Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, is currently writing a history of contemporary Europe.
If Ukraine lasts for another thousand years, people will still say “This was their finest hour.” But what almost certainly awaits Ukrainians is far worse than what the British went through in 1940. It is a Russian campaign of escalating long-distance bombardment and siege to try to break their will to resist, through fear, hunger, thirst, cold, sickness and all the other consequences of indiscriminate destruction.
So what can we still do to help Ukrainians defend their country, their freedom and their democracy? President Volodymyr Zelensky, the Churchill of Ukraine, consistently comes back to three things: more military support, more sanctions, and a better future for Ukraine in Europe. On all three, we can do more.
The scale of Western arms supplies has been formidable. But Russian forces are beginning to close down the western supply lines. We still have a few more days, perhaps weeks, in which to get in more ammunition and weapons, including sophisticated air defence weapons and basic supplies, to help cities like Kyiv withstand the siege.
But NATO is not going to deliver the fighter planes or impose the no-fly zone that the Ukrainians keep asking for. It is not going to go to war with Russia. All the more reason, then, to do more on the other two main fronts identified by Mr. Zelensky. The package of sanctions already agreed to is unprecedented, but the one big thing we can do to escalate sanctions pressure fast is to stop oil and gas imports from Russia.
Among the many mistakes made after Mr. Putin’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 – that turning point at which Europe failed to turn – one of the most serious was to continue and even increase European energy dependence on Russia. A recent careful study of the economic cost of stopping German energy imports from Russia estimates the negative impact would be between 1 per cent and 3 per cent of GDP or (in the worst case) around €1000 per person. But Germans have to weigh the heavy economic cost of stopping energy imports from Russia against the moral cost of continuing to pay billions into Mr. Putin’s war chest. Such is the genuine popular outrage in Germany that this further step may yet be taken, perhaps starting with oil and proceeding to gas.
Mr. Zelensky’s third key demand is for Ukraine to be recognized as a candidate for EU membership. The EU’s response at the Versailles summit last week was extremely disappointing: With a load of condescending waffle about “belonging to the European family,” Ukraine’s application was sent to the European Commission for review. Yet there is still much that Europe, including non-EU members such as Britain, can do, together with the U.S. and other Western allies.
Postwar Ukraine will need a massive reconstruction plan, with billions of euros and dollars coming from the entire West. This would also create the conditions in which the millions of Ukrainian refugees could return home. Along this path, there are many possible halfway houses of closer association. Ukrainians already have visa-free travel to the EU. In the long run, it might even include membership of the European Economic Area.
Here, the long-term vision loops back to the immediate needs. I am praying for a Miracle on the Dnieper, in which Ukraine simply defeats Russia. But this would indeed be a miracle. Failing that, this terrible war will have to grind its way to the point described by the strategic thinker Lawrence Freedman as a “hurting stalemate,” when both sides recognize they have to negotiate a peace.
Our immediate goal must be to ensure that Mr. Putin gets hurt as much as possible and the Ukrainians as little. But at that difficult moment, Mr. Zelensky will almost certainly have to make some bitter concessions in return for the withdrawal of Russian troops. These will probably include neutrality – which the Ukrainian President already hinted at on March 15, saying his country will not be in NATO – and some sort of conditional or de facto acceptance of Mr. Putin’s totally illegitimate territorial seizures in Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.
Against such a loss, Mr. Zelensky will badly need some big win to show his people. The Western reconstruction plan and European perspective is that win.
In all this, we must be guided by the Ukrainians. If they want us to lift some sanctions on Russia in response to a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, we must do it. But it is also in our power to give Ukrainians the historical sense that, though they may have lost some battles, in the end they will, at huge cost, have won the war – for Ukraine’s freedom, and its proper place in Europe.
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