With distance comes clarity. As time passes, it is becoming increasingly clear that spring 2014 was the decisive period in Ukraine’s modern nation-building story. Russia’s hybrid war sought nothing less than the removal of independent Ukraine from the European map. In the years prior to this attack, Vladimir Putin had repeatedly expressed his belief that Ukraine was not a real country. In early 2014, he finally moved to transform this vision into reality. Whether Russia planned to annex the eight Ukrainian oblasts designated by the Kremlin as ‘Novorossia’ (‘New Russia’), or merely to set up a puppet state, is immaterial. Either way, Ukraine would not have survived the shock of such a major amputation.
The miraculous grassroots response to this existential threat saved the country from destruction and created a powerful foundation myth for a new and inclusive Ukrainian nation. This was not a top-down, state-sanctioned attempt to create the impression of popular involvement – this was ordinary Ukrainians taking the destiny of the country into their own hands. The thousands of volunteers who rushed to the front lines or mobilized to crowdsource an entire army are quite literally the stuff of legend. Their intervention prevented Russian hybrid forces from breaking out of their Donbas beachheads in May 2014, while galvanizing a spirit of defiant resistance throughout the entire country. By July, the Kremlin found itself forced to throw more and more conventional troops into the fray to stave off complete defeat. The result was a September 2014 stalemate that continues, more or less, to this day.
Regular fatalities along the line of contact serve to remind Ukrainians that there is still a war on, but the days when Ukraine’s very existence was under threat are now long gone. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to entertain the possibility of a return to ‘normality’ or the demilitarization of Ukrainian-Russian relations any time soon. Even if a viable short-term peace agreement with Russia were achievable, continued Kremlin hostility to Ukraine’s democratic transformation and European integration remains all but guaranteed.
Moscow has already demonstrated its readiness to accept huge diplomatic and economic costs in order to prevent Ukraine from leaving the Kremlin sphere of influence. The logic behind the Kremlin’s ultra-hawkish stance on Ukraine is simple enough: if successful, Ukraine’s westward pivot would create a precedent for post-Soviet democratization that would pose a direct challenge to Russia’s authoritarian model. Most Russians genuinely believe Ukraine is part of the historic Russian nation, so the successful democratic transformation of Ukrainian society would inevitably lead to demands for similar processes inside Russia itself. This makes the failure of Ukraine’s European ambitions an overriding Kremlin priority.
Russia is currently constructing a series of large military bases along the Ukrainian border and generally preparing for an extended military confrontation. Ukraine must do likewise. This does not mean silly PR stunts like the ‘Great Wall of Ukraine’ or rabble-rousing anti-Russian rhetoric and meaningless parliamentary grandstanding. It means placing the nation on a long-term military footing and getting the population used to the idea that vigilance against the Russian threat is the new normal. It means carrying out genuine reforms, not in order to tick boxes on EU and IMF wish lists, but because creating a better business environment and attracting investors is the only sure way to guarantee the future of an independent Ukraine. It means resisting the temptation to get back into bed with individual Russian business groups on temporarily advantageous terms, and accepting the painful necessity of cutting bilateral cultural ties that only serve to reinforce dangerous notions of Ukraine as part of the ‘Russian World’.
Living with the reality of a constant Russian military threat is not for the fainthearted, but the likes of South Korea, Israel and Cyprus all provide examples of success in the face of similarly permanent military challenges. Ukraine survived the big statehood test of 2014, but it must now learn how to thrive in the shadow of continued Russian hostility. The Russian threat is clearly not going to go away. The new Ukraine needs to convince the Kremlin that it, too, is here to stay.