Ukraine’s victory matters to the world and the West should continue to provide support in whatever way it can, says Paul Niland
Vladimir Putin’s war of choice against Ukraine is now entering a new phase, necessitated by his failure to accomplish his early goals militarily and the attrition rate of his stockpile of equipment, ammunition and personnel.
What began as an attempt to capture the entire country – through the thoroughly mistaken notion that if he could take the capital and install a proxy as head of state to replace the democratically-elected president – is now a battle focused in the eastern Donbas region and a coming battle to re-take the areas in southern Ukraine that have been occupied since 24 February.
Before this year’s invasion, Russia controlled 7.2% of Ukraine, after it annexed Crimea and occupied parts of the east in 2014. The latter was made possible by the Russian Army’s hollowing-out of Ukraine’s border defences, leaving more than 400km of the internationally recognized border fully open for the insertion of fighters and weapons supplies from the Russian Federation.
Today, Russia is occupying some 20% of Ukraine and the active frontline extends to 1,200km. This has been allowed to happen by apathy, indifference, and ignorance.
The horrors of Bucha were not an isolated occurrence. The way the Russian Army has been shown to behave there are their standards, applied everywhere – and so the occupation of 20% of Ukraine leaves millions of people subject to abductions, executions, rapes and looting.
The near-total destruction of Mariupol was also not a one-off. In Severodeonetsk and Popsana Russia’s prime military tactic is one of scorched earth – everything in the path of their advance is being destroyed.
But the percentage of the country that is occupied by Russia is not the most important factor. The lives of individuals are being shattered.
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One of the victims of Russia’s occupation of Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, was a 75-year-old woman named Larissa. She had founded a kindergarten there, which she ran for decades. She was a matriarch of that community, with many people having been entrusted to her care of her when they were very young. Larissa had just recently retired. She is one of Putin’s victims.
Ignorance is cured by knowledge. Every voice from Ukraine has been telling the same story since 2014: they know they are not fighting ‘separatists’ but forces deployed by the Kremlin. This fact is important because is the weak response to Russia’s 2014 invasion was the result of some people tending to believe that there is a shred of truth in the notion that the people of eastern Ukraine, being Russian speakers, have an affinity to Russia and are different from other Ukrainians. The conflict that started in 2014 wasn’t locally initiated but it led to Ukrainian citizens in 7.2% of the country becoming Russian hostages. Now, residents of 20% of Ukraine are hostages.
Apathy and indifference is also playing its part. But the notion of ‘Ukraine fatigue’ is a difficult one to fathom for those of us living in the country. With the war having now raged for 110 days, the only party with the right to be fatigued are the Ukrainians themselves, but they are not. Because they are engaged in an existential battle for the survival of their nation and the freedom of their fellow citizens. Not only can they not walk away from this fight, they will not – and nobody should expect them to.
In this way, the war in Ukraine does not stand at a crossroads. We are not facing a situation where it could go either way and either side may be able to win, for a variety of reasons.
While some commentators predicted that Kyiv could be encircled and fall in 72 hours, Ukrainians never accepted any such notion. While some expected that the significantly out-matched firepower that held on to the port city of Mariupol would collapse within days, Ukraine’s defenders in that city fought on for 84. This is no surprise to veteran watchers of this war who remember the heroic defense of Donetsk airport, which lasted for almost a year.
We will see the same commitment in Severodonetsk and Slovyansk, both of which are cities in the Donbas that are now the scenes of heavy battles. These will be contested street by street, building by building, by the land forces stationed there. They too will be protracted battles, despite the fact that those places are simultaneously being destroyed by Russia’s long-range artillery.
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The Ukrainian Army will fight on until the end as long as it has the weapons and ammunition to do so. And it must – as Ukraine’s victory will have demonstrable international consequences too.
A global food security crisis is now at risk due to Russia’s continued blockade of Ukraine’s southern sea ports. If it continues, millions of people in Africa will face famine. The resulting flow of refugees and migrants will mean that the fall-out from Putin’s manufactured food crisis will not be confined to Africa.
Ukraine’s win will also be a clear win for democracy. At the heart of Putin’s rationale for war is the fact that Ukraine presents a democratic success story that is anathema to his corrupt rule. It shows that political plurality and free and fair elections are models that can be applied to countries that were once tethered to Russia’s yoke. This remains something that is, at the same time, irksome to Putin and a longstanding goal of the West.
Finally, Russia has presented a growing threat to the wider world for years. Recent months have seen rhetorical aggression aimed at the Baltic countries, Sweden, Finland, Poland and the Czech Republic to name but a few. By giving Ukraine the weapons it needs to legitimately crush Putin’s army while it invades Ukrainian soil, western countries will reduce the future threat to themselves at the same time.
The West’s continued support of Ukraine’s battle is not only the right thing to do morally – it is also the best thing to do strategically.
Paul Niland is an Irish journalist based in Ukraine. He is the founder of the country’s national suicide prevention hotline, Lifeline Ukraine
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