Ukraine is a country in a geopolitical grey zone, and the assistance the international community is generously giving it today is meant to ensure its independent survival. If we look ahead to a time when Ukraine is hopefully victorious, its precarious existence is likely to continue until it is fully ensconced in the European Union and NATO. The goal must therefore be not just to win the current war, but, as they say, to win the peace.
Viewing Russia’s war in Ukraine solely through the lens of the Ukrainians’ plight misses this larger picture: Aiding the Ukrainians is neither a case of charity nor even solely an alliance of shared values; Western nations are laying the groundwork for a new lasting European peace, and in doing so they are defending their own vital national security interests.
This perspective is crucial to sustaining Western support for the war. The task ahead and the sums that will be required are enormous. Anchoring a renewed Ukraine within secure Euro-Atlantic institutions will require vast military, humanitarian, and developmental assistance. If Western politicians are to sustain and even increase current levels of aid, they must convince their publics that the Ukrainian cause is their own. Were Russia to halt its current aggressions, it would likely resume them at a later date. Heavy weapons, functioning security agencies, and international guarantees are needed not only to end the current war, but also to prevent the next one.
Kyiv needs to be well equipped for the ensuing interim period between the start of a ceasefire with Moscow and Ukraine’s eventual accession to the EU and NATO. Even after entering these institutions, Ukraine would remain a frontier state as long as Russia harbored revanchist ambitions. For years or even decades, a well-armed, internationally embedded, and socioeconomically viable Ukraine will be essential to securing Europe’s eastern border.
In order to meet this challenge, communication campaigns led by the Ukrainian and Western governments should reemphasize the aims of the aid provided to Kyiv. Current arguments based on ideals and the importance of human solidarity, empathy, and support for Ukraine continue to be worth voicing. Basic norms such as the right of Ukrainians to national self-determination, their collective and individual freedom of choice, as well as their defense of democracy carry global appeal. Moreover, the shocking brutality of Moscow’s military tactics and treatment of Ukrainian civilians have generated compassion for the Ukrainian nation around the world. Still, arguments about a normative necessity of help to Ukraine need to be complemented with “realistic” lines of thought. Our shared values will not be a strong enough rationale for Western publics as the months pass and costs rise; they must see that the Ukrainian cause connects to their own self-interest.
Helping defeat the Russians would have positive effects far beyond the region, such as upholding international law—in particular the inviolability of national borders. It would also help uphold the logic of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). For almost nine years now, an official nuclear-weapon state, Russia, has been attacking and terrorizing an official non-nuclear-weapon state, Ukraine. The Kremlin thereby undermines the confidence of non-nuclear-weapon states in the security that the NPT is meant to offer.
Reconstruction planning has been conceived of as a forward-looking program, by both Ukrainians and Western experts. It should be even more loudly presented as an agenda of not only relief but renewal—out of which a more modern and successful Ukraine will emerge. Giving Western support for Kyiv a “positive spin” can help boost the morale of Ukrainians and foreigners involved in military and civilian assistance. Western help for rebuilding Ukraine should be sequenced in a way that offers a continuous succession of swiftly completable steps. The achievement of each intermediate stage–such as accession to an EU institution or initiative, completion of a physical or virtual project, start of a new service or company– should be publicly acknowledged and occasionally celebrated so as to reinforce a sense of stable progress.
Western leaders would also do well to note that benefits flow in both directions. The Ukrainians have invaluable knowledge to share from their frontline experience with hybrid operations in the context of an armed conflict with a highly aggressive enemy. In the civilian sector, too, Ukraine can share insights from the successful digitalization, liberalization, and decentralization of its state, civil society, and economy. The Ukrainians can offer much advice in these realms, which would serve both to bolster Ukrainian pride and Western appreciation for the achievements of a battled people.
Restoring and renewing Ukraine can demonstrate to the world that not only will foreign aggression fail to achieve its aims, but it could even result in the strengthening of the victim’s geopolitical position. Sending such a signal would teach both aggressors and vulnerable states three simple lessons: might does not make right; international law will be upheld; and stronger states will protect weaker ones. International law and organization can thereby be strengthened. A resulting increase of worldwide security and trust is in the interest of every human being.
Thus far, Western support for Ukraine has mainly constituted a rescue operation—strategically, materially, and psychologically. If our larger goal is a durable peace on the European continent, then we must make the strategic case for it and furnish Ukraine with all that is required to create and sustain it.
Andreas Umland is an associate professor of political science at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and an analyst at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies.
Image: President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy tours defense fortifications in east Ukraine, December 6, 2021. (Flickr: President of Ukraine)
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