Spend time on the fringes of Europe – as I did last week in Turkey for a diplomacy forum in Antalya, followed by a brief holiday – and you’ll realise how differently other nations and people view the war in Ukraine. The prevailing feeling in the West has been one of shock, outrage and sadness, brought on by the failure of an enlightened Europe to leave such awful territorial conflicts behind. Many, including president Volodymyr Zelensky, have framed this conflict as being about Ukraine’s right to self-determination. Yet such views aren’t shared by all.
Yes, sadness about the war is almost universal and there is a widespread belief in the need to respect territorial integrity. But in a world that has more autocracies than democracies, Ukraine’s right to self-determination gets shorter shrift as soon as you leave Western Europe. I spoke to one Kazakh woman who suggested that the cause of the invasion was what she saw as Ukraine’s curious need for independence of thought: if only the country hadn’t flirted with Nato or the EU and had accepted its role as a Russian satellite state – as Kazakhstan has done – this whole sorry war wouldn’t have happened. Surely Russia has a right to a buffer zone between it and Nato?
Even in Europe, there is some sympathy for a return to realpolitik. One former foreign minister I spoke to cautioned against framing Ukraine’s fight as a broader one between democracies and autocracies. “What is most unacceptable is the use of war as an instrument of pursuing political objectives,” he said.
In other words, for many, the goal of preventing conflict and dispelling the notion that “might is right” take primacy over protecting Western values. And yet, to my mind, the two are inextricably linked. This isn’t just about territorial integrity and the horrors of war. Rather, Russia cannot be allowed to undermine the right of Ukrainians to determine their own future – or any peace that is achieved will be illusory.