What is at stake in Ukraine
by Roman Sohn, Ariana Gic, Mykhailo Gonchar for the International Centre for Ukrainian Victory.
Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is both an end in itself and a means to an end. While the goal of Moscow’s genocidal war of territorial conquest in Ukraine is the destruction of the Ukrainian nation and people, Russia is also using its illegal aggression in Ukraine as a battering ram to bring down the Western-led international order. Ukraine’s defeat will become Western strategic defeat, and our joint victory will be victory for the future of world democracies.
Russia’s actions leave no doubt that it is betting its future on defying the West. In its quest for domination, Moscow seeks to knock down the fundamental pillars of Western global power which it regards as obstacles for Russia’s revanche – the hegemony of the US dollar, NATO, and the European Union.
The dictatorial regime in the Kremlin believes that its successful defiance of the Western-dominated international order will put Russia above international law, and will give it power to shape the world as it sees fit. Moscow is deliberately crippling the current international order with the hope of sewing deep divisions it can exploit to its benefit. Putin calculates that by forcing the world’s nations to take sides, Moscow will be able to plunge the world into a new Cold War like rivalry. A key difference this time around is that the Kremlin believes it has the upper hand because of its shared interest with China of sidelining the West.
Russia is using its war of extermination against Ukraine to demonstrate its blatant disregard for any moral, political, or legal limitations. Putin is determined to humiliate the West by showing that Moscow will not be subdued by any measures restraining its revanchist global ambitions. He is convinced that Russia is leading global opposition to the West, and as such, will be able to rely on substantial support in many parts of the world.
From the beginning of Russia’s illegal armed aggression against Ukraine in February 2014, the focus of the international community was on Russian territorial conquest in Ukraine, while the source of the problem – Russia’s perilous threat to world order – was largely ignored.
The Western response to Russia’s large scale offensive of February 2022 relied on the “realist” objective of “not letting Putin win” which implied helping Ukraine preserve its nationhood in whatever territory the Ukrainian government could manage to defend. As the Ukrainian Army pushed the Russians out from newly occupied territory, western support shifted to restoring the February 23, 2022 pre-escalation status quo (in which Russia occupied Crimea and a large portion of the Donbas region). Recently, the signatories of the Tallinn Pledge officially broke with this dangerous and misguided strategy, and declared that their aim is to help Ukraine liberate the entire territory. While Estonia, the United Kingdom, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Denmark, Czech Republic, Netherlands, and Slovakia meaningfully reformulated the goal, this does not go far enough.
Indeed, repelling Russian aggression and restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty over the whole territory within the internationally recognized borders as of 1991 is the minimal condition for repairing international law broken by Moscow. Restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity must encompass a complete removal of all Russian forces, irregular troops, as well as Russian occupation administrations from all of Ukraine’s territory. Anything less than that would be a defeat for Ukraine with far reaching consequences for Ukrainian nation and the international community.
Full de-occupation will certainly be a significant military achievement for Ukraine, but it will not result in immediately ending Russia’s war, nor will it translate into victory over Russia. Full liberation of all Ukrainian territory is a necessary but not sufficient condition to subdue the threat of fascist Russia.
Drawing the line at liberating Ukrainian territories will not secure its future, and instead allow Russia to put its aggressive plans for conquering Ukraine on hold and to regroup to rebuild its potential for a new military offensive, similar to Russia’s second war against the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.
In fact, Russia’s war of obliteration has already achieved substantial gains in weakening the Ukrainian state through devastating human losses; depopulating whole regions and cities; destroying critical infrastructure, wrecking Ukraine’s economy, healthcare, and education systems; causing colossal material damage to the country, businesses, and people, as well as enormous environmental damage, etc. The longer Russia wages war, the more destruction Ukraine will suffer, and the cost of rebuilding will only grow with it.
Russia, by contrast, will not have suffered any comparable losses, as the war is contained to Ukraine’s territory. Moscow will be able to exploit Ukraine’s weakened state to blow new strikes. The slow bleed of Russian military resources on Ukrainian territory coupled with the current Western sanctions regime against Russia will not sufficiently weaken Moscow as Western nations hope and expect.
This is why only repelling Russian aggression on the battlefield in Ukraine will not be sufficient for Russia’s strategic defeat to remove its threat to Ukraine and to world peace. Despite military failures in Ukraine (failing to achieve its goal of the total takeover of the country) in 2014 and again in 2022, Russia continued pursuing hostile foreign policies, and forming closer ties with countries around the world which share its strong anti-Western sentiment. Iran, China, and North Korea do not regard Ukraine as their foe. Their partnerships and support for Moscow are not because they share the Kremlin’s goal of destroying Ukraine, but because they have a common goal of creating an anti-Western world order.
In the short term, the increasing militarization and rearmament of the aggressive Russian state is bound to be directed not just against Ukraine, but Russia’s other proclaimed enemies as well – including NATO countries.
It cannot be overemphasized: If Russia is not thoroughly militarily and politically defeated, it will strike Ukraine again and aim for NATO nations. Moscow intends – and will – strike when ready, not when mythically “provoked” by Ukrainian defence, or by robust Western military support for Ukraine. The biggest escalation risk is not by trying to defeat Russia, but by not fully defeating it.
As long as Russia remains an outlaw state which is captured by a revanchist mafia regime pursuing aggression as its fundamental policy, there is no victory over Russia. There can also be no good faith negotiations with such a bad faith, rogue actor.
To achieve an enduring and just peace the world needs not just to help Ukraine avoid defeat, but to bring about a decisive victory over Russia. Such victory entails:
• the cessation of all forms of Russian aggression against Ukraine, foremost military attacks, which may necessitate coercing Russia to demilitarize regions bordering Ukraine and submit to international inspections;
• the annulment of any and all illegal acts of the Russian government violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity;
• doing justice by holding responsible all Russian belligerents who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as putting on trial top Russian leadership for conducting the war of aggression and genocide against Ukraine and Ukrainians;
• imposing obligations on Russia to pay reparations to Ukraine for its illegal aggression and compensations to all victims;
• expelling Russia from the United Nations Security Council to remove its power to subvert international security order;
• coercing Russia to reform by replacing its criminal regime with a new government that will adopt policies to reverse Moscow’s aggressive course, such as denunciation of its chauvinist, imperialist, totalitarian ideology of “russism”, ending of its hateful and dehumanizing propaganda, termination of all forms of foreign subversion, restoring respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms in Russia, etc.; and, absolutely necessarily,
• Ukraine’s immediate accession to NATO and EU to remove Ukraine’s critical vulnerability of remaining a “buffer state” between Western and Russian military blocks. Until Ukraine is integrated into the Western club, subjugation of Ukraine will be perceived in Russia as a fair game.
Without such a comprehensive response to Russia’s aggressive stance, Moscow will remain the most dangerous threat to world peace, regardless of any successes on the battlefield in Ukraine.
A dark alternative to Russia’s defeat
Russian victory in Ukraine will not only become a catastrophe for the Ukrainian nation with tragic consequences for people, it will be a disaster for Europe and the West. This will trigger a multi-speed and resonant chain reaction of negative transformations both on the continent and on a global scale:
• Russia will be able to use Ukraine’s territory as a platsdarm for launching a military offensive on Moldova and NATO countries, the same way Russia is currently using Belarus in attacks on Ukraine;
• Russia will be able to forcefully conscript tens of thousands of Ukrainian nationals to send them together with Belarusians to fight in these new wars;
• Russia will receive access to Ukraine’s human, industrial, energy, agricultural, resources, critical raw materials, transport infrastructure, etc. to help it withstand Western sanctions and increase its aggressive potential;
• Russia’s victory will embolden authoritarian regimes everywhere, reducing the global space of freedom and democracy to the advantage of authoritarians and kleptocrats;
• Russia would bolster its corruption methods to seduce Western business and political establishments which would drive political change, such as the renaissance and strengthening of Trumpism in the United States and Putinversteerism in Europe;
• The critical decline of America’s authority as the leader of the West and the strengthening of anti-Americanism in Europe and elsewhere;
• Strengthening of (authoritarian and genocidal) China’s influence in Europe with the help of Europeans as a “lesser evil” compared to neighbouring Russia;
• The “might makes right” principle will dominate the international agenda for decades to come due to:
– irrelevance of the Declaration on Principles Guiding Relations between Participating States and Helsinki Final Act of 1975;
– devaluation and marginalization of the United Nations (U.N.) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE);
– discrediting of nuclear countries’ security guarantees to non-nuclear states;
– collapse of the nuclear non-proliferation regime;
– inability of NATO, the world’s leading security alliance, to stop a war on its borders.
• Final de-sovereignization and absorption of Belarus by Russia;
• Russia’s destruction of weak democracies in Moldova and Georgia;
• Deployment of tactical nuclear weapons of the Russian Federation on the occupied territory of Ukraine and Belarus near the eastern borders of NATO;
• Multiplicative effect of increasing aggressiveness of other authoritarian regimes – China, Iran, North Korea;
• The emergence of new nuclear states (Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Turkey, South Korea, etc.) against the background of the general inability of the West to maintain the established status quo of non-nuclear and security;
• The transformation of the Black Sea into a Russian-Turkish condominium under the domination of Russia;
• “Orbanization” of the Central and Southern Europe, as Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia would pragmatically reorient themselves towards Moscow as a strong trendsetter;
• Dysfunction of the regional cooperation formats: Visegrad Group (V4) and The Three Seas Initiative (3SI);
• Internal destabilization of NATO, or even possible withdrawal of individual countries at the initiative of pro-Russian national governments;
• China’s military “reintegration” of Taiwan;
• Establishment of China’s dominance in the South China Sea;
• Russia’s enabling and encouraging various terrorist groups to attack Western countries;
• Russia’s financing and supporting separatist movements in the European Union and the United States to destabilize Western democracies;
• Increasing aggressiveness of Serbia, resuming attempts to return Kosovo and carry out a coup in Montenegro;
• The disintegration of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a new war in the Balkans, which will be provoked by Russia and Serbia in order to weaken the EU and NATO;
• Increased risk of conflicts in Europe due to “unfair borders”, including between EU and NATO member states:
• Trianon revisionism of the Hungarian regime with territorial claims to its neighbours – Slovakia and Romania
• Hungarian-Slovak conflict over Ukrainian Transcarpathia
• Escalation of the Greek-Turkish conflict due to Turkey’s efforts to return the “blue homeland” (part of the Greek islands of the Aegean Sea)
• Elevated Russian threat to the Baltic countries and Poland, with a likely Russian invasion of Lithuania with the occupation of the Suwalki corridor to connect the Russian mainland with the Kaliningrad region, and to isolate the Baltic countries from Poland;
• Demand of the Russian Federation to the Baltic countries and NATO regarding their withdrawal from the Alliance and the declaration of “neutral status” under the threat of aggression;
• Russia’s occupation of Northern Kazakhstan with its oil resources and deposits of critical raw materials;
• Increasing domination of Chinese interests in Russia, in particular, with regard to the mineral resources of Eastern Siberia and the Far East;
• Russia’s occupation of the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago;
• Transition of the Arctic under the control of the Sino-Russian tandem under the leading role of China;
• Displacement by China and Russia of Western companies and Western influences from Central Asia (primarily from Kazakhstan), where large deposits of energy resources, critical raw materials, rare earth metals and uranium raw materials are concentrated;
• Control over the Trans-Caspian International Transport Corridor and the South Caucasus Energy Corridor (due to the loyal regime in Georgia), which will complicate the supply of oil, gas, and uranium raw materials to the EU from non-Russian sources;
• Strengthening the orientation of the countries of the Middle East and North Africa towards Russia and China;
• Provocation by Russia of new waves of migration from Africa to Europe, using its presence in the Central African Republic, Mali and spreading its influence to other countries of the Sahel and Equatorial Africa;
• Destabilization of the national financial systems of EU member states and the euro zone due to the need for significant additional spending on defence, defence industry, and social benefits;
• Chaotization of the West by covert malicious actions of Russia, for example to cut optical fiber communication lines in deep waters in the Atlantic between Europe and North America, or disrupt oil and/or gas supplies;
• Freezing of Europe’s transition to green energy and climate neutrality, the collapse of the Paris climate agreement due to the need for an urgent reorientation of investments in the defence and security sectors.
This long and frightening list is not even close to exhaustive, but it reveals a great deal about what is at stake in Ukraine, and why Russia is so persistent. The Kremlin regime is determined that a tipping point for toppling over the Western dominated world order is within reach. Russia just needs to push harder and its victory in Ukraine would start a domino effect around the world leading to the decline of the West in international relations.
It must be acknowledged that Russia is not only Ukraine’s enemy, but an enemy of the entire free world. Our response must be informed by this fact. If our framework of thinking about Russian aggression is limited to its territorial expansion into Ukraine, we will not be able to find effective policies to remove Russia’s global threat.
Russia consistently pursues the policy of treating the West as its true enemy. We ignore this at our collective peril. We must not wait to forcefully and fully defeat Russia until the stakes are immeasurably greater and the financial and human costs even larger than today.
Russia’s aggressive regime must be stopped to prevent more destruction to the world. We can stop it together. Russian defeat may become a joint Victory, one for all the forces of Democracy and Freedom.
Roman Sohn, Ukrainian political and legal expert, Chairman, Direct Initiative International Centre for Ukraine
Ariana Gic, Canadian political and legal analyst, Director, Direct Initiative International Centre for Ukraine. Sanctioned by the Russian Federation.
Mykhailo Gonchar, Ukrainian energy security and international relations expert, President, The Centre for Global Studies “Strategy XXI”, former Advisor to Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine