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While Fighting Russia, Ukraine is Also Fighting for a Home in Europe

Expectations are sky-high for Ukraine’s coming counteroffensive against Russian invaders. Following the loss of Bakhmut, Kyiv hopes to regain the military initiative and break out of a grinding war of attrition that plays to Moscow’s big advantage in manpower.  

In the next round, Ukraine’s forces will have a decided qualitative edge to offset Russia’s seemingly bottomless well of cannon fodder. They’ve received an infusion of top-line tanksair defense systems and other advanced weapons from the United States and Europe, as well as combined arms training that will help them dictate the terms of battle. 

On top of that, Ukraine’s defenders have exhibited superior morale and tactical ingenuity on the battlefield. While few military experts think the offensive will end the war, significant gains by Ukraine could have large political repercussions in Moscow, Washington and European capitals.  

By clawing back chunks of occupied territory, Ukraine would shake Russian ruler Vladimir Putin’s confidence that time is his ally. It would also quiet defeatist and pro-Russian voices in the West and help sustain public support for continuing the vital flow of arms and economic aid to Kyiv.  

Crucially, breaking today’s military stalemate could give fresh impetus to Ukraine’s campaign to gain admission to the European Union and eventually, once the fighting stops, NATO.  

President Volodymyr Zelensky often says that Ukraine’s security ultimately depends on its being firmly anchored in Europe. Otherwise, Putin, who already has launched two invasions, will persist in trying to forcibly absorb Ukraine piecemeal back into what he calls the Russian world.  

Ukrainians, however, are utterly determined to rid themselves of their Russian overlords. Their civilizational choice is clear: In a recent poll, 92 percent said they want EU membership by the end of the decade.  

Tamar Jacoby, who heads the Free Ukraine Project in Kyiv for my organization, the Progressive Policy Institute, has written perceptively about why Ukraine fights. It’s not just to regain lost territory. Jacoby says the war is best understood as a struggle for decolonization. Ukrainians are fighting to reclaim what Putin wants to erase: their own national identity, history, language and culture.   

They also see themselves as defending freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law against Russia’s police-state despotism, and in this sense, they are fighting for their European identity too.   

The EU offered Ukraine a path to membership last year but has yet to open formal negotiations on accession. In the meantime, Brussels has given Ukraine a lengthy list of conditions it must meet to join the club.  

Most are focused on combatting corruption and bolstering the rule of law. For example, Kyiv must pass legislation to more rigorously vet and select judges for Ukraine’s Constitutional Court. Others call for giving prosecutors new powers to investigate corruption, tackle money laundering, protect minorities, insulate the media against political interference and curb the “excessive influence” of oligarchs. 

These are all reasonable demands, especially since EU leaders feel they got burned by admitting some former Soviet bloc countries, such as Hungary and Poland, that subsequently have moved in illiberal and authoritarian directions. They’ve praised Ukraine for making measurable progress on several fronts, but everyone agrees rooting out its endemic corruption is key.

Yet, Brussel’s bureaucratic wheels grind slowly, and Zelensky is urging EU leaders to speed up the normally glacial enlargement process and set a firm date for starting negotiations for accession. 

EU leaders counter that it will take time to win unanimous approval from all 27 member states. For many of them, opening the door to Ukraine is a costly and politically challenging proposition.

If Ukraine is admitted, it would become the fifth-biggest EU country by population and the biggest by land mass. However, it’s ranked as the poorest country in Europe, with a GDP well below the EU average. 

Joining the EU would entitle Kyiv to subsidies aimed at speeding economic development and raising living standards. Such wealth transfers would strain EU finances, and likely turn some countries that are now net beneficiaries of EU aid into net contributors.  

Then there’s the massive cost of rebuilding Ukraine after the fighting stops. Last March, the World Bank estimated reconstruction and recovery costs at $411 billion for damage inflicted just in the war’s first year. For once, calls for a new Marshall Plan for Ukraine actually make sense, since Putin is waging a World War II-style total war on Ukrainian society. 

Another tricky challenge will be agricultural trade. Ukraine is one of the world’s leading grain exporters and its entry could upset the elaborate and delicate balance of interests in EU farm policy.     

At a recent dinner I attended with EU officials working on Ukraine’s application, a more basic political concern kept coming up: Ukraine’s accession could change the EU’s traditional “center of gravity.” Particularly in France and Germany, traditionally the main drivers of European integration, there are worries about a shift in the balance of power toward the EU’s newest members in the east and south, where liberal values seem to have shallower roots.  

For all these reasons, EU leaders say they will exercise due diligence and not rush Ukraine’s application. Yet they should also be conscious of the interplay between accession talks and the war. Setting a starting date for negotiations would boost morale in Ukraine, giving its war-weary citizens a hopeful political horizon even as the killing and destruction continue. 

It would also send a signal of resolve to Putin, showing him that his bid to stop Ukraine’s turn towards Europe has failed. For Europe, the costs and security risks of leaving Ukrainians out and perennially exposed to Putin’s expansionist designs will far exceed those of bringing them in.

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

Source : The Hill