top of page

Ukrainians’ struggle for freedom is also our own – by Henry Ergas for The Australian – 24.02.23

“A conqueror,” wrote the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, “is always a lover of peace. There is nothing he wants more than to make his entry into our state unopposed; to prevent this, we must choose to fight.”

Twelve months ago, the men and women of Ukraine made that choice. Determined to resist rather than submit, they have repelled the invaders from town after town, pinning Vladimir Putin’s troops down across the war’s front line.

That the Ukrainians have borne immense costs is beyond doubt. So too is the heroism they have displayed in the face of overwhelming odds.

But the war remains fraught with dreadful risks, both for Ukraine and for a fractured and fragile world. That so many voices are asking whether there is a road to a negotiated peace is therefore unsurprising.

As things stand, achieving a settlement would require Ukraine to make territorial concessions, be it in Donbas or Crimea. It is, however, difficult to believe that Ukrainians would accept those concessions unless there was a credible prospect that the settlement would be durable, allowing shattered lives and a devastated nation to be rebuilt.

But any assurances Putin might offer are scarcely credible. Time and again, he has shown that he shares Lenin’s conviction that “promises, like pie crusts, are leaven to be broken”.

Nothing more starkly illustrates Putin’s willingness to resile from commitments than the agreement that was supposed to end Russia’s attacks on Georgia and its illegal occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Signed on September 8, 2008, the agreement was breached the very next day when Russia’s defence minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, and Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, announced that Russian reinforcements were being sent to, and would remain based in, those regions.

As if that example were not enough, Ukrainians know that ever since Boris Yeltsin declared in 1993 that Russia could unconditionally exercise “special powers” as the “guarantor of stability” throughout the former Soviet Union, Yeltsin and Putin have repeatedly sought to subjugate Russia’s neighbours, especially those that might give the Russian people a taste of freedom.

Wonder Land: China, Russia and Iran are turning the Ukraine conflict into a test that the autocratic alliance believes…

Thus, Russia has overthrown governments it regards as unfriendly at least once, and in four instances twice, in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Tajikistan, Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine. At the same time, it has sponsored separatist movements and acted to perpetuate frozen conflicts in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Ukraine, as well as between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

That Putin is not trustworthy is therefore a fact. But nor could the Ukrainians reasonably be expected to put much store in Western guarantees.

After all, having taken the lead in negotiating the 2008 agreement over Georgia, and given the Georgians assurances that the agreement would be implemented in full, the EU stood passively by when Russia violated its terms, prompting Russian president Dmitry Medvedev to publicly mock the EU’s timidity two months later.

And not even Russia’s blatantly unlawful invasion of Crimea in 2014 could spur the West to a credible response.

Angela Merkel’s Germany showed its colours by first making grandiose defence spending promises at the NATO summit that was held in response, only to then ignore them, instead opting to greatly increase its dependence on Russian natural gas. Britain too upped its rhetoric, but it kept its eyes firmly shut as London became a global centre for Russian money-laundering.

As for France, its successive presidents nurtured the illusion that their “special relationship” with Putin would allow them to temper his excesses – an illusion that, it must be said, was shared, to varying extents, by George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

The article ends with these sad words:

None of that can erase the conflict’s enormous, and rapidly growing, toll. Every day, Ukrainians are being killed, maimed, raped and tortured; no doubt, Putin believes the Ukraine’s breaking point is fast approaching, as, he might think, is the West’s.

But he should remember this. In 1979, Yuri Andropov, then chairman of the KGB, assured Leonid Brezhnev that with the “temporary assistance” of Soviet troops, his agents could install a staunchly pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan “without pain”.

By 1989, when the last Soviet troops limped home, the gaping wounds that intervention had caused helped precipitate the collapse of a global power that thought it was forever.

In that decade, the Soviet Union bore 15,000 casualties; in the past 12 months alone, Russia, the smouldering hulk of an extinct empire, has suffered more than 60,000 deaths as Putin seeks to make a wasteland and call it peace.

Like their Ukrainian victims, those young Russians deserved a better fate – a chance to live in a peace worth having. By refusing to cower before conquerors, or pawn liberty for the false security of servitude, the men and women of Ukraine are allowing that peace to stand a chance.

For this article in pdf, please click here:

Henry Ergas AO is an economist who spent many years at the OECD in Paris before returning to Australia. He has taught at a number of universities, including Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the University of Auckland and the École Nationale de la Statistique et de l'Administration Économique in Paris, served as Inaugural Professor of Infrastructure Economics at the University of Wollongong and worked as an adviser to companies and governments.

Vladimir Putin ‘seeks to make a wasteland and call it peace. Picture: AFP

18 views0 comments


bottom of page