In a recent conversation with a group of academics and activists from developing countries, a high-level German decision-maker noted that while Germany is preparing to spend €100bn on its military, it does so with a heavy heart. “Putin,” he said, “made us do it.”
Not all in the group agreed. Putin, many argued, is no excuse for arming yourself instead of helping the world, especially when there is a humanitarian emergency in Gaza following the October 7 Hamas massacre.
After all, there are countries with more than 200 million population surviving on a state budget of just one-fifth of German military spending. Some described the German government’s position as disingenuous.
And yet, all evidence of the slow political process by which Germany has come to the decision to strengthen its defense and to help Ukraine fend off Russian aggression points to the opposite. No democratic country in Europe is rejoicing in cutting spending on welfare, economic development, or humanitarian aid, and redirecting that money to military spending. It is just that there is no other way to stop a rapacious and imperialist neighbor repeatedly acting on its imperial instinct — for at least the third time since 2008.
No consensus was reached in that conversation in Berlin, not least because the audience was electrified by the eruption of war in Israel and Gaza since the Hamas, but not at all by 20 months of Russian aggression in Ukraine.
According to a survey from early 2023 by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a clear divide has emerged between the European and American public on the one hand, and those elsewhere, even those fairly neutral on the Chinese-Russian push to end the rules-based international order like India and Turkey.
While the West still believes it must help Ukraine to win and to stop Russia’s further expansionist aggression, large parts of the developing world would be satisfied if war simply ended, with Ukraine giving control of significant parts of its territory to Russia. Despite all the years of ever-closer connections between the economies of these countries and the West (or even because of this connectivity, as Mark Leonard argues), the West and the rest of the world do not see eye to eye when it comes to defending the principles of international law and liberal democracy against land grabs and the normative nihilism of dictators.
This points to how much is at stake in Ukraine. No other conflict today is to such an extent about the survival of a global order based on international treaties and democratic norms. If the West, after proclaiming its support for more than a year and a half, and allocating massive aid to Ukraine, does not remain united and genuinely supportive of Ukraine until it wins, the rules-based global order may sadly lose what remains of its credibility. (This, after all, was the rallying cry of that key post-Cold War event, the US-led liberation of Kuwait in 1991, which re-established that borders cannot be changed by force.)
All of which should remind the US Congress of what is at stake in Ukraine. It is true that since the outbreak of all-out war, the US has been the number one contributor to Ukraine in absolute numbers, but it ranks 16th in the world in terms of the share of its GDP dedicated to this aid.
The idea of continuing military aid to Ukraine is currently criticized by both the conservative right (because it is US taxpayer’s money spent to help people abroad) and the left (which has a long-standing historic affinity to Palestine, but not to Ukraine.)
Nevertheless, however pressing the need to address other conflicts, Ukraine should firmly remain on the list of US priorities, as it remains for its friends and allies in Europe. Failing Ukraine would undermine the unity that emerged in the West following February 24, 2022, and no good scenarios are in store for a petty and disunited West. The world is watching.
Marija Golubeva is a Distinguished Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She was a Member of the Latvian Parliament (2018-2022) and was Minister of the Interior from 2021-2022. A public policy expert, she has worked for ICF, a consultancy company in Brussels, and as an independent consultant for European institutions in the Western Balkans and Central Asia.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.