Ukraine: Europe’s Unfinished Work

Until recently, ‘Ukrainians’ were synonymous with ‘cleaners’ or ‘builders’. If such a belief is held by the Czechs, it is not surprising that countries located further west know even less about Ukraine, says Alexander Dobroyer, Ukrainian sociologist, coach and researcher.

In the summer of 2014, a few Ukrainian friends and I were invited to dine at the home of a well-known Regensburg physician. These were the days when the ‘Russian Spring’ was sweeping through southern and eastern Ukraine, Crimea had already been annexed and the pseudo-republics of Luhansk and Donetsk had been formed. The conversations at the table were exactly about this.

Our intelligent and enlightened host vehemently tried to persuade us that the hostilities in eastern Ukraine were a civil war waged by those who disagreed with the ‘Kyiv regime’. We replied that we were from Ukraine and could see with our own eyes what was happening and understood that this was a Russian intervention, but our arguments were met with desperate resistance. The host argued that we were victims of Kyiv’s propaganda and that he was living in a free world and reading the free press, which allegedly gave him an objective perspective on the developments.

That meeting, one in a series of many similar encounters, made me realize that the Western world had long and persistently “failed to see” Ukraine and that all of its knowledge about Ukraine was coming through a Russian lens. 

Over the course of many years, Kremlin propagandists have been pushing the idea of the so-called ‘Russian world’: an ideological construct based on the claim that there are no Ukrainians or Belarusians, but all of them form a single Russian nation. In line with this construct, anyone who speaks Russian is considered to be Russian. On this basis, Russia felt entitled to ‘protect’ the rights of Russian-speaking people anywhere in the world and invaded Ukrainian Crimea. The effect of the Kremlin’s powerful propaganda, targeting Western Europe for decades, was that thousands of Europeans (including our hospitable Regensburg host) were completely oblivious to Ukraine.

In the arms of Russia

Struck by such ‘night blindness’, Western Europe willingly allowed itself to be taken hostage by Russia. Perhaps the most eloquent example of this short-sighted fascination with Russia was Europe’s energy dependency. Ever since the early 1990s, Russia has been engaged in ‘gas wars’ with Ukraine. The aim of the gas confrontation was to discredit Ukraine in the eyes of the global community and to consequently strengthen Russian influence in the region and across Europe.

The alternative Nord Stream and South Stream gas pipelines (bypassing Ukraine) were not designed to increase Russian gas supplies or to enhance the reliability of Europe’s energy supplies, but instead to enable selective cutoffs of gas supplies to Belarus, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. This idea was voiced back in 2009 by Mikhail Korchemkin, director of East European Gas Analysis, a US consulting company, in his article in the well-known Ukrainian weekly ‘Zerkalo Nedeli’. In his view, the purpose of this project was to undermine the energy security of these countries, strangling them in a warm gas embrace. The current energy crisis is the outcome of these efforts.

The American historian Timothy Snyder wrote: “The gift of Russian propagandists has been to take things apart, to peel away the layers of the onion until nothing is left but the tears of others and their own cynical laughter.”

Even a cursory glance at Ukraine’s history shows that since the tenth century the country has always been part of European processes (sometimes as a subject, sometimes as an object). Its history was dramatic at times, with periods when Ukrainians had to live without a state of their own.

Ukraine’s dignity

Ukraine’s struggle for independence from Russia has been going on for centuries. Its current acute phase began in 2014, however, with the Euromaidan events marking a preamble. The formal ‘stumbling block’ was Ukraine’s application for an association agreement with the European Union. The Yanukovich regime, which led the country to impoverishment and destruction during its three years in power, was not interested since the associate membership with the European Union would enforce honest and transparent reforms.

A regime that had built one of the most robust corruption systems over a short time was not willing to play fair. The stolen hope of reunification with Europe (which, for many Ukrainians, became a symbol of living by the civilized rules of the modern world) led to mass protests both in Kyiv and across Ukraine, soon dubbed ‘Euromaidan’. The protest against corruption, against a government that had sold out its country’s future to Putin’s Russia, eventually evolved into a resistance movement defending basic decency in the life of Ukrainian society.

Over time, the Ukrainian revolution became known as the ‘revolution of dignity’.

This expression perfectly reflects what actually happened. The recognition of its own dignity and the possibility of building a new life under new civilized rules is the main leitmotif of Ukraine’s current struggle for the right to be part of the family of European nations. 

Declared in 1991, Ukraine’s independence opened up new opportunities and new development paths for the country. This process progressed with difficulty, but was irreversible. Over the last thirty years, Ukraine underwent a rather rapid political westernization: the spread of Western institutions across a growing part of Ukraine’s territory, coupled with the popularization of European values and behavioral patterns among a growing number of Ukrainians. The ‘revolution of dignity’ undoubtedly renewed Ukrainian society and also laid the foundations of modern Ukrainian democracy.

One Euromaidan activist described the feelings expressed by people on the Maidan as follows: “We came to Maidan looking for Europe, but we have found Ukraine.” 

The realization that Ukraine could irrevocably leave Russia’s sphere of influence prompted the Kremlin to go to war, which began in the spring of 2014 with the occupation of Donbas and the annexation of Crimea and still continues.

Russia strikes again

Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine on 24 February 2022 has once again, as in 2014, put Ukraine at the centre of global attention. The eyes of politicians, the military, religious and public figures and millions of citizens from different continents turned to Ukraine.

As Timothy Snyder noted, the world has found out about Ukraine because it is defending itself.

The war in Ukraine triggered reactions among Western intellectuals. In April 2022, the American edition of e-flux Journal published an article entitled “The West at War: On the Self-Enclosure of the Liberal Mind” by Boris Buden, a Slovenian-born writer and cultural theorist living in Berlin. The author depicts Ukraine as an object rather than an acting subject. He writes: The Ukrainians, against their will, have been forced into this war and must now fight it, but not only for themselves: they must fight as a proxy for the West. The war in Ukraine has become a proxy war between two imagined adversaries, the West and Putin.”

In parallel, an article “War and Indignation” by the eminent German philosopher Jürgen Habermas was published in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung on 28 April. In the article, Habermas articulates the dilemma faced by the West: the defeat of Ukraine versus the escalation of a geographically limited conflict into World War III. While he notes that Putin has brutally attacked Ukraine, the latter is not at the focus of his thinking (since he ultimately denies its subjectivity). Assessing the asymmetry of threats coming from Putin and NATO, the German philosopher puts forward the claim of a ‘politics of fear’ as a rational argument for responsible politics. The ‘politics of fear’ delineates the limits of military assistance to Ukraine.

While it might be a peculiar compromise, this is exactly what, in Habermas’s opinion, helps to avoid the risk of nuclear apocalypse. The author contrasts the national (Ukrainian) and post-national (European) mentalities underlying the different attitudes to war.

This distinction is particularly meaningful when we compare “the heroic resistance of Ukrainians and their obvious readiness for self-sacrifice with what one would expect from Western Europeans in a similar situation.”

Although he finally concludes with the assertion that Ukraine cannot lose this war, he argues a few paragraphs earlier that this war cannot be won, so negotiations with Putin will be inevitable.

Intellectual war

With his article, Habermas sparked a heated debate among Western intellectuals. In May, the Slovenian Marxist philosopher and sociologist Slavoj Žižek published an article criticizing German pacifism. Putin plays on the fears of pacifists whenever he talks about ‘red lines’. “Bullies by nature always count on their victims not to fight back,” Žižek writes.

“To prevent a wider war – to establish any kind of deterrence – we, too, must draw clear lines.”

The philosopher notes that today’s pacifism entails moral compromises. He warns that Putin’s mission is to dismantle Europe. He uses many levers to do this, including gas wars. The author speculates on Europe’s gas policy towards Russia, formulating the claim that Russia is counting on Europe’s inability to do anything ‘heroic’.

In July, Timothy Snyder published his response to Habermas in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, entitled “Germans have been involved in the war, chiefly on the wrong side.” The American historian rebukes the German philosopher for juggling concepts, passing off the manipulation of emotions as ethical principles. Living in a German context prevents Habermas from understanding the experience of the Ukrainians. 

The Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak writes that the experience of the two Ukrainian Maidans, the collapse of the ‘Russian Spring’ and the volunteer movement led to the discovery of the ‘Ukrainian idea’. It is the idea of freedom (in this case: synonymous with independence), i.e. freedom from Russia, and the freedom to build a society of prosperity, where human dignity is protected and the desire for justice is not punished by law. We can add that it is also clearly demonstrated by Ukrainian’s fierce resistance in the war against Russian aggression.

New challenges are yet to come

The war in Ukraine has also highlighted many problems in well-established global and international institutions and organizations. The inability of organizations such as the UN (with a representative of the aggressor state in the Security Council, blocking all decisions), the International Committee of the Red Cross and others to act quickly and effectively has become visible to everyone. The highly publicized conflict between the leadership of Amnesty International and its Ukrainian office provides another confirmation of this situation.

What has already become obvious is that such organizations, established under different conditions, fail to address the challenges of the present day.

Once the war in Ukraine is over, it is quite likely that many of those entities will inevitably face the need to reform, if not completely ‘restart’ their activities (much like the global security system). The Israeli historian and futurologist Yuval Harari made the following comment on this crisis: “One possibility is that this moment in history will be remembered as the time when the global order finally collapsed. And the institutions that had been built to preserve world peace and security, to prevent global cataclysms such as famine and epidemics, fell apart. Then the era of wars, famine and poverty came again. This is one scenario. The other scenario is that Putin will not be allowed to win the war in Ukraine. And the world order will be restored and reinforced.”

The war in Ukraine has revealed the need for decolonization, not only for Ukraine but also for the peoples of Europe. This is mainly (but not only) true of the countries that were in the sphere of interest of the USSR after World War II. For example, after the 24 February, the streets of Prague were flooded with cars with Ukrainian number plates, many of them quite expensive. A young Czech woman, who was making coffee for me in a café in Prague, said she was amazed to see wealthy Ukrainians.

Until recently, ‘Ukrainians’ were synonymous with ‘cleaners’ or ‘builders’ to the Czechs, in contrast to the wealthy Russians. If such a belief is held by the inhabitants of a European capital located 1,200 kilometres from Kyiv, it is not surprising that countries located further west know even less about Ukraine.

In recent months, Ukrainian diplomacy has achieved considerable successes in the international arena. Much remains to be done, however, for Ukraine’s cultural diplomacy in Europe. “That it took so much effort (and so much unnecessary bloodshed) for the West to see Ukraine at all reveals the challenge that Russian nihilism poses. It shows how close the West came to conceding the tradition of democracy,” Timothy Snyder believes. 

The war in Ukraine has brutally restored some questions to the global discourse, e.g. values in politics, democracy and the foundations of the European family of nations. Although many wars are being waged around the world, it is Ukraine that is on everyone’s lips. Metropolitan Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, who is also President of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, believes that this is the case because good and evil are called by their right names here. The current war in Ukraine is not the first one in its history, but it is the first one that has shown the importance of this country to the world, Timothy Snyder observes.

As Yaroslav Hrytsak aptly put it, “as Ukraine is becoming globalised, the global world is increasingly being ‘Ukrainianised’”. The way Ukraine now perceives itself and the narratives it uses to describe itself are the first steps towards articulating its history in today’s global context. 

Why does Europe need Ukraine?

Today, Europe still speaks the language of security (in particular, energy security), while Ukraine (through the Revolution of Dignity and before the current desperate resistance against Russia) speaks the language of values. Values are the drivetrain of democracy. In the early weeks of the current war, in May 2014, a major conference was organized in Kyiv under the title “Ukraine: Thinking Together.” It gathered politicians, scholars, social activists, cultural figures and journalists from Ukraine, France, Germany, Poland and the USA. One of the panels was entitled “Why does Europe need Ukraine?” The panellists were unanimous: the events of the Ukrainian Euromaidan were a reminder of the ideas that had once accompanied the creation of the European Community.

Many people today perceive Europe as a well-developed economy with a number of agreements concerning the energy market. The most valuable thing about Europe, however, is the vision of three men: Robert Schuman, Alcide de Gasperi and Konrad Adenauer. They saw the integration of European countries as a way to restore social life after two world wars. This path of European civilization, initiated by the founding fathers, goes back to Jerusalem (biblical faith), Athens (intellect) and Rome (law). At the core for European peoples lie the values of biblical faith, Greek philosophy and Roman law: human dignity, equality and freedom.

Since the Euromaidan, Ukraine has demonstrated that its people were literally ready to die (and they did die) for these values.

The President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso mentioned this fact in Milan in late 2013, in the midst of the events in Kyiv: “When we see in the cold streets of Kyiv, men and women with the European flag, fighting for that European flag, it is because they are also fighting for Ukraine and for their future. Because they know that Europe is not just the land of opportunity in terms of economic development, because they have seen what happened in Poland or what happened in the Baltic countries, but also because Europe is the promise of hope and freedom.” 

These thoughts echo those of the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka, who reflected on the idea of Europe. In Patočka’s understanding, Europe is a constant existential experiment in which we test not only our intellect, but mainly the extent of our freedom and fearlessness. For him, being European means to put ourselves at risk and to question any established meaning. The Czech philosopher is convinced that a new ‘gigantic turn’, an ‘unheard of metanoia’ is needed to save humanity from impending nihilistic decline. We can assert that this ‘gigantic turn’ is happening today in Ukraine. 

Since the 1990s, “a perverse faith was lodged in ‘the end of history’, the lack of alternatives to democracy, and the nature of capitalism,” Timothy Snyder argues. And he continues that “the late twentieth-century talk of democracy conflated the correct moral claim that the people should rule with the incorrect factual claim that democracy is the natural state of affairs or the inevitable condition of a favored nation. This misunderstanding made democracies vulnerable, whether old or new.” Democracy is naturally linked, however, to ethical commitments and physical courage. Democracy is not a given. Instead, it is an ongoing process.

Ukraine has become a reminder that the values of democracy must be fought for, turning into an original “laboratory of the twenty-first century.” 

In the cauldron of the Revolution of Dignity and the Russian-Ukrainian war, Ukrainians found Ukraine and themselves, emerging as a nation. They have arrived at what Ukrainian nationalists had long dreamed of. Having found themselves as a nation, however, Ukrainians stopped looking at the nation as an ultimate goal. They began to see it as a platform for modernization. Ukraine transcends its own national history and ‘tries on’ a global perspective. 

This kind of experience had been previously lived in the lands that later became Ukraine. Before the Mongol invasion, Kyivan Rus’ was an active participant in European processes, having inherited the Cyril and Methodius tradition through baptism. In the ninth century, these two Apostles of the Slavs resisted the German bishops in the struggle against the ‘trilingual heresy’ for the right of the Slavic peoples to strengthen their identity by developing their own culture and language. The two brethren of Thessalonica taught Europe a lesson in fruitful dialogue between the cultures of the peoples coming from the eastern and western parts of the continent.

They managed “to resist the creation of blocs because they were guided by an apostolic universalism which is able to reconcile unity and diversity.” Twelve centuries later, Germany and some other countries of ‘old Europe’ are afraid of Ukraine joining the ‘European club’ (through EU accession). This is because in that case “Ukraine would become a new centre of power and would shift the balance of power eastwards,” as Gregor Schwung argues in a piece published in November 2022 in

In describing Ukraine’s journey, Yaroslav Hrytsak uses the well-known metaphor of ‘the last mile problem’. Both in sport and in history, one can cover a long distance but the last kilometers are the most difficult and decisive ones. Ukraine is one step away from its strategic goal: a radical reset and full membership in the family of European nations. 

Europe’s great work is awaiting its completion.


  • (When the original English source was unavailable, the quotations have been back-translated into English).
  • Я. Грицак. Подолати минуле: глобальна історія України. – К.: «Портал». – 2021, p. 419.
  • (back-translated from Ukrainian)
  • Я. Грицак. Подолати минуле: глобальна історія України. – К.: «Портал». – 2021, p. 418.
  • М. Ковальска. Между идеей Европы и ее деконструкцией (Гуссерль, Паточка, Деррида), p. 19. // Ян Паточка и идея Европы. Восточно- и центральноевропейский контексты: Сб. статей / Под ред. П. Барковского, Л. Ильюшиной, О. Оришевой и О. Шпараги. – Вильнюс, 2011. – 240 pages.
  • Иван Хватик. «Забота о душе» Яна Паточки в «нигилистическом» мире, pp. 163–164 // Ян Паточка и идея Европы. Восточно- и центральноевропейский контексты: Сб. статей / Под ред. П. Барковского, Л. Ильюшиной, О. Оришевой и О. Шпараги. – Вильнюс, 2011. – 240 pages.
  • Л. Гурка. Подвижники евангелизации. Актуальность евангелизационного дела святых Кирилла и Мефодия.
  • G. Schwung, Warum Deutschland beim EU-Beitritt der Ukraine zögert
  • Я. Грицак, ibid. pp. 420–421.

Alexander Dobroyer

Alexander Dobroyer is a sociologist, theologian, coach and researcher. He collaborated with a number of think tanks and research teams іn Ukraine and Poland. He was director of academic programs at Impact Hub Odessa from 2014-2019. He was responsible for the development of programs for civil society and business incubation programs. He was also Program Coordinator of the IdeasFest (Ukraine, 2016-2020), moderator of the Leadership Seminars of Aspen Institute Kiev, mentor at the International Business Community Board and Equilibrium Program – British Chamber of Commerce in Business (Prague).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.