Ukraine can win the peace

A stronger country will emerge after the war. Expect a Ukraine that talks on its own terms to its allies.

A trident, the coat of arms of Ukraine. Credit: Andriy Sarymsakov / Alamy Stock Photo
A trident, the coat of arms of Ukraine. Credit: Andriy Sarymsakov / Alamy Stock Photo

The vast majority — 98 per cent — of Ukrainians believe their country will win the war. This may be partly an ought — a wish as much as a prediction. But, contrary to old stereotypes about Ukraine as a divided country, it is now an 80-90 per cent society. Big majorities have confidence in President Zelensky and support accession to the EU and NATO. And 73 per cent of Ukrainians believe the country is ‘heading in the right direction’, with 93 per cent seeing a ‘promising future.’ These numbers are clearly not about the economy, which has halved in size, or even the country’s political leadership; they are an existential statement that Ukraine is doing the right thing by fighting. It is worth noting that occupied territories cannot currently be polled, except by phone; and there are questions about surveys undertaken when a country is at war and under martial law. But the high level of united response is incontrovertible.

This is more than just a rally-around-the-flag effect for a country at war. Modern Ukraine became independent in 1991, but it has been refounded three times: with the Orange Revolution in 2004, the Revolution of Dignity in 2013-14, and with today’s war. Each has been more important than the last; each has accumulated a sense of national purpose and unity. Zelensky gets most headlines with his soaring popularity; but the Ukrainian state is stronger and more functional than it was. Even more impressively, Ukrainian journalist and writer Nataliya Gumenyuk has shown the growing horizontal strength and confidence of Ukrainian society, the importance of local leaders and initiatives, and of cooperation between civil society and the state.

The Orange Revolution in 2004 was relatively passive. Huge crowds in Kyiv demonstrated on behalf of their guy — Viktor Yushchenko — and then went home once he was elected. The Revolution of Dignity was much more about a sense of individual and national selfhood; creating an active civil society; and asserting Ukrainian identity in the face of Putin’s assertion that Russians and Ukrainians were ‘one nation,’ on Russia’s terms. This revolution of subjectivity has grown even stronger in 2022. There is a growing sense of national pride and self-confidence; not just in the armed forces. Ordinary people are clear about Ukraine’s right to make its own way in the world. Hence Zelensky’s decree forcing himself never to negotiate with Putin. Hence Ukraine winning membership candidate status for the EU and applying to join NATO. The latter move is as much about Ukraine’s right to apply as it is about joining successfully. Expect a Ukraine that talks on its own terms to its allies.

‘Winning the peace’ is also key for this new self-confident, horizontal Ukraine. Zelensky is a popular wartime leader, just like Winston Churchill was. But just as at the end of the war in 1945 there was a widespread sense that the UK should emerge stronger and fairer, so there is in Ukraine, along with the feeling that the physical damage being done to post-Soviet Ukraine can be an opportunity to create a more modern and more European society. Reconstruction costs are staggering: one estimate is $349 billion, another $750 billion — sums Ukraine demands in reparations from Russia. But the funds can be used to build a different economy. Ukraine already had a booming IT sector before the war, strengthened by the influx of Belarusians after repressions there in 2020, and now possibly by Russian skills as well. Ukraine plans to leap-frog into a hi-tech online economy, a ‘state-in-a-smartphone,’ in which Mykhailo Federov, previously Zelensky’s online campaign manager and now minister for digital transformation, will be a key player.

Ukraine’s three big problems before the war were corruption, the power of oligarchs and the lack of a rule of law. Ukraine’s oligarchs have lost political influence and up to half of their wealth. Their physical assets have been degraded by the war. Their TV channels have been corralled into a centralised ‘United News telemarathon.’ Their paid MPs, called ‘bayonets’ in Ukrainian, are no longer so sharp. Parliamentary sessions are short, MPs are unable to make populist appeals, and most vote the government line. State power is stronger in the regions, where oligarchs once built their fiefdoms. Zelensky is personally liberated by his popularity.

But many of the old people and networks remain, including around Zelensky. There is big danger that many of the oligarchs’ powers simply transfer to the state. Ukrainians talk of securitisation. Even before the war began in February, many of Zelensky’s measures were being channelled through the National Security and Defence Council, rather than parliament. A stronger and more confident post-war army and security service would threaten Ukraine’s recovery plans. Zelensky has talked of Ukraine being a ‘Big Israel’ after the war. Yes, there will be ongoing security risks. But there is no equivalent of the Palestinians in Ukraine. To say that local Russians or Russian-speakers might fit the bill is Russian propaganda. But Zelensky has said the general ‘liberal times’ promised before the war might be put off.

Reconstruction money will have to be spent in a way that doesn’t revive old corruption or create new forms of it. That doesn’t necessarily mean controlling spending from outside, but it does mean that anti-corruption reform cannot be on hold during the war, or while NGOs are involved in physical reconstruction or investigating war crimes. One symptomatic struggle was over the Supreme Court judge Bohdan Lvov. He was found to have a Russian passport and property in Moscow. Extraordinarily, that wasn’t enough, even in wartime. His colleagues closed ranks to protect themselves. The fact that he was removed in the end was encouraging; the fact that it took so long was not.

Ukrainians are increasingly confident of playing a leading and more assertive international role after the war. According to leading historian Yaroslav Hrytsak: ‘I believe that Ukraine will become a new Central European tiger. It will become a leader in the large region between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. I think that no country, with the possible exception of Poland, will be able to match Ukraine’s influence and status … This will [not] happen automatically with victory. Instead, it must result from significant purposeful efforts after victory’.

Ukraine is a big country surrounded by mostly small countries. It will be the leading security power in the region by far, in fact one of the leading military powers in Europe; particularly as the West will have to keep it well-armed to deter any Russian reinvasion. Huge amounts of reconstruction money are likely to flow to Ukraine. Instead of just the dynamic of NATO and non-NATO, there will also be Ukraine and non-Ukraine. Kyiv has already picked out friends and foes. Relations with Georgia are extremely frosty, as the latter is perceived to have helped Russia with sanctions busting. There are Belarusian units in the Ukrainian army that openly talk of targeting regime change in Minsk once they have helped achieve Ukrainian victory. This would be in the Ukrainian authorities’ interest too, as Belarusian territory was used to launch the attack on Kyiv (and Chernobyl) and constant bombardment since. The possibility of Russian conscripts being sent to renew the attempt from Belarusian territory looms large.

A Ukrainian clean-up operation against the separatist enclave in Transnistria, Moldova is also possible. It is also a potential second front — Ukraine has five brigades tied up on the border that could be freed. There is also the potential prize of one of the largest arms dumps in Europe at Cobasna. Moldovans think that Ukraine was behind a disinformation campaign in the spring about a possible Transnistrian attack on Moldova (with about 1,500 legacy Russian troops), designed to flush out whether the Transnistrians had real appetite for a fight. They did not.

The war and Ukraine’s growing self-confidence in the war are destroying previous patterns of Russian influence in the region. Other countries will follow Ukraine’s example of declining pro-Russian parties and rising sovereigntist and nationalist parties. Ukraine has banned the Opposition Platform (second in the last parliamentary elections in 2019) and the Shariy Party (tenth). In the October 2022 Latvian elections, the Harmony Party (Saskaņa) dropped to 4.8 per cent, losing all of its 23 seats, down from a high point of 28.6 per cent in the 2011 elections. Harmony has also lost control of the capital Riga after corruption scandals. The Socialist Party in Moldova lost power in 2020 (the presidency) and 2021 (parliament), despite massive Russian support in media, political advisers and hard cash. Former President Igor Dodon has been indicted for corruption. Dodon has rejected the accusations. Although Russian resources continue to help the opposition harass the new pro-European government, it is alleged by the US State Department that Moscow seems to have shifted to backing businessmen who can lead demonstrations against the government on the ground. No more than a quarter of Moldovans have backed aspects of the Russian war narrative; only 15.2 per cent backed the myth that Russia was ‘liberating Ukraine from fascism.’

The only exceptions in the region are Belarus and Georgia. In the latter, the ruling party Georgian Dream has copied Russian political technology to consolidate power in recent years. Elections are rigged with ‘administrative resources’ (state power) and patronage. The judiciary has been captured and politicised. Troll farms attack the opposition. Thugs (zonderebi, prison slang for ‘ringers’) attack demonstrators. One new party, the anti-European Conservative Movement, is accused of conducting an intimidation campaign. Tens of thousands rallied in Tbilisi in June when Georgia was denied an EU membership perspective, in scenes reminiscent of Ukraine’s pro-EU Maidan in 2013, but the opposition is demoralised and divided. Belarus meanwhile has tied its fate to Russia. A Russian defeat might mean regime change there too.

Elsewhere in the region, the last ten years have seen the rise of ‘balancers,’ states that hedge their bets between Russia and the EU; and other options if available, like Turkey for Azerbaijan. Such states are now likely to lose Russia as a source of finance and a role model. Optimists hope that those within the EU, like Hungary, will now be more likely to heed Brussels. Those outside the EU like Serbia may look to China.

Ukraine will have to sort out relations with its larger neighbours, namely Poland and Turkey. Relations with Warsaw under the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government, in place since 2015, have hit real depths, with both sides politicising history disputes. But Poland has seen 5.5 million Ukrainians cross the border between February and August. Over 3 million are still there, which is 8 per cent of Poland’s population. This is a huge adjustment for Poland, which was suddenly made ethnically homogenous after World War Two (because of the Holocaust, population exchanges, and shifting borders). Poland has been promoting the idea of an Intermarium or Three-Seas Initiative (Baltic, Black and Adriatic), but within the EU and Polish-led. Ukraine prefers a model based on the Treaty of Hadiach in 1658, the high point of Ukrainian Cossack rebellion, which briefly promised to create a ‘Commonwealth of Three Nations,’ adding Ukraine to Poland and Lithuania.

Turkey never had a history of common statehood with Ukraine, though it is something of a patron to the Crimean Tatars, whose independent Khanate had a loose relationship with the Ottoman Empire up to 1783. Erdoğan was surprisingly frank at the second Crimean Platform organised by Kyiv in August 2022, saying the peninsula belonged to Ukraine. But, depending on what happens in the crucial June 2023 elections, Turkey may be more, not less, likely to play the role of balancer. It has been emboldened by Russia’s weakness to talk to its traditional foe Armenia.

Further afield, all post-Soviet states are becoming more assertive of their independence, less reliant on a weak and distracted Russia, or more willing to take advantage of that distraction. Russia is obsessed with geopolitics; but has until recently benefited from being a unilateral geopolitical actor. If this was really the nineteenth century, other powers would be taking advantage of Russian setbacks. That is most obviously the case with Azerbaijan, which has been hitting targets in Armenia proper to add to its gains in the 2020 war, while Russia is unable to play both sides, its traditional go-to. Amongst other not-so-‘frozen’ conflicts, Transnistria has already been mentioned. Georgia under Georgia Dream is unlikely to make any moves against Abkhazia or South Osetia — indeed it accuses the opposition of wanting to drag Georgia into war. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been fighting, with Russia unlikely to intervene.

Finally, there is the issue of what to do with Ukraine’s NATO application. There is an argument that, if Ukraine turns out to be such a strong independent security actor, it would actually be better off inside the collective decision-making of NATO. Paradoxically but unlikely, that might also reassure Russia that Ukraine would be less likely to act independently.

The Ukraine question is now key to the whole post-post-Cold War security order. Not in the way that Putin insisted before the invasion in February: trying to make Ukraine neutral, and undermining NATO expansion. But because Ukraine is now powerful enough that no reformulation of the security order will work without it: both in eastern Europe and in Europe as a whole, and with or without Russia.


Andrew Wilson