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Putin fears Ukrainian freedom and democracy, not NATO | View

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By  Oleksandr Sushko
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Amid the drumbeat of war, it is often pointed out that Russia has already invaded Ukraine in 2014: first with the annexation of Crimea, and with the continuing occupation of parts of the Donbas.

But although parts of eastern Ukraine are a combat zone, the country’s future should not be reduced to a battlefield between great powers. 

To describe Ukraine as a site of struggle between competing spheres of influence takes away its agency and frames the debate completely on terms set by the Kremlin.

Freedom and self-determination ought to be non-negotiable

In recent focus groups, Ukrainians were asked to identify a one-word concept that would make the most positive difference to their country. 

"Freedom" was the overwhelming answer, outranking concerns over low average income and a lack of confidence in public institutions.

Seven years ago, Ukraine made its choice to move forward as a European nation with liberal, democratic institutions, not as a Russian satellite state.

Western commentators risk viewing the current tensions through the lens that Vladimir Putin desires - one of military chess moves - rather than Ukrainians’ legitimate demand for the right to self-determination. This can be a non-negotiable.

The West is not using Ukraine to restrict the ambitions of Russia. Ukraine is next to a troublesome neighbour, asking for solidarity and to become part of a network of democracies.

Despite his rhetoric, Putin is not challenging NATO's expansion, but Ukraine’s right to make sovereign choices and forge alliances that will make the country flourish. All of these are decisions denied to anyone living under Russia’s "sphere of influence".

Hollow justifications for Putin's aggression

Putin’s speciality is in dividing the West, to the point where he has managed to convene the West to talk to him as a reward for his belligerence, over the heads of Ukraine and even its European allies.

There is nothing wrong with the US and Russia discussing military issues. Even at the height of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow discussed the deployment of weapons.

But the future of Ukraine, and eastern Europe more widely, is not a bilateral issue for Russia and the West. This is a journey that the people, their elected officials, and Ukrainian civil society walk together. Putin is escalating the situation because he understands that this aim, for a peaceful, democratic society, is irreversible.

Ukraine has a strategic purpose for joining NATO and the EU, codified in the Ukrainian constitution, though these are objectives that are unlikely to be met for many years. But Russia wants the world to believe that they are somehow imminent and so artificially concentrates on this issue.

Putin has already de facto blocked NATO and EU membership by frightening European governments into thinking that they will get sucked into the conflict. NATO membership is exaggerated in the debate as a ruse by Russia to conceal its real ambitions.

Putin talks about the need to prevent the deployment of offensive weapons in Ukraine - but they only exist for defensive purposes due to Russia’s ongoing occupation of the eastern regions.

Ukraine's national journey is seen as a threat

Moscow wants to revive the Brezhnevian idea of limited sovereignty in which those in the "near abroad" have scope to run some of their affairs, but the boundaries are always set by Moscow, and the penalties for insubordination are deadly, as Hungary and Czechoslovakia found out.

If the West accepts these terms, it will be another tragedy for eastern Europe. NATO does not wish to expand for the sake of ideology: the pressure to join is coming from countries like Ukraine and Georgia, whose sovereign territory is menaced by Russia.

The Kremlin’s behaviour perversely contributes to public demands in these frontline states to join the alliance. More than 60 per cent of Ukrainians now wish to join, up from around 20 per cent in 2013. By persuading Ukrainians that NATO membership is now necessary, Putin has become the leading promoter of the alliance.

Ukraine has many struggles -- debilitating corruption, weak governance, the lack of a fair judiciary -- but it also has a strong civil society that is constantly providing innovative ways to resist the authoritarian backlash.

Accountability is on the rise, oligarchs are being pursued, power has transferred peacefully, and there have been pluralistic elections. Putin is desperate to stamp this out in his "sphere of influence", from Belarus to Kazakhstan, for fear that the same principles will take root in Russia.

What else should be done?

The West can support Ukrainian freedom by weaning itself off the oil and gas that Russia uses to blackmail Europe, and by withholding regulatory approval for Nord Stream 2.

It must strengthen efforts to track Russian dirty money and freeze the assets of the regime. To prevent Russia from spreading its malign influence, its investments in Europe must be screened, and it must be prevented from buying stakes in crucial sectors like defence, energy infrastructure and IT.

Not invading Ukraine is not enough. The West should demand Russia stop undermining the free choice of democratic societies in Eastern Europe, while at the same time increasing support to strengthen democratic institutions, civil society, and independent media.

This crisis must not be viewed as a contest between large geopolitical entities. It is a contest between freedom and tyranny, and the West must not find itself humming along to the Kremlin’s song.

Oleksandr Sushko is executive director of the International Renaissance Foundation in Ukraine.