In a speech given to mark this anniversary two years ago, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy noted how far his country had come since then and spoke optimistically of an even brighter future ahead. “We were all lucky to be born in Ukraine,” he said. “We just haven’t all realised it yet.”
There was hope there still, even six years after Russia first invaded Ukraine in February 2014. The Ukrainian president could celebrate a pause in the fighting and pray to God that “these days of silence become months. Months – years. Years – centuries, and then millennia. We ask God for peace, harmony and for prosperity for the Ukrainian land.” The 24 months that have passed since that speech feel like a lifetime today.
Now, six months after Putin’s full-scale invasion, the Ukrainian people are currently engaged in an existential fight for their freedom and their lives against a rogue state hell-bent on their destruction.
But Ukrainians are not only defending their freedom: they are fighting for ours too. They are not only fighting for their families and their homes and their country, but for the future of the international system and a world where state behaviour is regulated by a collectively agreed set of rules and norms.
The Ukrainian people are not alone in this fight. The international order that was born from the ashes of the Second World War is under siege across the world: in Ukraine, in Palestine, in Syria and countless other places where these rules and norms are being contested.
President Putin has spent years probing the limits of liberalism with poison and propaganda, trying to find the limit to what he can get away with before the West wakes up. He largely got away with the illegal annexation of Crimea; the political cover he gave to Syria’s President Assad to use of chemical weapons on his own citizens was overlooked; interference in Western elections was talked down by politicians of all stripes because it was a truth too inconvenient.
After all that – after years of blithely ignoring the warnings of our friends and allies in Eastern and Central Europe – it finally took the full-scale military invasion of a sovereign state for Western European leaders to reflect upon how we got here. The massacre of Bucha. The shelling of Kharkiv. The siege of Mariupol. Now, having tortured staff at Zaporizhzhia’s nuclear power plant – the largest in Europe – Russia openly toys with the idea of an all-out strike on the facility.
To say that these are dark times is an understatement.
Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, has spoken about a Zeitenwende – a turning point – in how the West deals with such violations in future and signalled that a much tougher line would be taken to defend democracy, liberalism and the international system which has created the conditions for an historically unprecedented period of peace and prosperity.
Scholz’s phrase – die Wende – evokes the era of political change which brought down the Berlin Wall and led to the reunification of Germany. It is a comforting word for politicians, one which allows us to look, steely-eyed, towards a future where all decisions will be made on the basis of realpolitik and where European values and interests will be defended to the hilt. But the time for comforting words is long past.
I agree with Chancellor Scholz that European governments must be more willing to be more muscular in defending their values and interests at home and abroad – but that is only half the battle. We live in messy, multi-layered modern states which the invasion of Ukraine has shown to be built on decades of complacency and false assumptions about security.
As well as looking to the future, Western politicians must also look backwards with humility and a willingness to admit their mistakes. We must be honest with the public about what we got wrong and honest with ourselves about why.
And while opposition politicians must continue to highlight what has gone wrong – and there is no shortage of opportunity to do so – across the West, we must be willing create the space for our opponents to admit past mistakes and rectify them.
That, I will admit, is much easier said than done. But we live in unusual times, marked by a series of recurring political and economic crises that show no easy signs of being resolved.
Perhaps one of the clearest markers of this domestic and international turbulence has been the remarkable renaissance enjoyed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and his century-old observation that “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”.
It is hard to open a newspaper or magazine these days without coming across this quote. It appeared in a 2020 speech by Michael Gove about the civil service reform and a Spectator article about the Tory leadership contest. It featured in a recent Irish Times column about Irish unification and in last week’s New Statesman feature on Ukraine.
The recurring appearance of this quote is perhaps its own morbid symptom of a political system rocked by crises with no clear answers about how to resolve them. But perhaps Gramsci was right, perhaps we are not standing at a turning point, but instead living through a period of messy transition.
The war in Ukraine serves as a sharp reminder that the future is not fixed. There is a new world incubating amidst the domestic tumult and the foreign wars, and how these problems are resolved will shape the world for generations to come. Even if we just haven’t all realised it yet.
Stewart McDonald is MP for Glasgow South and SNP defence spokesperson