Ukraine – why any outcome will be painful for the west

London March 26: demonstrators take to the streets to express their solidarity with Ukraine. Photo credit: Tamsin Shasha

In summer 2017 I went to Russia, and in summer 2019, in what would be my last trip abroad before the Covid-19 pandemic, I visited Ukraine.  Its cities were like those of any modern European metropolis: bustling, lively, brimming with traffic.  EU flags fluttered hopefully here and there, but mostly the Ukrainian blue and yellow stripes were proudly displayed.  I spoke to taxi drivers, shop assistants and waiters about their country.  There was general optimism, despite ongoing troubles in the south-east.

As it was announced that Russian tanks were crossing the borders into Ukraine, I messaged a German friend in Frankfurt, asking her if she remembered our dinner conversation in London in 2013.  We had been discussing terrorist attacks, in a year that saw 137 of them in the UK alone, the highest number since 1994.  The world had seemed to us to be polarised into the global North and global South.  Thank goodness, we said, that Europe had done with fighting within its own borders.  My German friend did remember: “We spoke too soon.”

Buildup to the invasion

Putin’s forces had fought in Georgia and Chechnya, and within a year of our naively confident conversation had annexed the Crimea.  It wasn’t so much that these were quarrels in far-away countries ‘between people of whom we know nothing’, (Neville Chamberlain’s famous quote in 1938), more the idea that the struggles were part of the death spasms of the former USSR, and as such almost civil wars.  Western (especially right-wing) media also argued that some Russian-speaking peoples preferred to be a part of Russia, although this was contested.  In hindsight, these events bear more similarity to the absorption of Austria and the takeover of the Sudetenland by the Nazis in 1938.

Recent years have also seen a European war of words over Brexit, now widely thought to owe much to Russian influence in the form of money and misinformation on social media.  The USA, meanwhile, as Europe’s most powerful northern ally, was also the alleged subject of Russian infiltration, resulting in the election of Putin’s self-confessed admirer, Donald Trump.

Response by other nations

A month after the initial invasion of Ukraine, most of the world continues to keep a military distance.  Only Belarus, ruled by the autocratic Alexander Lukashenko, has sided openly with Russia, while China hedges its bets and weighs up potential implications for its own planned move to assimilate Taiwan. 

In happier times: pedestrians stroll through Independence Square, Kyiv. Photo credit: Alison Rees

Most of the west has imposed sanctions on Russia and supplied arms and humanitarian aid to the Ukrainians, an estimated ten million of whom are displaced or fleeing, the largest number of refugees since the Second World War.  In another grim comparison, the southern city of Mariupol is facing the horrors of siege, similar to that once imposed by the Nazis on Stalingrad.

Few of us in western Europe doubt that resistance to Putin’s forces is any less just than resistance to Hitler after 1938, but our governments hold back because of treaty alliances, in this case NATO, and because sending in troops, warships and planes would almost certainly escalate to World War III, in turn resulting in the Mutually Assured Destruction of nuclear weapons.  It is uncomfortable even to write these words about an ongoing conflict.

Ordinary people all over Europe are donating money and goods; offering to house refugees; urging our governments to act, intervene, go further to bring about peace; but most of all we speculate.  What will Putin do?  What is he thinking?  How far will he go?  This brings about the other painful thought, because what we are effectively doing is following the principle of sacrificing the few to save the many.

We all feel guilty

Benthamites and Kantians can argue the theory elsewhere.  It’s human to lie in bed feeling thankful we have one to lie in, even while we know others do not, and through no fault of their own, but for many of us this brings a burden of guilt

The flags of Ukraine and the EU fly side by side in Kyiv in 2019. Photo credit: Alison Rees

Firstly, it’s likely that the combined forces of the USA, Germany, France and the UK could overcome the invaders, already suffering heavy losses and logistical failures in the face of staunch defence by the Ukrainians.  Then, there is the consideration that governments are gambling that withholding direct military assistance in Ukraine will prevent an escalation, either because Ukraine will triumph against the odds, or because Putin will stop short of attacking NATO nations.  We could, in other words, just be postponing the inevitable.

All the while, our own correspondents, and brave civilians across Ukraine and Russia, attempt to share each violation of the Nuremberg Principles so that one day there may be some form of legal justice.  Liberal democracies have given ever more ground to populism in recent years, and as long as we admit the possibility that a world power can march into a neighbouring country and devastate it, without us doing everything we can to stop it, we will continue to bear some responsibility for every life lost. 

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