Ukraine is facing a challenge that could threaten its very existence. It is relying on negotiations, sanctions and its army and needs solidarity and assistance from all European democracies.
Hardly a day goes by without more bad news for Ukraine and indeed the whole of Europe. According to the latest information, the number of Russian troops massed on the border with Ukraine has grown to 120,000, including engineering units specialising in bridge and pontoon construction. Russian units have been holding manoeuvres in Belarus all week long. On the Russian social media networks, relatives of serving Russian soldiers from far-flung parts of the country are reporting that their family members have been sent west – indefinitely. Overseas embassies in Kyiv are evacuating some of their staff. The Ukrainian media are advising households to lay in supplies of water and to fill pantries for the case of emergency. They are broadcasting advice on which medicines the emergency pharmacies should make sure they do not run out of and how to talk to children about war.
Extraordinary calm in Kyiv
If the purpose of the Russian posturing along the border was to spark panic in Ukraine, the plan has not yet worked. At first glance, life in Kyiv seems to be continuing in an atmosphere of extraordinary calm. “We have been living with this kind of threat for the last seven years”, a lot of people are saying, “we have got used to it”. But privately, the tension often starts to show through: “Will there be war?” is the mostly quietly voiced question. Some of those who fled to Kyiv in 2014 to escape war in the east, in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, are astonished at the composure of the inhabitants of the capital city. “We know that war is possible”, they say, and keep an emergency suitcase packed with their important documents and money, plus a knife, torch and thermal base clothing.
“We know that war is possible”
The prospect of a Russian invasion, a Russian attack on Ukraine and its capital city of Kyiv seems like something out of fantasy fiction. But the longer the Russian deployment continues to establish itself on the border and Moscow’s motives and objectives remain shrouded in mystery, the more realistic it becomes. Fears of encirclement, which Moscow has frequently claimed for itself, seem now to apply to Ukraine: to the north, on the other side of a border 1000 km long, is Belarus, whose authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenka has performed a U-turn and is now fully behind Moscow. To the east, the border with Russia measures more than 2000 km on land and in the Sea of Asov and the Black Sea. To the south lies Crimea, annexed by Russia and home to deployed Russian troops; to the south-west, Russian troops are stationed in Transnistria, the breakaway enclave in Moldova.
A sobering conclusion
For the time being, the Ukrainian government is relying on three pillars of crisis management: diplomacy and negotiations, sanctions and its defensive potential. If they reduce the risk of war and help to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty, Russian-US consultations would also be welcomed. But otherwise, Ukraine is determined to be represented at the negotiating table at which its own destiny is being discussed. Sanctions and similar measures are considered key to Ukraine’s survival, as these show Russia where the boundaries lie and make clear that they can expect major pushback in the event of any acts of aggression. Most of all, however, the experience of recent years has led Ukraine to the sobering conclusion that all hope will ultimately rest on its own capacities. This is why the reformed and modernised army is at front and centre in a country that has found itself in a permanent state of warfare for almost 7 years in its eastern regions, on the front line with the occupied areas. The best deterrent is the ability to inflict as much damage as possible on the Russian army in the event of an attack on Ukraine.
For this reason, Ukraine sees a willingness to supply Kyiv with weapons as a basic test of solidarity on the part of the countries it considers its friends. Germany’s refusal to do this has grown into a central problem in German-Ukrainian relations in recent months. References to the imminent delivery of a field hospital or 5000 soldiers’ helmets recently provoked gloating. The Ukrainians are not won over by the argument that because of its own history, having taken the world into a criminal war 82 years ago, Germany has to be above reproach when exporting weapons to possible crisis zones. The question most commonly asked in reply is: is it not because of precisely this historical responsibility that Germany owes it to Ukraine, which suffered greatly under a brutal German occupation during the Second World War, to defend it today against an external aggressor?
Confidence in Germany is wavering
The crisis in German-Ukrainian relations has reached a worrying extent and is rapidly threatening to shake a confidence built on many years of close co-operation. The question of arms supplies would not have been so fatally important had several other signals from Germany not already caused irritation. Chief among these is the construction of the second North Stream II gas pipeline, reducing the transit of Russian gas through Ukraine to a minimum and robbing the country of both income and influence. To make matters worse, it is frequently dressed up in Germany as a purely “economic project”. This sounds naive to Ukraine, if not outright cynical. Recently, moreover, there have been bizarrely dissonant tones, such as the pro-Russian comments of the chief of the German Navy, who was probably not saying anything that many ordinary Germans do not believe. Ukraine fears that the decisive factor in German Ukraine policy is and remains Russia. Misleading discussions on possible or prohibited sanctions also give the impression that German concerns about spoiling things with Russia will influence or even determine all decisions. The impression they get is that Germany is not to be relied upon.
But there are ways other than providing weapons to show solidarity with Ukraine. This starts with the perspective and choice of words: there is no Ukraine crisis, it is a Russia crisis. Ukraine is not the problem and must not be made the victim in a crisis that its neighbour is deliberately stirring up. This, furthermore, is not about possible future war, as the country is already at war and has been since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The current military threat situation has also had the effect of pushing Crimea out of public awareness; this makes it all the more important to ensure that the annexation of Crimea remains in the spotlight.
Right of self-determination
In the international political context, it continues to be important to protect Ukraine’s right to its existence as a state in its own right, its sovereignty and its right to a free choice of alliance partners. Russia, moreover, undertook to respect Ukrainian borders in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. Playing around with the security of its neighbour is a return to an agenda of power politics in areas of influence and control. It would destroy the entire European understanding that brought the continent mutual agreement, peace and prosperity after 1945. It must be commensurately clear that an external aggressor would in all cases have to reckon with far-reaching negative consequences of its actions. A misleading policy of individual concessions would not, on the hand, work if Russia is in reality attempting to weaken Ukraine, with a view to shifting the balance of the European security system and of the global system of competition with the community of free, liberal democracies.
Most want to move closer to Europe
The majority of people in Ukraine would like the country to continue to move towards Western Europe. The population has been enormously traumatised by civil war, collectivisation, famine, Stalinist repression, a devastating war, suffering under totalitarianism in the last century and under aggression from outside in the last decade. The delayed process of nation-building is moving forward, but will take time. Shades of its totalitarian past still overshadow politics in the country, with many main decisions being made behind closed doors. But at the same time, Ukraine is one of only a handful of post-soviet republics which really understands pluralism and whose parliament is truly a centre of power. No president of Ukraine has ever yet succeeded in trying to divert the omnipotence of the state to himself. They have been prevented from doing this by opposition groups and energetic, confident society forces.
In a recent opinion poll, just over half of all respondents said that in the event of an invasion by Russian troops, they would support a decision to take up arms against the invaders. This shows that many Ukrainian citizens are aware of just how much they have to lose.
This article was first published in German on boell.de.