraine is fighting a war for its own independence, but also for democracy and the freedom of Europe. Former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko has recently said that this invasion is Moscow’s 25th war against Ukraine. Historian Yaroslav Hrytsak has called this war a Patriotic War. Francis Fukuyama has described the invasion as Putin’s war against the liberal democratic order. “If Ukraine falls, all of Europe will fall. If we win, and we will, it will be a great victory for democracy,” President Zelenskyy said in his remarks on the ninth day of the war on March 5th.

Ukraine and Poland probably understand Russian ambitions better than anyone in Europe. Together we can make Europe inaccessible to Russian forces and much more resilient to Moscow’s pressure. We both know there can be no “reset” arrangements with authoritarian Russia. The new security architecture in Europe requires a permanent deterrence against Russia, which can only be achieved together with Ukraine.

Volodymyr Valkov is a foreign policy expert and political analyst based in Kyiv, Ukraine, focusing on Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration and countering Russian aggression.  He previously served as a deputy director of a grassroots human rights NGO in Lviv.  He studied Political Science at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse in the United States, and received a master’s degree in International Relations from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IHEID) in Geneva, Switzerland.  Volodymyr is an alumni of professional programs Warsaw Euro-Atlantic Summer Academy, Riga Graduate School of Law, European Academy of Diplomacy in Warsaw, International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and Capital Semester at Georgetown University. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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