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In The Aftermath Of Putin's War, How Do We Relate To A More Assertive Ukraine?

This article originally ran on Forbes.com on October 25, 2022. All rights reserved.

Daniel B. Markind is a Forbes.com energy column contributor. The views expressed in this article are not to be associated with the views of Flaster Greenberg PC.

Statesmen hesitate to get involved in wars for numerous reasons.  One key reason is that, once they are started, wars can, and often do, take on lives of their own.  Indeed, at times, they produce the exact opposite result of what the party initiating the conflict is trying to achieve.  Rarely has this been more apparent than in Ukraine, where it now seems increasingly likely that Russian President Vladimir Putin terribly misjudged the situation from the start.  In fact, far from accomplishing whatever goals he may have hoped to achieve by invading Ukraine, there is now a growing likelihood that Putin’s war will actually produce nearly everything that he was trying to prevent. 

During the runup to the February 24, 2022 Russian invasion, Putin claimed that Russia and Ukraine were one people, and that Ukrainian citizens would welcome with open arms and camaraderie heavily armed and uninvited Russian troops invading their country and killing their people.  He dismissed the concept of an independent Ukrainian identity as a fallacy.  Not only were Putin’s claims historically inaccurate and simply wrong back in February (in actuality, the complicated history of the areas now known as Russia, Ukraine, Crimea, Belarus, Poland, Moldavia, Lithuania, Latvia and other nearby locations goes back nearly a thousand years and is fraught with centuries of shifting borders, shifting alliances, wars, treaties, conquests and expulsions), but an independent Ukrainian identity certainly exists now that the war is well underway.  Putin has only himself to thank for that result as it is his war that is mainly responsible for unifying the Ukrainian people to what now exists.

Much as Russia used World War II to reinforce its soldiers’ morale by claiming they were fighting “the great patriotic war,” Ukraine now has its own patriotic war.  This comparatively small country has coalesced to fight to a standstill its much larger and militarily more powerful Russian neighbor.  To be sure, the Ukrainians have received material assistance from many others, but they have fought the war nearly entirely themselves, with their own soldiers, who have put aside their internal differences enough to form a single, unified Ukrainian army. 

The war may have a long way to go, and the frightening prospect of further escalation using weapons of mass destruction still exists, but it looks increasingly unlikely that Putin will obtain anything close to what he has always seemed to want - a militarily-neutered Ukraine dominated by, if not annexed to, Russia proper.  The more the war continues as it has been going, the more likely to occur is the opposite result, and the West needs to plan for it.  Indeed, should current trends continue, the Ukrainians may wind up when this is over laying claim to the most powerful military in Europe, capable of defeating even the Russians and filled with battle tested and unusually hardened troops.  Given that unexpected reality, what would Ukraine’s place be in the post war world?

When military and foreign policy experts discuss ways to possibly end the war, they usually discuss concepts like Russia either totally evacuating Ukraine – including all of the territory taken since 2014; the potential holding of legitimate referenda in contested areas like Crimea; or some sort of arrangement in which Russia will withdraw and in return Ukraine will agree not to become a member of NATO.  There is logic in all of these suggestions, although battlefield realities may make some or all of them impractical.  However, when discussing these potential outcomes, the experts seem to dismiss the current power and sheer resolve of the Ukrainian army, and the citizens of that country.  In actuality, the future may look less like what Western and Russian diplomats would like it to resemble and more like what the Ukrainians will actually accept given the, so far unmistakable, battlefield realities.  While no one would be foolish enough to predict how this conflict will ultimately turn out, at least not just yet, the Ukrainians are highly unlikely to accept any negotiated outcome that only restores that country to the status quo ante, immediately before the Russians invaded.  As the saying goes, “to the victor goes the spoils”.

While the world has been transfixed by the bravery of the Ukrainians and the courage of that country’s leaders, during its nearly thirty years of independence Ukraine rarely has appeared to be a role model country for the rest of the world.  Notorious for its corruption, Ukraine featured prominently in the questionable dealings of Hunter Biden.  While it appears that little of Vladimir Putin’s claim that the current Ukrainian government is neo-Nazi is accurate (President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is, of course, Jewish), there are no doubt neo-Nazi elements in both Ukrainian society and its military (such as the Azov Battalion).  What will become of them?  Will they be diminished by the immense stature of Ukraine's Jewish president, or will they be emboldened by Ukraine's newfound power to try to assert themselves and expand their racist ideology not only in that country but also throughout the rest of Europe?

Perhaps most importantly, diplomats and political leaders throughout Europe and the West must appreciate that whatever the power relationship was that existed between themselves and Ukraine prior to the war, it will have shifted dramatically in Ukraine's favor following Putin's invasion.  Ukraine's infrastructure is being shattered by Putin's inhumane bombardment, to be sure.  That will take years and billions of dollars to repair, but it will be done over time.  What will not be repaired so easily, if at all, is the understanding the Ukraine was once a small, endangered, and to a certain degree isolated country existing next to Russia and remaining independent only so long as Russia permitted.  That will no longer be true.  A pertinent question to ask is will a post war Ukraine be like Israel became after it successfully fought the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (and later wars) against its Arab neighbors to secure Israel’s status as a mainly pro-West independent state with a military disproportionately powerful to its population and overall economy?  Or will Ukraine evolve into something else?

Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe, and indeed much of the world.  It possesses 1.03 trillion cubic meters of energy reserves, making it the second largest energy producer in Europe behind Norway While Ukrainian energy production has decreased since Soviet days from 70bcm per year to the current 20bcm per year, now that Ukraine has shown it can handle the most complicated and difficult problem imaginable, it may attract increased investment.  Indeed, just the prospect of rebuilding Ukraine’s overall infrastructure, not to mention its damaged and in many cases leveled cities, may pose additional investment opportunities for Western countries who may see both business and political incentives in doing so.

In short, while the Ukrainians will no doubt need some outside assistance and investment to recover from the devastation that the war has brought to their country, they now may feel that not only do they not have to look to others to shape their overall future destiny, but their strategic position and military strength will allow them to shape their own future, as well as that of others.  This fundamental fact may go a long way to determining the next decade in Europe and beyond.  We had better start thinking about what it means now.

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