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Ukraine is fighting for a way of life as much as for its territory

President Joe Biden’s speech in Warsaw was thickly coated in the kind of idealistic rhetoric many western Europeans discreetly roll their eyes at. Of Vladimir Putin, he said: “He thought autocrats like himself were tough and leaders of democracies were soft . . . And then, he met the iron will of America and the nations everywhere that refused to accept a world governed by fear and force.”

Certainly, there are reasons to view this channelling of Ronald Reagan with scepticism. Hypocrisy is one — the US often props up leaders governing by fear and force. Biden himself went to Riyadh as a supplicant for oil only last year. But as Europeans with experience of Moscow will tell you, the Manichean language matters. It matters — as Reagan’s rhetoric did — because it speaks to the experience of those directly confronting autocracy, whether Poland during the cold war or Ukraine today.

It matters practically, too, because it shapes our perception of the choices we face. The western debate on the war in Ukraine tends to treat it as essentially about borders: who governs which territories. It has paid far too little attention to how the territories in question are governed by each side. But the difference is stark.

It is most shockingly exposed in how the Russian occupiers behave. Their cruelty goes beyond the murders, rapes, mutilation and plunder by Putin’s forces. After invading Crimea, Moscow restarted its old persecution of Tatars. There is a state campaign of child abduction. There is a pattern of torture, documented by such initiatives as the Reckoning Project. What this behaviour lays bare is the wantonness of the occupiers’ violence and oppression.

It is reminiscent of nothing so much as O’Brien’s lectures to Smith in Orwell’s 1984: “How does one man assert his power over another? By making him suffer . . . Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation.” It behoves the west to realise that, as much as over who gets to rule, the Ukrainians’ fight is against this way of ruling.

There are many other differences between the two systems. Over 30 years, the hallmarks of Ukrainian public life have become flourishing political competition and an indomitable civil society. If you recognise that in 1991, 2004 and 2014, the population’s political engagement changed Ukraine’s trajectory, you will be less surprised by its resilience against the darkness of the past year. Putin’s deft blend of propaganda and repression has politically pacified much of Russia’s population, and solidified his dictatorship.

While both the Russian and Ukrainian economies have long been rife with mismanagement and corruption, Ukraine’s pluralism has asserted itself in this sphere, too. Since 2014, Kyiv has shifted from a clientelistic dependence on Russia for natural gas to competitive European markets. Its transparency provisions for procurement are well ahead of those of some western governments. A decentralisation reform empowered local governments, with evident military benefits as on-the-ground commanders and local officials together proved in the battle for Kyiv. It could also help to ensure that future reconstruction money is well spent.

Above all, Ukraine’s policy of EU integration, from the 2014 association agreement to its candidacy for membership, involves a slow but steady march towards a rules-based, competitive market economy, the opposite of Russia’s capricious top-down model.

Even corruption has manifested itself differently in the two systems. In less violent times, the joke was that Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs can both be bought, but Russian ones will do as they are told while the Ukrainians will take your money, then do as they like. Ukrainian society, and even some of its reformist governments, have strived to combat corruption. Few such efforts have emerged from Russian society, let alone its state.

Those who ignore these differences are easily lured into thinking the conflict is a matter of which population’s voices will be represented in Kyiv and which in Moscow — something surely less important than stopping the bloodshed now. In fact, the question is whether their voices will be heard at all.

So western Europeans should not roll their eyes upon hearing Biden proclaim that “free people refuse to live in a world of hopelessness and darkness”, but realise the fighting is about more than lines on a map. EU membership, in particular, must not be seen as just an eventual prize for Ukraine’s good behaviour. Instead, it goes to the core of the war’s meaning. Ukraine’s fight is a just war — not over territory but over ways of life, and the way of life they are fighting for is ours.

martin.sandbu@ft.com

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