Andrius Kubilius. Western Reality and Our Responsibility

2023-08-11 | EU relations with Russia

Andrius Kubilius, former PM, MEP, initiator of  the “United for Ukraine” network

(The Lithuanian version of the article was published on 11.08.2023)


Immediately after Putin launched Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2022, it seemed that the West had truly woken up from its geopolitical lethargy and embarked on a decisive strategy not only to help Ukraine defend itself, but also to stop Russia’s aggressive, authoritarian, kleptocratic Putin regime.

However, a year and a half after the outbreak of the war, and especially after the NATO Vilnius Summit, it is becoming increasingly clear that the West may have woken up, but it has still not got out of the comfortable bed of the “lazy and self-satisfied West”. The Western formula that NATO is not involved in the war, that it is only the Ukraine’s war and not the West’s war against the aggressor Russia, is increasingly becoming a clear symbol of the West’s desire to preserve the military and geo-political status quo in Ukrainian affairs. At least there is no sign of a Western willingness to seek decisive geopolitical change on the European continent or to invest seriously in a decisive military defeat for Putin.

It increasingly seems that the West is satisfied with, if not a quick peace with Putin (which only benefits Putin), then at least with a long war that debilitates Russia (whatever is he cost of this to Ukraine), without investing in a quick Ukrainian victory. Meanwhile, the West does not dare to proclaim its ambition to uncompromisingly crush the Putin regime. What is more, the West is unwilling, even geopolitically, to open the door to Ukraine in the near future (NATO membership), because this could (according to the West) provoke a new wave of Putin’s aggression. Even the prospects for membership of the European Union remain vague, despite the granted candidate status and even the possible decision at the end of this year to open negotiations, as fears are becoming louder and louder that Ukraine’s EU membership  could allegedly pose a number of challenges to the further functioning of the European Union’s institutions or the Single Market itself.

It is time to take stock of this emerging new “Western reality” so that we can not only predict possible future scenarios, but also have a proper understanding of the strategic responsibility that we, Lithuania, already have as an integral part of the West.

So far, we have mostly been sailing in the geopolitical fairway drawn by the “big” Western capitals, declaring solidarity with Ukraine along with all other Western partners, handing over military equipment and ammunition from our warehouses that are no longer used, but limiting our strategic geopolitical security aspirations exclusively to the individual security needs of Lithuania (e.g., deployment of the German brigade in Lithuania), although our security depends much more on whether Ukraine manages to defend itself, than on the timing of the deployment of the German brigade in Lithuania.

Unfortunately, it seems that, for us too, Ukraine’s war for its freedom has not yet become “our war”. For it is not enough to show that it is also our war to have Ukrainian flags in Vilnius, or to have nice statements or gestures of political solidarity, or to have civil society charity campaigns, or to know that we are not asking Ukrainians to thank us. This requires that we ourselves have a clear and overarching strategy for “our war for Ukraine”: how we are engaged in this war, what we are trying to achieve, and what resources we are using to do so. And this must be, first and foremost, our geopolitical strategy, from which our clear military strategy for the next decade would flow. We need to be aware of our role in this war – we are not the biggest military power that can alone determine military outcomes in our region, but we can be influential enough to propose strategic geopolitical initiatives and ideas to transform our region into a much safer space, and to bring together like-minded people from our region and from the much broader Western community to do so together.

This is the kind of activity that I miss most in today’s reality.

Because, exactly,  what the West is most lacking today is a clear long-term geopolitical strategy that includes not only Ukraine but also Russia and Belarus. This must be emphasised very clearly: as long as the West does not have a strategy for Russia, it will wander around with regard to the issue of Ukraine. At the moment, the West is afraid of the consequences of the Ukrainian victory for Russia’s further development, afraid that Putin will be replaced by some prigozhin (because the West has no strategy to help Russia’s democratic transformation, since it is afraid to talk about the regime change in Russia), and so the West’s military support for Ukraine remains lukewarm (because the West is afraid that, in the event of a decisive support, Putin will once again declare that it was NATO that attacked Russia, and not Russia that attacked Ukraine). The West lacks the leadership, the will and the capacity to see the importance of the “Ukraine factor” for the overall long-term geopolitical transformation of the eastern part of the European continent, including the potential transformation of Russia and Belarus themselves. Because there is no faith in the prospects for democracy in these countries: the West sees Putin and Lukashenko as the eternal leaders of their countries, and all the alternatives of different prigozhins only make them more frightening. Therefore, the narrative that still dominates all Western deliberations on Ukraine is how Putin will react to one or another Western action on the “Ukrainian front”, not how such or other long-term Western action will help to bring down the Putin regime.

It is this deficit, flaw or weakness in Western strategic geopolitical thinking that must be our main geopolitical target. And this requires, first of all, that we have our own vision of what kind of  Western strategy is absolutely necessary and that we are able to rally our fellow citizens around this vision of Western strategy, both in Europe and across the Atlantic.

But in order to understand why such a Western strategy is absolutely necessary, and why we need to engage in it, we first need to identify the basic elements (which may turn out to be bleak) of the “Western reality” of the last year-and-a-half period, so that we can understand what lies ahead of us in the long term if we are not able to respond to this reality strategically already today:

– The war is hard, and with the kind of Western military support that Ukraine is currently receiving, it may become increasingly difficult to expect Ukraine to achieve a crushing victory over Russia any time soon. This is not Ukraine’s fault or proof of its lack of military capability. It is a consequence of the West’s inability to make up its mind that this is our war too. The West is afraid of the consequences of Ukraine’s victory over Russia for Russia itself, because it has no coherent strategy towards Russia. As long as the West is afraid of the Ukrainian victory over Russia, it will not give Ukraine the weapons it needs to achieve such a victory. By hiding the root cause of its political ineptitude, the West increasingly wants proof of Ukraine’s gratitude (which proves that for the West it is only “Ukraine’s war” and not “our war”) and less and less talks about the West’s gratitude to Ukraine. In this context, Ukraine will come under increasing pressure from the West to end “its war” through peace talks with Putin and on Putin’s terms. And without any Tribunals.

– The prospects for NATO membership or Western security guarantees for Ukraine are even more vague after the Vilnius Summit, because the Vilnius Summit was limited to completely superficial formulations, which demonstrate that the big capitals of the  West does not consider the issue of security guarantees for Ukraine to be serious, important or timely. At least for now. The reason is the same: Western leaders still quietly think that Putin has a veto over who in Russia’s neighbourhood can and cannot become a NATO member. Because Putin has a nuclear arsenal to blackmail the West with. Western policy on Ukraine remains subordinate to the Western policy towards Russia, and the West still does not have such a policy towards Russia. They did not have it before, because they were dependent on Russian gas; they do not have it now because they are afraid of Putin’s nuclear blackmail. And they are afraid of what will happen to Russia if Putin is gone. Until the West has an adequate long-term policy towards Russia, based not on Putin first!, but on Democracy in Russia first! doctrine, the West will not have an adequate policy towards Ukraine. Conversely, as long as the West does not have a comprehensive and adequate policy towards Ukraine (weapons, reconstruction, NATO and EU membership), the West will not have an adequate policy towards Russia, because the future of democracy in Russia and Belarus depend on the effectiveness of the West’s policy towards Ukraine.

– It is still difficult to answer whether the West is really committed to building the foundations for Ukraine’s future economic and social success over the next decade, doing everything possible to ensure that Ukraine becomes a member of the European Union and is fully integrated into the EU’s Single Market within that decade. While we can be pleased that the European Union had the political will to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova at the outbreak of the war, and while there is optimism that both countries will be invited to start negotiations on EU membership at the end of this year, the prospects for membership themselves continue to be mired in geopolitical fog: France in particular is demanding major institutional reforms within the EU itself (by removing the veto power) in order to make the EU ready to welcome new members (Ukraine in particular), while such reforms within the EU itself are extremely difficult to achieve. Secondly, Poland and other Central European countries have clearly demonstrated with this year’s Ukrainian grain embargo initiatives that Central Europe, despite its many declarations of solidarity with Ukraine, can become significant opponents of Ukraine’s integration into the EU and the Single Market, as it is already showing its fear of competing with Ukraine’s agricultural production in the same EU Single Market. Paradoxically, one can already see that Central Europe could become the biggest obstacle in Ukraine’s path to EU membership: Central Europe has demonstrated this year that it is afraid and will be afraid of Ukraine’s economic competition in the future; Central Europe has also long demonstrated its reluctance to give up the veto power, despite the fact that the veto has consistently turned into a major instrument of the European “blackmail culture”. If the choice were to be made in between of retaining the veto power or Ukraine’s membership of the EU, it is not clear at the moment which one of the alternatives Central Europe would choose. Neither it is clear which one would Lithuania choose. The likely consequence of all this is a slow, lengthy and ineffective process of Ukraine’s integration into the EU. Not because Ukraine will not be able to implement the necessary reforms, but because the European Union itself will eventually lack political will and will stop at some vague model of gradual integration, without clear political will, without clear criteria, dates and stages for integration, leaving Ukraine in a grey geopolitical area for a long time to come. As it has been the case so far.        I am not writing all this to complain once again about how weak the West is, still geopolitically asleep or afraid of Putin. The West is what it is – we just need to see its strengths and weaknesses. They can change: the West may act one way while Biden is the US President, it may act another way if Trump comes back. But it is clear that the West is our only security potential and resource. On the other hand, it is also clear, at least to us, that the fate of the West is also being decided in Ukraine.

Obviously, “the West” is a broad concept, covering very different regions with quite different interests: it covers the new Europe with Central Europe and the Baltic States; it covers Northern Europe and the United Kingdom; it covers the old Europe with quite distinct Germany, France and the Mediterranean countries; finally it covers the transatlantic partners. Most of these countries are members of NATO and, on the European continent, of the EU. On Ukraine, there is more or less unanimity, although it is clear that different regions have different priorities. Sometimes, in the name of preserving unity, more decisive action is sacrificed, although this has not yet become the most visible problem. However, this may soon become an increasingly prominent challenge, as today’s “Western reality”, as described above, may have increasingly negative long-term consequences. First and foremost for our region, but also for the whole of the European continent, and thus for the West.

The reality of the West is what it is today. Our challenge is to be able to act and to achieve maximum objectives even in the face of this reality. The problems of today’s Western reality that concern us most can be identified very briefly: a) the lack of an overarching long-term Western strategy for the geopolitical reconstruction of the whole of the eastern part of Europe (Ukraine, Russia, Belarus), in which Ukraine (its victory, reconstruction, Euro-Atlantic integration) would play a central role; b) the lack of Western geopolitical leadership and political will for the preparation and implementation of such a strategy.

This raises the question of Lithuania’s responsibility. Our primary responsibility is to find partners and like-minded people with whom we can work together to change the “Western reality” of today. We are having a lot of discussions about the German brigade in Lithuania, about the purchase of German tanks and how to keep such a purchase secret (?!) – this is important, but it only concerns our individual security. Meanwhile, I do not see at all any broader and more fundamental discussions among us about how we can achieve a change in the current “Western reality”; what we have to do to make the unconditional victory of Ukraine and the crushing of Russia the West’s goal; what we have to do to make the West no longer afraid of the victory of Ukraine and its consequences for Russia; what we must do to ensure that the West sees Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration not only as an aspiration for Ukraine, but also as something that is vital for the West itself, because only in this way can the geopolitical reconstruction of Eastern Europe be realised and the conditions for a sustainable peace on the continent of Europe be created. This is no less important for the security of the whole of Europe and for our own security than what tanks or brigades will eventually be deployed in Lithuania.

Europe’s geopolitical problems (dangers and opportunities) are currently concentrated on the eastern borders of the Western area on the European continent. The political weight of the countries of the Western area representing this region (including Lithuania and Ukraine) has increased considerably in the Western area. This region can fill the deficit of the collective leadership that is so painfully felt in the West. But the region has so far failed to demonstrate such efforts.


Because we do not yet feel that this is also “our war”. If we did, we would be discussing not only NATO’s defence plans, which are important to us, but also whether a situation could arise where NATO or other Western coalitions of like-minded people would start to consider committing their own forces to the Ukrainian war; we would also be discussing right now whether or not we would be prepared to send troops to Ukraine together with a coalition of like-minded nations if it really were “our war” (and such a discussion is already taking place amongst experts in the West).

We would also be discussing how to give up the veto in European Union affairs and how to help Poland not to fear competition from Ukrainian agriculture. We would also be discussing how to convince the West that democracy is possible in Russia too, and that the West need not be afraid of a Ukrainian victory over Russia and the resulting collapse of the Putin regime.

As long as we are not discussing such things, we are a silent part of today’s “Western reality”. And that reality should not be satisfactory to us. If it is not satisfactory, then we should be trying to change it, and not thinking about how we can foolishly adapt to it.

Once upon a time, during the times of the Lithuanian Independence movement Sąjūdis, the “reality of the West” (“just don’t rock the Soviet Union’s boat, because the reformist Gorbachev must be preserved”) did not suit us either. And we managed to change it, working together with all the other like-minded countries: the Baltic States, Poland, Scandinavia, Great Britain, the US Congress. Now it is a historic moment of equal importance. And the fundamental problem is the same – “the Western reality”. We have the experience to change it.

That is what we must do, because that is our greatest responsibility today.