Ukraine and Russia: What Are We to Do?

By Ian Gentles
Ian Gentles
Ian Gentles
Ian Gentles is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and distinguished professor of history and global affairs at Tyndale University in Toronto. He is the co-author of "Complications: Abortion’s Impact on Women" (2nd ed., 2018), published by the deVeber Institute for Bioethics in Toronto.
January 26, 2022Updated: January 26, 2022


If you believe Tucker Carlson, Ukraine does not deserve all the fuss. A small, faraway country, it is certainly not worth the West’s shedding any blood to prevent Russia from gobbling it up. Just leave it to its own devices and hope for the best.

If you are an American you can see the point. Why get involved in yet another foreign war, given the dismal record of the past few decades? Think of Iraq. Think of Afghanistan. Think of Vietnam. Do we really want a repetition of those quagmires?

The situation is further complicated by the historical fact that Ukraine has long been closely associated with Russia. Back in the 10th century, Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev, adopted Christianity. His conversion led to the conversion of the whole of Russia to orthodox Christianity. For the next two centuries, Kievan Rus was a powerful nation until it was overrun by other more powerful nations: Poland, Lithuania, the Ottoman Empire. Then at the end of the 18th century it became part of the Russian Empire. Finally, in the chaos of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Ukraine managed to tear itself away and set up as a short-lived independent republic. By 1922 it had been annexed to the communist Soviet Union, technically with the status of a republic, but very much under the iron thumb of Moscow. This lasted until 1989 when Ukraine broke free, and again won its independence from Russia.

In spite of what Tucker Carlson thinks, Ukraine is far from being an insignificant country. It boasts abundant reserves of natural resources: coal, petroleum, natural gas, manganese, titanium, nickel, timber, and many others.

Additionally, its agriculture is far more prosperous and productive than Russia’s. In fact it is almost the breadbasket of Eastern Europe. Most of its grain harvests are exported. By contrast, Russia’s harvests are declining and scarcely sufficient to feed its own population.

Ukraine is also a country of considerable strategic importance. Its population of 43 million makes it close to one-third the size of Russia’s. Like Russia, its population is declining, but Russia’s is declining much faster. Both countries suffer from high emigration and a low birth rate. Russia is also afflicted by the highest abortion rate in the world, plus the ravages of male alcoholism. Since COVID struck, Russia’s demographic decline has become catastrophic.

If this country, which is much weaker than most in the West realize, decides to invade, Ukraine will not just roll over and play dead. Its army, which has recently swelled to 280,000, is the third largest in Europe, after Russia (one million) and France. Its soldiers are increasingly well armed. Strategically it benefits from several important ports on the Black Sea (even without the Crimea!) It will cost Russia much bloodshed if it tries to overrun Ukraine.

Yet Russia has so much at stake that it might just decide to roll the dice and march in, hoping that when the crunch comes the West will do nothing.

Such is a very possible scenario. But if it becomes a reality, is there nothing else to be done except stand by helplessly while Russia snuffs out Ukrainian independence?

It doesn’t have to be that way. It is high time that the West took seriously Russia’s oft-repeated demand: an iron-clad guarantee that Ukraine will never be allowed to join NATO. Putin has made it crystal clear that this is an irreducible demand for Russia. He simply cannot and will not tolerate a powerful, hostile power, backed by the full weight of NATO, right on his doorstep. So why can our leaders not appreciate that giving Russia the guarantee it desperately wants would instantly defuse the situation and avoid the threat of war?

There is one objection: Such a guarantee would violate Ukraine’s sovereign right to join whatever alliance that it deems to be in its interest. That may be so, but who cares? This would not be the first time that greater powers have gotten together to dictate the foreign policy of a lesser power. Think of Belgium. In 1840 it was a newly created but weak country, then Britain made a guarantee of Belgium’s neutrality a cornerstone of British foreign policy. Belgium was not asked whether it wanted to be neutral. The guarantee was honoured by all the other European powers until in 1914, when Germany marched its army through Belgium on its way to attack France. This violation of Belgian neutrality was what brought Britain into World War I.

The West could similarly make it clear that any violation of Ukraine’s borders would be met with armed force. I am pretty sure that Russia would accept such terms in return for a guarantee of Ukraine’s permanent neutrality.

There is another reason, a far more important geopolitical one: why the West—the United States in particular—should give way to Russia’s insistence that Ukraine not join NATO. The West should long ago have embarked on a strategy of converting Russia from an enemy into a friend. It would have been much easier to do this in 1989-1991, when post-communist Russia was fragile and badly in need of allies. Instead of seizing that opportunity, the West turned a cold shoulder to Russia and continued to treat it as a major enemy. This policy seemed to be vindicated when Vladimir Putin came to power with his obnoxious, anti-democratic policies of gagging the press and imprisoning and murdering his critics. Yet the admittedly nasty character of the Russian leader does not have to be a deal breaker. The West has had fruitful relationships with other scoundrels in the past.

It is still not too late to abandon our hostility to Russia. The West needs at all costs to avoid having Russia fall into the arms of communist China, which has already been making overtures to Russia. A Russian-Chinese alliance would be a major setback for the United States and all its allies. To avoid such a setback, we need to persuade Russia that its best interests lie in joining with the West, as well as all the other Asian countries such as India, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Bangladesh, in a grand coalition to oppose Chinese expansionism.

With its tyrannical, genocidal policies, as well as its all-consuming ambition to dominate the rest of the world, the regime of Xi Jinping is by far the greatest threat to world peace. That is why we urgently need to make friends with Russia.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.