Why We Must Design the Future of Ukraine Now
The Future Dictates Our Present
Thousands of people have rallied in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, first on February 24th 2022 calling for an end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 24 February 2022. Author: Akaki Balanchivadze
Russia’s criminal aggression against Ukraine is developing with ever more lethal intensity and many these days see no limit to the war. While the West seems to be less timid in its support and is beginning to understand that it must act decisively to push the Kremlin’s forces out of Ukrainian territory, it has not yet necessarily defined this as its primary objective. Some Western leaders continue to state that Ukraine, and therefore we, must win the war, without understanding that this goal must be achieved not in three years, but in three weeks and less than three months. In front of these major uncertainties, the discussion on what is and must be Ukraine is as if postponed. Talking about the future of Ukraine may seem to many premature. It is this misconception that I will undertake to refute here.
The future versus the propaganda of a shared destiny with Russia
One also sees certain propagandists putting forward the idea that this future will depend largely on the evolution of Russia or, at least, on negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow. In short, they do not see a future for Ukraine. They still do not imagine that it should be determined freely and independently. Some still believe that Moscow should have a say in its former territory, which became independent again in 1991.
To put it another way, some are suggesting a “conditional” future for Ukraine, or an intermediate future, always on the dotted line. While it is commonly stated by some Western capitals, often in a problematic way, that our goal would be stability, these leaders settle for an unstable status for Ukraine. It is understandable that for the Ukrainians their European future seems to have to be won by a hard struggle. And this terrible price is today that of a war wanted by Russia alone—and led by Ukraine, in fact alone. These Western governments do not really make Kyiv a European capital, nor its people a European nation. Rather than considering the blood shed in defense of Europe, they lock themselves into the myth of an improbable “Slaviness” of Ukrainian society that cannot distinguish it from Russian society. Not only does this so-called “brotherhood” constitute an element of propaganda of Putin’s regime, so obvious in his indigestible article of July 2021, and it becomes an inappropriate argument after the “brotherly” crimes committed by the Kremlin, but it also translates a naturalist vision of the world. This ideology intends to give right to the idea of a kind of “natural” destiny of peoples whose future would be determined by reconstructed and also mythologized ancestral traditions, as if the future relationship between two nations did not depend primarily on their will, in short, on politics and, therefore, on a free choice. We also know that this language aims to impose a common destiny by force. We can see how much this is the case with the Russian regime towards Ukraine, but it was also a long tradition of Syria of the Assad clan to impose, in the name of the existence of so-called brotherly peoples, the “brotherhood” in Lebanon.
No doubt this drift in thinking, including through ignorance or lack of rigor and not necessarily through deliberate propaganda choices, constitutes an additional reason to draw with Ukraine its future destiny. Otherwise others will do it in its place with the presuppositions that we know. The more we in the West present the future of Ukraine as uncertain, indeterminate, vague and, finally, optional and the potential object of open discussions with Russia, the more we will deepen this breach into which those who know so well how to take advantage of our indecision and irresolution will rush. The sweet music of a “post-war” presented as an agreement rather than as a total defeat of the war criminal should alert us. Not to define the destiny of Ukraine is to open it to predation.
There is one last reason: the future determines our present. It is according to what we want to achieve that we must determine our actions today. If we remain vague about this future, we can only translate into action or, more precisely, its lack, this absence of a guideline structuring the desirable future. In international politics, this obliteration of the future is at the origin of our mistakes, in Syria and in Ukraine in the most dramatic way, but also elsewhere, as in Iraq or Afghanistan. If we look at the prevarications towards Ukraine, before February 24, 2022, but also afterwards, their origin lies there. A positive vision of Ukraine would certainly have led to a much more solid and serious action. But everything happened as if the future was precisely absent and even denied, as if the past reformulated for the needs of ideology took the place of a project.
We know the main reasons for this, deeply rooted in ancient prejudices. The first one comes from the reverence that many people have for Russia, as if Ukraine was a country destined to be forever alienated and finally subjugated. To the European future chosen by Ukraine, they oppose the lack of future that would be caused by the continuity between the Soviet past and the Putin present. The second reason, which stems from the same error of conception, is that the zones of influence would have a form of permanence and that they would have the duration that the nature of things would impose.
Freedom, independence and integrity: the foundation
The principles enunciated by most Western leaders to define the future of Ukraine remain to a large extent theoretical and abstract. As much as their value can be conceived as incontestable, these principles, as they are often presented, remain vague.
The first of these principles may seem simple, if not trivial: it is that of freedom. Since it regained its independence in 1991, Ukraine has been first and foremost a free country. Of course, its political elites have not always been exemplary, and a leader like Viktor Yanukovych might have wanted, if he had been able to stay in power with Putin’s help, to gradually establish a regime that would have had nothing to envy to his inspirer or to that of the Belarusian dictator. But the Ukrainian and Russian regimes have become more and more divergent. It is enough to note the number of Ukrainian presidents since Putin came to power, the opening of the Ukrainian society to the world, especially to Europe, the vivacity of the Ukrainian civil society which can express itself freely unlike the Russian civil society. The Orange and Maidan revolutions also bear witness to the mobilization of large segments of Ukrainian society in favor of freedom—and the war against the Russian invader is the ultimate consecration of this. It is indeed a war to keep Ukraine free in a double sense: on the one hand, it cannot be subjugated by a foreign power and fall under its yoke; on the other hand, Ukrainian society must remain free and not be under the sway of a regime of a completely different nature.
The independence of Ukraine is also one of the principles that are usually proclaimed as non-negotiable—it applies to Kyiv as to any other country. This independence constitutes, in a way, the application at the collective level of the equivalent of freedom at the individual level. It means that no state can be hindered in its choice of alliances, its mode of government, and cannot be forced into an unfree mode of existence within its borders. The only cases where the independence of a State in its choices could be legally opposed is in the exceptional case where the government of this State would seriously undermine the security of its own members, in particular by committing crimes against humanity or war crimes or would undertake to launch a genocide against its population. It is known that the pretext raised by the Russian regime of a genocide launched by the Kyiv government against the Russian-speaking population of Donbass is a vile fiction, while the crimes committed by the Russian occupation forces in the regions of Donbass and Crimea already de facto annexed since 2014 are proven. All categories of imprescriptible crimes are moreover strongly proven on the part of Russia since February 24. Finally, the concept of zones of influence has been prohibited by the conventions of international law since the end of World War II.
The problem is, however, that on the one hand, these principles are clearly affirmed by Western states, but on the other, many have acted as if they did not take them seriously. The monstrosity of the Russian regime's crimes undoubtedly prevents a return to the old language, but one cannot exclude that this temptation remains in certain Western circles, always inclined to compromise with the Kremlin. However, any such compromise would in fact result in a questioning of Ukraine’s independence.
Some Western leaders still believe that there is an implicit hierarchy between states and that avoiding brutal actions by the larger ones requires the recognition of certain rights, such as not allowing their neighbors to be the masters of their foreign policy choices, and in particular of their alliances. This is already what happened in 2008 when France and Germany, ay Bucharest NATO Council, refused to grant a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Ukraine and have reiterated this position ever since. The reluctance of some others on Kyiv’s application to the European Union, deeper than some “technical” reasons, finally reflects the same implicit conception of Ukraine’s alleged belonging to another sphere. They pretend not to understand that, beyond the fact, which is not emphasized enough, that membership of Ukraine would be an extraordinary asset for Europe, its independence also depends on membership of the EU, and that is how it sees it.
There remains the third principle, regularly reiterated by Western leaders: territorial integrity. Here again, some leaders have been tempted to affirm it and to apply it less rigorously. Some hide behind the imaginary positions of President Zelenskyy, who has never admitted that the annexation, either de facto or de jure, of part of the Donbass and Crimea could be subjects of negotiation. This position indirectly takes up the Kremlin’s usual propaganda that there are “separatists” in Donbass and that Crimea wants a Russian destiny, even though the 2014 referendum in the peninsula was a total farce. Even more seriously, to admit that these regions of Ukraine could be a negotiable element would be to flout the fundamental principles of international law as defined after World War II.
This is also why the stated objective of the Western and democratic countries must be clearly defined: it is to push the Russian forces out of Ukraine—out of all of Ukraine. To say that one cannot be more extreme than Volodymyr Zelenskyy is meaningless, because we know that he, before February 24, 2022, was also sometimes pushed to be more conciliatory. His own positions are also the result of his perception of the balance of power, including our unwavering commitment to defend Ukraine and defeat the Kremlin forces.
These three principles are the basis for any future of Ukraine, not only for its democratic future, but ultimately for its future at all. In order for Ukraine to be able to turn towards it, these three principles must be respected, otherwise its very future will be suppressed. When we see how much Ukraine today is already thinking about its future and, at the same time, building what will be a future for Europe itself, we cannot leave it in the state of domination and uncertainty that the war, if it lasts, will not fail to create.
A European destiny: a nation at the service of Europe
It has often been rightly said that Ukraine, since 2014, was at the forefront of the fight for Europe and that it was responding to a war, alone, that Putin’s regime was waging against the whole of it. Because of this fight for our freedom and security and the terrible toll in terms of casualties—more than 14,000 until 2021 and tens of thousands since February 24, 2022—Ukraine deserves its membership in the European Union, arguably more than any other nation. But this integration into the EU would also be an asset for Europe on several decisive points.
First of all, without repeating here what I have written elsewhere, anyone who goes to Ukraine today cannot but be struck by the extraordinary performance of this country, the quality of the organization of its State and its municipalities, its faculty of innovation and the European public spirit of Ukrainian citizens. The war has only strengthened its capacities: a country that has experienced war with such qualities is finally much more exemplary, not only in moral terms, than most other European countries. What we can learn from it is considerable, and we would be wrong not to want to learn from it for ourselves. But there is more.
Ukraine’s integration into the world’s most structured alliance, the European Union, would be a major security advantage. With Ukraine on board—and one day also Moldova and, when the country becomes free again, Belarus—the EU will be stronger in the face of threats, not only from Russia, but also potentially from China. One might think that this would also have a virtuous effect on the Western Balkans, especially Serbia, which might be tempted to look elsewhere. Perhaps it will then be more difficult, and less interesting, to take a side road. Ukraine will further enhance Europe’s attractiveness and its exemplary character.
Let us imagine for a moment the other hypothesis: a Ukraine left on the margins of the EU. This would certainly be a mortal danger for Ukraine, which could sink into chaos and desolation, with tens of thousands more dead. Not to defend Ukraine to the end and not to help it regain its full sovereignty would be a form of betrayal of European principles and obligations under international law. It would also constitute a major risk for the security of the whole of Europe. The destabilization in Ukraine would extend far beyond its borders to the whole of Europe and would be an incentive to go even further. Winning the war against Russia—for that is what it is all about—would stop Putin’s regime from further destabilization in Europe. It would also be a sign to other regimes, including those that continue to look to the Russian regime. The usurped prestige of Putin’s Russia will come to an end with those governments that still seem to admire his way of flouting the West and its principles for 22 years.
Economically too, the extension of the single market to Ukraine would strengthen the weight of the European Union on the world stage. Of course, the devastated country will have to be rebuilt and, according to some estimates, 1,000 billion euros will be needed. But Ukraine’s potential in terms of industry, agriculture, services and technology is much greater than we imagine. The reconstruction of Ukraine will also benefit the whole of Europe, and the country will undergo a modernization that may well be similar to that experienced by Germany and Japan after the Second World War. By joining the EU, Ukraine would be the fifth largest country in terms of population (about 44 million) behind Germany, France, Italy and Spain and ahead of Poland. It is true that Ukraine will have to make a significant effort to adopt the acquis and its institutions, particularly judicial and anti-corruption ones, will have to be brought up to standard. But these developments are already underway, and the lessons learned during the war augur well for success in this undertaking.
Finally, Ukraine would contribute, once a member, to strengthening Europe’s values. The country is deeply democratic, and the Ukrainian people give only 2 percent of their vote to the far right, which distinguishes it from many European countries where far-right parties are much stronger. While most European nations have forgotten what it means to fight for values, Ukraine would remind us of the ultimate meaning of our principles. It would strengthen the EU both internally and in its foreign policy directions. Because it will have to face the memory of the crimes committed by Russia against its population, it will be in the forefront of recalling our heritage and the perpetual lesson of those who have fallen. In a certain way, because of its painful experience of war, which has been erased especially in Western Europe, Ukraine will be the new memorial and historical heart of Europe.
A new European anchorage
With Ukraine, Europe will not be quite the same. Some European leaders spoke before February 24 about the return of tragedy to Europe—and indeed, as early as 2014, Ukraine had taught us this as well as Belarus since 2020. Nor did we want to see how the live war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, committed by both the Assad regime and Putin’s Russia and Iran, directly impacted our perception of crime, norm and, quite simply, humanity. The war in Syria since 2011, however, concerned us all and the non-intervention of the Western world has destroyed the public mind in a way that we do not yet have the exact perception. The invocation of tragedy was in reality a regime of incantation and empty rhetoric as long as we did not act.
If we, the West, do not put an end to the war quickly by ensuring a total victory for Ukraine, Europe will also be largely affected, diminished and delegitimized. So will the United States. Every day of war means more civilian and military casualties on the Ukrainian side, which means more killings by Russian forces. It would mean that, as in Syria, we would have sacrificed tens of thousands of lives and, in a way, sanctified our total abandonment of the values and principles we were supposed to defend. We would also have given up our security and our international credibility. We would have strengthened criminal dictators around the world.
What I call the European anchorage of Ukraine carries with it another vision of the world. Ukraine, as President Zelenskyy said in an admirable speech on May 8, 2022, reminds us of our duties and forces us to remember our history, not as something cold and past, but as a warm reality, the reality of our present and the reality that ultimately governs our future. The European anchorage of Ukraine carries with it a promise of increased defense of human rights and values of freedom. It leads us out of the wall of indifference and complicity. It forces us to be completely European, when, despite our proclamations and the economic and social successes of the EU, we have forgotten Europe.
Tomorrow, metaphorically, it is Kyiv, more than Brussels, but also Paris, Berlin and Rome, which will become the center of Europe. It will be our historical consciousness—otherwise Europe will fall.