Flat White

Why Ukraine matters – a short telegram

17 March 2022

10:00 AM

17 March 2022

10:00 AM

Seventy-six years ago in a US embassy after dark, America’s man in Moscow dispatched a message that would set the course of the Cold War. His name was George Kennan, and his message was the Long Telegram – a famed 8,000 word treatise on the USSR and its discontents.

‘At the bottom of the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs,’ Kennen wrote, ‘is a traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.’

Three-quarters of a century later, these words wouldn’t be out of place in any of the chambers, offices, or pubs in Washington or London today.

Surely, with Putin’s heinous invasion of Ukraine and Nato’s scramble to contain him, Kennen’s Telegram doesn’t need much updating. In Russia, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

Though, if that’s the rule then Ukraine is the exception. From the ashes of the Eastern Bloc Ukraine built a fledgling democracy, and where repression and fear were once orders of the day, now liberty and optimism stand in their place.

Ukraine is a special country. It’s important to remember why that is, why the West cares – and especially – why Ukraine isn’t Russia. (With the Kremlin’s propaganda machine working overtime and its battle cry ‘No Ukraine without Russia’ it’s best to nip these things in the bud.)

It’s hard to compare apples and oranges, but let’s start by putting the difference between Ukrainian and Russian cultures in a word: ‘spouse’. In Ukrainian, this is druzhyna, derived from ‘friendship’. In Russian it is suprug, derived from ‘to harness’. One is a relationship based on equality and mutual respect, the other dominance and subjugation.

It’s no wonder the title ‘brother nation’, historically given to Ukraine by Russia, inspired trepidation, when being ‘family’ with Russia is tantamount to a wrestling match.

Ukrainian trepidation didn’t come just from word choices. For generations, tyranny was a lived experience. After two centuries of tsarist autocracy, Ukrainians endured the terrors of communist dictatorship, Holodomor (Stalin’s man-made famine), and the brutal repression of their language and culture.

Despite the trauma and sorrow, Ukrainians preserved their identity. Through the poverty and corruption, they established a democracy. And when autocracy reared its head in 2004 and 2013, Ukrainians rallied with a defiance only a nation bereaved of freedom could know.

With such a history it’s cruel that Ukraine should find another bloodthirsty neighbour rapping on the door. This time though, the stakes couldn’t be higher. For Ukrainians it’s existential; a fight for their identity outside of Russia and future within Europe. But it’s also a fight for the West and the post-second world war status quo.

In those seven and a half decades since Kennan’s telegram, the international community achieved what it had never done before: the decline of inter-state conflict and near-total acceptance of the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Today, ‘war’ is a dirty word. Dreams of unprovoked military conquests will more likely see politicians arrested than elected, and with few exceptions, traditional warfare has been relegated to Hollywood.

This is unfailingly taken for granted and yet it couldn’t be more essential. The long peace since 1945 allowed for interdependent economies supported by liberal institutions, making war more unlikely. Peace was the input and the output; the not-so-secret ingredient for human flourishing.

Russia’s war on Ukraine threatens to take all that away. It’s a strategic challenge. It means to replace the rules-based order with the law of the jungle, where might is right and only the strong survive. This is why Ukraine matters, not just for Ukrainians, but for every inheritor of peace on Earth.

We are on a precipice. But just like Putin’s ‘war of choice’, the West faces a peace of choice: do we sacrifice Ukraine for peace in Europe? Or do we recognise that Ukraine is Europe and do whatever can be done, for Ukrainians’ sake and our own?

Understandably, Western governments have made clear the rules of the game are to avoid a third world war. They are united on economic sanctions but have stopped short of direct military intervention. This is sound policy. Yet while the economic turmoil unleashed on Russia will make warfighting harder, it will pay slow dividends.

In the meantime, Putin’s war continues and Ukraine’s magnificent resistance only makes a further escalation more likely. The West must do more to improve Ukraine’s hand. Whatever can be done within the rules of the game, must be done, for as long as it needs to be done. Not least because Ukrainians deserve it, but also because the West depends on it.

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