Why the West must not waive in its support for Ukraine: Three critical issues

Why the West must not waive in its support for Ukraine: Three critical issues

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / rospoint.ukr.net
20 May 2023

We are arguably at a critical juncture in history. Humankind is faced with mounting challenges on multiple fronts, among them the decline of democracies and assaults on human rights and freedoms, nuclear sabre-rattling and proliferation, and global warming. In this commentary, I argue that continued resolute support for Ukraine in the face of naked aggression can contribute materially and significantly to addressing each of these challenges.

Support for Ukraine is not limited to direct military, political, and humanitarian initiatives. The current framework includes, and must continue to include, policies which indirectly support Ukraine’s quest for freedom by limiting Russia’s ability to constrain it [1]. Perhaps the most prominent of these is European curtailment of dependence on Russian hydrocarbons, a remarkable feat largely accomplished in less than a year. Such policies have come at major immediate economic costs but will contribute to economic and security benefits in the longer term. 

Democracy and human rights have been in retreat for more than 15 years (Freedom House 2022), but Putin’s invasion has re-energised free societies into a cohesive response, at least for the time being. On 24 February 2022, Russia launched an invasion with the specific goal of decapitating the duly elected Ukrainian government by attempting to capture Kyiv and installing a government favourable to the Kremlin. The objective was not novel – continued meddling in Ukrainian politics has been a standard tool since Ukraine declared independence in 1991. Russia’s subversion of efforts by Ukraine to ‘turn West’ led to the Orange Revolution in 2003 and the Revolution of Dignity, also known as Maidan, in 2014. The Russian invasion into eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014 was not sufficient to galvanise the West into a meaningful response. Indeed, Nord Stream 2 approvals came after the 2014 invasions, continuing a pattern of appeasement. Following Lenin’s dictum, Russia probed the West with bayonets, found mush, and pushed on. 

But once awakened to danger, democracies are a formidable foe. NATO leadership organised a vigorous response, ramping up military, logistical, and intelligence support. The EU formulated a multi-pronged strategy to weather Russian weaponisation of natural gas supplies and, remarkably, Europe will survive the winter of 2022-2023. Not all of Europe had blithely walked into natural gas dependence on Russia. In 2014, Lithuania installed an LNG storage and regasification facility sufficient to service national needs in the event of disruption of Russian supplies. Lithuania named the facility The Independence

Over the course of the first year of the invasion, the West has drawn a line that it will not turn away when a fledgeling and viable democracy is invaded. But it now must hold that line, lest autocrats learn that they need only wait until Western resolve dissipates [2]. 

History will judge whether collective and sustained support for Ukraine marks a geopolitical reversal, with democratic forces advancing rather than retreating. Supporting Ukraine comprises an opportunity not to be missed. 

Putin and his inner circle have engaged in nuclear sabre-rattling which must not be rewarded lest it provide a template for other nuclear powers or aspirants. To put matters in perspective, the Russian economy is smaller than that of Canada – the latter’s GDP was about 10% larger in 2020 and 2021 despite having only about one quarter the population. Prior to the invasion, Russia was one of the three largest producers of oil (the others being the US and Saudi Arabia). Russia’s geopolitical leverage arises primarily from two sources: its vast reserves of hydrocarbons (natural gas and oil) and its arsenal of nuclear weapons. Ukraine’s experience provides a hard lesson for those who seek to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was in possession of the third largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world. In 1994, the Budapest Memorandum was signed by Ukraine, Russia, the UK, and US. In return for guarantees of its sovereignty and territorial boundaries, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons. 

The ostensible argument advanced by diplomats was that this would lead to greater stability. The clear message to countries possessing or seeking to possess nuclear weapons (for example, North Korea and Iran) is that these weapons magnify one’s geopolitical clout (look at Russia) and their abandonment would be foolhardy (look at Ukraine). 

Having failed to dissuade Russian meddling and invasions of Ukraine, a country which has repeatedly been thwarted in its efforts to ‘turn West’, there is now the opportunity to fashion an approach which deters rather than encourages nuclear blackmail. It is because nuclear war is unthinkable that we must think carefully about it. Succumbing to nuclear threats will increase the incentives for their acquisition because it confirms their value as a threat. Thus far, the Western strategy has been measured and consistent, though public information on the messaging to Russia of how the West would respond to the use of tactical nuclear (or chemical or biological) weapons is limited, perhaps as it should be. Indeed, such messaging likely should have a degree of ambiguity. 

But the one element that should be unambiguous is that nuclear threats will not alter support for Ukraine. Faltering on this path signals to others that blackmail works; steadfastness signals that it does not. 

At first blush, any bearing of the invasion on dealing with global warming would seem to be peripheral. On the one hand, European use of coal, as a replacement for natural gas, will increase. Coal has approximately twice the carbon footprint of natural gas, thus this would appear to be a step backwards. On the other hand, within weeks of the commencement of the invasion, the EU committed to accelerating decarbonisation programmes. But the real global challenge is not so much the decarbonisation of wealthy economies, but of developing countries [3]. 

Commitment by Europeans not to restore natural gas imports from Russia creates a powerful incentive to accelerate innovation in decarbonisation. The point is not simply the implementation of existing low-carbon technologies or even continued declines in their unit costs. What is necessary are game-changing innovations which will be affordable in developing economies and lead to tipping points there. Europe’s instinctive response to wean itself off Russian hydrocarbons has been costly, but it was the right decision, and must be sustained. It will further stimulate innovation in the decarbonisation space.

Autocratic forces have been gaining momentum for more than a decade, while democracy has been in retreat in many parts of the world. Continued support for Ukraine – military, economic and humanitarian – comprises an historic opportunity to halt, and even reverse, democratic decline. Faltering in this commitment will embolden autocrats and dictators to pursue their nefarious objectives by any means, including the committing of war crimes. 

[1] The desire of Ukrainians to free themselves from Moscow goes back at least to Voltaire. In his History of Charles XII, published in 1731, he states “L’Ukraine a toujours aspiré à être libre”

[2] The imposition of economic sanctions has also steadily increased, but history suggests that sanctions are a relatively weak tool for altering the behaviour of autocrats

[3] It is estimated that if the latter are to achieve Western standards of living, a tripling of global GDP would be necessary, with a concomitant tripling of energy consumption.


Freedom House (2022), Freedom in the World 2022: The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule. 


This publication is a part of a collection of essays initiated by the National Bank of Ukraine. Famous economists, political scientists and historians, experts recognized in the world, volunteered to share their thoughts and arguments on why helping Ukraine is helping the world. The complete book of essays can be found via the link.



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