The challenge of Ukraine’s survival after the Russian invasion | International
Can a country be permanently bombed, run out of 20% of its territory, landlocked, with two of its three largest cities blocked, and still exist? The thesis of Russian imperialism, embodied in its president, Vladimir Putin, is that Ukraine is a pipe dream as an independent republic, a mistake in history caused by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The invasion that began last February seeks to return it to the sphere of Russia. To do this, the Kremlin wants the Ukrainian state to collapse first.
The enormous losses in the current war pose a dilemma about what the Ukraine of the future could be like, according to some of the academics consulted by EL PAÍS. “This is a war for Ukraine’s existence, plain and simple,” says Andrew Wilson, professor of Ukrainian studies at University College London. Tadeusz Iwánski, a researcher at the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, adds that the conflict may end with Ukrainian concessions in the east and south, with serious economic and geographical losses, but with the emergence of a state more in keeping with the values of the European Union. “The Ukrainians have cut the centuries-old umbilical cord with Moscow,” Iwánski points out, “economically and militarily, the invasion is a much harder blow to the Ukrainian state, but culturally and sociologically, it strengthens its sense of identity.”
Ukraine, explains Wilson, has always progressed historically when its rulers have been able to control the outlet of its rivers to the Black Sea in the face of threats coming from the East. It was so before the invasions of the nomadic peoples of Central Asia and it is so now with the Russian missiles. For this reason, Wilson points out, the future of the Ukrainian nation is at stake in the announced counteroffensive against Kherson, a port city between the Black Sea and the Dnieper, the river that forms the backbone between east and west.
If the Russian conquest operation has been successful anywhere, it is on the Ukrainian coastline. Russia has taken the Black Sea coast of Kherson; in the Sea of Azov it has conquered Melitopol, Berdyansk and Mariupol. The latter was devastated after months of Russian siege. Its industrial production for Ukraine was relevant, but not only has this been lost, but also the agricultural production of the province of Kherson, or the 40% of the neighboring province of Zaporizhia that is in Russian hands, which has decimated the export weight of Ukrainian cereals. This year, the country expects to export half of the international grain sales of 2021. In Zaporizhia, in addition, the largest Ukrainian nuclear power plant is in Moscow’s power, which provided 20% of the State’s electricity.
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Odesa, the great port city of the country, has maritime traffic blocked by the enemy fleet. Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula from which the Black Sea is controlled, was annexed by Russia in 2014. In the pro-Russian separatist uprising that year in Donbas, the cities of Lugansk and Donetsk came under Putin’s orbit. The Russian expansion in this region has progressed, slowly, to the point of completely subjugating the province of Lugansk and 60% of Donetsk in these months of war. To travel through this region is to leave behind one mine after another and commuter towns with smelters even before the Soviet Union. Harvard University historian Serhii Plokhi recounts in his book the gates of europe the beginnings of Ukrainian industrialization on the Donets River in 1870, when the Welshman John James Hughes ventured to build the first metallurgical plant in what was then the south of the Russian empire. All this has been rendered inoperative by the bombs or outside of Ukrainian control.
Odesa is the third city of Ukraine in population (almost one million inhabitants); the second, Kharkov, in the northeast of the country, lives day and night under Russian bombardment. The province of which it is the capital, economically annulled, contributed 6% of the Ukrainian GDP. Another setback for kyiv is that it no longer has air connections and will remain so for as long as Russia wishes. “This war is leading us to a fundamental change in the interpretation of the political community in the territories under kyiv’s control,” says Oksana Mishlovska, a researcher at the Institute of History at the University of Bern (Switzerland). The change, she explains, occurs as a reaction against Russia: “A new national myth is being built from the exclusion of the Russian culture and language, and from the exclusion of the historical memory shared between Russia and Ukraine.”
The Ukrainian president, Volodímir Zelenski, insists that the only objective is to recover all the territory lost since 2014 (Crimea and areas of Donbas in the hands of pro-Russian separatists). However, few analysts see this as likely. The pressure on Zelensky is high because 84% of the population, according to a survey this week by the kyiv Institute of Sociological Studies, does not want to accept territorial concessions to Russia. But the Foreign Minister himself, Dmitro Kuleba, stated in a recent interview with EL PAÍS that the incorporation of Ukraine into the European Union would be possible even if part of its territory is occupied by Russia. Kuleba gave as an example the case of Cyprus —its sovereignty is divided, with a part of the island disputed by Turkey— or the conflict between Spain and the United Kingdom over Gibraltar.
The example of the two Germanys
Hanna Shelest, director of defense policy studies at Ukrainian Prism – one of the most important international relations centers in Ukraine – gives another example, that of the Federal Republic of Germany, which was a member of NATO while East Germany was a Satellite state of the USSR. After the Soviet disintegration, Germany was reunited. “Ukraine will continue to live in the pre-2014 narrative of territorial integrity, protected by United Nations resolutions,” confirms Mishlovska.
Shelest, with a speech close to the official message from kyiv, underlines that Russia has only conquered 15% of the country —Zelensky raised the percentage last June to 20%—: “Furthermore, Ukraine has survived for centuries with part of its territory occupied by someone. The truth is that Ukraine had never been independent and recognized as such by the international community until 1991, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
The Prism researcher reiterates that the viability of the Ukrainian state does not depend so much on the territory under Russian control as on how long the war lasts. Mishlovska agrees with this thesis, because the longer the conflict lasts, the more GDP falls and Ukraine’s foreign dependency increases to get out of the hole and rebuild the country. The Central Bank of Ukraine forecasts that the Ukrainian GDP will sink by 37.5% in the second quarter of the year.
Shelest cites as an example of the Ukrainian people’s will to prevail the fact that, although there are six million people who have resided as refugees in Europe since the beginning of the invasion, more than three million have already returned, according to UN records. Wilson considers that Ukraine would now have enough geographical extension to “survive”, but concedes that the counteroffensive in Kherson is “extremely important, because the Ukrainian identity is closely linked to the Black Sea”. This renowned British academic sees preventing Russia from advancing beyond the Dnieper River as another red line for the country’s survival, and stresses that it would be strategic to keep the part of Donetsk that has not yet fallen into Russian hands under kyiv’s control: “From In 2014, the government invested a lot of money to demonstrate that there is an alternative Donbas with more future than the false republics supported by Moscow. This must continue.”
The worst case scenario for Ukraine, according to Wilson, would be perpetual warfare. Once the end of hostilities is negotiated, he says, Ukraine’s fate inevitably passes through the EU. “Everything depends on whether Ukraine is capable of protecting its sovereignty, even with a smaller territory, but then it is condemned to become part of the EU,” says Iwánski, warning that the West cannot fail kyiv either: “If it is leave in limbo [de Estado candidato]the EU will be signaling to Putin that he recognizes Ukraine as part of the Russian sphere.”
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