Gradually, then suddenly
History has a mind-bending quality of unfolding slowly and unnoticeably until it happens all at once. These two situations require different responses, and few organizations can change their behaviour fast enough. The Russian war on Ukraine has moved into the “all at once” phase – when the right interventions will have colossal meaning for the very future of the European project.
Last week was of great significance for the empires. On the one hand, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II passed away after managing the decline of Great Britain for the last seven decades with as much grace as possible. On the other, humiliating retreats from the Kharkiv region by what was, until recently, dubbed “the second most powerful army in the world” herald a significant turning point in the war.
“How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” wrote Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises. History has this mind-bending quality of unfolding slowly and unnoticeably until it happens all at once. These two situations require different responses, and few organizations can recognize that fast enough to change their behaviour. The Russian war on Ukraine has moved into the “all at once” phase – when the right interventions will have colossal meaning for the next decades.
President Zelensky said recently that “the next 90 days will be more crucial for Ukraine than the past 30 years of independence”, and he is correct. The window of opportunity is precisely now – before the winter of cold, hunger, and darkness comes and breaks the unity among some of the allies.
Over the last few days, a group of more than a hundred thinkers and doers have gathered in Kyiv amidst the war for the Yalta European Strategy conference. Gestures in politics matter, and this was a sign of the international community’s confidence in Ukrainian prospects and commitment to be a part of the solution. Latvian President Egils Levits was the first head of state to spend the night in Kyiv since February 24th. Businessmen, including former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, boosted confidence in the market, declaring their readiness to invest in the country. With the presence of almost the entire Ukrainian government, discussions in the conference room several stories underground oscillated between technical and philosophical, short-term, and visionary.
Reminiscent of the interview conducted at the beginning of the invasion, in which President Zelensky’s stated; WE NEED AMMO NOT A RIDE, German foreign minister’s Anne Baerbock surprise visit was surely appreciated, yet her lack of groundbreaking and time-specific commitment on heavy weapon delivery was out of sync with the mood in the room. It has now become a running joke that the Russian panic retreat from Kharkiv provided more tanks to the Ukrainian Armed Forces overnight than Germany dared to declare.
For Ukraine to regain 3000km2 of territory in a week has been, until recently, unthinkable – similar to the growing consensus that there cannot be peace without Russia’s defeat because any rotten compromise now will lead to a second war over the next few years, and because Ukraine’s trust in Russia’s capacity to negotiate diplomatic solutions in goodwill has completely disappeared after the discovery of the atrocities in Bucha and Mariupol. Nevertheless, important questions remain: What does Ukrainian victory look like? Will there be a return to 2014 borders? Is it the old borders and reparations from Russia? Does it involve a war tribunal and the return of several hundreds of thousands of kidnapped citizens? Or – in the extreme – does Ukrainian victory include debilitating Russia’s industrial capacity to the degree that it can’t venture out again in the foreseeable future?
These discussions must involve the Global South countries that – as we move towards the food and energy crises – will have increased stakes in this conflict. As the UN General Assembly convenes later this month and the G20 Summit in Indonesia later in November, understanding the needs of non-OECD countries, addressing their doubts, and trying to win the information war within their societies will be key.
Simultaneously, domestic challenges remain – the reconstruction of Ukraine starts now, and for a good reason. It starts from very foundational material, brick and mortar repairs to prepare civilian infrastructure and housing for the coming winter, and continues with the redesigning of laws and policies to make substantial system-level improvements. Once the dust settles, it will be too late to lay ground for bold reforms and legislation that will increase resilience and prevent past problems, such as corruption, tax evasion, or electoral fraud. To be successful on this front, the Ukrainian government needs to leapfrog into the XXI century by engaging with the brightest economists who understand the tectonic shifts in thinking about the generation of public value and digital infrastructure, rather than falling into the trap of the usual suspects who reformed Central Europe’s economies over three decades ago.
Jerzy Giedroyc – perhaps the most influential Polish émigré – used to say that “Russia without Ukraine is not an empire.” Putin’s battle for Ukrainian hearts and minds is lost permanently.
Today, Ukraine’s aspirations need to be treated seriously and with the hope that by welcoming it into the European Union in the foreseeable future, its impetus, courage, and values will salvage the European project. There is no “geopolitical Europe” without Ukraine. There is no European project without Ukraine. We have come to this conclusion gradually and now need to act on it suddenly.
Author: Maciej Kuziemski