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Ukraine’s defense of freedom: a conversation with our partner Aspen Institute Kyiv

Digital format, 13/04/2022, Digital Panel Discussion

There is ample consensus that a firm and cohesive response to the Russian attack on Ukraine must come from the international community, Europe in particular. There is also a clear awareness that neither punitive measures nor the supply of arms to Ukrainian forces are likely to radically impact the outcome of this military conflict. For that to work, Ukraine would have to accrue a series of successes on the ground – a difficult prediction to make at the present moment. Despite their wide-ranging nature and already tangible impact on the Russian economy, economic sanctions have not had a sufficiently rapid effect, hence Ukraine’s insistence on a complete energy and trade embargo against Moscow. Even the “self-sanctioning” by companies refusing to do business with Russia for reasons of reputation have had only marginal or indirect effects that will probably be more serious over the medium- rather than the short-term. The fact remains that European payments for Russian gas go toward financing Moscow’s war. Supporters of a complete embargo note that, in any case, Russia would not have the immediate capacity to sell its gas elsewhere and that Europe could therefore call Putin’s bluff.

On the strictly military plane, the situation is currently uncertain, and much depends on a continuous flow of direct aid from Western nations. Every possible scenario for negotiating a ceasefire and reaching an eventual accord on territorial issues is conditioned by Russia’s willingness to withdraw the majority of its forces from Ukraine. Before there can be any discussion of possible forms of neutrality, however, Kyiv is adamant about receiving international assurances of its right to defend its borders.

Within the context of the contacts underway to exploit any minimal receptiveness to negotiation, it is important that the West remain cohesive. This will require the Zelensky government’s continued cultivation of close cooperative relations with the principal European nations, despite their not always convergent objectives. Different countries have diverse sensibilities, of course, and European concerns about whether internal consensus will hold in the face of the difficult economic situation is understandable.

In terms of the European Union, the Kyiv government’s main goal is not only to achieve candidate country status, but to move rapidly on to accession, even though from Brussels’ standpoint the road appears decidedly longer than their wished-for 24 months. In any case, the process of accession would play a pivotal role in facilitating the country’s physical reconstruction, increased commercial trade, technological and military modernization and financial reinforcement. Given the overall situation, Europe will naturally be playing close attention to several fundamental reforms inherently linked to the mechanism of accession.

Despite the many uncertainties and fears for the solidity of European positions, two things come very clearly to the fore: a strong awareness of several mistakes in judgement made up to the recent past with regard to Russia, and a firm desire to defend the common values of democracy, territorial sovereignty and respect for human rights.