The Insider

Ukraine’s next steps

Eighteen months since the Russian invasion, could Ukraine join the EU—or Nato?

August 30, 2023
Biden and Zelensky earlier this year. Image: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Biden and Zelensky earlier this year. Image: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

It is 18 long and bloody months since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, a democratic European state, attempting to destroy its elected government and subjugate its 44 million souls. Horrifically, there have been half a million casualties and multiple cities and towns nearly wiped from the face of the earth. Not since Hitler and Stalin has Europe witnessed such desolation. There is an utterly haunting parallel with Hitler dismembering and then invading Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s.

I couldn’t agree more with Timothy Snyder, a historian of 20th-century tyranny, who tweeted: “A year and a half ago, Russia undertook a large-scale invasion of Ukraine. Since that time, Ukraine has taken back more than half of the territory then lost. If we don’t let them down, the Ukrainians will win this war, and bring us a more secure world.”

Critical to Ukrainian’s successful resistance has been the remarkable Churchillian leadership of the career actor, only lately turned politician, Volodymyr Zelensky, whose election to the Ukrainian presidency four years ago was built on a scorching attack on his country’s endemic corruption and poor government. We are rallying not just behind a nation but behind a leader who has the capacity and intent to win and to lead Ukraine fully into democratic Europe. Abandoning Ukraine in the context of its government’s ability to win and prosper within Europe would be terrible policy as well as baseless immorality.  

Britain has done the right thing by supplying substantial arms and equipment and hosting more than 170,000 refugees. So has most of the rest of Europe. But the star of the resistance has been Joe Biden’s US, supplying $75bn in military, humanitarian and financial aid—more than the whole of Europe. Joe Biden, a strong pro-Nato Atlanticist for his entire career since the 1970s, is totally solid on the rights and wrongs of the conflict and the dangers of negotiating with Putin. 

US support was not foreordained. Vivek Ramaswamy, the dynamic force of last week’s Republican primary debate, echoed Trump’s call for the US to disengage from Ukraine and effectively let Putin take and keep what he can. A Ramaswamy or second Trump administration would probably decapitate Nato. On the other hand, a second Biden administration would probably see Ukraine join Nato if it manages to fully rout Russia.

A victorious Ukraine would also join the European Union, making it fully part of Europe’s democratic, security and economic infrastructure. As important as Biden’s support for Ukraine potentially joining Nato is the bold declaration this week by Charles Michel, president of the European Council, that Ukraine could join the EU by 2030, alongside Serbia and the west Balkans, the fulcrum of Europe’s last war in the 1990s. “As we prepare the EU’s next strategic agenda, we must set ourselves a clear goal. I believe we must be ready—on both sides—by 2030 to enlarge,” said Michel.

This would be as significant an enlargement of the EU as the accession of most of east and central Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and most of southern Europe after the death of Franco in 1975. It would herald an EU of some 35 states, with only a handful of democratic mavericks—led by the UK—outside. Russia would be well and truly contained and, just maybe, a post-Putin leader, facing such a strong and united Europe at its gates, would opt for emulation rather than isolation.

The balance of power between the west and Xi Jinping’s China would also be fundamentally more favourable if Putin were defeated and the EU and Nato enlarged. 

So the stakes could hardly be higher, with the imperative for steadily greater support of Zelensky and steadily stronger sanctions against Putin and his mafia.

Eighteen months of deathly struggle with Putin is a good moment to heed not only Snyder’s advice on Ukraine but also his 20 lessons from the 20th century, penned in On Tyranny five years before Putin’s war. We Brits might heed these 10 in particular:

Defend institutions.

Take responsibility for the face of the world.

Remember professional ethics. 

Believe in truth. 


Contribute to good causes.

Learn from peers in other countries.

Listen for dangerous words. 

Be a patriot. 

And last but not least: Be as courageous as you can.