Ukraine seems to be a puzzle that very few of us in the West want to solve. Its rich but often tragic history is little known. Its size and power are often underestimated. It is rarely in the news. And yet, the second-largest nation in Europe is an unshakeable reminder of the continuation of the Cold War and a potential ignition key for WWIII. 

In Britain, and across the West, we are offered only snapshots into the day-to-day running of the ‘Bread Basket of Europe’. Flare-ups in violence lead to a few days of media coverage before it disappears back into the shadows. And yet, Ukraine is vital to the safety and security of both Europe and the world.

Western allies must not lose time. They must show leadership and strength by making a commitment to a free, independent Ukraine — before it’s too late.

The Fight for Dignity

Ukraine was subject to extensive media coverage in 2014. At this time the Euromaidan movement began in support of stronger links to the European Union. When then-President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an EU association agreement out of fear of angering Russia, it escalated into a widespread revolt. The ‘Revolution of Dignity’ ousted Yanukovych and led to a pro-EU interim government. Russia viewed these events as an illegal coup and responded by annexing Crimea, with several incursions into Donetsk. The West criticised Russia’s actions, and President Obama imposed economic sanctions in response. Harsh words and a financial slap on the wrist was about as bad as it got for Russia.

Little Green Men

Western nations pretended not to grasp just how unacceptable President Putin’s actions were. One of the enduring symbols of this ongoing conflict is Russia’s ‘Little Green Men’. These were the unmarked soldiers in plain green uniforms who seized the Crimean Parliament and annexed the entirety of the peninsula. At first, despite the fact that they were carrying modern Russian weapons, President Putin denied the troops had anything to do with him. Russian media used the euphemism ‘Polite People‘ to describe the invaders. Such a term would be amusing if it wasn’t so troubling. One cannot overstate quite how hostile it is for a nation to send unmarked soldiers into another nation’s sovereign territory and seize it. It is highly provocative, illegal and immoral. And yet Russia more or less got away with it. Crimea continues to be governed by the Russian Federation, and Russia continues to back separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk.

A Short Attention Span

Many commentators in the West were rightly outraged by Russia’s actions. Many said that this time a line had been crossed and that NATO had a duty to respond. The news was full of pictures of Russian troops intimidating civilians, and of the destruction in cities along the border. But very quickly the West moved on. The ‘Ukrainian Crisis’ was deemed to be pretty much over and attention moved elsewhere. This allowed the ongoing Russian presence in Ukraine to almost go under the radar. In fact, calling it a ‘crisis‘ implies that this was a singular event; a problem that is now over. But the events in Ukraine were never just a crisis or civil unrest. It was a war. It was an invasion.

The language used by media helps to control the narrative, and the narrative concerning Ukraine was that Russia was applying pressure. Russia was being threatening and intimidating. We never got a frank admission of the war that was going on. And this war is still going on, with Russian supporting separatists trying to form independent republics in Luhansk and Donetsk. As of February 2019, 7 per cent of Ukraine’s territory was under occupation

Back in the News

The Russo-Ukrainian war returned to the news cycle at the end of March when over 100,000 Russian troops positioned themselves along the border with Ukraine and within Crimea. Many news outlets reported that this could be the start of a full-blown Russian invasion. Some even predicted the start of World War 3. The news was everywhere because this build-up of troops was seen as a threat to the West. Videos circulated of President Volodymyr Zelensky meeting troops in trenches, reminiscent of the First World War. But then the very visible force seemed to withdraw, and the press once again moved on. WWIII did not start, but the Ukrainian military is still fighting and dying. There is still an ongoing war between the two largest nations in Europe, one of which has vast nuclear capabilities. This is the frontline of the New Cold War, but Western allies have lost interest.

The Theatre of War

This ongoing conflict is terrible for the people of Ukraine. The nation has the poorest population in Europe and an eroding infrastructure as funds are directed towards the military. The UN reports that:

‘During the entire conflict period, from 14 April 2014 to 15 February 2020, OHCHR recorded in total, 3,052 conflict-related civilian deaths (1,812 men, 1,056 women, 98 boys, 49 girls and 37 adults whose sex is unknown)’.

On top of this, more than 7,000 innocent civilians have been injured since the conflict began. Ukraine, a nation that has experienced years of oppression continues to suffer. Even the semantics used to describe it — ‘the Ukraine’ — imply that it is merely a province of Russia. We go to the Midlands. No one says they’re going to the France.

More widely, the conflict is a threat to all free European countries. Russia’s bullying is currently focused on Ukraine, but there is no reason why its attention may not at some point turn towards its other non-NATO neighbours. Russia continues to hold international law and norms in contempt, and by doing so poses a threat to the safety and security of all.

To Be or Not to Be

NATO and its Western allies must make their commitment to Ukraine’s independence clear. Immature provocations like Britain’s warship sailing close to Russian-claimed waters are not enough. The Ukrainian people need greater economic aid and support to survive and thrive. The US should provide more military support to deter Russia from further acts of aggression. An EU membership could bring greater economic and diplomatic prosperity, freeing Ukraine from Russia’s shadow. Above all, NATO membership and the obligations to defence that it brings with it may be necessary to truly protect Ukraine.

Critics argue that such bold moves could provoke Moscow, but they could also deter it. Russia is already effectively at war. There is an argument that the threat of NATO retaliation would bring it to an end. When told that NATO membership could provoke Russia further, President Zalensky, in his flak jacket and helmet, replied:

‘Maybe you are right. But what now is going on? What do our people do here? They fight. So, what can be in the future? I don’t know. But we have an independent country and we decide where to be or where not to be. To be or not to be. You remember Shakespeare?’

NATO has a duty to stand by Ukraine. Now is the time to take arms against that sea of troubles.

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