By Balkan Devlen, June 30, 2022
It has been almost four months since Russia re-invaded Ukraine with the explicit aim of erasing Ukraine from the map as an independent country and Ukrainians as a people from our collective memory. Russian dictator – and now war criminal – Vladimir Putin failed thanks to the bravery and immense sacrifices of Ukrainians fighting for their hearth and home.
But all is not well, not yet. We – the global West – have to ensure that Russia is soundly defeated, politically and militarily. Despite the ultimate price being paid in blood by the Ukrainians, this war is not only about Ukraine. It is fundamentally about the future of the European, and by extension transatlantic, political and security order.
Canada had sacrificed much blood and treasure to uphold this rules-based order since the last major land war in Europe began 83 years ago by another dictator with delusions of grandeur. Canada and Canadians have benefited immensely from this order over the years, making the country secure and its people prosperous – and the defence of this order remains a core national interest for Canada. Thus, the stakes are high for Canada as well.
The imperative of Ukrainian victory also means we have to be clear-eyed about the challenges that lay ahead. I want to highlight three key challenges that we need to pay close attention to in the weeks and months ahead.
First is the military challenge. Putin’s blitzkrieg to Kyiv might have failed but Russia currently occupies about one-fifth of Ukrainian territory, razing cities, killing tens of thousands of civilians, and kidnapping and transporting hundreds of thousands to Russia. In this second phase of the war, where the focus is now on Donbas, the fighting is even more fierce and deadly. Ukraine is also facing higher levels of attrition both in terms of materiel and troops, as Russia operates with shorter supply lines, better artillery and air support, and over a much reduced front.
As such, Ukraine needs more weapons, especially heavy weapons, artillery, tanks, and air defence systems as well as more ammunition to stop and reverse the Russian offensive. It is therefore essential that the West not only maintain the current level of military and economic support to Ukraine but also dramatically scale them upwards. Ukraine can prevail but it needs the tools to do so.
Second is the political challenge. Western unity will be under strain in the coming months. There are already voices, particularly in Western Europe, that call on Ukraine to consider territorial concessions in return for a ceasefire or a negotiated settlement in which Russia gets to keep the territories it currently occupies. Those voices will only grow louder as the war continues and the impact of Russia’s war of aggression, from food supplies to energy to trade, start to be felt beyond Ukraine. Russia will surely try to exploit this potential rift.
But a ceasefire now means conquest pays. It enables Russia to regroup and recover to renew its offensive. The so-called territorial concessions are not just lines on a map. Bucha and Mariupol are the future for those who will live under Russian occupation. Russia demonstrated time and again that it cannot be trusted to follow the most basic principle of international law, pacta sunt servanda – agreements must be kept.
This is the siren song of appeasement and there is nothing but ruin lying in that direction. Ukrainians lived and are living through that hell every single day. Our Baltic and Polish allies understand this very well. So do the Americans and the British for now. It is crucial that the voices of appeasement will not prevail among the rest. We have to make sure that western support for Ukraine is firmly embedded and locked-in as part of our policy and legislation, just like Odysseus tying himself down to avoid being lured by the siren’s song.
Last is the cognitive challenge. The western publics were indignant and outraged when the Russian re-invasion started in late February. Russia brazenly violated the values that democratic societies hold dear. The reaction was almost visceral. But now the so-called “Ukraine fatigue” is setting in among some populations. The public’s attention on the war in Ukraine is waning as soaring energy prices and increasing living costs take centre stage. It is expected and understandable as people try to adjust to inflation rates that were not seen in 40 years in the West. But it also creates an important vulnerability; maintaining a broad public support for Ukraine is essential if the western governments are going to be in for the long-haul.
Russia is already exploiting the increasing anxiety about inflation, high energy prices, and food supplies. It is getting ready to engineer famine and food shortages in the Middle East and Africa in the fall. The Kremlin will make sure that Europe experiences an energy crisis in winter. Putin believes he can outlast sanctions because he thinks neither the public nor the governments in the West have the necessary will to see this through. He believes western governments will fold under the pressure of their worsening economies and decreasing public attention. We need to prove him wrong.
Make no mistake, this will be a long war and we need to shoulder some of the burden, although it is nothing compared to the price the Ukrainians are paying now. But the cost of Russian victory for the West will be incomparably high. In other words, if we do not pay pennies today, we will pay hundreds of dollars in the future. It is of utmost importance that our publics understand this trade-off – and that this war will last not weeks but months and perhaps years. We have to be emotionally and intellectually ready for a long and brutal war. This cognitive adjustment will not be easy but it is essential if freedom, democracy, and decency are to prevail.
Supporting Ukraine is not charity. It’s self-interest. For Canada and its allies, this is not about choosing between a moral imperative and a strategic necessity. Doing the right thing is also doing the strategically smart thing when it comes to ensuring Ukrainian victory in this war. Ukraine indeed must be victorious, for all of our sakes.
Balkan Devlen is Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, where he leads the Transatlantic Program.