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Condemnation of Russia’s invasion isn’t enough – Ukraine needs stronger European support now

Expert comment

Written by Olena Borodyna

Image license:"Kyiv at Sunset" by Trey Ratcliff is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The world changed on the morning of 24 February. As a Ukrainian in the UK, waking up to the news of Russia’s full-scale military invasion of my country was surreal, despite repeated warnings of Russian forces building up along the Ukrainian border.

The war in Ukraine will have repercussions far beyond its borders. By attacking a sovereign, democratic nation, Putin is challenging the future of the European, and indeed global, security order. The very existence of Ukraine as a sovereign state is at stake, and yet currently it is largely fighting on its own – as highlighted by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in an emotional plea for help. This attack on Ukrainian sovereignty challenges the values the global order is built on. Simply condemning Russia’s invasion isn’t enough: Ukraine needs stronger European support now.

It is unclear whether there are forces inside Russia that can stop Putin. His obsession with restoring Russia’s past imperial glory and perceptions of Russia’s victimhood are well-documented. But in his speech earlier this week, he went much further, denying Ukraine’s right to exist and making false claims about a ‘genocidal’ government in Kyiv. It is difficult to know how widely shared Putin’s imperial sentiments are, or how much support for war there is among the Russian public. While there have been some protests, many Russians may simply accept Putin’s war as a fait accompli. The reality is that Putin is the sole decision-maker in the country, and he chose war with Ukraine.

In the absence of a strong anti-war movement in Russia, the only realistic way to stop the invasion is through strong European support to Ukraine.

Why supporting Ukraine is in Europe’s interest

This war is bigger than Ukraine. If allowed to stand, Russia’s invasion will reverberate across Europe and globally. Failing to act now brings the prospect of a prolonged war in the heart of the continent.

The first European countries to feel the impact will be former Soviet states. Many fear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine paves the way for military action against them. The Baltic states, which share borders with Belarus and are members of NATO, have already voiced concerns about a possible military threat from Russia. Georgia, which has experienced military aggression from Russia in the past and whose territories have been occupied, will watch the Western response to events in Ukraine closely for clues about the West’s commitment to its security, not least given the lacklustre response to previous instances of Russian aggression.

The new democracies of Eastern Europe will see a weak response by European countries as a leadership failure. It would send a signal to autocrats globally that democratic progress is not valued, and international law is negotiable.

How European countries should support Ukraine now

New sanctions and measures aimed at crippling Russia’s ability to sustain war have swiftly followed the military incursion into Ukraine. Putin likely factored sanctions and other economic countermeasures into his calculations before he started the campaign. These measures will take time to have any significant impact and Russia’s substantial sovereign wealth fund will cushion the blow, as will potential financial support from China. There are other ways Western countries could support Ukraine now.

1) Provide more defensive weapons

The Western allies will be reluctant to get militarily involved in Ukraine, and Putin knows this. Ukrainian forces have put up a fight, but they require support. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister has repeatedly called for further supplies of defensive weapons, but so far few countries have been willing to step up support in any meaningful way.

2) Speak with a unified voice and make good on commitments

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a profound challenge to European and global security and requires European countries to speak with a unified voice. European governments should work together and present a united front in responding to aggression. They should rally global support and call out the invasion of Ukraine for what it is – a violent attempt to overthrow an emerging democracy and turn it into a puppet state. Politicians in countries still wondering whether Russia’s supposed security concerns are justified or legitimate should ask themselves why this should trump the security of neighbouring states, and publicly question the myths spread by Russian propaganda.

European partners must make good on the commitments they make, or risk playing into Putin’s hands. The Russian president revels in pointing out the hypocrisies of the ‘liberal order’. He will use a weak European response to the invasion and any failures to fulfil commitments to generate anti-Western sentiment among Russians and Ukrainians.

3) Offer increased humanitarian assistance and help Ukraine’s neighbours prepare for and manage refugee flows

While the International donors have supported the humanitarian response in Eastern Ukraine, funding gaps have remained substantial. Needs will grow exponentially in the coming days and months. The International donors should increase their assistance and explore ways to expand existing networks in Eastern Ukraine to the country as a whole. Food security will quickly deteriorate if the country misses its agricultural planting season, and will ripple through to other countries reliant on agricultural imports from Ukraine.

In the last two days, images of Kyiv residents trying to flee the city have filled the front pages of newspapers. They are a sign of the coming wave of refugees and internally displaced people as many Ukrainians leave their homes. Poland and other countries neighbouring Ukraine are preparing for a wave of refugees, possibly in the millions. Financial assistance should be extended to help these countries prepare for and support refugees.

4) Counter Russian disinformation

Russia’s disinformation activities about and in Ukraine are well-documented. It is highly likely to intensify disinformation efforts, launching a barrage of false claims about the success of its military campaign to shore up domestic support for the war, while covering up Ukrainian civilian casualties and spreading false rumours about Ukrainian defence forces. European countries should counter Russian efforts to spread false information about the war in their own countries, such as through Russia Today, the Kremlin’s propaganda TV channel. They should also call out false narratives promoted by Russia’s Foreign Ministry, and only share information provided by official Ukrainian sources.

As a young Ukrainian, I am hopeful that, in the days and weeks to come, our army holds the line against Russian forces and defends Ukrainian statehood and the progress the country has made towards building a vibrant democracy. But to withstand the invasion Ukraine requires greater support from its European allies. Not providing Ukraine with such support will constitute a moral failure that will haunt Europe and the world for generations.