Opinion - Politics

Op-ed: Ukraine and its allies must tackle 5 tests for the civilized world to shape a better future

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy holds a conversation with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen via videolink, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine May 9, 2022. 
Ukrainian Presidential Press Service | Reuters

Here are the five crucial tests Ukraine and its global partners and allies must tackle as Russian President Vladimir Putin's criminal war approaches its most decisive phase.

Some are short-term, and others have generational consequences. What unites them is that all five are necessary to transform Putin's murderous authoritarian threat into a historic opportunity for the civilized world to shape a better future.

  • Can Ukraine's friends, particularly those in Europe and North America, not only maintain but also strengthen their unity and solidarity in the face of Putin's growing brutality? With global energy prices and inflation rising, can Ukraine's friends avoid the inevitable fatigue among democracies and remain focused on what seems a far-away threat?
  • Will Ukraine's arms suppliers continue to provide Kyiv with greater military capabilities, despite Moscow's threats of escalation, including the possible use of battlefield nukes. With this enhanced weaponry, can Ukrainian troops not only hold but retake their sovereign territory that is occupied by Russian troops.
  • Can NATO overcome Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's opposition — and potentially that of others — to imminent Finnish and Swedish application for allied membership? Can it provide Finland and Sweden protective status until they are full members, and accelerate that process? Can the U.S. Senate ratify Finnish and Swedish NATO membership before the summer break, creating the crucial momentum?
  • Can Ukraine and its friends do more to establish globally the factually correct narrative that Putin is solely responsible for this premeditated and unprovoked war? Can they reach the Russian people more effectively so that they better understand that Putin launched a war in their names that was not in their interests?
  • Finally, can the U.S. and its global allies and partners strategically defeat Putin and sufficiently weaken Russian military capability, so that Moscow is unable to continue the Ukraine war or repeat it elsewhere? Can NATO and its global partners sufficiently strengthen themselves so that they more effectively deter this sort of threat in the future?

That's a long list, and it's only the beginning.

The bottom line is that unanticipated Ukrainian resilience, resourcefulness, patriotism, and bravery have provided the free world an opportunity not only to save Ukraine but also to reverse years of democratic drift and authoritarian resurgence.

 If one is to avoid having the rule-of-the jungle replace rule-of-law, now is the time to act. 

It will be as important in the years ahead that the transatlantic community embraces Russia and Russians as part of President George H.W. Bush's dream of "a Europe Whole and Free." One should already be designing how to make that happen. In the meantime, however, Ukraine's friends, for now, must quell Putin's revanchist, historically perverted obsession with restoring some false notion of "ancient Rus" through whatever means necessary.

The past week underscored the positive momentum toward this end.

Finland and Sweden moved toward NATO membership, the United Kingdom tightened sanctions that cracked Putin's wall of secrecy around his family and rumored girlfriend; Russian troops appeared to be retreating from Ukraine's second-largest city Kharkiv, and Ukrainian troops began launching a counter-offensive toward the eastern city of Izyum, targeting Russian supply lines to the Donbas region.

Finland and Sweden this past week moved closer toward NATO membership applications, which should become official in the coming days. 

"Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay," said Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin in a statement on Thursday, making it all but certain that Finland, with its 810-mile border with Russia, would do so following other steps in the next days. "NATO membership would strengthen Finland's security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance."

On Friday, all Swedish political parties presented a revised assessment of a deteriorated security situation in their region. Six of the eight parties supported conclusions that favor NATO membership after 200 years of neutrality. The Swedish government is expected to take the formal decision to apply for NATO membership on Monday.  

For those misguided voices who still argue that NATO membership destabilizes rather than secures a more peaceful Europe, talk to officials of these countries, who have seen the three Baltic members of NATO remain secure while Russia overran Ukraine, a non-NATO member.

Turkish President Erdogan is the NATO leader who represents the greatest opposition thus far to Sweden and Finnish enlargement, based on what Turkey says is Sweden's long-standing sheltering of Kurdish terrorists. Yet Erdogan's language suggests this is more of a negotiating ploy than an immovable object.

"We are following developments regarding Sweden and Finland, but we are not in a positive mindset," Erdogan said. "At this point, it is not possible for us to look at it positively."

Putin's war not only has failed to take Ukraine, but it has also prompted global shifts that go far beyond Finland and Sweden.

Upon receiving the Atlantic Council's Distinguished Leadership Award, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said Russia's invasion of Ukraine has caused "a paradigm shift in geopolitics."

Added Draghi, "It has strengthened the ties between the European Union and the United States, isolated Moscow, raised deep questions for China. These changes are still ongoing, but one thing is certain: they are bound to stay with us for a long, long time.

"We must continue to support the bravery of the Ukrainians as they fight for their freedom and the security of us all, he said. There should be peace, he argued, but added, "It will be up to Ukrainians to decide the terms of this peace and no one else."

The threats of historic nature have been clear since Putin began assembling his troops last year for the Feb. 24 attack. Now, said Draghi, the opportunities are clearer.

"The war in Ukraine has the potential to bring the European Union even closer together," he said. "We must remember the urgency of the moment, the magnitude of the challenge. This is Europe's hour, and we must seize it. The choices the European Union faces are brutally simple. We can be masters of our own destiny or slaves to the decisions of others."

What Draghi says makes him optimistic is that Europe isn't tackling this alone but strengthened by "the timeless bond" of European-U.S. relations."

The test now is whether the current unity and momentum of Ukraine's friends can withstand Putin's escalating brutality and their predilection toward fatigue.  

Frederick Kempe is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council.