UKRAINE - lAST lIFE bOAT FOR THE ilo By Valentina Butenko
If there is one chance for the Liberal International Order to reassert itself, it is in the defence of Ukraine.
Russian troops are amassing. 106 000 soldiers, armed and ready for invasion, are stationed along the North, South and Eastern flanks of the Ukrainian border. Meanwhile, the US, the EU and NATO are scrambling around in fragmented negotiations and conflicting messages trying to appease an aggressor whose appetite for foreign territory is insatiable.
The human cost of a conflict between Russia, a nuclear power with a stunning military capacity and Ukraine, war-ravaged and economically-exhausted but patriotic to the death – would be colossal. Indeed, it was to guard against such scale of conflict and sovereign trespassing that the Liberal International Order (LIO) was created: legally codified in the UN Charter to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ and ‘protect international peace and security’.
Pre-empting any rebuttals – no, of course the LIO has not saved the generations of Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq (to name but a few) from the ‘scourge of war’. It may even have brought war to them on the liberal wings of democracy-building. But failures and hypocrisy of the past cannot be justifications for failures and hypocrisy of the future. My argument is simple: Ukraine is the last, and only, chance for the Liberal International Order, and its democratic players, to reassert itself. If this red line is crossed, then we will be back in the anarchy of Waltzian power-competition reminiscent of the 30 Years’ War that birthed the very concept of European statehood.
First, a little history: December 1st, 1991 – Ukraine officially codifies its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. 7 days later, the signing of the Belavezha Accords mark the Union’s official dissolution. The loss of Ukraine, second only to Russia in economic and political power in the USSR, was a death sentence to Gorbachev’s last tenuous hold on the old communist order. Put in a different framework: Ukraine’s independence triggered the birth of democracy, independence and sovereignty in Eastern Europe and, save for the fall of the Berlin wall, was the deciding factor in the end of the Cold War.
Fast-forward 31 years: it is the very process of democratisation triggered by Ukrainian independence that Putin is looking to reverse through reassimilating its territory into the Russian ‘sphere of influence’. Ukraine has always been a thorn in Russia’s side – its people enjoy democracy, growing economic prosperity and the rule of law. Ukraine may have far to go (corruption is always a party-pooper) – but at least it is going somewhere. It is not a regime living in fear, riddled with sanctions and with no prospects of legitimate diplomatic inclusion in a world that, at least symbolically, is still dominated by states with respect for democracy and fundamental human rights.
The success of Ukraine as a sovereign, democratic nation is the most direct challenge to Russia’s authoritarian regime. In fact, it may be the only one left. To let Ukraine fall is to tell Russia that a militaristic, imperialist worldview is a legitimate way of doing business in the 21st century. And to tell that to Russia is to tell that to the world.
It is time for the West to reassert itself as an ideological leader. Whatever your views, the intermittent regime interventions that comprise most of 21st century violence are nothing compared to the bloody history of pre-LIO Europe. Churchill, for all his faults, put it pragmatically: ‘democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried’.
If democracy has a chance in Eastern Europe – then Ukraine’s independence as its symbolic initiator must be protected. The US and Europe need to talk about concrete sanctions that will cripple Russia’s economy and make their people pay a price that they cannot forgive Putin for. If free media has no voice – let money do the talking. Tariffs, export bans, trade embargos and a blockade from SWIFT (the global interbank payments system) will squeeze the inflation-ridden economy dry. The Russian shelves will be empty enough for people to question whether some remote geopolitical mission is worth their empty stomachs. Continuation of Nord-Stream 2 should be a non-starter. European energy will have to be sourced from other allies – for as long as Russia holds a monopoly on European access to oil, they have enough of a cushion against economic devastation.
The truth is, this process should have started long before. Having turned a blind eye on Russia’s barefaced military build-up over the summer, the West essentially condoned the use of military threat as a bargaining tool at the great-power negotiation table. The boundaries the West has set are already pretty wide – and you bet Ukraine is not the last nation Russia will test them on.
If the West is to save face and rebuild its faded façade of unity, the response now has to be military. Russia cannot and will not fight a war with NATO. Even its authoritarian allies will not get their hands dirty with a conflict whose only basis is Russian territorial greed; the Soviet superpower will be diplomatically isolated. The context for negotiation may be very different If NATO mobilizes its military just enough to send a signal that Ukraine is a non-starter. The West needs to end a conversation that should never have started.
The risk of war is dangerous territory - but western fragility and division will only inflate it. The question is – will it be stopped at its borders, or will Ukraine fall as a victim to a policy of appeasement that, if history has taught us anything, is a death knell to global peace.