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While mainstream media coverage of the mobilization of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine has recently been confused by public disagreements between U.S. President Biden and Ukraine President Zelenskyy over the imminence of the threat, the possibility of conflict with Russia has been a daily reality for most Ukrainians, ever since the Euromaidan uprising of 2013–14 succeeded in overthrowing the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych.
Since then, Russia has invaded and occupied Ukraine’s Donbas region in the east, and also annexed the Crimean peninsula in the south. Thousands of Ukrainians have died. Millions of people have been resettled as “internally displaced.” There is good reason for alarm, if not panic.
Anticipating more trouble, Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture and Information Policy last year published the brochure “In Case of Emergency or War,” a full color, illustrated, fourteen-page document that currently circulates among the country’s residents. The brochure offers basic tips for survival: how to protect yourself against disinformation; where to hide in your building in case of a Russian missile attack; and how to pack a survival kit. Above all, it urges Ukrainians to keep calm and not panic.
We Ukrainians have learned that living next to an abusive and deranged neighbor is hard, especially when there is no other choice. And the only way to protect ourselves is not to have illusions, see the bully for who he is, and be ready to resist and fight. The latest poll shows that one-third of Ukrainians are ready to wage armed resistance against the invaders and 21.7 percent more are ready to resist by other means.
These bits of conventional wisdom ought to apply not only to Ukrainians but also to our Western partners, who are currently wrestling with the fine line between addressing the current threat of violence and triggering even more violence. Indeed, dealing with an unstable opponent with a powerful military and nuclear weapons is extremely delicate. It requires diplomatic finesse, military readiness, and caution.
So what should the United States and the European Union do in case of invasion? What sort of response is appropriate and commensurable? Is it even worth straining relationships for some far away corrupt and economically backward country, such as Ukraine?
Some pundits go as far as to suggest that, had it not been for the American thirst to expand its security guarantees to “Russia’s traditional sphere of influence,” there would be no conflict right now. Sharing the sentiment, Thomas Graham and Rajan Menon propose a compromise, whereby the West and Russia would agree on a period of moratorium on NATO’s expansion. In another piece, Graham even proposes validating the “hard truth” that Crimea is now part of Russia.
This, however, is to misunderstand that the current crisis is not about Ukraine or NATO.
It is about the fact that my homeland has become the unlucky hostage of a paranoid autocrat, rather than his ultimate prize. After all, we have seen Russia sow chaos and destabilize democracies around the worldfor quite a while now. Only last year, Russia launched 23,000 cyberattacks on more than 600 organizations, including government agencies and think tanks. Five years ago, Russia successfully influenced the outcome of the American elections by stealing and releasing the Democratic National Committee emails.
Since then, Russia played a large role in instigating conflicts, polarizing American society through their troll-farms and meddling in the primaries and 2020 elections. In Europe too, Russian intelligence organizations were caught meddling in the 2017 French and German elections, instigating separatist movements, sponsoring far-right parties, interfering in the 2014 Scottish referendum, and most famously, possibly interfering with Brexit. If this is not enough, consider Russia’s occupation of parts of Georgia—South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008—and the Moldovan territory of Transniestria in 1992.
Thus, the potential occupation of Ukraine should not be seen as a local affair, nor should the country be viewed as a strategic sacrifice to appease Putin’s fears about NATO. Instead, it should be seen as a warning of how far he can push his might, if not properly restrained.
If Putin does not suffer considerably from his invasion of Ukraine, there is nothing to stop him from invading the Baltic countries and Poland, and destabilizing democracies—that he cannot reach merely for geographical reasons—through cyber warfare. Acquiescing to Putin’s annexation of Crimea obviously hasn’t slackened his anxieties about the West. Meeting his demands to NATO—as the Biden administration has apparently realized—will embolden him, not appease him.
Indeed, it is time for the leaders of the United States and the West to understand what the Ukrainians have already painfully learned: Putin is a bully, and should be treated as such. Bullies respond to strength. This means not buying into his paranoia about the security threats that NATO ostensibly poses to Russia.
To ratify such a misperception of the real threats in this region simply normalizes Putin as a strategic player, a master of realpolitik, and a man who simply defends his national interests. It also shifts responsibility from Russia to the West, and in the current context, only serves to feed Putin’s imperialist ambitions.
How real is the actual threat from NATO?
Russia has long constructed the narrative about NATO threatening its national security, even though NATO and Russia once enjoyed a period of productive cooperation. In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in return for security guarantees by Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom. In 1994, Russia became the first country to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace, whose goals were to expand and intensify “political and military cooperation in Europe, increasing stability, diminishing threats to peace, and building strengthened security relationships.” Further, in 1997, President Boris Yeltsin signed a NATO-Russia Founding Act, which established goals for cooperation to build together “a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and cooperative security” in areas of peacekeeping, arms control, counter-terrorism, and more. Russia established its diplomatic mission to NATO in 1998, and NATO opened its Information Office in Moscow to facilitate communication. Indeed, in the late 1990s, as part of the Partnership for Peace program, Russia deployed peacekeepers in support of NATO-led operations in the Western Balkans. As long as Russia seemed to be undergoing a process of democratization, it was seen in the West as one of the guarantors of peace on the continent.
Relationships with the West at first continued to be cordial under Putin as well. In 2002, Russia signed a declaration with NATO titled “NATO-Russia Relations: A New Quality,” which established a consensus-based body to cooperate with operations, such as conflicts in Afghanistan and counter-narcotic training around Central Asia and Pakistan. The same year, the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council—which had replaced Partnership for Peace in 1997—was replaced by the NATO-Russia Council to provide another space for consultation on security issues and practical cooperation.
Everything started to change after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. Yet even then, NATO was open to cooperating with Russia in the areas of joint counter-piracy operations and in Afghanistan. It was only after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014 that NATO suspended all civic and military cooperation with Russia.
Up until then, NATO had followed a similar path in its relationships with both Russia and Ukraine. NATO invited Ukraine to join the Partnership for Peace program in 1994 and established the NATO-Ukraine Commission in 1997. Although NATO did signal its open door policy for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations during the 2008 Bucharest Summit, it was clear to everyone that it would take years, if not decades, before Ukraine would be ready to apply to NATO. In fact, Ukrainians themselves were deeply ambivalent about the prospect of joining NATO—in 2013, only 18 percent were in favor of joining, and 67 percent were against.
It was only after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 that the majority of the population—64 percent—sought refuge in NATO.
It is crucial to recall this history because it strongly suggests that Putin’s framing of NATO as a “security threat” to Russia is propaganda rather than a realistic assessment of the geopolitical situation. Neither NATO’s rhetoric nor actions have given Russia any reason to fear its possible military excursions.
In contrast, Russia has in fact invaded Ukraine—as well as other countries—and is currently the only state that poses a major threat to such European states as Poland and Lithuania.
Economic sanctions are an important tool. Yet, as the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014 have shown, sanctions alone are insufficient to deter Putin.
The polls showing the readiness of Ukrainians to resist another such invasion disprove Putin’s conviction that Russians and Ukrainians are the same people. The videos of ordinary Ukrainian citizens drilling with wooden rifles suggest that the Russian army would face popular resistance should it try to invade Ukraine again.
The West for its part should continue to project military might, unity, and support. Some steps have already been taken—Denmark sent fighter aircraft and a frigate to the Baltic Sea to help protect Lithuania, Spain sent its ships to join NATO naval forces in the Black Sea, France expressed readiness to send soldiers to Romania, the Netherlands has sent fighter aircraft to Bulgaria, and the United States has already shipped 500 tons of defense ammunition to Ukraine.
Still, the West isn’t united. For example, Germany is blocking arms shipments to Ukraine—offering in January to send 5,000 helmets to Kyiv instead! Even worse, the latest dispute between Zelenskyy and Biden, over whether or not Russia poses an imminent threat to Ukraine, has enabled Putin to echo Zelenskyy’s argument that the Americans are needlessly sowing panic.
Meanwhile, the ordinary Ukrainians currently preparing for combat know better. In fact, Ukraine is at the center of a new cold war.
As the brochure from the Ministry of Culture and Information reminds Ukrainians: “If you want peace, prepare for war.”
Mariia Shynkarenko is a PhD Candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research, a Visiting Scholar at the Center for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto, and a Visiting Scholar at the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia at NYU.