Why the West needs Ukraine

With the geopolitical discourse in the West revolving around how much Ukraine needs our weapons and economic support, it becomes increasingly clear to me that the other half of this relationship is just as pressing, just as urgent, and just as vital: the West's very survival may depend on what Ukraine is inadvertently teaching us. This may sound counterintuitive at first, but it's compelling once you see it.

The world today is almost incommensurable with what it was only three years ago, prior to the pandemic's start. Back then, globalisation was taken for granted; Russia and China were so economically intertwined with the West that a hot conflict seemed remote and implausible; working from home was an exceptional luxury granted to very few; economic activity was tightly tied to commutes and air travel. Who would have imagined that, only three years later, Europe would be buying no gas or oil from Russia, business would routinely be conducted remotely, globalisation would come to an end, geopolitics would regain centre stage, and the spectre of nuclear holocaust would once again loom large?

In that ancient world of 2019 and earlier, the advantages of a democratic system of government based on individual freedom were being questioned. The four years of government-by-tweet during the Trump administration, with its eccentricities and unpredictability, and the chaos surrounding Brexit left many wondering if peoples could be trusted with choosing governments. Democracies looked disorderly, weak and unstable. By contrast, the clinical and sanitised veneer of authoritarian systems, such as the Chinese and Russian, looked dependable, efficient and trustworthy. Putin had brought an end to the chaotic Yeltsin years, delivering stability to a resurgent Russia, while Xi presided over perennial economic growth and ever flashier mega-projects.

And so it was that many in the West—painful as it is to admit it, myself included—began to wonder if democracies weren't too unreliable to be sustainable on the long run; whether populations at large—as opposed to experts—really could be trusted to make reasonable choices for their future. A political minority sensed opportunity and openly began to schmooze with authoritarian regimes. On the extreme of this spectrum, immature demagogues—such as Trump in the USA, Le Pen in France and Baudet in the Netherlands—lavished praise on the strongmen of Russia, China and—incredibly enough—even North Korea. Sycophancy towards dictators wasn't shameful or disgraceful; it even looked fashionable and avant-garde.

And then it happened: Russia actually invaded a neighbouring country in the most heinous way imaginable; war crimes started promptly; civilian populations were routinely targeted; and Europe descended once again into the darkness of large-scale warfare. Sympathetic as I originally was to Russia's case against NATO expansion, I still was caught off-guard by the invasion, for I could never have imagined that a seemingly rational dictator, such as Putin, would put geopolitical abstraction above the well-being of the people of Ukraine, let alone the Russian-speaking amongst them.

As the war raged in Europe, China's traditional system of leadership rotation every eight years—meant to prevent a cult of personality, or the dominance of personal agendas over the prosperity of the country as a whole—seamlessly came to an end. Xi now amasses more power than any of his predecessors, bringing China in-line with the likes of Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea; what a cheerful club.

Suddenly, in the space of only a few months, what had been unthinkable became a palpable and undeniable reality: Russia proved itself to indeed be willing to invade European countries, and China proved itself to be just a vile dictatorship threatening its vibrant democratic neighbour, Taiwan. In addition, the sanitised veneer of the Russian and Chinese systems was eaten away by the acid of war: instead of the "3D-chess player" he was thought to be, Vladimir Putin turns out to be an extremely incompetent leader; a true loser. Throughout 2022, he has not missed a single chance to make the worst possible decision for himself and Russia. And Xi hasn't exactly demonstrated astuteness with his major economic and public health mismanagements.

The Russian army, far from the sleek image of modernisation it has cultivated for years, turns out to be a bottomless pit of near-comical levels of incompetence and corruption. Their hardware doesn't work. Their industry is incapable of mobilising, to the point that mighty Russia now buys armaments from the likes of North Korea and Iran (and re-sells consumer robots bought from AliExpress as high-tech military gear). We've always known that, aside from extraction (that is, pulling things from the ground and then selling them), the only thing Russia could make were arms; what we didn't know is that even that they can't do properly.

China didn't fare much better over the past few months. As it turns out, the chaotic Western response to COVID was far, far superior to China's prompt and high-resolve approach based on the curtailment of individual freedoms. The West is now largely out of the pandemic, while China is still stuck in endless lockdowns and economic meltdown. Their vaccines don't work, and neither do their public health policies. Their unwillingness to support Russia betrays profound fear that, if the West were to impose on China the same sanctions it has imposed on Russia, China's economy would collapse. And indeed it would, for China is entirely dependent on the system of globalisation hitherto maintained by the West (particularly the USA). Without it, China simply cannot exist in its present form.

So much for the inferiority of the 'chaotic' and 'unstable' democratic system. And so much for our trust that autocratic states, such as Russia and China, could perhaps still be reliable partners. Nonetheless, the virus of dictator-sycophancy and wanna-be totalitarianism, planted in the West by the likes of Trump, Le Pen and Baudet, continues to fester. These immature demagogues have their public images invested in their 'strong-hand' affinities, and they lead large movements. That is what constitutes the greatest threat to the West; not Russia or China. The threat is an infection festering within, not an outside enemy. And here is where we need Ukraine.

Ukraine has been teaching us not only that freedom can win, even in the face of long odds, but—and more importantly—that freedom can never be taken for granted; that we have to nurture and defend it, if we want to live as we do; that, although divided in our particular political positions, we must be united, as a society, in our resolve to preserve democracy, our institutions, values and the rule of law, and never tolerate those who try to undermine them. Perhaps most importantly, Ukraine is showing us how desirable freedom is, that a price of the magnitude they are paying for it is still worth paying. They are a beacon of light we dismiss at our own peril.

We have forgotten how important freedom is. We now take it for granted, having no memory of what it is like to live without it. This is thus a moment and a place of great danger in our collective psyche. Three generations after the end of the Second World War—a war started by a criminal dictatorial regime that devastated the European continent—Europeans and Americans have grown lax and complacent. Three generations have now come of age in an environment where personal freedom is as common as the air we breath. Extraordinarily, we're no longer alarmed enough when a Trump lavishes praise on a Putin, and then takes home top secret nuclear documents after his term (for what purpose?); when parts of the Western news media defend Russia even after the latter's repeated war crimes are splashed on television screens every evening, for months on end; when apologetics toward Europe's fascist and nazi past become normalised; when the argument that prosperity and efficiency can only be realised at the cost of individual freedom starts to sound reasonable. We have lost touch with what it feels like to lose freedom, and what it takes to preserve it.

When individual freedom—individual life itself—is not valued, men with wives, children and careers are sent untrained, unarmed, unclothed and unfed to the frontline, to serve as cannon fodder; people with families and dreams are locked down at home—or, worse, at their work places—like criminals, for three years, because their government chose that as the most cost-effective way to deal with a pandemic; ethnic minorities in their millions are forced into labour camps for crimes they might commit in the future. When geopolitical abstraction and the power agenda of dictators win over personal freedom, we become numbers, statistics, insects in an ant or termite colony. Life becomes banal and cheap. Not only can this happen, it is happening right now, to people just like you and me, a mere 18-hour drive away from the place where I am writing this essay. Do we want to live like that?

Ukraine has woken me up. And I'm sure they have awakened many others to the threats to our values and way of life in our midst. But much still needs to be done to curb the sleek and sanitised image of authoritarianism that continues to seduce Western populations; much still needs to be done to reveal its true, ugly, treasonous face. We need Ukrainians to constantly remind us of both the desirability and cost of freedom, and to prevent us from ever taking it for granted. We need them to remind us of who we are, and the price we paid to get here. They know what it takes to be free, and what it feels like to lose one's freedom; they know the traps and pitfalls. And thus we need them as the custodians of freedom in the collective Western mind. We need their stories, their examples, their memories, their articles, essays and books, their plays, their art, their speeches, their very presence in the midst of Western society. And we may need them more than they need us at this point.

Glory to Ukraine; Glory to the heroes.

And glory to freedom; Glory to those who defend it.



  1. From a standpoint of national reputation and an active defense of freedom and self-determination, the West needs little more as justification for it's support of Ukraine. There are justifications aplenty, certainly, not the least of which is a stark disparity in ideology: this has not changed much in decades. The fate of the Ukrainian people has.

  2. A sad inditement of humanity though it may be, many a great stride forward has been taken in the aftermath of war. A period of ‘enlightenment’ in international relations in the aftermath of World War II is an exemplar for the potential of resurgence in cooperation arising from the ashes of war.
    Within 15 years of formal surrender documents being signed aboard the USS Missouri, victorious Western nations forged great cross border institutions including NATO, the European Union, and the World Trade Organization - with a mission statement to keep the peace through collective military power and shared prosperity.
    As Ukrainians are now fortifying their own monuments to democracy with their blood and tears, so our ancestors in North America and the great old democracies of Europe also paid an insufferable price so we could enjoy our freedoms and prosperity today.
    History is littered with bloody conflicts, any one of which should have been lesson enough that freedom is a human right that people are willing to put it all on the line for. Yet in England, it took three civil wars 1642 – 1651 before the first parliamentary democracy was willed into being. In France and the USA too, revolution and civil war paved the bloody way for the formation of two of the world’s foremost democratic republics.
    Ukrainian’s extraordinary resolve in the face of the once mighty Russian army embodies an empirical truth - freedom is worth fighting for.
    As this essay so eloquently outlines, there’s much to be learned from brave Ukrainians by those of us in North America and Europe who cherish our democratic rights and freedom of expression. Whilst it’s felt like democracy is under siege in the West over the past five years or more, Ukrainians teach us that there’s no more ferocious a defender of democracy than those who have been denied it.
    Most apparent of all throughout this latest catastrophe in Europe, it’s ordinary folks who are the true heroes of democracy.

  3. History is cyclical. Repetitive. Interests, preferences and motives, see. Always do what you have always done...because how much worse can things get? The point is, they can get worse. They have. Expatriate friends who were able to ukleave here, have certain pangs of longing for an earlier America. They are unlikely to come back. They have found comfortable lives elsewhere---not without risks, mind you, but comfortable. Even meaningful. They were seers and thinkers, beyond the status quo...people who made a difference that makes one---if only for themselves. Not bad. Not bad, at all.