Ukraine has been in the headlines since the Revolution of Dignity in 2014 and the public may be understandably tired of hearing more about Ukraine.
Unfortunately, the occasion now is far more serious. Not for Ukraine. For the free world. Indeed, what may happen in Ukraine is likely to determine the future of global security and order. Let’s start with the facts and ask a few basic questions to understand the stakes:
First, after Ukraine emerged as an independent state in 1991, it inherited the 3rd largest arsenal of nuclear weapons. Ukraine gave up its nukes in 1994 in exchange of security guarantees made by the U.S., U.K. and Russia. Ukraine is the one and only country that did it. This example was heralded as a sign of new era in nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.
Now Russia (one of the guarantors!) threatens to invade Ukraine. How can any country (South Korea? Japan? Taiwan? Estonia?) believe that it is protected by international treaties if Ukraine’s sovereignty is violated so blatantly? How can one convince a country (Iran?) to not develop nuclear weapons if a superpower can freely renege on its promises to not use force? If Ukraine falls, how can the world not become a much more dangerous place?
Second, Europe went through two world wars in the XX century. The “never again” movement resulted in a series of treaties with the key principle: the borders in Europe are set and nobody can redraw them by force. But Russia already annexed the Crimea and controls a part of the Donbas.
Russia’s menace now is not only to alter borders again but potentially eliminate Ukraine as an independent state. If a country as big as Ukraine—it’s population and area are similar to California’s—can be erased from maps, how can anyone expect that a bloodbath in Europe cannot happen again? How can one not expect an arms race?
Third, the last century ended with a remarkable triumph of democracy. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought spring to many European countries. The world seemed to have become much freer and safer. Those hard-won victories are now under threat and the appeal of democracy appears to be waning. For example, many former Soviet republics are descending into authoritarianism if not outright dictatorships.
Against this grim trend, Ukraine remains a free country. Even with its imperfect record, Ukraine gives hope for less free neighbors that democracy can work and improve lives for millions of people. If Ukraine fails, what lesson is learned by Russians or Byelorussians? Democracy can’t work in this part of the world? Will authoritarian trends accelerate?
Fourth, Ukraine is not the first victim of Putin’s regime. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. Putin’s appetites are only growing. Other authoritarian regimes are watching. If there is no pushback, then aggressive behavior is acceptable to resolve a dispute. If Russia can “reclaim” Ukraine, what else can be reclaimed without consent? Obviously, the world is worn out by the COVID-19 crisis and a myriad of other problems and it seems that finding a “middle ground” with Putin is a good idea as long as it averts a war.
But what is the cost of this peace at any price? The infamous Munich deal between Germany, Great Britain, France and Italy in 1938 that gave green light to Hitler to take over Czechoslovakia was meant to preserve peace. But it ended in a horror. If Germany has collective guilt (Kollektivschuld) about World War II, how can it support Nord Stream 2, a Russia-Germany gas pipeline bypassing Ukraine, that lowers the cost of war for Russia?
Fifth, Ukraine has been making substantial efforts to bridge cultural divides and promote ethnical inclusion and tolerance within and across its borders. Ukraine is not persecuting its citizens who prefer to speak Russian. Ukraine is not setting off cyber attacks on infrastructure of another country. Ukraine is not cutting off supplies of gas to bring down the economy of a neighbor.
In fact, Ukraine shared its precious reserves with Moldova when Russia threatened to cut off gas to Moldova. The world may be surprised to learn that Russian troops are on Ukraine’s borders but Ukrainians have lived in the state of constant threats and intimidation for the last eight years, losing lives of its defendants on a daily basis. Ukraine’s only threat to Russia is that it can escape the Soviet legacy and show to the Russian people that one does not need a tsar to run a successful country.
Finally, Ukraine is a big country. The ripples of a catastrophe in Ukraine will be felt in many parts of the world. If the Syrian refugee crisis brought the European Union to an existential crunch, what will happen if the wave of refugees becomes 10 times larger? Nuclear power plants generate 60 percent of Ukraine’s electricity. Who will control nuclear materials and technology in a war zone? Does anyone want chaos in the middle of Europe?
I remain hopeful that sanity and reason will prevail. But peace should not be taken for granted. I can’t escape thinking that Ukraine today is similar to West Berlin during the Cold War. That city was not economically or militarily important for the stand-off with the Soviet Union but it was a symbol, a living proof that the free world is willing to fight for liberty.
John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” was a pivotal commitment to counter any aggression and likely saved the city. Ukraine is a symbol too. Freedom versus oppression. Peace versus war. Prosperity versus misery. Even if one does not care about Ukraine per se, Ukraine happens to be a linchpin to so many fates. The stakes can’t be higher. This is the time for the free world to stand united in Ukraine’s support.