Ukraine needs a grand strategy—a set of overarching and realistic goals to serve as a road map for its geopolitical, economic, and cultural development in the next 20 years. The ongoing war with Russia has amply demonstrated that Ukraine can no longer assume that things will just work themselves out. Nor can it try to pursue good relations with everyone. Russia’s invasion of Crimea and eastern Donbas means that Ukraine has to start choosing—not so much sides as courses of action that promote its own long-term interests.
History holds several lessons for Ukraine. Since the collapse in the thirteenth century of the Kievan Rus state, the territory of today’s Ukraine has been subjected to waves of imperial expansion by aggressive neighboring states. The list includes the Mongols, Lithuanians, Poles, Muscovites, Ottomans, Austrians, Germans, and Russian Bolsheviks. Each invasion destroyed political and social institutions; most also produced enormous human misery. Each aggression ended for good only after the empire concerned was either dismembered, defeated, or transformed into a bounded nation-state.
With one exception—today’s Russia. Despite the historical discontinuities with tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, in size and expansionist inclinations, today’s Russia is virtually identical to both. The preference for expansion may be the product of unchanging geopolitical realities that have driven Russian policymakers for centuries. Or it may be the product of Russia’s past and present imperial drives. As far as Ukraine is concerned, both possibilities lead to the same conclusion: that Russia is, and will remain, a threat to its security and survival, whether the country remains geopolitically large and insecure or geopolitically large and imperial—even after the era of Russian President Vladimir Putin ends and Russia resumes its transition to democracy. Russia will be an existential threat until it becomes a fully consolidated and stable democracy at ease with itself and the world.
History holds another lesson for Ukraine: that the West or, more specifically, Europe views Ukraine as a target for exploitation (Germany in both world wars) or as an object of indifference (the European Union and its predecessor, the European Economic Community, for most of Ukraine’s independence). Yet Ukraine is a strategic interest of vital importance to Europe’s security, stability, and survival. Ukraine’s existence guarantees that Russia’s insecurities and imperial appetites will always fall short of Europe proper. The incapacity to comprehend this elementary geopolitical reality stems from the still widespread western European view of eastern Europeans, even those within the EU, as politically immature “near Europeans.” The western European attitude toward Ukraine tends to be even more condescending, generally resting on the conviction that the Ukrainians will never be quite “like us.”
History also suggests that Ukraine should be skeptical about Europe’s ability to act as a unified body when it comes to Russia. Disunity is the historical norm for Europe—whether at the time of the Holy Roman Empire or during the incessant Franco-German competitions or over the course of numerous tensions among the continent’s small states. Even if the European Union bears up under the latest round of pressures, it is likely that it will eventually emerge as a different kind of entity. It will have the ability to make decisions if it is smaller; it will have a hard time doing so if it remains large. Neither Europe will be the same entity of which Ukraine currently desires to become a member: a tightly knit Franco-German club may have little use for anybody, whereas an extremely loose commonwealth may be of little use to anybody. This doesn’t mean that Ukraine should abandon its European aspirations (European values and dedication to rule of law will remain worthy aspirations in all circumstances). But it does mean that joining Europe may mean something very different five or ten years from now.
Finally, history suggests that the United States’ attitude toward Ukraine will largely be a function of U.S.-Russian relations. When those relations are good, Ukraine recedes from the U.S. agenda. When those relations are bad—as today—Ukraine acquires strategic importance for Washington. The United States, inevitably, is a “bad weather” friend of Ukraine.
The overriding geopolitical realities confronting Ukraine today and in the foreseeable future are thus threefold: the continuing existential threat posed by Russia, the continuing unreliability of Europe, and the continuing subordination of the United States’ Ukraine policy to U.S.-Russian relations. Ukraine’s grand strategy must be formulated to the challenges and opportunities these realities pose.
First and most obvious, Ukraine must have armed forces that are strong enough to deter any Russian attack short of a full-scale nuclear war. Ukraine’s army must be restructured to meet that threat, and it must be armed well enough to ward off any massive tank or air attack as well. Central to this issue is the question of whether Ukraine’s security needs are best served by a large conscription army or a small professional force and by a series of stationary fortifications or a mobile defensive strategy. Expert opinion, in Ukraine and the West, suggests that a highly professional mobile force is Ukraine’s best bet. Such an army would be expensive.
Second, Ukraine must have an economy that can both sustain such a massive armament effort and provide Ukraine’s long-suffering population with a requisite living standard. Ukraine must take advantage of Russia’s economic warfare, including embargoes on a raft of Ukrainian products, and reduce its economic ties with Russia to a minimum while opening up its economy to the world to a maximum. In particular, having drastically reduced since 2014 gas imports from and defense cooperation with Russia, Ukraine must make sure never again to become dependent on Russia for its energy and security needs.
Third, Ukraine must counter Russia’s use of soft power to subvert Ukraine. Key to Russia’s soft-power assault is the notion that there is a “Russian World” consisting of all Russians and Russian speakers, whom the Kremlin is obligated to protect. There is only one way for any country trapped in this “Russian World” to break out of it: by gradually reducing Russian-language use and replacing it with native-language use. So, too, Ukraine must, like the Baltic states, attempt to make Ukrainian and English the languages of everyday public discourse and reduce Russian to a household tongue increasingly confined to an aging population. Such a shift can be introduced without violating human or cultural rights by effectively making Ukrainian the sole language of the armed forces.
Ukraine’s foreign relations will have to be structured around these three geopolitical realities. Since Russia will always be a threat and Europe will likely remain unreliable, Ukraine should focus its efforts on building alliances with those countries that face equally unpalatable geopolitical choices. Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, and Romania have long been sandwiched between Germany and Russia and subjected to their imperialist aspirations. But now, Germany is benign. Although expansionist, Russia is economically and politically weak, resting on the deeply corrupt and unstable fascistoid regime constructed by Putin. Meanwhile, the states in between have for the most part constructed stable political and economic institutions and armies. In the early 1990s, then Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk championed the vision of a Baltic to Black Sea Alliance. It never materialized because Ukraine’s western neighbors understandably opted for EU and NATO membership. That vision has recently been resuscitated as the Intermarium project as a result of Putin’s aggression and the West’s anemic response. Ideally, the Intermarium states would also include Turkey.
Naturally, Ukraine must continue to maintain the best possible relations with Europe, Russia, and the United States. Diplomacy will always matter. But no amount of Ukrainian diplomacy will transform Russia into a friendly neighbor. As history suggests, only Russia’s transformation into a smaller or nonimperial state will do that. Nor will Ukrainian diplomacy persuade western Europe that Ukrainians are as worthy of a European future as the Germans or French. Only a rich and powerful Ukraine can do that. Ukrainian diplomacy toward the United States therefore becomes all the more important. Ukraine should focus on promoting the deepest possible economic and cultural ties with the United States and on reminding Washington that Russia’s existential threat to Ukraine is a strategic threat to the United States.
Political, economic, and cultural divorce from Russia, integration with the world, and alliance building with eastern Europe, Turkey, and the United States are the three components of a grand strategy that could ensure Ukraine’s security and survival in the next two decades. If and when the Putin regime ends, Russia possibly collapses, and the dust from this time of trouble settles, Ukraine may need to rethink its grand strategy. Until then, its priority has to be the one foisted on it by Putin—divorce.