Russia’s War of Aggression: Time to Wake Up

If Ukraine fails, the Kremlin's influence will grow and spread across Europe like a cancer

21 September 2023

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Russia is desperate and only knows one way of demanding respect – fear. The West must stand against this ideology now or face a future with a divided Europe once again.

Moshchun, a small village on the outskirts of Kyiv, has its own outskirts: the dachas. An area of several square kilometres where Ukrainians have been building their country houses, usually with their own hands, spending several years or even decades constructing a sanctuary to rest from the busy city life.

Today, this dacha district no longer exists. Imagine several hundred small, private 2- or 3-floor buildings where no home has survived. Some of them have been severely damaged, some completely destroyed and burnt down. Some only have furnaces left standing amongst the rubble. A furnace and a chimney that is all that is left, instead of a house.

We see skeletons of homes, like on an excavated cemetery of huge prehistoric animals.

And yet, it only takes a 10-minute drive to go from Moshchun to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city – and the beautiful parks of Pushcha Vodytsia.

Moshchun was one of the numerous battlefields on which Ukrainians stood against the Russian invasion in February-March 2022. Being here, or in neighbouring Horenka, or in Irpin, gives you an idea of how close the Russians were to Kyiv, of how close they were to penetrating into the heart of Ukraine.

Now, imagine a different scenario. Imagine if Ukrainian resistance would not have been decisive and heroic. Imagine if the thousands of volunteers would never have taken up arms distributed chaotically by the authorities directly from trucks. Imagine if the army would not have been smart and committed to stopping the invasion. Imagine if the vertical of power would have collapsed, if the president would have left and if authorities would have become dysfunctional. Imagine if Russians would have succeeded, and Kyiv would have fallen in 3 days or a week.

What would have happened next?

Most probably this: Russians would have installed loyalists to govern the country. These people would have stripped Ukraine of its sovereignty in a matter of months. Some insurgent fighting would continue in several Ukrainian regions, but occupational institutions would gradually turn their work against Ukraine – as they do now on the occupied territories. Soon, Ukraine would have turned into another Belarus, a country with kidnapped sovereignty, with illegitimate power based upon violence and torture, a fake state. By the end of 2022, Russia would declare that it reestablishes a new “Union” to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Soviet Union.

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But this would be only the beginning. The Kremlin would say to its own citizens that a victory over Ukraine is a victory over NATO. And if Russia succeeded in Ukraine, why would it not succeed in NATO members too?

In a few years, it would approach the NATO borders in the Baltic states and Central Europe. It would remind of its ultimatum of late 2021 that Europe’s security should come back to its two pillars, the US and Russia – which means that NATO should retreat to its pre-1997 borders – and Russian influence should extend at least to the borders of Germany. If NATO is not going to accept these terms, Russia would say it is ready to attack Lithuania – or Poland.

Then, the question will be whether Article 5 of the Washington Treaty will be applied or fear will win again. If fear wins and the attacked countries are sacrificed for appeasement, then NATO will collapse, and nobody in Europe will feel safe anymore. If one country, even a small one, is traded off, then no other will be safe from it.

If NATO decides to fight, this would be a decent decision – but the question will arise if NATO is prepared. European countries have much fewer tanks, armoured vehicles, missiles and artillery systems than Russia has had before invading Ukraine. Before American help is deployed in Europe, Russians could penetrate deeply into the NATO countries’ territory and then negotiate from a position of strength. Also, the question is whether the sufficiently large number of citizens of the EU states have the morale and the spirit of asceticism and self-sacrifice necessary to withstand a Russian army built upon strong verticality and violence.

A real future

Next hypothesis: if someone like Trump wins the US election, and the idea of American isolationism prevails, up to the point that the US suspends its membership in NATO, Russia can directly negotiate with America on a new division of Europe and bring the Yalta order back. That would mean Russian troops and pro-Russian governments would rule in, say, Slovakia, Hungary or Croatia.

This sounds like a surreal reality, but the problem is that all this is real. Wars are waged either out of a feeling or your own strength or out of despair. Russians wage the current war mostly out of despair. They unlearned how to live in a peaceful world and how to earn respect in it. They consider war as the last chance to get this respect (as they think) through fear. They confuse respect and fear – a symptom of a totalitarian power which built its “greatness” on devaluing individual lives.

What is even more important is that the Ukrainian resistance doesn’t make this scenario described above less plausible. The Russian army suffers in this war, but it learns too. It is getting experience from a big battlefield, which NATO armies lack, and is developing new technologies like drones. It is losing hundreds of thousands of men and women, but in some aspects, it might even get stronger.

Nothing prevents Russia from testing NATO’s ability to respond. It still dreams of capturing Ukraine, and it can do so by pushing the Ukrainian government and its partners to “compromise” on territories or other issues, provoking cracks in Ukrainian society and the eventual weakening of the central power. Russians are at their best when their enemy is internally weakened.

Or, if this doesn’t happen, Russia can shift the battlefield to one of the NATO members by using its hybrid forces like the Wagner group or other “private” (but de facto state-controlled) armies. It can turn the war into a NATO land, then play on Europe’s and America’s unwillingness to fight. The more Russia progresses down this path, the weaker the Western world will be.

How can the West respond to all this? Only by understanding that this is our common battle. That Russia should be definitely defeated in Ukraine. That European and American economies should urgently start working to ensure Ukraine’s resource and technological superiority over Russia. That more modern technologies should enter the battlefield – drones, AI, battlefield demining, electronic warfare – on the Ukrainian side to protect the lives of the Ukrainian soldiers. That sustainable production of weapons should be ensured to match the Russian militarised economy. That help to Ukraine should not be considered as helping the other but as helping yourself to survive.

Otherwise, the war will come to other places. As usual, during the night. And then only explosions in your neighbourhood will be waking you up.

Ukrainians learned it. We don’t want you to learn this after us. This war is the most horrible thing on earth, and Ukrainians do their utmost best and sacrifice not to let it spill over.

We want you to learn from the possible future, not from the present and the past that you can no longer overturn.

Otherwise, it will be too late.


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

The featured image:National Guard of Ukraine, Battle of Moshchun (NGU video, 2022-07-19, frame 0840), filter and crop by VI Team, CC BY 4.0

Volodymyr Yermolenko

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher, journalist and writer. He is the President of PEN Ukraine and the current Analytics director at Internews Ukraine, one of the largest and oldest Ukrainian media NGOs. He is also the Editor-in-chief of, a multimedia project in English about Ukraine and an Associate professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He has been published in numerous outlets, such as The Economist, Le Monde, Financial Times, New York Times, and Newsweek.

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