Ukrainian intellectuals are beginning to look beyond the country’s mere survival as an independent state to chart a new path for it in Europe.

By Leonid Bershidsky

May 5, 2022


It may still be hard to believe, despite all the Russian military bungling, that Ukraine can win the war against its much bigger neighbor. Yet, as the underdog, Ukraine actually has more scenarios in which it can credibly declare victory. If it survives as an independent state — which appears almost certain now that Vladimir Putin has had to scale down his military goals — it will already be victorious in the world’s eyes, having held its own against one of the great military powers, and done so without any allies willing to send their troops into battle.


This prospect has led Ukrainian intellectuals to start speculating about the country’s shape and direction after a victory. As Russian propagandists attempt grimly to normalize the idea of a nuclear war and rosy depictions of a victorious “Russian world” have faded even from nationalist narratives, Ukrainians are looking forward to playing a bigger global role as the nation that managed to thwart and humiliate the mighty bear next door.


To what extent these hopes and dreams can come true depends on Ukraine’s Western allies as much as on Ukrainians themselves. If they fail to combine their efforts in a productive way, a scenario in which both Russia and Ukraine end up losing the war is conceivable.


Ukrainians wouldn’t be true to themselves if they didn’t aim high. In a recent Telegram post, Oleksiy Arestovich, the advisor to President Volodymyr Zelensky who predicted the timing and character of the Russian invasion as early as 2019, described a victorious Ukraine as an “undisputed regional leader” of Eastern Europe — “if we work skillfully,” he qualified the bold vision.


“By 2028-2035 we’ll have a completely different geopolitical landscape in the Berlin — Constantinople — Kazan triangle,” Arestovich wrote, calling Istanbul by its Byzantine name. “Kyiv will be the star shining in its center. Ukrainians lost a lot as they lived their illusions before 2014. Now, having sobered up, they’re winning back what they gave up in the last 300, 500, 1,000 years.”

The historical references are a natural answer to Putin’s justification of his aggression, also rooted in a certain reading of history. They continue the thread of Ukrainian thought that describes Ukrainians as a historically democracy-based and democracy-seeking polity and Russians as eternal subjects and slaves to all kinds of tyrants. What’s new here is a claim to a new centrality: Ukraine, for centuries a provincial backwater, now feels it has earned, or is earning on the battlefield, the status of a thought leader, a flag-bearer for Europe’s east and center.


“I believe that Ukraine will become the new Central European tiger,” historian Yaroslav Hrytsak said in a recent interview. “It will become a leader in the greater Baltic and Black Sea region. I think no nation other than Poland will be able to match its influence and status. War is a great catastrophe. But at the same time, it creates great opportunities and enables the previously impossible.”


Some of the optimistic visions for the future go even further, extending Ukraine’s role to that of a co-founder of a new “League of Nations” to replace the United Nations, which has proved unable to strip Russia of its oversize role in global security affairs.


Despite what Ukrainians see as their historical, almost genetic thirst for democracy, Ukraine won’t play its new prominent role as a beacon of liberalism. Zelensky predicted last month that post-war Ukraine would be more like Israel than the relaxed, complacent nations of the European Union. Ukrainian philosopher Volodymyr Yermolenko, editor of the Ukraine World project, elaborated in a Facebook post:


The EU is built on two principles: a) security imports (from NATO, especially the US) and b) a welfare state. That is, less government in the area of security (which comes from the outside) and more government in the economy (redistribution of goods, maximum regulation). Our “Europeanness” is already different. “Security import” will not work, even if we have external guarantees and even if we are in NATO. For decades to come, our security will depend primarily on us. But in the economy and other areas there should be maximum freedom. Classical Ukrainian anarchism (in the good sense of the word), classical Ukrainian pluralism. That is, our European formula is the opposite of the EU formula: more government in security and less in the economy.


This Ukraine, if indeed it rises to the prominence to which its intellectual elite considers it entitled, is likely to be a thorn in the side of Old Europe; the Poland of Law and Justice, the nation’s nationalist ruling party, would be its closest ally. It would be no passive recipient of EU rules and dictates, and it might even harbor some ambitions to redraw the region’s security

Architecture. Zelenskiy has already proposed a new military alliance that would operate parallel to NATO. He called it U24, referring to a goal of 24-hour response to any external threat. That’s a politically difficult target for established European democracies, but a clear indication of the kind of country Ukraine would like to be – one that is prepared to repel threats at a moment’s notice.


“Ukraine will become a militarized country, most likely forever,” sociologist Yevhen Holovakha predicts.


Military valor and modern weapons, however, won’t be enough for Ukraine to become the region’s shining star. The expectations of a new Ukrainian centrality assume a large-scale rebuilding of the war-ravaged nation, an effort on a par with the post-World War II Marshall Plan. Estimates of the economic damage inflicted on Ukraine by the invaders range from a conservative $60 billion, mentioned recently by World Bank President David Malpass, to an astronomical $1.36 trillion — an amount no Russian reparations could ever cover.


There’s no question that Western nations will contribute to the rebuilding — the U.S. is already offering billions for it as part of the administration’s $33 billion aid package. Russia, too, likely will be forced to contribute even if the Putin regime survives the war — there’s no better use for the more than $300 billion in frozen international reserves. A lot depends, however, on the conditions attached to the aid; it’s as easy for the donors to ruin the entire program with excessively tight controls as for Ukrainians themselves to revert to the past unattractive spectacle of intertwined pridefulness and corruption. The willingness of Europeans, if not Americans, to help may also be tempered by Ukraine’s claims to regional leadership, backed up by the country’s size and military prowess.


On the one hand, much of the infrastructure Russian troops have blown up in Ukraine dates back to Soviet times, and its demise presents an opportunity to modernize faster than Ukraine had been doing before the war — given the necessary funds. On the other hand, the human losses Ukraine has borne will make an enormous project like this harder to carry out.


“We believe that the more Russians we kill, the better; they think the more they kill of us, the better,” former deputy prime minister Ihor Yuhnovskiy said recently. “And even if we lose one Ukrainian to every ten Russians, these losses will add up over time. If you think that it will be better for us if we only have women after the war, you’re mistaken. You have no idea to what extent we’ll be weakened.”

A lot depends on whether the more than 5 million Ukrainian refugees make their way home after the war or elect to stay in Europe, where they have received a much warmer welcome than the Middle Eastern and African refugees who had preceded them. The receiving countries probably will need to help them get back and get settled into new housing to replace bombed-out buildings; some countries will be tempted to keep the Ukrainians instead to solve their own demographic and workforce problems.


The window of opportunity Ukraine is about to get by denying Putin most of its territory is perhaps the biggest the country has seen since independence. At the same time, however, both Ukrainians and their allies will need to work hard to keep it from closing as the previous ones did. On the Western side, this means giving up the usual bean-counting and truly going out of the way to reward Ukrainians’ heroism — and on the Ukrainian side, perhaps a certain tempering of both the newfound leadership ambitions and the ancient urge to grab the money and run. It will have to be a collaborative effort based on a shared sense of purpose. Lacking that, Ukraine could end up a loser despite holding out against all odds. That shouldn’t be allowed to happen.


Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”