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This is not just Ukraine’s war; it is our struggle too

Putin might conquer Ukraine but he will never be able to control it

Vladimir Putin’s messianic mission to restore Russia’s past “glories” jeopardises the lives of millions today.

It is a nightmare vision of imperialism, despotism, and territorial expansion at the expense of one’s neighbours. It is the kind of vision we thought Europe had left behind eight decades ago.

Make no mistake, this is first and foremost a war against Ukraine as a country and Ukrainians as a people. For Putin, Ukraine is at best a historical part of Russia and at worst a political Frankenstein, artificially stitched together during Soviet times and now sustained by Russia’s adversaries. From this perspective if there is no separate Ukrainian people, how can they enjoy a right to self-determination?

Putin’s previous wars – Chechnya 1999, Georgia 2008, Ukraine 2014 – were relatively short, low in casualties, inexpensive, and domestically popular, while advancing the Kremlin’s strategic objectives. The current invasion is much more open-ended and unpredictable. Putin has gone from being a cautious gambler to wagering everything on Ukraine.


The Russian invasion has already shown signs of losing momentum, despite launching a ferocious attack from all sides at a time of their choosing and enjoying overwhelming military superiority. This is because of a remarkable and heroic defence by the people of Ukraine. The Kremlin is fighting for empire but many Russian soldiers are unsure why exactly they are invading their neighbour.

By contrast, Ukrainians are fighting for their families, their communities, their futures, and are highly motivated. They have not responded to Putin’s call to surrender and turn on their democratically elected leaders who Putin described as a gang of terrorists, drug addicts and neo-Nazis.

As Yurash Sviatoslav, a 26-year-old MP put it: “I was born in an independent Ukraine and I will die in an independent Ukraine.”

We must ensure that Ukraine is helped to escape forever the abusive cycle of Kremlin aggression.

In his hate-filled and chilling speeches Putin has articulated two major war objectives – demilitarisation and ‘denazification’. The first is based on the fiction that Ukraine represents a military threat to Russia. After signing the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, Ukraine gave up the huge arsenal of nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union in return for a guarantee from Russia, the US, and the UK to protect Ukraine’s security and sovereignty.

Ukraine was thereafter a militarily non-aligned state with a small under-resourced army, which encouraged rather than prevented Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and stimulation of conflict in Donbas. Russia does not want to demilitarise Ukraine because it feels threatened, but rather because it wants to bully it with impunity and maintain constant pressure on the Ukrainian people.

Regime change

As for the second objective – denazification – this is another canard. Will Putin start with Ukraine’s Jewish president Volodymyr Zelenskiy? Or the 450-seat parliament which contains not a single representative of a far-right party?

His ‘denazification’ is simply a code for regime change and the installation of what the Kremlin considers a pro-Russian government. But how will that work? Ukraine is a democracy, which has had five presidents during the last two decades. It will not accept an imposed puppet nor will it elect a Kremlin-sponsored quisling.

This war is not only, or even primarily, a military one. It is a clash in Europe between two ways of organising society – democracy versus dictatorship. We have been at this crossroads before and there is only one path Europe and Ukraine can take.

Accordingly, this is not just Ukraine’s war; it is our struggle too. There are already clear signals that the way Europe views Ukraine has been transformed. In these very dark days, we must plan for what happens after the guns fall silent. Ukraine will need an aid programme that rivals or exceeds the Marshall Plan. It will need a clear path to EU membership. We must ensure that Ukraine is helped to escape forever the abusive cycle of Kremlin aggression.

To be effective, external pressure on the Kremlin must be overwhelming and relentless. Yes, Russia has the second biggest military in the world and the largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, but its economy is smaller than Italy’s. This is not a global superpower but a well-armed regional bully.

Putin is not only feeling the heat from his acknowledged adversaries but is getting the cold shoulder from his allies, who are largely a motley crew of dictatorships and dependencies. Even the Kazakhstan autocracy Russia rescued last month has turned down requests to send troops to Ukraine or recognise the Kremlin’s proxies in Luhansk and Donetsk.

The question now is how much of Ukraine Putin will destroy in his bid to conquer the country. Russia might win this war in the military sense but long ago the Kremlin lost the more important struggle for hearts and minds.

Military victory will be as pyrrhic as the “triumphs” in Hungary and Czechoslovakia during the Cold War when Russian tanks quashed attempts to loosen Moscow’s stranglehold. Putin might conquer Ukraine but he will never be able to control it. Irrespective of what happens on the battlefield, the Kremlin has lost Ukraine forever.

Donnacha Ó Beacháin is professor of politics at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University