During the Revolution of Dignity in early 2014, more than 100 Ukrainians died for their European aspirations. Never before or after have so many people died for the EU. Fortunately, the EU has honored their sacrifice by offering Ukraine membership prospects and candidate status.
Impressively, in the midst of the war, the Ukrainian government has carried out substantial reforms. On Nov. 8, 2023, the European Commission established that Ukraine had fulfilled four of its key demands for candidate status set in June 2022, primarily on rule of law, and was in the process of fulfilling the three remaining conditions. Therefore, the Commission recommended that the EU Council of the heads of government decide that the EU start membership negotiations with Ukraine. Hopefully, this will soon come to fruition.
If carried out effectively without political impediments, negotiations to become a member of the EU should take three years. Ukraine benefits from already having carried out most of the reforms the EU requires within the framework of its EU Association Agreement from 2016. It already enjoys visa freedom with the EU and the EU should offer it full access to its Single Market, the finest EU asset.
The war has united the Ukrainian nation. Millions of Ukrainians have spent substantial time in Europe and learned new skills and values. They will bring their new insights back to Ukraine and transform their native land. The establishment of proper rule of law is already well on its way.
For the EU, Ukraine’s accession in the late 2020s could be a major stimulus as the big enlargement in 2004, which heralded half a decade of superior EU growth. Ukraine will be integrated into the European supply chain, and it is already astounding with excellent growth in 2023 in spite of the war. Ukraine’s EU membership will also bring about democratic and legal stability.
War Crimes and Reparations
Russia has caused Ukraine horrendous damage. One element is material damage. The February 2023 assessment by the World Bank amounts to $411 billion. Another element is war crimes, of which the Ukrainians have recorded and documented more than 100,000. Increasingly, two statements are being made by Western politicians: “Russia must be held accountable” and “Russia must pay.” The question is how that will be done and how fast.
In May 2023, the G7 leaders made this statement:
“We will continue our efforts to ensure that Russia pays for the long-term reconstruction of Ukraine… we will continue to take measures available within our domestic frameworks to find, restrain, freeze, seize, and, where appropriate, confiscate or forfeit the assets of those individuals and entities that have been sanctioned in connection with Russia’s aggression…We reaffirm that, consistent with our respective legal systems, Russia’s sovereign assets in our jurisdictions will remain immobilized until Russia pays for the damage it has caused to Ukraine.”
Altogether, the G7 has found $280 billion of Russian sovereign assets. A substantial literature exists claiming that these sovereign assets should be confiscated and passed on to Ukraine as war reparations. Given that Russia has abandoned all its international legal obligations and even confiscates private companies in Russia, the only ethical approach must be to seize Russian state property in the West and transfer it to Ukraine. This is one of the big issues that the West needs to resolve in the course of 2014. As Martin Sandbu has pointed out, these reserves have no immediate impact on the Russian economy since they are anyhow held abroad as reserves, presumably to facilitate Putin’s war.
The International Criminal Court has already issued an arrest warrant for Putin for the kidnapping of Ukrainian children. Ukraine’s Prosecutor General is registering the thousands of war crimes and Ukrainian courts have already sentenced many Russian culprits. When the war ends, the many war crimes need to be pursued in an effective manner.
The Western Aim Must Be Democracy in Russia
Western policy on Ukraine must be seen in a wider context. The aim is not only to salvage Ukraine from Putin barbary, but to secure peace and democracy to Europe. Europe will not be safe until Russia becomes a normal, democratic state. Therefore, Western policy must aim to transform Russia into a democratic state.
This requires that the West believes that Russia can say farewell to Putin and his authoritarian regime and become a normal state. After Ukraine has defeated Russia on the battlefield, a window of opportunity will open up for such a transformation in Russia. The West must not miss it, as it unfortunately did in the 1990s.
As Yale History Professor Timothy Snyder has explained so well, Russia is the last European imperialist country. Zbigniew Brzezinski famously stated in this journal in 1994 that “Russia can be either an empire or a democracy, but it cannot be both…. without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” One European country after the other has lost its imperial ambitions after losing a war. The last remnant is Russia. If Russia loses its war of aggression against Ukraine, it might finally get rid of its obsolete imperialist bug. Russia’s defeat is not only in the interest of the West and Ukraine but also of Russia, as Russian liberals now in exile, such as Leonid Gozman and Viktor Shenderovich, have pointed out.
While the West cannot hope to oust Putin on its own, it should isolate Putin and render him as vulnerable as possible. There is no worse Russian leader than Putin in the wings. While the West can hardly instigate his ouster, it should welcome it.
Since Putin runs a personal authoritarian regime without any real ideology, party, or monarchy, it is likely to collapse with his demise. Russia can only benefit from such a destabilization of the regime, which might bring about democratization or at least substantial liberalization.
Russia is a developed country with an educated population. Such a country can become a democracy, as Seymour Martin Lipset taught us. A strong authoritarian and imperial tradition are obstacles, but they can be overcome as so many other countries (Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan) have shown. Russia can become a democracy. Therefore, the West should support democratic forces in Russia.
Toward a Western Strategy
Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022 woke up the West and united it, but the Zeitenwende that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared has not arrived as yet. The West is still in the search of a geopolitical strategy.
To begin with, the West needs to establish its goal. To support Ukraine “for as long as it takes” is no goal. The first goal must be Ukraine’s victory, which means that Russia must be defeated militarily.
Second, the West should do whatever it can to speed up Ukraine’s victory. It must realize that Ukraine’s cause is ours. The Ukrainian soldiers are fighting for us. Therefore, the collective West needs to accelerate its arms deliveries to Ukraine and provide the necessary financial support for the Ukrainian state budget. The faster Ukraine wins, the fewer lives will be lost on both sides and the less the cost of reconstruction will be.
If Russia would win, it would not stop for long but continue its aggression against the West, possibly after some time. Moldova appears most vulnerable, being a small and poor state outside of NATO. Next, Russia could move in Western Balkans or into the Baltics. Remember that Russia claims to fight NATO and not Ukraine. Therefore, we should not ask Ukrainians to be grateful for the assistance we provide them with, but we should be grateful to the Ukrainians for them defending us against Russia’s aggression and give the Ukrainians everything we can.
Third, the Western aim should be to put an end to Russia’s aggressive, authoritarian and kleptocratic regime. As long as Putin and his ilk rule Russia, it is likely to start new wars. A democratic regime in Russia is the best hope for peace. A Western strategy must include not only Ukraine, but also Russia and Belarus. The Western policy on Russa should be “Democracy first!” A major tool to achieve that should be global financial transparency so that the ill-gained fortunes of Putin and other kleptocrats are laid open.
To achieve this all the Western countries should adopt legislation allowing them to seize the Russian Central Bank reserves that have been immobilized in the West and use them for Ukrainian reconstruction. NATO should invite Ukraine to become a member of the organization at its 75th anniversary summit in Washington in 2024. The EU has already offered Ukraine a candidate status and it should start accession negotiations as fast as possible, offering early entry to the EU Single Market.
The ultimate Western aim should be to go back to the old formula of George H.W. Bush in May 1989: “Europe whole and free and in peace.”
Anders Åslund is a senior fellow at the Stockholm Free World Forum.
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