[Part 2] Ukrainian sacrifice has created the opportunity for a better future with Russia.
Ukraine sees how to fight Putin. But they also see a chance for a different future between the West and Russia. We must take it.
This is part 2 of a three-part series on changing our approach to the war in Ukraine.
Part 1 argues that there is no way to return to “normal” with Putin, and looks at how and why we must change our thinking on the risk/opportunity calculus we are getting so wrong.
Part 2 looks at the considerable opportunity that Ukraine is forging for us — at the different, better future we might have if we are brave enough to take it.
Part 3 will look at what can be done in short order to help Ukraine win.
Ukrainian sacrifice has created the opportunity for a better future with Russia. [Part 2]
Ukraine sees how to fight Putin. But they also see a chance for a different future between the West and Russia. We must take it.
But imagine the world if we save Ukraine. Imagine the century we might have then.
Ukraine is the crucial battle that will shape the century. The clash of ideas that we must win. Here it is, on a Ukrainian battlefield. It is this. From this moment, from victory in Ukraine, comes the stronger, better century that we hope for. If we miss it, it will not come again.
Europe has completely transformed itself since the moment Putin’s army swept over the wall in Ukraine. Seismic change is coming. If the United States chooses to be absent from this shaping by not understanding the opportunity before us, it will be to the detriment of the 70 years that we have spent building peace and security and prosperity in Europe, and the 30 years that we have spent trying to help the states that emerged from the collapsed Soviet empire.
Some think what the Ukrainians are doing is madness — but maybe it is the only sanity left.
* * * * *
On March 4, Ukrainian President Zelensky — obviously weary but full of fire, far more at home in the drab khakis of war than he ever was in a suit — spoke directly to a crowd flooding the streets outside the iconic old Georgian parliament. All the way down Rustaveli Avenue, antiwar demonstrators waved Georgian and Ukrainian flags — crimson red and snowy white next to sky blue and sunflower gold, flags of independence, flags that belong together in so many respects, flags of nations that shared so much history even when they did not have these flags. The people on the street were the people who had fought for Georgian democracy more than once over the past generation, and who continue to fight for it still. Their fury at their government for not supporting Ukraine during the renewed Russian invasion was a perfect canvas for Zelensky’s words.
It wasn’t just Tbilisi Zelensky spoke to remotely via brief live comments and a longer recorded address. An even bigger crowd was jammed together in Prague listening to Zelensky repudiate the decision made by NATO earlier that day not to enact a no fly zone over Ukraine or provide additional fighter jets so Ukraine could continue to contest the skies themselves. In five other European cities, too, Zelensky addressed the people directly.
You could feel that the entire region will be rebuilt from this moment. Or it could be, anyway. It could be.
* * * * *
The post-Maidan leaders have never had a day without war. Never had a day when Ukrainian men and women were not enlisting to train to fight an invading army. Never had a day when they weren’t under hybrid threat from multiple fronts. Never had a day when they knew that it wasn’t going to get worse before it got better.
In Part 1 of this text and in an examination of the first days of the war, I wrote about how Ukraine defied expectations in the war by learning from their eight years of experience fighting the Russians in eastern Ukraine, and by crafting a strategy for victory — a strategy that created opportunity by taking risks. They weren’t paralyzed by the thinking of limited war and sanctuary: limited war ended when Putin sought to annihilate them and their history; sanctuary ended when Putin declared their territory was already his own. Instead, the Ukrainians embraced a mindset not unlike that which we have seen from the Kremlin in recent years, which is to understand there will be chaos, but to know that if you move with purpose and get through it to the other side faster than anyone else, you get to shape what comes after.
The Ukrainians set a course of action that envisioned a way to win. I think it’s clear that they knew this was the only way that Ukraine would survive. Ukraine, even if not they themselves.
But the vision shaped by this group of Ukrainian leaders was not just about fighting a war. It was about the world they wanted to live in after the war — the world that might be built from the opportunities they could shape through the war. The world in which Ukraine could survive, and in which this war would really end.
They are showing pieces of this vision to us.
Before Zelensky spoke to European peoples on March 4, he spoke directly to the Russian people, and he spoke directly to Belarusians. He spoke of shared culture, shared history, shared childhoods — that there was no disagreement between them. We have no beef with you. Stop fighting Putin’s war of lies. He has been as miserable to you as to us. This is essentially the messaging strategy.
This theme of has been meticulously curated across Ukraine’s efforts in the information domain, and in how they have prepared their soldiers and volunteers for the war. There are lots of upbeat calls to surrender or walk away instead of dying in a war that is meaningless for individual Russians, but everything for Ukrainians. Despite likely significant casualties, there’s a preference for videos showing destroyed vehicles, planes, helicopters, and other equipment, instead of dead men — stopping the Russian war machine, not glorified carnage. Ukraine has made entreaties to the Red Cross to help return the bodies of fallen soldiers to Russia, because the Russian government seems to have no interest in doing this. Ukraine has tried to be transparent with POWs. Videos of POWs show they are treated humanely, allowed to call home. The Ukrainian government made an announcement — including details of how to travel to Kyiv — that any mother of a prisoner of war who comes to Kyiv to pick up her son would be allowed to take him home. There is a consistent drumbeat to these actions. We will fight because we must, but our war in not with the Russian people. We do not demonize or dehumanize you. It doesn’t have to be this way.
This has been amplified and reinforced by the general population. Farmers towing tanks away with tractors, or stealing Russian vehicles for joyrides, are everywhere on the internet — a laugh at messing with the Russian forces, not violent confrontations. Large crowds gathered in Kherson and Melitopol to boo the arrival of Russian military convoys, waving flags in their faces, climbing on vehicles, larking about — a demoralizing but nonviolent “welcome” for the “liberators.” A viral video showing a car full of Ukrainians sharing a laugh with a Russian tank crew whose vehicle had run out of gas — there was goodnatured ribbing, some mentions of how ridiculous this all was, but no enmity. This is absurd and it doesn’t have to be this way, all of these actions say.
Collectively, it is a fabric of actions and restraint from the Ukrainian side that is meant to be the basis of a better future between Russia and Ukraine. The humanity exhibited is that of a nation that will be a good neighbor to a good neighbor. It may not be enough to blow open the information dome still limiting what Russians can see and know about the war — but every son that makes it home is a possibility for another family to see the truth.
I think the framing of this vision is quite powerful. But it doesn’t stop at repairing the damage between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine is trying to buy us all a different future. Trying to force us to see there can be one — if Putin is defeated here, and if we all accomplish this together. If they can get us to have sufficient imagination in time.
* * * * *
From the early days of the (original) war in 2014, Ukrainians have mustered to fight Putin knowing that this was for us — to defend the borders of Europe to show us that they belong in it.
Now, in this new phase of the war, they understand even more so that this is about Putin’s ire against the West, and they know that if we come to help them, it probably will not be in time.
But so much of what they have done has been to strengthen our resolve, revive us, and help us see what they see — the opportunity, a quick flash, a glimpse, a phantom future brushing past our face — that we owe it to them to consider what that might look like.
For Ukraine to survive — genuinely survive, not as a captive or a vassal — Putin must lose. He must be defeated in Ukraine. Ukraine must win — and better faster than slower, before there’s just too much churn to see clear of.
So if Putin fails in Ukraine, is defeated in Ukraine, falls because of Ukraine — then what?
The first part of this is about Ukraine’s immediate neighborhood — the area of the “historical unity” of the Slavic peoples that Putin went on about for 7000 words last summer.
There are many ifs about what any breakdown or transition of power in Russia would actually look like. But if there is any opening, I think we all know it will not be like the ‘90s. No one will come to the table with naive optimism or illusions about the recent past. Russian doors will not be open to “Western” advice and support, not to risk a repeat of the ‘90s dysfunction and economic catastrophe. And yet 20 years of Putinism won’t dissolve in a day. Some of his ideas — about historical identity, for example — will persist. It seems likely that one of those is that the distinct, unique history of Russia sets it apart from the timeline of Western history, beyond incidental moments of convergence. But this doesn’t have to be a cold, distant, hostile separation that requires hard divisions of land and treasure between us.
I think it’s easy to imagine that the best way to achieve this can be if there isn’t a hard division between us — but instead, there is Ukraine between us. Not Ukraine, the “buffer state” — but Ukraine, the new regional power, the new center of gravity that is expanding the footprint of the free world, not clinging to the edge of it.
Ukrainians want to be in Europe. That decision is made. And they’ve earned that place now. But they also feel kinship to their Belarusian and Russian cousins. There will be a chance after the war — if we help Ukraine win the war — for this to be put to good use.
If Putin falls because of his war on Ukraine, Ukrainians and Russians will once again have fought the same evil together. There will be shared suffering and sacrifice to leverage — as long as the Ukrainians remain willing to discuss it that way.
Putin may have wanted a negative, oppressive union of the three Slavic Peoples — Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians — but a Ukraine magnanimous in victory and sincere in its efforts to reforge this triad into something modern could bridge the history between these nations, and then between them and us.
The juggernaut that is then Ukrainian democratic commitment, cultural and educational richness, military might, and industrial capacity and innovation becomes a new center of gravity for the expanding free world.
Zelensky has already started trying to do this — the wartime scenesetter of it, anyway. And that fabric of created possibility could be the whole-cloth of something new, something that was before unthinkable. Repair the relations in the neighborhood, then forge a new relationship between that neighborhood and everyone else. Ukraine can and should lead all of those efforts — as the nation that defeated Putin.
It is not Russia but Putinism that must be defeated. The Ukrainian gamble has given us the possibility to be able to bring this about.
There are a secondary and a tertiary aspect of this opportunity, as well. Ukraine’s survival, if it is a victory for us all, will sustain this newly revitalized Europe and carry it forward. Ukraine’s emergent trilateral defense relationships — with the UK and Poland, and with Turkey and Azerbaijan— could also play an innovative role in this post-war realignment. Ukraine has been very clever in how it reminds us that sometimes the lines we have drawn are not the most useful ones.
A different future with Russia, for Russia, for us. This is what can come from a decisive military and strategic defeat of Putin in Ukraine.
A future where Europe doesn’t end in a hard eastern border, where Russians don’t feel isolated and misjudged by their European cousins. Where Ukraine is not the bloodlands of the conquest of empires, but the brilliant new engine of a better future for us all.
An end to old enmities and chance for something truly new. Renewed purpose for the free world where more time and energy and resources are freed up to ensure the war with autocracy no longer seems so unwinnable, and to ensure we can overcome the existential challenges we face this century.
And the point isn’t that I think this will be easy. It’s that Ukraine can see this opportunity, and is fighting for it. Why don’t we?
* * * * *
It’s hard to see it from distant American shores — hard to hear it over the noisy din of our national political lives and sometimes very tedious soul-searching. But since the first day of the war, and the evocative imagery that came from it, Europe is transformed.
Previously immovable barriers between “old” and “new” Europe have come down. The sense of stagnation that has dogged the EU since the annexation of Crimea, Orban’s consolidation, and Brexit has lifted. Defense spending increased. Borders and homes opened for Ukrainians displaced by the war, dispelling the divisive energy of the migrant crisis driven by the war Putin backed in Syria. Europe is thinking about itself, thinking about its role in the world and what it stands for. Thinking about how to use its power and its economic might. It is starting to rethink the entire “post-Soviet” space, and how just thinking about it in those terms has been unhelpful.
The United States helped rebuild this continent from disaster and collapse seven decades ago, and it helped it envision what change must look like after the Soviet Union fell apart. In both instances, we know this role was crucial — for our European allies, and for what we get out of that long partnership.
So I will say very clearly to the White House: you are missing it.
You are missing the shift ahead in Europe — the generational shift that will be remembered like the moment when the Berlin Wall came down.
You are missing how this could help America climb out of the doldrums of the early 21st century, and find truly renewed purpose in the world, which we so desperately need to find renewed purpose in who we are at home.
You are missing the chance to save Ukraine and to reshape the entire region around Russia — to give us all a better future with Russia, and give Russia a better future.
The longer you remain blind to the opportunity that Ukraine has bought for us — the longer you can only see through the risk calculations of yesterday’s wars, yesterday’s structures of power — well, this failure of imagination will be remembered as one of the greatest failures of American global leadership. And it will be absolutely inescapable because the unmarked graves of this generation of Ukrainians will be no less quiet in history than the graves of those who Stalin chose to starve because they were an inconvenience to him.
When it is wisdom to watch a nation of 40 million people be dismantled and destroyed by a tyrant who has appetites that have not yet been sated; when it is wisdom to watch the slaughter in real time on social media, and not act; when it is wisdom to condemn the people of one nation to die, and the people of two more to unending oppression — well, then there is a reason that people came into the streets of foreign cities to hear the President of Ukraine. This is the sanity — amidst all the other madness — that they have chosen to latch onto.
Future history need not be tragedy and lament. See instead the brighter future that every Ukrainian is willing to lay down their life for, hoping and praying that we will see what they have done for us and SHOW UP IN TIME. They hope they will see this better future for themselves — but even if they don’t, they want it to be.
We have heard a lot of sincere words from your White House about the conflict between democracy and autocracy. Ukraine is the crucial battle that will shape the century. The clash of ideas that we must win. From victory in Ukraine comes the opportunity to turn the tide. If you miss it, it will not come again.
The energy is in the streets. It is a moment of punctuated equilibrium, when the normally gradual evolution of things leaps forward because of catastrophic events that force adaptation.
It takes very little from the United States of America to facilitate this acceleration, and protect it. Don’t hold back.
* * * * *
One of my Ukrainian colleagues — on the first day of this new war, as he was calmly moving his team and their families out of Kyiv and into western Ukraine — left me a voice message as he was on the road.
“We really very much hope here that the collective West will do their best, because we need it. I believe this is one of the most important issues — the reaction of the collective West… And at the same time… I saw our soldiers, I saw people around, and I understand that we will fight, and I believe that for Putin, it will be the last fight.”
No doubt. No hesitation. He just sees it.
Ukrainians are standing before tanks to remind us that is it is the bravery of common people that can change everything.
It wasn’t so long ago that a generation of Americans went to war to liberate Europe, believing that it meant something — meant everything — that we were willing to pay this price so no one else would have to.
Now it is the Ukrainians paying the price — only on their own ground, from which there is no retreat or safe harbor. But they understand what it is for. And so must we.
Part 3, to be published soon, will describe the concrete actions that can be taken to help Ukraine defeat Putin.