Russia’s War Against Ukraine Has Returned the Moral High Ground to Europe

The past year has removed ethical ambiguity from previously hard political decisions

21 February 2023

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

A year after the Russian attack on Ukraine, it seems that many of us have forgotten what life was like before the war, including political life.

We have managed to forget that the very sanctions ideology that has prevailed since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014 was based on the fact that sanctions should be introduced in such a way that they do not in any way harm the economy of Western countries or the interests of ”ordinary Russians”, as this would only strengthen Vladimir Putin’s position.

We have managed to forget that most of the European political establishment has continued to make a career out of “anti-Americanism” in order to convince Europeans that America’s excessive political presence on the continent only harms Europe and that Europeans themselves can make efforts that lead to the resolution of regional conflicts. The absence of the United States in the Normandy format is a good illustration of this uncanny approach.

We have forgotten how European politicians expected Putin to never give up his role as Europe’s energy sponsor in order to control the post-Soviet space. That Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent trip to Washington was dedicated to lobbying for the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. We were laughed at when Ukrainian politicians and experts convinced their German colleagues that it was the construction of this pipeline that would lead to the possibility of a major war in Europe because Russia would have the chance to refuse the services of the Ukrainian gas transmission system. And Gazprom, a company considered to be Vladimir Putin’s “wallet”, will not be afraid that military action will threaten gas supplies to Europe.

We have forgotten how the Central European and Baltic countries, whose leaders warned their partners of the imminent danger and advocated a break in cooperation with Russia, were seen in the European Union as marginalised, burdened by complexes of the past.

We have also forgotten the political union of Poland, which was the main country in this “Russophobic bloc”, and Hungary, whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban remained a loyal partner of the Kremlin.

What We’ve Learned from Ukraine

Well, now we can say that we have witnessed a considerable amount of global miscalculation. In Ukraine, they did not believe that Russia would decide to go to a major war with a neighbouring country. In Russia itself, they believed that a war with Ukraine would be an easy step for the Russian army and that Ukrainians would welcome the invaders with flowers and open arms. In Europe, they believed that energy cooperation with Moscow was the best remedy for a major conflict. Even the then-new US President Joseph Biden counted on Putin’s prudence and that the Russian leader understood how dangerous the rise of China was for his country’s future.

This whole chain of mistakes became the backdrop of the first great war in Europe after 1945. But at the same time it became a remedy – politically and morally. Europeans, the whole civilised world, were shocked by the resilience of the Ukrainians who refused to surrender their country to Putin and his army. They were also shocked by the scale of Russian atrocities.

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Therefore, the world we live in has become black and white this year. Now neither in Russia nor in Europe will you see overtly pro-Russian politicians. The maximum that Vladimir Putin’s former admirers can afford is to call for peace talks.

At the same time, we have to understand that both these politicians and those who support Ukraine have to reckon with public opinion in their countries. And this public opinion is today unconditionally on the side of Ukraine.

Europeans – despite all the economic difficulties of the war – still believe in and support Ukraine’s victory. No one today would call the President of Poland or the President of Lithuania “marginal”, but the Hungarian Prime Minister, who still maintains a trusting relationship with Moscow, has found himself truly isolated in the European Union and NATO.

At the same time, I believe that this support is not only emotional but also rational. The people of European countries – first and foremost, of course, the neighbours of Ukraine and Russia – are well aware that the defeat of Ukraine and the restoration of the Russian Empire is a direct threat to their own security. That the accentuated violation of international law is a triumph of power on a global scale. Therefore, this war simply can not end with Putin’s success.

Prudent Foresight

Contrary to many experts who believe that a war with Ukraine in the event of Russian success could mean a Russian incursion into Poland or the Baltic States, I will by no means convince you of such a development.

It is possible that the Kremlin is really breaching, first of all, by overcoming the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” in Putin’s version. That is, restoring “historic Russia” within the borders of the USSR in 1991. Even without the Baltic states, as Moscow may simply not decide on a direct clash with NATO.

But does this mean that European countries can feel safe? No, it doesn’t. Because Russia’s very struggle for such reconstruction is a whole series of endless wars. This means destroyed cities, thousands of dead civilians and millions of new refugees. It is crisis, devastation and disease over a vast territory from Uzhhorod to Ashgabat. It is a war of sanctions and economic problems for decades.

Therefore, the question of ending this war with a Ukrainian victory and the question of Russia’s denial of its imperial ambitions is really a question of Europe’s welfare and future.

The Ukrainians are today stopping the Kremlin at the initial stage of a “special Soviet Union operation”, which in itself does not bode well if it continues.

We may have different ideas about its consequences, but no good option is in sight. Except for one and the most important option: to end the war, dismantle the machinery of aggression and restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics that have already suffered from Russian expansion in the past.




Published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Featured image taken from The Presidential Office of Ukraine. All materials featured on this site are is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.

This article as published in Polish on Onet.

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Vitaly is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. He is also an author and renowned journalist working in democratic media in Central and Eastern Europe for more than three decades. He is the author of hundreds of analytical articles in Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish, Russian, Israeli, Baltic media. He hosts television programs and his own analytical channels on YouTube. He is currently broadcasting at the office of the Espreso TV channel in Lviv and continues to cooperate with the Ukrainian and Russian services of Radio Liberty. On the Russian service of Radio Liberty, he continues the project about the post-Soviet space “Roads to Freedom”, which was aired first from Moscow, then from Kyiv, and is now being produced in Lviv as a joint project of Radio Liberty, the Current Time TV channel and the Espreso TV channel.

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