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The Ukrainian War of Independence

International liberalism has been exposed as a poor substitute for the machinery of nation states. While the Ukrainian conflict began on Putin’s orders alone, it was enabled by the ineffectiveness of international institutions to address Russian security concerns and mediate the crisis.

Cover Image for The Ukrainian War of Independence
Volodymyr Zelensky Photo Credit: New York Post
March 4, 2022

Last week President Vladimir Putin ordered a “special military operation” into Ukraine. Amounting to a full-scale invasion of the country, it became clear Putin’s goal was to decapitate the Ukrainian government and install a pliant pro-Russian regime in Kyiv. In his televised remarks, Putin decried the creation of an independent Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He characterized Ukraine as an aberration, a state concocted by Marxists who drew the internal boundaries of the Soviet Union. Ukraine did not fight for its nationhood in the 1990s and this detail informs Putin’s repeated disregard for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty (e.g., annexing Crimea in 2014). In the Russian leader’s mind, a nation that does not fight for its borders and independence is not entitled to legitimacy. With this in mind, the best way to understand the current conflict is as a “Ukrainian War of Independence.”

The latest reporting from the battlefield indicates Putin grossly underestimated the nationalism of the Ukrainian people and the lengths to which they will fight for their statehood. The reportedly high casualties sustained by Russian troops must have been a shock to the old guard in the Kremlin, oblivious to the post-Soviet cultural reality on the ground. So, what is the future of Ukrainian statehood based on what we’ve seen so far? While the nation has suffered its fair share of corruption and ethnic tensions in the past, a renewed sense of unity in the face of a foreign invasion bodes well for the longevity of the Ukrainian nation. Charles Tilly, an American sociologist and political scientist, authored the popular aphorism, “war made the state, and the state made war.” If victorious, the Ukrainian nation will benefit from the state machinery developed to wage war effectively and the collective myth of military struggle for statehood. It is no surprise that Americans continue to celebrate the Fourth of July and President George Washington as cornerstones of our collective national story to this day. Out of the brutality of the last few days of fighting, the charismatic leadership of Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky has lifted the nation’s (and the world’s) morale and stepped into the archetypal “father of a nation” role. 

For many Westerners the prospect of a large war in Europe is a rude awakening to the realities of state formation and the ugliness of power politics. Germany, in particular, has been extremely reluctant to embrace the obligations of being Europe’s strongest nation, preferring instead to outsource policy and defensive obligations to supra-national institutions like the European Union or NATO. Ultimately, international liberalism has been exposed as a poor substitute for the machinery of nation states. While the Ukrainian conflict began on Putin’s orders alone, it was enabled by the ineffectiveness of international institutions to address Russian security concerns and mediate the crisis. The UN Security Council’s meeting on the first night of Russian aggression is a stark reminder that the institution is helpless to resolve a crisis of this magnitude, requiring third-party nation states to step in to mediate. Even NATO, while the world’s preeminent military alliance, essentially failed in its stated goal of “securing lasting peace in Europe.” Worse, even though many would prefer not to hear it, NATO was a contributing factor in precipitating the current conflict.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the purpose of NATO, an explicitly defensive alliance designed to counter the military threat of the Soviet Union, was brought into doubt. To prove its worth, it was reinvented as a “force for good,” bombing Yugoslavia in 1999 to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, forever abandoning the pretense of being a “defensive” alliance. Again in 2011, under the Obama administration, it was used offensively to intervene in Libya, resulting in the ouster of Muammar Ghaddafi, destabilizing North Africa, and fueling refugee flows into Europe – once again demonstrating it could be a threat to the Russian Federation. Even today, some elected officials are clamoring for NATO to intervene in Ukraine - an extremely aggressive move that would potentially result in nuclear war. Retrospectively, the attempt at eastward expansion of NATO into Ukraine has been a regrettable mistake, destabilizing the region and, in part, motivating Russian aggression.

While much is still uncertain about the way events will unfold in Ukraine, the United States should resist the temptation of passing even higher defense budgets and issuing brand-new defense guarantees to countries outside our direct strategic interest. We might heed an early lesson from the Ukrainian War of Independence, appreciating the effectiveness of anti-tank and anti-air equipment and selling these armaments to Ukraine, Finland, and Georgia to deter further Russian attacks. Importantly, this could be done without resurrecting a Cold War posture of containment and further NATO enlargement, as the Biden Administration has proposed. We must remember, this Russian military, while capable of inflicting deep wounds, is but a shadow of the Soviet Red Army that occupied half of Europe.

Finally, with the recent news that Russia has heightened its nuclear posture, we are navigating some of the most perilous days for humanity since the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The possibility of nuclear war has remained the greatest threat to humanity since these terrible weapons were deployed in numbers large enough to extinguish human life on Earth. Leaders of nuclear powers should clearly express their intention not to escalate with nuclear weapons to avoid any miscalculation or misunderstanding. Calls for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would initiate direct confrontation with the Russian military, must be dismissed as insanity. War is terrible and the images of the last week resurrect a painful history of conflict and suffering – may it soon come to an end.

DISCLAIMER: All views expressed are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent that of the IWAB platform.