The Road to the Russo-Ukrainian War
The war in Ukraine will end, one way or another. But just like before the conflict, there is currently no viable plan at the elite level on what should be done after the war ends.
On a cool and overcast April afternoon, I am talking with Istvan Herka, the mayor of the Hungarian town of Beregsurány, less than a mile from the Hungarian-Ukrainian border. He explains, through a translator, the effect that the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War has had on his town. As if to prove that the war has been a humanitarian disaster, a minibus carrying refugees from the border arrive. The spectacle is a sobering experience.
I was in Belgrade for the latter half of 2015 and was a firsthand witness to the “Syrian refugee” crisis. I say “Syrian refugee” because it was obvious even then how many of these migrants were neither from Syria nor refugees fleeing conflict—far too many Africans and South Asians, working-aged men, and the like. By contrast, the refugees getting off the minibus in Beregsurány, and I would see many more minibuses arrive before I left, were all women, many with young babes and children. They seemed haggard and mildly frightened, timidly approaching the charity buffet food stop set up by the French branch of the Order of Malta.
Yet though this sorry state of affairs is tragic beyond words, it was also a long time coming. Ukraine’s 23 to 30 years—depends on who you ask—of relative peace was built on shaky foundations. There was a genuine opportunity to reinforce those foundations, to forge a strong, neutral state that could live and do business with its neighbors without inviting interference or intervention. But this opportunity was squandered. It is this story—one of political, diplomatic, and economic failure—that is left out of current Western discourse. Instead, America’s elite has chosen to elevate Ukraine’s struggle against invading Russian forces to a level akin to a religious crusade. Washington has firmly committed itself to a brand-new campaign of national liberation and state-building abroad, most visibly by approving a $40 billion aid package in Congress.
Behind all this is the promise that this time, it will be different. This time, America is not only backing a genuine democracy in its struggle against the dark, revisionist forces of authoritarianism, but the country we’ve chosen to back has a real chance at succeeding.
Yet that is precisely why such a painful appraisal of past Ukrainian political and economic failures is necessary. For if there is to be any hope of Ukraine rebuilding itself into a successful liberal democracy after the war ends, it is essential to understand the political, diplomatic, and economic context that led to the current conflict—including the failures. Understanding failure is where accountability, and improvement, begins.
And when it comes to Ukraine, failure was everywhere.
Why Ukraine Matters
Why does Ukraine matter so much anyway? How did an underdeveloped post-Soviet country become so critical to global order that it is now the literal frontline between East and West?
The view from the Kremlin—or at the very least, from President Vladimir Putin’s perspective—is that Russia must remain one of the leading great powers of the world, with the rights and privileges that entails: a sphere of influence, being able to affect the global agenda, a healthy dose of prestige and geopolitical respect, and so on. Failure is unacceptable in this case; if Russia can’t stand independent, then it will be forced to succumb to either Western influence or rising Chinese power. National sovereignty, broadly understood, is at stake.
Russia’s problem is that its strength doesn’t match up to its supposed peers. Yes, it does possess nuclear weapons and a sizeable military. And, to the dismay of many Western commentators, who love to trot out the much-abused statistic that Russia’s GDP is similar to Italy’s or Spain’s, the Russian economy is actually quite large: if the aforementioned measurement is adjusted for purchasing power parity and the brutal reality that the service sector is overvalued compared to the industrial and commodities sectors, then Russia actually has an economy that is greater than Germany’s. But nonetheless, Moscow worries about a number of key vulnerabilities: an awful demographic situation, major urban areas that are too close for comfort with NATO, industrial dependencies on foreign nations, and so on.
It is here where Ukraine becomes extremely relevant.
The country not only provides Russia with the strategic depth necessary to resist an invasion from the European heartland—as has been the case multiple times throughout history, particularly with Napoleon and Hitler—but provides access to the Black Sea, the western side of the Caspian Basin, and the Mediterranean, and from there, Europe and the Middle East.
Economically, Ukraine’s market access and natural resources are crucial if Russia intends to remain a great power in global affairs. The Ukrainian grain supply has been an often-overseen factor in global affairs since the time of Catherine the Great and ensures—as the world is currently experiencing—great geopolitical leverage to whoever controls it. Ukraine also possesses Europe’s second-biggest gas reserves, which remain largely untapped. Control over these would only strengthen Russia’s grip on European economies, which depend heavily on cheap Russian energy.
Then there is Ukraine’s military-industrial base, which Russia also needs to remain a great power. Essential components from Ukraine make up an overwhelming majority of Russia’s strategic missile forces. No Ukraine, no Russian nuclear deterrent. Parts for Russian aircraft? Products of Antonov Serial Production Plant near Kiev, Ukraine. Tanks? Malyshev Factory in Kharkiv, Ukraine. The New Kramatorsk Machinebuilding Factory, or NKMZ, which produces mining equipment, metallurgy equipment, and everything else necessary for Russia’s mining and raw materials operations, along with propeller shafts for Russian icebreakers? Kramatorsk, Ukraine. The list goes on.
Demographically, Ukraine’s population—at least, before the war—stood out as rich pool to draw from to alleviate Russia’s own situation. To quote Fabian Burkhardt from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, “Ukrainians . . . represent almost ideal migrants. As Eastern Slavs, they are considered easy to integrate; they bring the necessary skills for the Russian labour market; and they show great willingness to emigrate due to the ongoing territorial conflict and low levels of income in their country of origin.”
Culturally and historically, the two countries’ histories are intimately tied for good or ill. What is now considered Russia emerged from Ukraine in 988, when Vladimir I, Prince of Novgorod, Grand Prince of Kiev, and ruler of the first Slavic state, the Kievan Rus, accepted Orthodox Christianity and was baptized in Chersonesus, Crimea. Putin himself has written at length on the shared Russian-Ukrainian history, at one point declaring that, since the baptism of Vladimir, “Russians and Ukrainians are one people, a single whole.”
For all the above reasons, a pro-Russian government in Kiev—or, at the very least, a firmly neutral government—is essential to Moscow. It makes Ukraine what political scientist Nikolas K. Gvosdev calls a “keystone state”: a state that “gives coherence to a regional order—or, if it is itself destabilized, contributes to the insecurity of its neighbors.” These states are “located at the seams of the global system and serve as critical mediators between different major powers, acting as gateways between different blocs of states, regional associations, and civilizational groupings.” Countries such as Jordan, Singapore, Indonesia, and Azerbaijan stand as examples of this category.
There is, however, a large caveat here: a successful keystone state, particularly one that is located between two powerful blocs yet seeks to preserve its own neutrality, must possess the necessary strength (political, diplomatic, institutional, economic, or military) to maintain that neutrality. It is here that, regrettably, Ukraine’s factional political and economic elite failed in their duty between 1991 and 2014.
The Fragile Keystone
The trouble began with the country’s immediate post-independence situation. It’s impolite now to remember, let alone even mention out loud, that Ukraine was incredibly fragile back in the early 1990s.
In May 1992, only months after the country achieved independence, the Crimean Supreme Council—the region’s legislative body—declared that it would hold a referendum on whether Crimea should stay within Ukraine or opt for independence. Though Kiev handled the immediate situation by reaching a compromise—a new regional constitution and the status of an “autonomous republic” with special rights—the incident should have been a clear signal to the country’s political and economic elite that something was off. Perhaps parts of Ukraine should have been allowed to decide whether they wanted to remain part of the country or not.
The situation only worsened. By January of 1994, the U.S. intelligence community—including the director of the CIA—was sounding the alarm that “economic crisis and ethnic tensions” could lead to the breakup of Ukraine, noting that “a significant minority in some regions populated by ethnic Russians favor secession.” This concern was not unfounded: the Crimeans, having now elected their own pro-Russian president, were at it again.
Two months later, on March 27, during the country’s parliamentary elections, the gauntlet was thrown: Crimea held a referendum on whether on whether the region should have greater autonomy within Ukraine, whether Crimean residents should have dual Russian-Ukrainian citizenship, and whether Crimean presidential decrees should have the same status as formal laws. All three proposals passed overwhelmingly: 78 percent supported greater autonomy from Ukraine, 83 percent supported allowing dual Russian-Ukrainian citizenship, and 78 percent favored giving Crimean presidential decrees the force of law.
A similar but now wholly forgotten referendum in Donbas and Luhansk was also held in 1994, asking respondents whether the regions should have greater autonomy, whether Ukrainian and Russian should be given equal importance as official national languages, and whether Ukraine should fully participate in the Russian-led economic union. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of these proposals.
That was the moment when the international community should have acted to mediate a solution. Perhaps the West, as an impartial party, could have helped oversee and administrate a national referendum on whether Crimea, Donbas, and Luhansk should have been allowed independence (with presumed subsequent self-annexation into Russia). Perhaps Western countries, along with Russia, could have formulated something like the Dayton Agreement for Ukraine—a power-sharing agreement that balanced the disparate regional and ethnic interests within the country. An imperfect resolution, to be sure, but one that led to a measure of stability and workable state-building.
Unfortunately, the opposite occurred. Kiev, reasonably frightened by the prospect of civil war, especially in light of Russia’s own troubles at the time with secessionist Chechnya, responded by abolishing the Crimean constitution and presidency and outright ignoring the Donbas and Luhansk referendums. The situation went Kiev’s way, in part because the country, like most of the post-Soviet space in general at the time, was too much of a mess worth starting a war over—crime and poverty were rampant. But the underlying political situation, including sizeable pro-Russia and pro-independence sentiment, remained unchanged. For the rest of the 1990s and throughout the 2000s all the way up to 2014, Ukrainian national politics was essentially a back-and-forth between regional elites and oligarchs. This sort of fractious politicking did nothing to alleviate nor resolve the underlying situation, and arguably worsened it.
Then there is the economic dimension. Unlike its former Warsaw Pact neighbors (the Baltics, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania), Ukraine failed to produce a viable model for economic growth. As historian Adam Tooze notes, Ukraine’s GDP per capita is 20 percent lower than in 1990, and its currency is “a fragile ward of the IMF” today. The country was (and is) a basket case. Gvosdev is similarly solemn, noting that Ukraine’s leaders “over the last two decades neither took steps to reduce the country’s energy dependence on Russia nor to embrace an Azeri-style approach that would balance constituencies in the country”—particularly foolish given the events of 1992 through 1995. Nor did Ukrainian elites conceptualize and articulate a national destiny that “could sustain both elite and popular buy-in for assuming a keystone role.”
Instead, the Ukrainian elite tried to simultaneously court both the EU/NATO and Russia’s Eurasian Union to secure favor, maintain rents and patronage streams, and—at an elite level—retain a hold on power. Over time, though, most of the country’s population and elite felt more inclined towards the West: it was richer, could provide security guarantees, and presented itself as the more aspirational cultural and civilizational model. Maybe so, but none of that can really make up for Ukraine’s geography and who its neighbor is. It would be like Mexico wanting to partner with China as an economic and state development partner while discounting American opinion on the matter. Ultimately, the Ukrainian inclination towards the West meant that the most important consideration—what must be done to ensure Ukrainian neutrality so as to not antagonize neither East nor West—was discarded.
All this added up means that Ukraine’s divided elite could not unify the country nor provide it with a path toward economic prosperity, which would have eased its political tensions. The situation in Crimea and Ukraine’s Donbas region has thus long been a political powder keg waiting to be ignited. And that flame lit with the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014.
The Road to 2014
While all this was occurring in Ukraine, Russia faced a different sort of situation.
Moscow seeks to retain its great power status rather than become a dependency to either the U.S.-led West or China. It is in the service of avoiding this end that Vladimir Putin tried, early in his presidency and particularly in the post-9/11 era, to seek an accommodation with the West. If America insisted upon reigning as primus inter pares of the liberal international order, Moscow could work with that—as long as Russia was properly respected as second among equals, with its own sphere of influence stretching from the Vistula River to the Far East.
There were signs that such an accommodation was possible. Even in the 1990s, after the first phase of NATO enlargement, conciliatory efforts were undertaken. Russia received a special status within the North Atlantic Council and later helped create the Permanent Joint Council, resulting in the establishment of a Russian mission in NATO. Moscow was also invited to and participated in NATO’s Partnership for Peace Program. Sumantra Maitra from the Center for the National Interest lays out the effect of this endeavor:
[The program] meant that there was a visible reduction of force posturing from the Western side. NATO’s new security doctrine resulted in a substantial reduction of conventional as well as nuclear forces. The forward presence of the United States was reduced from 325,000 to 100,000 troops, and European members cut their troops by more than 500,000. As Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were invited into NATO, the land sea and air units were reduced by 30-40 percent, and 35 percent at readiness level compared to 1990 statistics. Theatre level nuclear weapons were reduced by 80 percent. These reductions were clearly visible and denoted the lack of offensive power or offensive intention on NATO’s part.
Likewise, Putin’s first term showcased that he had an open mind and an inclination to align with NATO.
In a 2000 BBC interview, Putin raised the prospect of joining NATO if the alliance agreed to consider Russia as “an equal partner.” There was also the proposal in 2000 for a joint U.S.-Russian anti-ballistic missile system in the Caucasus to protect Europe from then-new threats like Iran and North Korea. Similarly, in early 2001, Putin forthrightly indicated that Russia was willing to work with the United States on a joint European missile defense system and was ready to dispatch Russian experts to Brussels to further examine the possibility. And, in sympathy to the United States following the September 11 attacks, Russia announced it would help American forces operating out of Central Asian airbases—territory firmly within Russia’s nominal sphere of influence—as well as military facilities normally used and run by the Russian air force.
Over time, however, it became clear to Russia—particularly in light of repeated American military interventions across the globe and continuous NATO enlargement lacking conciliatory measures—that the West lacked interest in an equal partnership. Moscow’s approach thus shifted towards opposition. See no further than Putin’s 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, where he criticized America’s “almost uncontained hyper use of force,” a “greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law,” and how the United States “has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations.”
A Rubicon was crossed at the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, when George W. Bush—in rather Caesarian fashion—committed bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO at some unspecified point in the future. A fuming Putin was eminently clear on the Russian position. In his memoirs, William J. Burns—then U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, now Director of the CIA—recalls Putin telling him, no Russian leader “could stand idly by in the face of steps toward NATO membership for Ukraine. That would be a hostile act toward Russia.” Putin’s more measured public comments at the summit were nonetheless equally blunt: this move was an affront, Georgia need not join NATO to settle its internal issues, and Russia certainly deserved a say on the matter of Ukraine due to the presence of seventeen million Russians there. Even Crimea was mentioned, with Putin emphasizing that the transfer of the territory to Ukraine was a unilateral political decision by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, done without any state procedures.
From Putin’s perspective, the United States had gone too far. In light of continued Western intransigence, and with the Global Financial Crisis demonstrating the West’s inability to maintain or save itself without the help of the developing world, the time was ripe for more forceful measures. Before the year was out, Russia entered into conflict with Georgia over South Ossetia, sending alarm bells ringing throughout the West.
Though the Obama administration attempted a “reset” of relations with Russia the following year in 2009, those efforts withered on the vine. At first, Moscow—with the more liberal President Dmitry Medvedev at the helm—was willing to go along with what seemed like a sincere effort to better relations by a new administration. Perhaps the United States had realized they had been far too provocative, the thinking went. Perhaps the 2008 financial crisis had chastened American policymakers, motivating them to turn inwards and focus on resolving pressing domestic issues rather than directing aggressive energy outwards to the world.
The 2011 military intervention in Libya banished the notion from the minds of Russian leaders that Washington had changed its ways. Though that intervention was presented as a limited-scale military operation to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, it ultimately resulted in outright regime change. The Kremlin felt duped yet again, and this time, it would not forget it.
Any lingering chance for an independent Ukraine thus died with the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution.
In 2012, President Viktor Yanukovych’s government began negotiating an association agreement with the EU, which would have improved trade relations and brought Ukraine closer to the Union but at the expense of Russian trade interests. Putin, conscious of what was at stake, tapped Yanukovych’s shoulder and reminded him—via economic pressure, an information campaign, and the like—who his neighbor was. To sweeten the deal, Russia made a counteroffer to the EU’s association agreement that, on paper, provided better immediate terms: $15 billion in loans and cheaper gas prices with no changes to Ukraine’s regulatory environment versus the almost $840 million in loans the EU was offering, but with stringent regulatory requirements (necessary to conform Ukraine to the EU standard).
The Russian offer though, from a Ukrainian perspective, meant quiet subordination to the Kremlin, while the EU’s package opened the door to future membership and—it was hoped, eventually—future long-term prosperity. When Yanukovych—trying to engage in typically-sensible short-term politics-as-usual realpolitik—reneged on the EU association agreement, much of the country erupted in protest, ultimately escalating into outright revolution. Whether for good or ill, the Ukrainian people, perhaps even “consequences be damned,” made their choice: Europe.
However, this choice had drastic consequences, for it presented a clear and mortal threat to Russian interests. Again, national survival—in terms of a state maintaining its sovereignty and independence, not just for keystone states, but for all states—depends on countries being able to wield strength of one sort or another. The bigger the country, the greater the requirements. For great powers in particular, this means a dependency on a number of industrial and logistical systems necessary to support a great power’s military, economy, population, and so on. Put simply, if Ukraine went to the West, then Russia, too, would one day fold.
The Kremlin acted immediately. Utilizing hybrid warfare and “little green men,” it took direct control of Crimea and set up the two self-declared breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. In one fell swoop, Putin added over 30 military-industrial companies and interests to Russian control and secured military and economic power projection capabilities to the south. Yes, this may have de facto created a low-intensity civil war between Ukraine and separatist republics, but such could be managed as a frozen conflict, as Russia had done elsewhere in its periphery. Moreover, this fragile state of affairs for Ukraine tied Kiev’s hands to prevent it from further aligning with Western institutions. Moscow hoped that these moves would, if not reverse Ukraine’s drift towards the EU and NATO, then at least pause the situation to allow for more time to craft a favorable long-lasting solution.
And the War Came
Mere weeks after Euromaidan, Ukraine’s internal divisions once again became manifest. Russian-born American journalist Keith Gessen, in recounting his visit to the port city of Odessa in late March 2014 for the London Review of Books, described it as a city where “Pro-Russia versus, for lack of a better word, pro-Ukraine sentiment […] is split down the middle.” He vividly narrates a ten-thousand strong anti-Maidan protest, which marched around the city for an hour and a half: “‘Odessa, stand up! Chase away the Banderovtsy!’ the crowd chanted, and ‘Odessa is a Russian city!’ and ‘Rossiya! Rossiya!’ and ‘Referendum, referendum!’” A conversation among friends is equally telling:
The three of them kept talking and, truth be told, they were right about a lot of things. Whenever the nationalists were in power, as they had been after the  Orange Revolution and were again now, two things happened: history was reinterpreted from a Ukrainian nationalist point of view and the Ukrainian language was given preference over Russian. Reinterpreting history meant blaming the Russians for the Holodomor (the famine in the 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians), labelling the Soviets ‘occupiers’ and rehabilitating the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (the Banderovtsy). Some of these reinterpretations are more fair than others, but all of them offended the Russians. ‘My grandfather marched from Moscow to Berlin and was the only one in his division to remain alive,’ Vova said. ‘Now I’m supposed to be told that he was an occupier?’ Equally annoying to them were the language laws. In 2005, under Yushchenko, hero of the Orange Revolution, Ukrainian was made the sole official language for legal documents, dissertations, government statements, etc. […] Yanukovich repealed this law as soon as he came to power, and the post-Maidan [Ukrainian parliament], as its first act, had tried to reinstate it (the acting president refused to sign). Russian speakers were facing similar problems in other former Soviet republics; the fact that Ukrainian as a language is so close to Russian makes the issue somehow even more vexed. It’s not easy for a Russian speaker to learn a Finno-Ugric language like Estonian, but Russian and Ukrainian have about a 90 per cent syntactic overlap, and, as one Odessan put it to me, ‘How much do you need to disrespect Ukraine in order not to bother even to learn the language?’
Even before departing, when Gessen warns one of his friends that “all this protesting and meeting” could lead to war, he is simply told, “If it’s war, then, so be it: war.”
The country’s politics did not get any better. If anything, they increased the odds of conflict. The administrations of Petro Poroshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky stuck towards a pro-European path, with Poroshenko going as far as signing a constitutional amendment in 2019, committing the country to become a member of NATO, thereby setting off no end of alarm bells in Moscow. Likewise, the creation of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 2018—Ukraine had hitherto fallen under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church—was regarded as a direct challenge to Moscow’s view of Russia and Ukraine’s long cultural and civilizational ties. Finally, Kiev’s military reforms—especially thanks to foreign assistance, from the CIA’s 2015 program to train Ukrainian paramilitaries to fight Russia and pro-Russian separatists to increased collaboration with NATO—only served to stoke the Kremlin’s worst fears.
By 2021, Moscow, especially Putin, was struck by what Germans call torchlusspanik—the fear that time is running out. International diplomacy did not bear fruit: attempting to link the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to the Ukrainian situation failed, as did efforts to uphold the Minsk II agreements, which would have returned the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk to Ukraine in exchange for a greater Russian say on matters of Ukrainian domestic and foreign policy. Attempting to cut out the United States, considered by Moscow to be more belligerent than European actors, from the situation via the Normandy Format did not help either. Even as late as February 19, days before the war, it was obvious a compromise could not be reached. The Wall Street Journal reported that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told Zelensky that “Ukraine should renounce its NATO aspirations and declare neutrality as part of a wider European security deal between the West and Russia.” Both Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin would sign on to this deal, with security guarantees towards Ukraine. Zelensky declined, citing that Putin couldn’t be trusted to keep his word.
By early 2022, Putin thus assessed the situation as it stood:
Kiev’s various political moves, particularly the constitutional amendment seeking NATO membership, strongly signaled that Ukraine had no interest in being a pro-Russia, or even at the very least, a neutral entity.
Building on the above, diplomatic efforts to find a compromise with the West fizzled out.
The West, and the United States in particular, was sneaking in NATO through the backdoor via weapon shipments, joint interoperability training with Ukraine’s armed forces, and so on. Eventually, Ukraine would develop sufficient defensive capabilities as to render any Russian military advantages moot.
The EU was divided politically, and much of the continent was dependent on Russian energy supplies, granting Moscow significant leverage.
President Donald Trump—who was unpredictable and liable to escalate any given situation, as seen with the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the second-most powerful individual in Iran, in response to Iranian-backed militias attacking the U.S. embassy in Iraq—was gone. Joe Biden, by contrast, was likely to act far more cautiously.
The botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan demonstrated incompetence, an inability to protect client states, and a domestic divide over getting involved in foreign entanglements.
The U.S. midterm elections are due in November, with the incumbent Democratic Party facing major potential losses. On top of that, the American public, sick of more than two decades of brushfire wars and feeling inflation due to questionable financial and economic policy, wanted Washington to focus on the home front rather than abroad. If Moscow tried something, Washington would be too busy with domestic pressures.
Finally, Putin considered one final detail: that he is only mortal—his time in charge is inexorably nearing its end. The rest of the Kremlin remained divided on what should be done about Ukraine. Who knows what his successor would opt to do?
In short, if there was ever a time to forcibly settle the Ukrainian situation before it was too late, it was now. And so, in late February 2022, Putin undertook the greatest gamble of his career and started the now ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War.
A Civilizational Fault Line
Why did Ukraine decide to keep its name after it separated from the Soviet Union? In Russian, Ukraina translates to “borderland,” which in and of itself says something about Russia’s paternalistic attitude towards the country. Linguistically, it’s the same in Polish—Ukrajina means “the borderland.” The elite in Kiev after independence could have revived the name Kyivan Rus, or Ruthenia, or come up with a new name altogether. They couldn’t possibly have come up with something less imaginative than all the -stan countries.
The choice to retain the name probably reflects an unconscious disposition—a silent confession from the region’s inhabitants that the country is what its name means: a borderland, a meeting point between various empires and kingdoms. Ukraine is ultimately located on a civilizational fault line, where East meets West, and has often suffered for it. Parts of it have been conquered intermittently by the Mongol Horde, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Russian Empire. This was evident to me even as I departed from Beregsurány back to Budapest: the border region between Hungary and the rest of Ukraine, Transcarpathia (Zakarpattia Oblast for Ukraine) was, at least before the current war began, home to 150,000 ethnic Hungarians, who ended up on the wrong side of the border after the Treaty of Trianon. Even there, on the other side of the country, far away from Russia, ethnic tensions had been building up.
How the war will end is still to be determined. Judging from a now-redacted article from RIA Novosti, the Russian state news agency, along with how the initial Russian military strategy was executed, Putin likely expected Afghanistan-style rapid capitulation. Instead, what he got—at least of the time of this writing—was an extremely bloody war of attrition with no resolution in sight. Whether Russia will come out on top depends on whether it can take the port city of Odessa, through which around 75 percent of all Ukrainian sea exports—amounting to 22.5 percent of national GDP—pass through. If Russia can take the Ukrainian coast, it would be in a much better position to dictate terms to Kiev. Perhaps the Kremlin might even opt to try and keep the Black Sea coast, thereby turning the remainder of free Ukraine into a landlocked Western dependency and welfare case. Here, Russia, despite the formidable burdens leveled upon it through sanctions, would once again possess the necessary strength to retain its independence and count itself among the great powers of the world—for all that is worth.
Alternatively, it is entirely possible (though moderately unlikely) that Ukraine’s armed forces—benefiting from Western armaments, support, and volunteers—could turn the tide, retake its land, and eject Russia’s armed forces.
But even if it does, then what? Good chunks of the country will be in ruins either way, some of the underlying ethnic differences would be unsolved—if not rendered apart beyond the point of no return—and the long-standing issue over a lack of a viable economic developmental model would rear its head once more. Mere friendship and goodwill will not change this material reality. Even billions of dollars in aid, absent a viable reconstruction and future development strategy, won’t help—see no further than how much was wasted on Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries. What is to prevent Ukraine from becoming like Eastern Europe in terms of economic dependency, a colonial fief for Western firms and financial interests?
And what about Ukraine’s far-right groups? At the moment, they are quietly—if not loudly, judging by some Western media outlets—accepted as invaluable assets in the war against Russia. But what about afterward? Despite how common it is now among certain Western commentators to compare Putin’s Russia to Nazi Germany, it is a post-war Ukraine that could look a lot like post-World War I Germany: an unstable, post-war economy subject to foreign political whims and the cruel, merciless currents of international finance. This would be a situation ripe for an extremist, ultra-nationalist, far-right faction to come to power—the very prospect that terrorizes liberal bien pensants who regard Hungary, Poland, the Republican Party in America, and others, as latent fascist threats.
The Russo-Ukrainian War will end, one way or another. But just like before the war, there is currently no viable plan at the elite level—especially in Western capitals, which are right now cheerleading Ukraine—on what precisely should be done after the war ends. Ukrainians are in the eyes of the world right now, but what about when the camera moves elsewhere? Will they feel abandoned and exploited by the West which they had fought so hard to join and be accepted by? Would resentment not arise from that, as it has to others in the past? If that were to occur, then Ukrainians—still fresh from a destructive war and unable to rebuild itself, provide jobs for its young citizens, or articulate a vision for the future—might have to start considering radical alternatives. And in a country with far-right ultranationalist militias, a military now armed to the teeth thanks to Western generosity, and an ever-present enemy at the border, the conditions under which populist despots, particularly demagogic ones, come to power, are set.
In the end, elites in Washington and Brussels might only succeed in sowing the seeds of furious resentment for themselves in the soil of Ukraine—a resentment that might become the basis for future conflict and instability, and a radicalizing myth of a nation betrayed by the West. It wouldn't be the first case in modern times.
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