I remember very clearly the moment I realised Russia still felt threatened by the West. It was in early 2004, 15 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was working in Skopje, Northern Macedonia as the spokesperson for the EU-led, post-conflict peace implementation. I had facilitated an interview between my Ambassador, Alexis Brouhns, and the local Tass news agency reporter, whom I had come to know through regular press interactions.
The interview was routine enough, covering most aspects of the implementation of the Ohrid Peace Accords, including Macedonia’s progress towards joining the EU. As is very common with press interviews, the killer question came at the end:
“So, Ambassador Brouhns, when will the USA join the EU?”
I remember expressing incredulity, stating the obvious that the USA is on a different continent to Europe. It was said in semi-jest as a provocative throwaway line, so the skilled and seasoned diplomat Alexis laughed it off. However, the adage goes: “Many a word is spoken in jest”. It revealed a deep fear of Western expansionism into former communist European countries following the fall of the Berlin Wall.
A year ago, when the world woke up to the shocking headlines that Russia had begun a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on multiple fronts, it took me right back to that moment in 2004. It was shocking news, but sadly didn’t surprise me. That deep fear had manifested itself into an all-out invasion and challenge to the West.
In the initial days of the invasion, many thought and expected Ukraine would fall quickly under attack by and the considerable might of the feared Red Army. I even recall President Zelensky stating on the first evening of the invasion that he did not expect to be alive in 24 hours. Well, we all know that fortunately, all turned out to be wrong, and the full courage and resilience of Ukraine and its masterful leader of a President was revealed to the world.
This war has had a far-reaching impact on what I refer to as the three coils of cohesiveness: a secure environment, political and societal stability and economic prosperity. If any (or all) of these are stretched, that cohesion is at risk of breaking. What we have seen in Ukraine is a secure environment under constant threat and, in some areas, completely eroded. This has, in fact, strengthened the political and societal resolve, but the economy has been severely strained, to put it mildly. The world has also directly or indirectly felt the political and economic impact.
So what can this mean for Ukraine going forward? I asked some experts in their field.
Former British Army military intelligence officer and media commentator Phil Ingram comments on the ongoing security situation:
“Russia is probing the frontlines to see where they could break through for a bigger counter-offensive. They may or may not have the combat capability to do so. If they have this capability, it will likely be a one-shot wonder. If they haven’t, the Russian forces are in a worse state than previously thought. The ground is getting worse for armoured manoeuvre and the Ukrainians are in a good defensive posture. A Russian attack may capture some areas, but it will likely fail overall.
Once Ukraine receives, deploys and ready its counterattack forces with the Western equipment, including the tanks and infantry fighting vehicles that they are currently being trained on, it is likely they will take another large chunk of territory back from the Russians. Then later, they could attack to split the land bridge from Crimea through the Donbas.
If that happens, Russian defences could collapse. The Ukrainians would spend most of the rest of the year consolidating and securing recaptured territory before preparing of the next step - Crimea. This is unlikely before next year.”
David Landsman, former UK Ambassador, ex-CEO of Tata Europe and current board adviser, shares his observations on the ongoing political challenges:
“Few predicted that Putin would launch an all-out attack on Ukraine. But even fewer would have confidently predicted that the West would go so far to support Ukraine and persist with their support despite the significant economic cost.
That support hasn’t just come from Ukraine’s neighbours - Poland and the Baltic States - which have most immediately to fear from Russia; or from the US and UK, which traditionally have been prepared to play an activist role in European security; but also from Western European countries like Germany and Italy, whose links with Russia are historically strong and which have been wary of military intervention. But it’s clear that in the US, where it really matters, as well as Europe, there are limits. And with no knockout blow on either side likely any time soon, at some point attention must turn in the West to what can count as a sustainable “victory”.
Despite the rhetoric, few in Washington or elsewhere will ultimately outsource that decision to President Zelensky. Both Russia and Ukraine therefore have every incentive to continue fighting to secure the best outcome they can. And, at some point, the West will need to start thinking about how to manage Russia for the long term. More questions than answers, unfortunately.”
The war between Ukraine and Russia has thrown a huge spotlight on President Zelensky, his stellar leadership and both Ukraine’s strengths and vulnerabilities during this prolonged national and global crisis. So much has been said about his skilled, determined, dedicated and empathetic approach to leading and inspiring his nation, as well as garnering international support. However, it is clear from ongoing dialogue reported in the media and expert opinion from Phil and David, this war sadly shows no sign of ending soon.
For those on the ground in Ukraine, it presents continued challenges and opportunities. And with that come all the risks and horrors of the hostilities. Ukraine is in constant crisis. Aside from the immediate priorities and operational realities of fighting the war, there is a lot of other activity on the ground and planning for the future. I am familiar with much of this from my time in post-conflict Bosnia: the eventual return of displaced persons and refugees; toxic military debris, junk and unexploded devices; gathering evidence for war crimes; weapons decommissioning; repairing shattered infrastructure; and the personal security for all nationalities in Ukraine.
I will be sharing more reflections and observations over the next week. This will include observations directly from Ukraine and the impact of the war, and from a crisis management perspective, given the unique and uncertain challenges that lie ahead.
Photo Credit: Il Vagabiondo on Unsplash