Why the West is still not yet helping Ukraine as much as possible
Many Western European public debates about help for Ukraine juxtapose feelings of solidarity for Ukrainians with concerns about the security of the West. This dualism ignores the core national interests of EU and NATO member countries regarding a Russian defeat and the development of a safe, stable and resilient Ukraine.
Western support for Ukraine’s defence against Russia’s aggression over the last seven months has been substantial yet insufficient. The magnitude and impact of both military help for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia remain wanting. As a result, Moscow’s terror war in Ukraine persists unabated. While the Russian economy has run into problems, it continues to function. So far, the Russian state apparatus and political elite appear unimpressed.
The allure of pseudo-realism
One of the reasons for the West’s failure to mobilise more support for Ukraine is a misperception of the salience of the Russo-Ukrainian War among parts of the Western European public. So far, the war is perceived by many observers as an Eastern European issue, rather than a pan-European security challenge. Empathy with the Ukrainians and disapproval of Russia’s assault are high not only in Central and Eastern Europe. The western public too has developed a surprising interest in and compassion for Ukraine.
Yet, in most Western Europeans’ minds, what happens in Ukraine stays in Ukraine. The war may be perceived as having repercussions for westerners too, yet such acknowledgement of its possible consequences has not led to increased demand for help for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia.
This discursive frame misdirects European and national debates regarding the possible ways to contain Moscow’s aggression. A seemingly emotional urge for international solidarity becomes juxtaposed against presumably rational considerations for national security. “Realist” arguments about western strategy and safety weaken “idealist” calls for more care and aid. The gist of much western thinking about the war remains something akin to “We support the Ukrainians, of course, in their fight for freedom and independence. Yet, at the end of the day, all politics is local. While we empathise with Ukraine’s agony, it is not our pain.”
Drawing such mental lines between Ukrainian defence and western security appears to be a prudent move. It expresses, however, an escapist rather than pragmatic worldview. Continuing naiveté regarding western pseudo-realism not only undermines the normative foundations upon which the domestic consensuses and international cooperation of western states are built, but also misrepresents plain geographic reality and the geopolitical role of Ukraine in Europe and the world. The fate of the Ukrainian state and its citizens has wider implications for the European continent and international system.
What will happen to world security if Russia continues its military assault on Ukrainian statehood for many more months or even years? Realists too acknowledge that this means an unfortunate devaluation of international law, in general, and the European security order, in particular. However, such negative repercussions are often seen as bearable collateral damage in a partial appeasement of Russia. An escalation in tension between Russia and the West, as the typical background reasoning seems to be, would be far worse.
Raising the spectre of a nuclear war is a common “killer argument”. To avoid an apocalypse, so the typical argument goes, any costs are justifiable. The damage that Russian success in Ukraine will do to the international system is surely regrettable. Yet, it is still preferable to the alternative of continued military confrontation and risk of atomic escalation. Overall, this appears to be the logic of some western realists. It helps that a nation other than one’s own has to make the necessary sacrifices to appease the Kremlin. The Ukrainians will have to get by with limited western support and continue to bear the brunt of the consequences of the war. Too bad for them!
This seemingly realistic approach is not only cynical but escapist, in both paradigmatic and practical terms. First, it goes against the grain of consistent realism to argue that counter-alliance building and substantive armed deterrence do not work vis-à-vis Russia. Whatever military support Ukraine can get and whatever western sanctions on Russia are imposed, according to the widespread assumption, Moscow is prepared to escalate further. Russians will be ready to bear even highly destructive damage to their economy, military and society. Eventually, they may even risk the integrity of their state. Yet, if Russians indeed behave “unrealistically”, what is realism for then?
Second, in much “realist” reasoning, it is not only unclear which costs for an appeasing approach to Moscow may be imposed upon Kyiv and which may not, but there is also a lack of attention to secondary risks and the costs of war for countries other than Ukraine and Russia. More often than not, these vagaries remain either unmentioned or discussed only in passing in public debates about the war. If brought up, they are sometimes brushed aside as remote or negligible, or both.
The subversion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
There are, however, a number of important issues that Russia’s war against Ukraine and the West’s so far restrained countermeasures imply for Europe or even humankind as a whole. Above all, the Russian attack and hesitant or absent response to it from other members of the UN Security Council and General Assembly undermine the logic of the international regime regarding the prevention of the spread of nuclear arms. The war started eight and a half years ago and continues to proceed the way it does, to a large degree, because Russia has weapons of mass destruction and Ukraine does not.
What is worse, Moscow not only enjoys a huge nuclear advantage but is explicitly allowed, by a UN multilateral agreement, to possess its atomic arsenal. The 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) permits five countries, among them Russia, to build and hold nuclear weapons. All the other 191 signatory states of the NPT, among them Ukraine, are explicitly forbidden to develop and own atomic weapons.
The Russo-Ukrainian War is even more odd since Ukraine once possessed a large nuclear weapons arsenal that it had inherited from the USSR. Kyiv decided, together with Minsk and Astana, to relinquish not only most, but all Soviet atomic warheads and material that the three countries still possessed in the early 1990s. They signed the NPT as fully non-nuclear weapon states.
In exchange, in 1994 Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan were each issued a special document by the NPT’s three depositary governments, the United States, Great Britain and Russia. The so-called Budapest Memorandum contained security assurances from Washington, London and Moscow. The three great powers promised to respect the sovereignty and borders of the three former nuclear weapon states and to refrain from exerting political, economic and military pressure on them. The other two official nuclear weapon states under the NPT, France and China, provided separate governmental statements announcing their respect for Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan’s independence and integrity.
Since 2014, if not before, Russia has been violating this important document, once signed by Moscow’s then UN Ambassador Sergei Lavrov and deposited with the United Nations, in the most egregious ways. Russia is today punishing Ukraine’s voluntary nuclear disarmament with a rain of tens of thousands of grenades, bombs, rockets and missiles. This destroys not only military installations but also civilian houses and infrastructure, as well as killing, maiming and traumatising Ukrainians every day. Moscow’s demonstrative subversion of the logic of the non-proliferation regime should worry not only Ukrainians but every other nation too.
Hesitant help for Ukraine and belated sanctioning against Russia by overtly peace-loving states, such as Germany, Austria or the Netherlands, contradicts the pacifist motivation behind such behaviour. Widespread cautiousness in supporting Kyiv increases the war’s destructive effects regarding the credibility of the international security system. The contradictory signals emanating not only from Russia, but also from other official nuclear weapon states, above all from China, entail larger risks. The ambivalence of dozens of non-nuclear NPT signatory states also only further contributes to this development.
Continued trade with Russia and only half-hearted or absent support for Ukraine suggest to weaker countries around the world that, if push comes to shove, might is right. The conclusion that nations without a nuclear umbrella may now or in the future draw is that “We can rely neither on international law and the human community, in general, nor on the logic of the NPT and its founders, in particular. Therefore, we need to get the bomb ourselves.”
While the nuclear issue acts as a warning against World War III, European debates regarding western support for Ukraine and an atomic escalation between NATO and Russia are not the only salient aspects of it. The already existing fundamental problem of safeguarding the world against nuclear proliferation has received little attention during the last eight years. Instead, many are worried exclusively about an exchange of nuclear strikes that, according to such fears, should have happened several times before. For example, during the Cold War when the US and USSR possessed far more atomic arms than today. A future spread of weapons of mass destruction as a more likely repercussion of Russia’s war against Ukraine remains mostly unmentioned in public discussions.
The power of the NPT will deteriorate as long as Russia continues to demonstrate that a state threatening to employ nuclear weapons is allowed to expand its territory at will. One would think that such a possible consequence of Russia’s war against Ukraine should be of great concern to politicians and journalists. Yet, this grave global after-effect of Moscow’s local behaviour in Ukraine has remained either an only occasional topic or a non-issue in most worldwide mass media reporting about the war.
Ukraine’s nuclear power plants
A regionally contained, but more obvious and immediate atomic threat connected to Russia’s military attack is the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. During the war’s first days, in late February 2022, Russian soldiers invading from Belarus quickly occupied the territory of the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine. The Kremlin’s propaganda boasted about the NPP’s capture, while Russia’s army stationed some of its troops on the contaminated territory of the 1986 disaster area. Shortly afterwards the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported a loss of communication regarding the dangerous radioactive material stored in a special installation on the site of the former NPP. Ukraine’s government complained about irregularities in the cooling system for this material.
All of this should have alarmed the international community early on, or at least the European media and politicians. Some basic economic and geographic considerations could, in fact, have already alerted European expert and diplomatic communities throughout the last eight years to this risk close to the EU. At least since 2014, after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the start of a pseudo-civil war in the Donbass, the nuclear risks of a deeper Russian invasion into Ukraine’s heartland were obvious. Everybody with elementary knowledge of Eastern European industrial geography could understand what is at stake in Ukraine’s defence against the Russian invasion.
Instead of bringing the issue to the forefront years ago, the security of Ukrainian NPPs from war has, until recently, remained under the radar of most journalistic, specialist and governmental reporting about the war. This is in spite of the fact that, soon after Chernobyl’s capture in March 2022, Ukraine and Europe’s largest atomic power plant, the Zaporizhzhia NPP with its six power blocks in the southern Ukrainian city of Enerhodar (literally “energy giver”), also directly found itself affected by the war. The huge NPP even became a locus of fighting between both sides. A nightly exchange of fire between Russia and Ukraine’s troops on the territory of one of the world’s largest nuclear facilities was captured on camera and published online in spring 2022.
Since Russia’s occupation of Enerhodar, the Zaporizhzhia NPP has come under the shared administration of officers from the Russian military, on one side, and civilians of the Ukrainian public company Enerhoatom, on the other. This joint responsibility shared by two states that are at war with each other is an unusual arrangement for Europe’s largest NPP. In recent weeks, it appears moreover that the Kremlin is trying to use the issue of the safety of nuclear material at the power plant to gain leverage vis-à-vis the West. Some strange incidents at the power plant may have been orchestrated by the Kremlin to increase nervousness in the West. As a result, the security of Ukrainian nuclear power plants is now finally entering western mass media reporting on the war.
The risks are multiple and not only linked to the Zaporizhzhia plant at Enerhodar. Another atomic station in southern Ukraine, the Yuzhnoukrainsk NPP, has repeatedly been threatened over the last few months by Russian missiles launched by the Black Sea fleet heading north in the direction of Kyiv. Two nuclear power plants in Western Ukraine have not yet been affected by Russian weapons or warheads. However, this could easily happen in the future. For instance, a Russian attack on Western Ukraine via Belarus could quickly move additional Ukrainian NPPs close to, or even into, the fighting zone.
Against the background of Europe’s experience with the after-effects of the Chernobyl calamity in 1986, the safety of Ukraine’s NPPs should become a salient topic in media, political and expert debates. It should also become a part (more deeply than before) of diplomatic communication within the West and with Russia. What is important for western politicians, diplomats and experts alike in addressing the issue officially and unofficially, is to make it as explicit as possible that concerns about Ukrainian NPPs are entirely related to Russia’s illegal actions in Ukraine.
Moscow is now trying to play a “Chernobyl card” in its media and political campaigning. Russia’s propagandists are attempting to persuade underinformed parts of the western public that Ukraine is, as in 1986, a source of insecurity for Europe. These misleading narratives need to be counteracted resolutely.
With regard to African and Asian perceptions of the recent grain crisis, the Kremlin partly succeeded with a similar misinformation campaign. Moscow managed to encourage not only populations but also elites in several African and Asian states to believe that Russia is not responsible for the food crisis. Instead, Ukraine and the West should be blamed for the recent shortages of grain and other foodstuffs on the world markets.
It may be worth remembering that the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe was also not the result of a Ukrainian leadership failure. Instead, as Serhii Plokhy has recently detailed in his seminal book Chernobyl, the then head of the Council of Ministers of Soviet Ukraine was informed about the Chernobyl incident through a nighttime phone call with his union-level counterpart.
That was in spite of the fact that the Ukrainian prime minister was at the time of the incident in 1986 in Kyiv. As a result, he was only about 100 kilometres away from Chernobyl. The Soviet prime minister who informed his Ukrainian subordinate in Ukraine’s capital of what was happening not far from Kyiv called him from Moscow, about 700 kilometres away from Chernobyl.
The reason for this strange line of communication was that the USSR’s NPPs were strategic objects. They were thus not under the local administration of the union’s pseudo-republics. Instead, the construction and operation of all of the USSR’s NPPs were under the direct control of the imperial centre in the capital of Russia. This reality was one of the various Soviet abnormities that led to the 1986 Chernobyl incident in the first place.
There are additional pan-European and partly global risks emanating from Russia’s attack on Ukraine. International chains of trade in foodstuffs, energy, and other resources and goods are being interrupted. In addition to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, further international arrangements and organisations too are being undermined. Not only is the integrity of various transcontinental security regimes, like the OSCE, being put under question, but the United Nations and its various organs and sub0rganisations are also coming under pressure following Russia’s vicious assault on Ukraine. In particular, the Security Council and the veto right of its permanent members, including Russia, now look absurd. Parts of the UN system and other international organisations are purposefully being weaponised, for neo-imperial purposes, by one of its official guarantors.
Fundamental doubts about the usefulness of the current world order are growing not only among embattled Ukrainians. More and more people around the world who are concerned about international security, sympathise with Ukraine, and/or feel threatened by Russia or other revanchist countries are voicing second thoughts too. Activists, politicians, experts, and journalists have, in view of Moscow’s behaviour over the last few years, started to discuss the ability of the UN system to preserve international political stability, justice and peace.
Russia continues to dismantle the European security order, in particular, as well as the international organisational and legal system in general. In doing so, the Kremlin takes advantage of Russia’s formal and material privileges, such as its special rights under the UN and NPT, or control over nuclear weapons and trade routes. At the same time, the rhetorical and behavioural aggressiveness of the Russian state vis-à-vis Ukraine continues unabated. The constantly rising number of atrocities committed by the Russian army in Ukraine is creating moral outrage and the increasingly genocidal character of the Russian attack has wider and longer implications. The Kremlin’s terroristic approach subverts the letter and spirit of dozens of international treaties and organisations in which Moscow participates and of which it is partly a co-founder.
The increasingly obvious transnational and partly global destructiveness of the Kremlin’s behaviour should not only make Eastern Europeans pause. Western discussions affected by a juxtaposition of emotionally driven international solidarity for Ukraine and rationally argued national interests of one’s own country have always been inapt. They look increasingly misleading today.
Western and non-western politicians, diplomats, experts and other public figures should change the emphases and tone of their comments on the war. This concerns their assessments of Russia’s behaviour within both their own countries’ national debates and their interactions with Russian counterparts. They need to highlight now more than ever the salience of Moscow’s behaviour not only for Ukraine, but also for their own nations, Europe, and the world at large.
Populations around the world should be made aware by their leaders, journalists and scientists that the Kremlin’s adventure in Ukraine is having repercussions beyond the tragedies in Mariupol, Bucha or Olenivka. Countries in the West and around the globe should reformulate their positions and rhetoric accordingly vis-à-vis Moscow. In particular, it should become clear to both the western and Russian public that only Moscow’s full withdrawal from Ukraine will be a satisfactory solution to the crisis. This would also act as an acceptable limitation of its destructive international after-effects. As a result of such a discursive change, new signals, policies and treaties from a wider and more resolute coalition of willing states can emerge. Only this can make the Kremlin finally feel enough pressure to change its behaviour and act constructively in future negotiations.
Andreas Umland studied politics and history in Berlin, Oxford, Stanford and Cambridge. He has been an Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA) since 2010 and an analyst at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS) of the Swedish Institute of International Relations (UI) since 2021.
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