A Trip to Ukraine Clarified the Stakes. And They’re Huge.
"While visiting Kyiv last week, my first trip to Ukraine since Vladimir Putin’s invasion in February 2022, I tried to get my exercise every morning by walking the grounds of St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery. Its serenity, though, has been disrupted by a jarring exhibit of destroyed Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers. During my walks, I’d poke my head into these jagged, rocket-pierced hulks, wondering what a terrible death must have come to the Russian soldiers operating them.
But the shock of this tangled mass of rusting steel, sitting in the middle of this grand, whitish-stone piazza, evoked a different image in my mind’s eye: a meteor.
It looked as if a giant meteor had plummeted from space, disrupting life as we knew it — nearly eight decades without a “great power” war in Europe, a continent where centuries of invasions and conquest had given way to security and prosperity. Now we have this ugly pile sitting here in our midst, smoldering, and we, both Ukrainians and the world community, are struggling with how to deal with it.
Nearly every Ukrainian I spoke to in Kyiv was at once exhausted by the war and passionately determined to recover every inch of their Russian-occupied territory — but no one had clear answers about the road ahead, the painful trade-offs that await, only certainty that defeat would mean an end to Ukraine’s democratic dream and a smashing of the post-World War II era that had produced a Europe more whole and free than ever before in its history.
What Putin is doing in Ukraine is not just reckless, not just a war of choice, not just an invasion in a class of its own for overreach, mendacity, immorality and incompetence, all wrapped in a farrago of lies. What he is doing is evil. He has trumped up any number of shifting justifications — one day it was removing a Nazi regime in power in Kyiv, the next it was preventing NATO expansion, the next it was fending off a Western cultural invasion of Russia — for what ultimately was a personal flight of fancy that now requires his superpower army turning to North Korea for help. It’s like the biggest bank in town having to ask the local pawnshop for a loan. So much for Putin’s bare-chested virility.
What is so evil — beyond the death and pain and trauma and destruction he has inflicted on so many Ukrainians — is that at a time when climate change, famine, health crises and so much more are stressing Planet Earth, the last thing humanity needed was to divert so much attention, collaborative energy, money and lives to respond to Putin’s war to make Ukraine a Russian colony again.
Putin lately has stopped even bothering to justify the war — maybe because even he is too embarrassed to utter aloud the nihilism that his actions scream: If I can’t have Ukraine, I’ll make sure Ukrainians can’t have it, either.
“This is not a war in which the aggressor has some vision, some outline of the future. Rather, on the contrary, for them, everything is black, formless, and the only thing that matters is force,” Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian, remarked on a panel we did together at a conference in Kyiv last weekend.
Being in the city has been clarifying for me in three regards. I understand even better just how sick and disruptive this Russian invasion is. I understand even better just how hard, maybe even impossible, it will be for Ukrainians to evict Putin’s army from every inch of their soil.
Perhaps most of all, I understand even better something that the former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski observed almost 30 years ago: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”
Most Americans don’t know a lot about Ukraine, but I say this without any hyperbole: Ukraine is a game-changing country for the West, for better or for worse depending on the war’s outcome. Its integration into the European Union and NATO someday would constitute a power shift that could rival the fall of the Berlin Wall and German unification. Ukraine is a country with impressive human capital, agricultural resources and natural resources — “hands, brains and grains,” as Western investors in Kyiv like to say. It’s full-fledged integration into Europe’s democratic security and economic architecture would be felt in Moscow and Beijing.
Putin knows that. His war, in my view, has never been primarily about countering NATO expansion. It has always been much more about stopping a Slavic Ukraine from joining the European Union and becoming a successful counter example to Putin’s Slavic thieving autocracy. NATO expansion is Putin’s friend — it allows him to justify militarizing Russian society and to present himself as the indispensable guardian of Russia’s strength. E.U. expansion to Ukraine is a mortal threat — it exposes Putinism as the source of Russia’s weakness. And the Ukrainians I met, to a person, seemed to understand that they and Europe were bound up together in an epochal moment against Putinism — a moment, though, that cannot succeed without a steadfast United States. Which is why one of the most frequent — and worried — questions I got on my visit were variations of “Do you think Putin’s pal Trump can be president again?”
One need only look into the eyes of Ukrainian soldiers back from the front, or talk to parents in the streets of Kyiv, to be stripped of any illusions about the moral balance of this war. I was in the country for just three days — far shorter than my Times colleagues and other war journalists who have borne remarkable witness to this fighting and suffering. But my relatively brief interactions brought to life the photos we see of bomb-ravaged cities and villages in Eastern Ukraine, and the chilling findings we read from the United Nations documenting cases in which children have been “raped, tortured and unlawfully confined” by invading Russians.
This is as obvious a case of right versus wrong, good versus evil, as you find in international relations since World War II.
Yet the closer you come to this conflict and think about how to resolve it, that stark black-and-white moral balance sheet doesn’t offer an easy road map to a solution.
It is clear as day what defines a just outcome. It’s a Ukraine that is whole and free — with reparations paid by Russia. But it isn’t at all clear how much such justice is attainable, and at what price, or whether some dirty compromise will be the least-worst option, and if so, what kind of compromise, just how dirty, when and guaranteed by whom.
In other words, the minute you step out of the justice framework of this war — and into the realm of realpolitik diplomacy — the whole picture turns from black-and-white to different shades of gray. Because the bad guy is still powerful and still has friends and therefore a say. Ukraine, too, has lots of friends committed to helping it fight as long it wants to — until “as long as it wants to” becomes too long in Washington and other capitals of the West.
It is very hard to stop a leader who has no shame or conscience. On Tuesday Putin toldan economic conference in Russia that the 91 felony counts filed against Donald Trump in four different U.S. jurisdictions represent the “persecution of one’s political rival for political motives” and show “the rottenness of the American political system, which cannot pretend to teach democracy to others.” The hall erupted in applause for a leader renown for using poison underwear, an exploding airplane and Siberian labor camps to “teach democracy” to his rivals.
The shamelessness is breathtaking. And while his beseeching of North Korea for military help is pathetic, the fact that he’s prepared to seek it underscores that he intends to continue this war until he can come away with some chunk of Ukraine that he can hold up as a face-saving success.
I went to Kyiv to participate in the annual meeting of the Yalta European Strategy, organized in partnership with the Victor Pinchuk Foundation. (Pinchuk is a Ukrainian businessman.) The first speaker was Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who right from the top argued that if we abandon considerations of justice, and do a dirty deal with Putin, we will sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.
“Human morality must win this war,” Zelensky said. “Everyone in the world who values freedom, who values human life, who believes that people must win. And our success, the specific success of Ukraine, depends not only on us, on Ukrainians, but also on the extent to which the entire vast moral space of the world wants to preserve itself.”
But securing justice in war almost always requires the total defeat and occupation of the aggressor. Russia has more than three times the population of Ukraine. And when you listen to Ukrainian soldiers speak, you hear a cocktail of Zelensky-like defiance, mixed with admissions of exhaustion.
The conference featured a panel of four male Ukrainian soldiers, one missing a forearm and one an eye, and a woman soldier. All had fought at the front. Here is how Dmytro Finashyn, an intelligence officer of the National Guard of Ukraine, whose left forearm was a black prosthetic, put it: “Our best people are dying, those who should shape the future of Ukraine. That is why it is necessary to reduce our losses. The world must help us, because we are fighting for global democracy.”.
Alina Mykhailova, an officer who has been in the field for well over a year, started to cry during her presentation, mourning the loss of a beloved commander. “We are suffering huge casualties; there is no romanticizing battle and war. It is dirty, it is nasty and bad,” she said. “Every time you go to bed you should remind yourself how hard it is” for the soldiers at the front. “What we see at the front lines today, you would not learn from TV.” She added, “Each of us needs personal support, every soldier should have support: a family or a loved one, or any person who does not avert their eyes and understands what we are fighting for.”
Don’t get me wrong, this is a Ukrainian army ready to fight on — and any politician in this country, including Zelensky, who just hints at a territorial compromise will be run out of office. But the math is cruel. Everyone who volunteered, right after the invasion, has gone to the front, which means more and more Ukrainians will have to be drafted. While many show up, they often look to join drone units — not the trench warfare infantry — and more and more have been trying to bribe or flee their way out of the draft. That is why Zelensky recently had to fire the entire top leadership of his regional military recruitment centers.
It gets back to that meteor. No one in this modern European country was ready to have his or her life turned upside down by this kind of all-out war that, despite all the threats from Russia, always seemed a remote possibility. One mother remarked to me that her social life now is occasional dinners with friends, kids’ birthday parties “and funerals.” That was not the plan.
You know a country has been at war a long time when the fight starts spawning its own language. When the Ukrainian fund-raising platform United24 seeks donations to buy the army more drones, it now asks for a “dronation,” and everyone knows what it means.
What preoccupies so many Ukrainians are the same two issues that preoccupy so many officials in Washington: Kyiv’s counteroffensive against the Russians in the immediate term and the security needs of Ukraine in the longer term. I have been an advocate of the U.S. standing with Ukraine for as long as Ukrainians want to fight. Being in Ukraine did not change my mind as much as it underscored the need for both urgency and pragmatism.
On urgency: Ukraine needs to inflict as much damage on Putin’s army as fast as possible. That means we need to massively and rapidly deliver the weaponry Ukraine needs to break Putin’s lines in the country’s southeast. I’m talking the kitchen sink: F-16s; mine-clearing equipment; more Patriot antimissile systems; MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems, which could strike deep behind Russian lines — whatever the Ukrainians can use effectively and fast.
Rustem Umerov, making his first public appearance as Ukraine’s new defense minister, told the strategy conference: “Our army today is one of the strongest and most motivated in the world, because we know what we fight for. But we need more military equipment. We need it today, we need it tomorrow, we need it now.”
The faster Putin faces a collapse of his forces in Ukraine, the more he might have to either flee or be ready to negotiate a face-saving deal today, and not wait to see if Trump is re-elected and throws him a lifeline.
But have no illusions — any cease-fire or peace deal will bring a whole new set of policy dilemmas to the fore.
If the war drags on, the way it has been, through this coming winter, with a bloody stalemate because the Ukrainian Army can’t penetrate the huge minefields and trenches the Russians have dug along the crescent zone of Eastern Ukraine they occupy, Zelensky could face quiet pressures at home to negotiate and loud ones from his European allies. And Putin could run out of pariah states, like North Korea and Iran, from which to secure more ammunition.
Any kind of formal or informal cease-fire is possible. But what’s impossible is this: Ukraine agreeing to any permanent or temporary end to this conflict without the promise of a NATO Article 5 security guarantee (or some equivalent from the U.S. and Europe). Such a security guarantee would signal to exhausted Ukrainians, foreign investors and the millions of Ukrainian refugees abroad that the war is basically over and Putin can’t just rearm and reinvade without the U.S. and Europe defending Ukraine.
Oh, you didn’t think that was coming — that we’d just be able to share in Ukraine’s victory, walk away and leave an angry Putin licking his wounds? Sorry, but let me state this as bluntly as I can: No Western security guarantees for Ukraine, no end to this war.
Therefore, once the diplomacy begins, “the two strong arms of the West — that is the E.U. and NATO — which have become so much closer because of this war, will have to bring Ukraine into both NATO and the E.U.,” the European historian Timothy Garton Ash, author of the recently released “Homelands: A Personal History of Europe,”remarked to me. “A durable, lasting peace requires Ukraine in NATO as soon as possible and in the E.U. incrementally.”
What if Putin decides he wants a forever war in Ukraine and will not play along with a quiet border with Ukraine for NATO to defend? I don’t know. That’s why I say that some wrenching geopolitical dilemmas await us down the road.
Early Sunday morning, Russia launched nearly three dozen drones at Kyiv. Air raid sirens wailed in the distance — or so I am told, because I slept through the whole thing. This prompted two of my Times colleagues in Kyiv, Andrew Kramer and Marc Santora, to immediately introduce me to an iPhone app: Air Alarm Ukraine. It’s tied in with Ukraine’s air defense system, and when an attack is imminent it blares out a warning: “Attention. Air raid alert! Proceed to the nearest shelter!”
But the voice is not Ukrainian. It’s the baritone of Mark Hamill, or Luke Skywalker of “Star Wars” fame.
“Don’t be careless,” Hamill cautions. “Your overconfidence is your weakness.”
The app comes with a Ukrainian-language setting as well, voiced by a woman, but according to an Associated Press article, some Ukrainians prefer to hear Hamill because of how he punctuates the all-clear: “The air alert is over. … May the Force be with you.”
I mention this for several reasons. The first is to highlight that Ukraine, like Israel, is a real “start-up nation” — a country with a lot of creativity and innovative prowess, not only in creative apps but homegrown drones and cruise missiles, on top of all of its natural resources and agriculture supply. According to military experts, it was Ukraine’s homegrown Neptune cruise missile flying just above the waves that sunk the cruiser Moskva, the flagship of Putin’s Black Sea fleet, last year.
“Despite the ongoing war, Ukrainian start-ups brought in more than $6 billion in revenue in 2022 — $542 million more than in 2021 — and have tripled in valuation since 2020,” according to an April 2023 report by Michał Kramarz, head of Google for Startups, Central and Eastern Europe. In a normal year, Ukraine was graduating 130,000 engineers — more than Germany and France.
While in Kyiv, I interviewed Brian Best, who runs the investment banking department at Dragon Capital, an investment firm in Ukraine that funds start-ups. In recent years, he told me, changes in Ukrainian relations with the E.U. have enabled young Ukrainian techies to travel without visas to Western Europe and “they brought back a lot of new skills on how to do business. The war has just accelerated that.” Besides military and cyber start-ups, Best said, “the street I live on has three or four new restaurants that are very European in feeling. It is a cultural revolution.”
Moreover, according to the European Commission, Ukraine, before the war, accounted for 10 percent of the world wheat market, 15 percent of the corn market and 13 percent of the barley market. Today it also has the most experienced standing army in Europe and, after Russia, the biggest — with arguably the most expertise in next-generation drone warfare in the world.
There’s just a scrappy feel to this society, particularly the rising young generation that has come of age in a post-Soviet Ukraine. It bodes well for Ukraine if it can just get free of Putin’s dead hand. I like the way the renowned Ukrainian poet and artist Serhiy Zhadan explained it at the conference:
“Let’s use a metaphor to compare Ukrainian society with Russian society: Ukrainian society is a young punk band that is going to fill stadiums. And we will definitely do this. For us, everything just has started, there is a huge reserve of strength, energy and, most importantly, there is an understanding of strategy and where to go. Russia is a jaded, slightly elderly cabaret singer, who has lost his audience and popularity but tries to create an illusion of success and glamour.”
Back in the early 1990s, I opposed NATO expansion after the fall of the Berlin Wall, because I thought our priority should be trying to nurture a democratic Russia. I don’t regret that for a second. Now, 30 years later, though, when the prospects for a democratic Russia feel utterly remote, I would gladly use NATO and the E.U. to nurture and secure a democratic Ukraine.
Because if Ukraine can escape this war — even if it has to temporarily cede some territory to Putin — and can complete the anti-corruption and other regulatory reforms that are required for it to join the European Union, the brainpower, agricultural power and military power that Ukraine represents would serve as an important model and magnet for Russians wanting a different future, not to mention other shaky Balkan states.
“What Ukraine is doing has the potential to be so transformative for the region as a whole — for all the countries trying to consolidate democracy,” Anastasia Radina, 39, chair of the anti-corruption committee in the Ukraine Parliament, told me. Putin is watching closely, she added, even denouncing anti-corruption institutions in Ukraine before the war. “He could not stand Ukraine being a success story of breaking with the Soviet legacy and with Russia,” because “we are right on his doorstep. It would stand as an example of success of another civilizational model contrary to Putin’s.”
Which is why, as much as I value NATO as a security alliance, I have never lost sight of how the European Union — which Americans tend to know little about — has managed to quietly build itself into its own kind of United States of Europe, another great center of free markets, free people democracy and the rule of law. To be sure, the E.U. has plenty of its own problems managing day to day. But considering Europe’s long history of fratricide, the E.U. is a quiet, boring miracle. Adding Ukraine to it would make it only stronger.
Indeed, as I’ve thought about what could be the most meaningful and painful punishment for Putin and his war crimes, I decided it would be for him to be sentenced to sit in the Kremlin for the rest of his life, hiding from coup plotters and having to look out at a Ukraine that is a secure and flourishing member of the single largest democratic, free market/free travel zone in the world — the E.U — while Putin’s citizens would be left with the freedom to vacation and invest in North Korea and Iran.
That would be Vladimir Putin’s nightmare. Our job is to help make it come true.
By pure accident, I was reminded of just how important this could be on my trip home. As I sat at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport, I watched German Lufthansa planes land on Polish tarmacs. I saw three Hasidic Jews saunter by in their distinctive black coats and hats, the fringes of their prayer shawls dangling from their white shirts. With Poland now in the E.U., I could overhear chatter in several languages, some of which I couldn’t identify, in 360 degrees.
In 1939, the arrival of a German plane in Warsaw meant death and mayhem would soon follow, especially for my ancestors. Now, it’s just a fast way to Frankfurt.
We forget what a political miracle this whole scene is. We forget what it took for European diplomats, with the help of American presidents and American power, to create this scene of multireligious, multinational normality that is today’s European Union.
So, dear reader, you can be for more Western intervention in Ukraine, or you can be against it. But either way, have no doubt that Vladimir Putin’s savaging of Ukraine is a direct attack on this whole scene, this taken-for-granted normality, this ordinary miracle.