Andrius Kubilius. The West, Lithuania and Europe’s Eastern Area: the Strategic Importance of the “Transformation Triangle” for Europe’s Destiny

2024-02-19 | Ukraine, European Union

I started writing the text on the “Transformation Triangle” some two weeks ago. The term “Transformation Triangle” itself came to mind even earlier, during a visit to Washington in November 2023, when I was looking for an answer on how the West can realistically help Russia to get rid of the Putin regime and to gradually return to the path of democracy.

The idea that we must explain to the West that Ukraine’s military and geopolitical (integrationist) victories are the only way how the West can help Russia’s transformation has long been with me. And Ukraine’s victories are the sole responsibility of the West. For only with sufficient Western support for Ukraine can such victories be achieved, and with it the opportunity to bring about transformation across the wider Eastern area of the European continent. So far, Ukraine has not received such a sufficient support.

I started telling and writing this even before the war.

I started writing this text, which I planned as a summary of my thoughts, a couple of weeks ago. I finished it on the day that the shocking news reached us all – Putin had killed Navalny.

Navalny fought for his dream of a “wonderful Russia of the future” (“прекрасная Россия будущего”): a normal, European, democratic Russia. This is the prospect of Russia that many Russians still believe in. This was demonstrated by the huge queues of Russians willing to sign up to Nadezhdin’s candidacy in the so-called presidential “elections”.

Putin killed Navalny. He  killed Navalny,  because Navalny had a dream. Putin killed a man, but it is impossible to kill a dream. It has a life of its own and it will one day become a reality.

When that happens, depends not only on ordinary Russians, on the opposition to Putin or on Russian civil society. It is up to us and it is up to the West as a whole. We have in our hands the most important instrument to help Navalny’s dream become a reality. These are the Ukrainian victories, which depend only on the Western support.

Putin will lose. He will be crushed first in Ukraine and then in Russia.

Putin’s defeat is our task and our job. This requires a long-term and holistic Western strategy. I have tried to set out some of the elements of such a strategy in this text.

“The wonderful Russia of the future”: a normal, European, democratic Russia is not only Navalny’s dream, which will live on. It is also our dream, because the existence of the whole of Europe depends on its realisation – whether we will ever be able to live in a stable peace without the threat of a post-imperial, authoritarian, aggressive Russia. To protect ourselves against such a threat, we need to invest not only in NATO’s “deterrence and defence” strategies, not only in our own  military capabilities in Lithuania, but also in the realisation of Navalny’s dream, in the implementation of the long-term strategy of the “Transformation Triangle”. Because only the “Transformation Triangle” will destroy the very source of the threat.

We say goodbye to Alexei Navalny. But our struggle will continue. Dreams never die.

***

Ukraine’s war against Russia is not yet going the way the Ukrainians and all of us would like. Since the beginning of the war, Western support for Ukraine has been just enough to enable Ukraine not to lose, but the support of only that level has prevented Ukraine from achieving victory. It is enough to remember just one figure: in 2023, Russia has spent more than EUR 100 billion on financing the war, while the Ukrainian side, with the full weight of the West’s support for Ukraine’s defence, has managed to mobilise resources worth only EUR 80 billion, of which as much as EUR 40 billion were Ukraine’s own resources.

Total Western military support to Ukraine in 2023 was less than 0.1% of Western GDP. After all, the economic potential of the West is 25 times that of Russia.

So, the West is rich enough that, with its vast resources to support the heroism of the Ukrainian soldiers, it could easily have ensured that Russia had already lost the war.

But this didn’t happen. Russia has not yet lost the war. And in truth, it still remains to be seen how Ukraine will be able to achieve victory in this war in the coming years. Because it is not likely that Western support will increase dramatically in the short term.

Here we have the first strange paradox in the behaviour of the West: a number of Western leaders, politicians and military men, seeing that Ukraine is still not winning the war, do not shy away from loudly lamenting this, and do not shy away from publicly predicting that a Russia that has not been crushed in Ukraine will be ready to attack some NATO country in 5 or 6 years. However, this overwhelming feeling on the part of Western leaders does not in any way translate into a decision to provide greater military support to Ukraine, which would enable Ukraine to win the war, to crush Russia and, at the same time, to remove the threat of its aggression against the West.

Why is that?

The answer is clear: because Western support has so far lacked the strategic ambition to achieve such a victory.

Why does the West still not dare to be ambitious for victory?

Because they are contemplating the goal of victory over Russia with a mood of negativity and fear rather than with a positive ambition that such a victory of Ukraine and the West would be good not only for Ukraine, but also for Russia itself and its prospects, would be good for the whole of the eastern area of the European continent, and would be good for the West itself, because it would create the conditions for a stable peace in the European continent.

It is clear that the ambition to achieve a Ukrainian victory for the West has so far was absent, because a large part of the West is simply afraid of such a Ukrainian victory.

First, the West fears that its ambition to see Russia defeated could provoke Putin to escalate the war, perhaps even to the point of using nuclear weapons. The West is therefore opting for the tactic of a slow “froggy boil”, only gradually increasing Ukraine’s military potential, in the hope that this will avoid the risk of escalation, and that Russia will eventually be exhausted and will decide to pull out of the war itself. However, this “slow-boil” tactic has the potential to “exhaust” the West’s own support for Ukraine in the first place. We are already seeing signs of this in the deliberations of the US Congress.

Secondly, the West fears what consequences such a Ukrainian victory might have for Russia itself. It is feared that a Ukrainian victory will result in the collapse of the Putin regime and that it will be replaced by even more aggressive “nationalists” rather than by some Russian democrats (because the West does not believe in Russia’s democratic prospects). There is also the fear of a post-Putin Russia breaking up into separate, conflicting entities, leaving it unclear who controls Russia’s nuclear weapons. More recently, the famous Elon Musk has been voicing such fears to members of the US Senate.

Sometimes it seems that the goal of a Ukrainian victory alone is not geopolitically and psychologically sufficient for the West to overcome such fears. That is why the West remains so “lukewarm”. They are also lukewarm in their military support for Ukraine.

All these fears, together with the usual short-sightedness and lack of leadership, prevent the West from seeing the completely new European horizons and perspectives that a Ukrainian victory could open up, as well as from seeing positive horizons that require a positive and strong Western strategic ambition.

Therefore, we, those of us who are striving for a Ukrainian victory, must also help the West to see the much broader horizons that only a Ukrainian victory can open up. Only in this way can we awaken the West’s ambition to achieve such a victory in Ukraine, only in this way can we help the West to free itself from fears about what will happen with Putin, with the Kremlin, or with all of Russia after a Ukrainian victory.

We need to preach to the West a very clear strategic doctrine, which is understandable to the West, and which is important to the West as a whole, and not just to us (or to our region), and which will help the West to understand the significance of the new horizons that will be opened up by the Ukrainian victory, and the meaning and strategic benefits of this, including for the West.

As French President Macron is fond of saying, today the West (including the European Union) lacks a new “grand narrative”, which makes the West look increasingly weak geopolitically.

Ukraine’s war against Russian aggression allows the West to discover a new “grand narrative”, and this must be the West’s ambition to achieve not only the victory of Ukraine, but also the transformation of the entire eastern area of the European continent.

These new European horizons can be called the horizons of the “Transformation Triangle”. At the top corner of the Transformation Triangle is Ukraine, and in the other two corners of the triangle are Russia and Belarus. The corners of this triangle are historically and geopolitically closely interlinked. Therefore changes at the “corner of Ukraine” will inevitably lead to major transformations in the other corners of the triangle: Russia and Belarus.  It is also called a triangle because if one looks at the point on the map where the borders of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus meet, one can clearly see the geographical triangle formed by the border roads (see photo).

“The Transformation Triangle” is the new “grand narrative” in Europe, because it is the key to the lasting peace in Europe: the neighbourhood of the current European Union, not led by the dictators in Russia and Belarus, but rather with the resurgent and evolving democracies in these countries, is the only chance for Europe to fulfil the formula of G.H.W.Bush: “Europe – whole, free and at peace”. This is the only formula that can guarantee lasting peace in Europe. This requires “freedom” in Russia and Belarus. Only when Russia and Belarus are transformed into territories of democracy and freedom can the old Europe no longer feel threatened by an authoritarian and neo-imperial Russia. Democracies do not fight each other – this is the axiom of a lasting peace on the European continent.

The question Western leaders must answer is simple: do they want chaos, blood and more suffering on the European continent, or do they want a stable peace. Indifference, a “not my business” attitude, an unwillingness to invest in a lasting peace, will only lead to ever-increasing chaos and the threat of war; a stable peace requires political and material investment in the “Transformation Triangle”. “Grand Narratives” only become true “grand narratives” when “grand” political and material resources are also invested in them, and one not merely limits oneself to empty but regularly repeated statements.

The West can bring about a major positive change at the “Ukrainian corner” of the Transformation Triangle, starting with Ukraine’s military victory and ending with the victory of the “Ukrainian success”, which will require both the reconstruction of Ukraine and Ukraine’s EU and NATO membership. The military victory of Ukraine is needed to crush the ideology of the current Kremlin regime’s Russism in Russia and to crush the Kremlin regime itself, thus opening a window of opportunity for political transformation in Russia, while the creation of a “Ukrainian success” through its Euro-Atlantic integration is needed so that the example of such a success can inspire ordinary Russians and Belarusians to strive for the same kind of European-oriented transformation in their countries.

Some in the West fear that such Western efforts to bring about change in the Russian-Belarusian corners of the Transformation Triangle are an implementation of the Western policy of “regime change”, which is supposedly unacceptable for some historical reason. However, this is a completely false fear: yes, we want a political change in Russia and Belarus, we want the fall of both the Putin and Lukashenko regimes, but this will have to be achieved by the Russians and the Belarusians themselves, and we will help the change in Russia and Belarus with our resolute policy of support for Ukraine and with our consistent solidarity with the Russian opposition and civil society.

The Transformation Triangle means that positive transformation in Russia and Belarus can also take place, thanks to the European-designed and supported change at the “corner of Ukraine”. Transformations in Russia and Belarus will be implemented by Russians and Belarusians themselves, but the context and motivation for such transformation will be created by the changes in Ukraine. And the changes in Ukraine, including its victories, can and must be created and influenced by the West. But to do so, the West needs to discover a new “grand narrative” and to realise its ambition for it.

Both Ukraine’s military victory and the integration victory of the “Ukrainian success story” now depend solely on the West’s determination to achieve this. The Ukrainians have long since demonstrated that they have more than enough of determination, while the West has still not shown that it has the Western resolve and determination  to support such Ukrainian victories. And without the West’s resolute support, such Ukrainian victories will not be possible.

What the European Union’s Transformation Triangle strategy must look like? It must consist of five essential parts:

Ukraine’s military victory and Russia’s defeat. The Putin regime and the aggressive ideology of Russism must suffer a severe crushing. The nostalgia of ordinary Russians for imperial grandeur must also suffer a painful defeat. The defeat must be accompanied by an international tribunal and reparations so that the Russians understand the extent of the crimes committed. This may open a window of opportunity for the beginning of a transformation in Russia. A military victory for Ukraine can only be achieved with much greater Western military support.

Reconstruction and European integration of Ukraine (building Ukraine’s economic success). The reconstruction of Ukraine and Ukraine’s integration into the EU Single Market is the only way how the long-term success of Ukraine’s European economy can be built. Reconstruction and European integration will be closely interlinked processes. The economic “miracle” of Central Europe and the Baltic States has been created by the region’s accession to the EU and the EU Single Market: Lithuania’s GDP/capita (PPP) was only 36% of the EU average in 1999, when it started negotiations for EU membership, and now it is 90%. For Ukraine, the same figure now is only 36%. But it has the same potential to reach 90% of the EU average in the next 20 years if the EU is able to implement an ambitious enlargement policy. It should be remembered that no post-Soviet country (in Central and Eastern Europe or in the Balkans) has so far been able to build its success without the EU integration. The EU can create such a success for Ukraine. The contagious example of Ukraine’s success will be the strongest factor that will eventually inspire the Russian and Belarusian people to seek fundamental change at home. The EU would be making a huge geopolitical mistake if it did not pursue an ambitious and rapid enlargement strategy that includes Ukraine. For such a European integration of Ukraine would fundamentally change the whole Transformation Triangle.

Ukraine’s NATO membership. Ukraine’s membership, or at least the invitation to join NATO in the near future, is not only important because it would address Ukraine’s security issue. It is also important because it would help Russia to transform itself. Because such an invitation to Ukraine would mean that Ukraine is no longer left in the “grey” security zone and a clear signal is sent to Russia that Ukraine is no longer within their sphere of its influence. And this, as the famous Zbygniew Brzezinski once very rightly said, would be the greatest support for Russia’s transformation into a democracy: according to Brzezinski, a Russia that retains the ability to rule and influence Ukraine will always remain an empire, and a Russia that loses this ability will be able to become a democracy. The West has all the means to implement Brzezinski’s formula in the near future – all it needs to do is to invite Ukraine to become a NATO member at the next NATO Summit. This will bring about a huge change in the whole Transformation Triangle and it depends only on the determination of the West to help or not to help Russia transform itself.

Support for the Russian and Belarusian opposition and civil society. This is the least the West can and must do in terms of concern for change in the Transformation Triangle. It is also a test of the West’s geopolitical wisdom: the West can only genuinely help the opposition and civil society if it also genuinely believes that democratic change can happen in both Russia and Belarus. If they do not believe this, then all the Western slogans about support for the opposition or civil society are a sham. Moreover, if you don’t believe in the prospects for democracy in Russia or Belarus (and the majority of people in Lithuania and the wider West do not yet believe in such prospects), then you are helping Musk to explain to US congressmen that there is no need to support and work for the victory of Ukraine and Russia’s defeat and the fall of Putin’s regime, because there can’t be a positive transition in Russia after Putin; because the situation will get only worse; because there simply cannot be a positive democratic transition in Russia. So, if you do not believe in the prospects of democracy in Russia, you are helping those who do not want to give Ukraine more weapons, because they are subconsciously afraid of a Ukrainian victory. Therefore, the European Union must put more much efforts in helping the Russian opposition; the EU must believe in Russia’s democratic prospects, and must begin to implement the grand narrative of the Triangle of Transformation, because only then will it no longer be afraid of Ukraine’s victory, and no longer be afraid of giving more weapons to Ukraine.

A “Marshall Plan” for democratic Belarus and Russia. The European Union must say loudly today to ordinary Russians and Belarusians that, after Putin and Lukashenko, they will be able to live a much better life than they are living now. Because the European Union will not allow them to be disillusioned by democratic change in their own countries. It must be announced now that the European Union is ready to help the future young democracies of Russia and Belarus with European special “Marshall Plans” of the 21st century. These will not be bags of money shipped to a democratic Moscow or Minsk, but agreements on free trade, visa-free travel and modernisation partnerships with the EU, which will help the people of those countries to realise the benefits and opportunities of democracy. For a democratic Russia, this will be a realisation of the dream of the murdered Navalny: to build the “wonderful Russia of the future”. And for the democratic Belarus, these are also prospects for the EU integration.  The European Union should already be announcing such plans now, and should be coordinating them with the democratic forces in those countries: it would not cost the EU anything for the time being, but it would already have a tremendous impact on the thinking of the people of the Transformation Triangle.

Can Putin be angry about this Transformation Triangle agenda and the “grand narrative” of transformation being implemented by the West?

Definitely yes.

But ordinary Russians and Belarusians will surely support such a Western agenda.

The question remains: who is the West with – Putin or ordinary Russians and Belarusians waiting for the implementation of the Transformation Triangle strategy?

Europe as a whole needs such a strategy. Because the Transformation Triangle is the key to a stable peace on the European continent.

And the European Union is able to implement such a Transformation Triangle strategy. Through the implementation of an ambitious and victorious strategy in support of Ukraine.

But this requires one condition: that the West stops being afraid of Putin. And that they finally decide that Putin must be crushed in Ukraine – with much greater Western military support for Ukraine.

“Transformation Triangle” on the map:

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