Ukraine’s tragedy is to be trapped between two imaginations, the Russian and the European. One has arms and spirit, the other does not (to paraphrase Stalin, Ursula von der Leyen lacks divisions). Germany has declined to send weapons to defend Kyiv and attempted to block another Nato country, Estonia, from doing so. In a hint of how it sees the crisis playing out, Berlin has kindly offered to send a field hospital instead.
Historian Timothy Snyder argues that Ukraine is “hyper typical” of the nation states that emerged from the First World War and struggled to survive. In 2013, when a pro-Moscow regime refused to sign an agreement with the EU and was toppled by protests, Ukrainians “demonstrated a strong commitment to the idea of European integration.” We Brits might be surprised. To us, the EU is the antithesis of self-government, but to many post-Soviet states, it is the only basis upon which it is possible, for the EU provides a model of development along with institutions often superior to the corrupt state apparatus left behind by the Russians. It is aspirational.
Europe saw a strategic role for itself in Ukraine, and bit off more than it could chew. In 2014, the Russians annexed Crimea. The Obama administration applied sanctions, but concluded that Ukraine, as a non-Nato country, is always going to be “vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do”. Obama privately summed up his doctrine as “don’t do stupid shit”.
Europe, lacking a unified military, relies upon the America it distrusts for heft, so all the while Ukraine has moved towards the West, and the West has responded to this flattery like a coquette – “maybe we’ll offer you Nato membership, maybe not” – we have, in reality, consigned Ukraine to the periphery of the sphere of freedom. Biden is closer to Kyiv than Obama or Trump were. Yet even he gave the game away at a press conference by admitting that if Moscow carries out a “minor incursion”, the diplomatic equivalent of being a little bit pregnant, the US might not overreact.
The likelihood of Ukraine ever being invited into Nato remains very low – thankfully, because it’s a dumb idea. Yet Russia acts like membership is around the corner, and the more it feigns panic, the more it threatens Ukraine, and the more Ukrainians like the sound of it. Reports from the ground indicate that Ukraine has gained a greater sense of itself since 2013, thanks in part to Russia’s invasion. The West will not have to send troops. By flying in weaponry and setting up economic sanctions, we’re threatening to turn this into Putin’s Vietnam, an outcome so appalling that one has to wonder what on earth Moscow thinks it’s doing.
Putin has written a history essay to explain. “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” claims this region was once dominated by Ancient Rus, by “the throne of Kyiv.” Rus fragmented and was invaded; the Soviets created the territory of modern Ukraine out of historic Russian lands. Russia “was robbed”. Westerners and local elites, including “neo-Nazis” (odd because the current president is Jewish, a former comedian who gained popularity playing the president in a TV show), have now colluded to lie about Ukraine’s historic “kinship” with Russia reflected in “the blood ties that unite millions of our families”. Russians and Ukrainians are “one people.”
Here’s the real thematic struggle. Here’s why even though the thought of conflict is awful, and Russia’s treatment since the end of the Cold War has been criminal, we owe something more to Kyiv than a few German bandaids.
The West believes in nation states, composed not so much of ethnicities, though these are often the genesis for those states, but citizens united by constitutions and principles. Russia is appealing to something older, cynically invoked perhaps, but spiritual and genetic – a unity that rolls over borders and crushes reason. The parallel is with Taiwan, a country that is ethnically consanguineous with China, yet which has a right to exist because it wants to exist and which defines itself by ideals that the West sees as inalienable rights: to vote, to speak your mind, to change those in power. Beijing, a Taiwanese diplomat once patiently explained to me, isn’t communist anymore. It has reverted to an earlier ethnic imperialism. This can be hard for Westerners to process because we’ve been raised to think of life as a contest of ideas, between left and right, prim socialists and cavalier conservatives, but much of the rest of the world operates according to the logic of blood.
For years the West has said it is ready to defend the right of the new nation states to exist, but hasn’t been tested because Russia, on the down, and China, on the up, haven’t felt ready to try. We’re getting there. This might be it. One can hardly blame the Americans, who have been wisely pivoting away from Europe and towards the Pacific, for seeing Ukraine as a small war, far away – but if the Europeans do nothing, especially if they do nothing in order to keep Russian gas flooding into their markets, they will not just betray the newbie democracies on their borders. They will betray everything they claim to stand for.