29th Nov 2022


Ukraine: holding its ground

  • Captured Russian armour on display (Photo: Christopher Bobyn)

There’s a Ukrainian proverb which says “it’s not the one who strikes the blow who’s stronger, but the one who stands his ground after being hit”.

Ukraine, in defiance of Russia’s assault, is holding its ground on pro-EU reforms.

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  • Donbas refugees in Ukraine: starting from scratch (Photo: Christopher Bobyn)

It’s doing so despite the defunct security promises of the Budapest Memorandum guarantors, the UK and the US, who pledged, in 1994, to uphold its territorial integrity in return for nuclear disarmament. It’s doing so despite meagre financial support from the West and the EU’s lack of strategic vision for eastern Europe.

Today, as in February last year, when Russian spetznaz seized the parliament in Crimea, Moscow remains in full control of escalation or de-escalation.

Russian soldiers play hide and seek with the international community. It’s “volunteers” come to Ukraine in tanks, its soldiers become "demobilised" the minute they cross the border.

Report after report confirms Russia’s undeclared war.

But the UN has not designated it as an aggressor. Instead, the UN secretary general went to Moscow’s 9 May military parade, which contained military units involved in anti-Ukraine operations.

Neither has Russia been designated as a "state sponsor of terrorism" despite its attacks on Ukrainian civilians, or in the aftermath of the MH17 shoot-down, which took the lives of nationals not involved in the conflict.

Instead, Western leaders make pretend Russian leader Vladimir Putin is a neutral observer to the “Minsk” ceasefire agreement.

This is what happens when your country - unlike its adversary - has no nuclear arms; no oil and gas; no UN Security Council veto; no massive propaganda machine.

Ukraine’s unilateral nuclear disarmament, in 1994, removed a global security risk. It’s also given military assistance to UN, Nato, and EU operations.

But in return, it hasn’t got a single rifle from the Budapest signatories.

It hasn’t even got conflict mediation, with the US or the UK, in direct talks with Russia identified as the aggressor.

Western leaders owe it to their own people to stop Putinism from becoming a new norm in the European order.

But instead, they cling to the illusion that Minsk observance or Ukraine federalisation, Russia’s main demand on the conflict, will somehow get us back to where we were before Crimea.

The Russia problem

They don’t want to deal with the real problem, which is Russia itself.

As a Russian official once boasted: “Russia will always be more important to the West than Ukraine”. Is there no more to the EU than realpolitik?

Russia is crushing the opposition at home. It’s an occupying force in four neighbouring states. It sponsors anti-Western regimes around the world and anti-liberal parties in Europe.

In return, it has been granted a de facto veto on EU and Nato enlargement.

Despite last year’s sanctions, Western investors, where they can, keep pouring money into Putin’s coffers.

There’s no way to justify this approach. The value of the Russian market for Western goods, or of Russia as a geostrategic counterbalance to China, is far smaller than the security risks it creates.

Western appeasement is based on fear of Putin’s military unpredictability.

Russia’s aggression is based on the rationale it can’t compete with the West in any other way.

Faced with a grossly mismanaged economy, corrupt institutions, and a demoralised population at home, Putin is trying to distort the playing field by force.

With Russian food prices on the rise, he’s feeding people anti-Western, anti-liberal, and revanchist propaganda instead.

It makes no sense, but people believe it anyway:

Western liberals, and at the same time, Western neo-Nazis, are being blamed for all the evils of the world.

Russia isn’t at war with Ukraine, but if you wear Ukrainian folk costume, show the flag, or listen to the Ukrainian anthem in your car, you can get detained.

Russian soldiers aren’t in Ukraine, but if a grieving Russian mother speaks out about her dead son she’s violating a new state secret (on military casualties in peacetime).

The Eurasian Union is not a neo-Soviet bloc. But Stalin, one of the bloodiest tyrants in history, is glorified as a national hero.


The current policy promoted by Western leaders, which relies exclusively on diplomacy and non-punitive sanctions, isn’t going to bring peace.

There is a serious disconnect between the facts reported by Nato and the politics of Nato states, such as the US and Germany.

Nato speaks of “combined Russian-terrorist forces” in Ukraine, but Western leaders keep shaking hands with Putin.

They keep saying the only solution is a diplomatic one. But has Western diplomacy produced any tangible results in Transniestria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Nagorno-Karabakh?

It’s time to admit there’s no real dialogue with Russia.

All we see is more lies, more intimidation, more threats, and more weapons sent to Ukraine in defiance of the Minsk accords.

Not just Russia’s proxies in the Donbas region in east Ukraine, but Russia itself continues to hold dozens of Ukrainian nationals hostage in breach of international law.

In Crimea, it has established an occupation regime which is waging a campaign of intimidation and fear against the people who live there. It is also militarising Crimea with weapons capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Can we expect Minsk to work if there are persistent violations of ceasefire by Russia-controlled militants?

Putin’s plan is to make Donbas into a ball chained to Ukraine’s foot to stop its euro-integration. Can we expect him to hold back if we do nothing when Russian forces capture whole Ukrainian cities, as with Debaltsevo last year?

For all of Moscow’s lies and the West’s euphemisms, history will judge this as a war by Russia on Ukraine.

The puppet governments in Donbas don’t express the will of the local population. They are run by Moscow, via gunmen promoted to the ranks of so-called ministers.

These structures exist only as a means to legalise Kremlin pressure on Kiev. There are no real leaders in the region for Ukraine to talk to about future peace.

Tougher sanctions

Instead of pushing Ukraine into pseudo-peace talks, the West should impose tougher economic sanctions on Russia in order to divert Kremlin resources from the conflict.

The sanctions should stay in place as long as Crimea remains occupied. Moscow shouldn’t be allowed to use its new crimes in Donbas to bargain for recognition of its original crime, the Crimea annexation.

Ukraine also needs military assistance to defend itself. A strong Ukraine is not a threat to peace. It’s the only way to stop the war.

Instead, it gets limited supplies of non-lethal military equipment - too little, too late.

It also gets scant financial backing from the international community, whether last year, or the meagre promises for 2015 - nowhere near the cost of Russia war damage.

When I read the recent Riga summit declaration on the Eastern Partnership, in which there is no war in Ukraine, no terrorist acts in Ukrainian cities, no Russian forces in Ukraine, no Russian tanks and drones, I was almost carried away into Putin’s alternate reality.

More and more Ukrainians are asking the question: what is the objective of Western policy? Is it to keep Ukraine in check, to give it no choice but to follow US and German decisions?

It’s a question which is exploited by Russian propaganda: It speaks of Ukraine being under “external management”, of Western companies buying its assets at huge discounts.

The EU’s current Russia-appeasement is considered by many in Ukraine as a slap in the face.

Ukraine, amid the freezing winter and the violence of the Euromaidan, proved its deep and comprehensive commitment to EU values.

But president Petro Poroshenko has the same problem with the EU as Viktor Yushchenko had after the Orange Revolution - lack of reciprocity to Ukraine’s euro-aspirations.


Back in 2004 and 2005, Russian propaganda eroded EU support by telling Ukrainians “the EU doesn’t want you”. It’s doing the same again today, also in Georgia and Moldova.

It’s ironic the EU keeps pushing Ukraine to make deep reforms, even in wartime. But it’s never the “right time” for an enlargement promise.

Who wins when the EU keeps its distance from Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova? What interests of EU citizens does this policy serve, but creating instability in the region?

Can even euro-optimists be sure there's a future for the EU if all its highbrow talk of values is empty? Does the world really need an EU like that?

It’s been said there’s no nation in Europe which could, alone, hold its ground against Russia.

Ukraine is holding its ground. EU or no EU, it will come out of this war stronger because it has chosen freedom and democracy.

Roman Sohn is a Ukrainian activist and columnist


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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