Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric and cack-handed invasion of Ukraine perversely makes him look like a great re-unifier. Russia is now the most sanctioned country in the world, thanks largely to a broad transatlantic coalition that looked anything but cohesive just prior to Russian troops crossing the border into Ukraine.
The European Union has stopped dithering about Putin and is finally acting cohesively and firmly against the Kremlin’s self-appointed role as the wrecking ball of the European security order. And NATO has been reinvigorated to such an extent that Sweden and Finland are considering putting up their hands to join.
But as tempting as it is to see Putin as the reason for this newfound sense of European and transatlantic unity, the reality is more complex and less comforting. In fact, the real trigger for the West’s momentum has been the resistance of Ukraine’s people, its armed forces and its president.
A scruffy populist with global appeal
To begin with, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has skilfully personified Ukraine’s image overseas as a peaceful and democratic underdog beset by a fanatical neighbourhood bully. His messaging has been near-flawless: thanking leaders and nations for every ounce of help he gets, gleefully trolling Putin and humbly begging for more assistance.
His heartfelt speech to the US Congress – combined with a video of airstrikes and destruction that bluntly revealed the human cost of Russia’s invasion – unsurprisingly earned him a standing ovation.
In a sense, Zelenskyy has also become a lightning rod for Western values and democracy. Intuitively, this is an odd claim given the widespread problems with corruption that have been well-documented in Ukrainian politics for decades.
But Zelenskyy appeals to Western audiences in ways that compare favourably to the many disappointments they perceive in their own leaders. He is refreshingly honest rather than shiftily mouthing slogans. He is scruffy and casually dressed rather than polished and manicured. He is a populist without being crudely bombastic.
Ukraine’s spirited resistance and Zelenskyy’s adroit messaging, therefore, put pressure on Western governments to act – and, more importantly, to be seen to be acting.
This is happening in two ways. First, Zelenskyy’s appeals play to a sense of regret at the top levels of Western governments that more was not done to prevent Putin from invading. In fact, it was just the opposite: NATO members sent a clear message to Putin they would not fight for Ukraine under any circumstances.
Second, the vivid images of destroyed Ukrainian towns, bombed-out maternity hospitals and wounded civilians have resonated deeply with Western audiences. They want to do more to assist Kyiv, and their leaders are acutely mindful of this.
The West has a newfound strength, thanks to Kyiv
This is why Zelenskyy walked away from his speech to the US Congress with US$800 million in military hardware.
It may not have been the no-fly zone he has been calling for – this is a bridge too far for NATO leaders anxious not to goad Putin into a wider war. But it will go a long way towards keeping Ukraine’s armed forces supplied with what is tactically the next best thing: portable anti-tank and air defence systems, which have proven highly effective against Russian forces.
The large US commitment also guarantees that European nations will follow suit. And the longer Ukraine’s forces can hold out, the louder the calls will become for some form of limited no-fly zone in the form of protected humanitarian corridors.
Beyond merely resupplying Zelenskyy’s forces, though, the West owes Ukraine a great deal more for its newfound sense of unity and purpose.
Putin calculated that the West would not have done much more than impose a tokenistic round of sanctions if he invaded. And this would almost undoubtedly have been proven correct had Russian forces managed to take Kyiv and force Ukraine’s surrender in a few days.
Yet, the West is now presenting an entirely different face to the cautious and fragmented one it displayed on the eve of Russia’s invasion: it is firm and committed. The West is also sending a clear warning to other authoritarian regimes about the consequences of territorial aggrandisement.
A wake-up call, with lasting repercussions
But it is not Putin, nor his actions, that are primarily responsible for this. His expansionist intentions have been known at least since his infamous speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, where he essentially claimed the former Soviet republics were rightfully Russian proxies.
Critically, the West has kicked the can of managing Putin down the road for decades, fearful of provoking gas supply wars in Europe, and in the process enriched Putin both personally and politically. This helped him centralise his power base and rearm his military.
That means the West bears its share of the blame for the suffering of Ukrainians today. The very least it can do is to rebuild Ukraine once the conflict ends with a comprehensive reconstruction plan, provide it with a pathway to joining the European Union, and deliver a de facto guarantee of its security against future Russian adventurism.
Triumphalist noises being made in the West about Ukraine being a war NATO had to have to provide it with a clear existential threat are also disingenuous. NATO is not fighting this war at all – it is watching as Ukrainians fight it.
If Ukraine’s suffering is to be the West’s wake-up call, then this is the last time NATO and the EU can seek strategic outcomes without risk, and only limited economic discomfort. To do so would be nothing short of betrayal, implying it is content to let Ukrainians fight and die for the hope of joining a West that is unprepared to make the same sacrifices.
It would also reinforce the perception the West will only countenance limited police actions in weak or failing states, and not meet hard power in kind. In the messy and much more adversarial world that is now emerging, this will prove to be little to no deterrent at all.