The Japan Forum on International Relations

June 15,2022

Learn from the Determination of the Ukrainians

I’m on the blacklist too

Some readers might have noticed that my name was included in the Russian blacklist banning 63 Japanese citizens from entering the country. Nothing would make me happier as an opinion leader if my criticism of Russia, as in my contribution to this column titled “Protect the Rules-based Order against Russian Aggression” on March 3, has caught Moscow’s eye. I am renewing my determination to speak courageously and not be afraid of anything.

Speaking of determination, this war has revealed the importance of determination in security matters. On May 9, coinciding with the Victory Day celebrations in Moscow, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy released a video in which he said, “The road […] is difficult, but we have no doubt that we will win” and “we will not give anyone a single piece of our land.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, was unable to present any concrete war results to the public in his speech at the celebrations. His speech suggested that Russia was focusing on the conquest of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, but according to a senior Pentagon official, Russian troops were recently seeing “very little progress” in the area due to resistance from the Ukrainian military.

Little Ukraine fighting impressively and giant Russia struggling: At the moment, we seem to accept this description as a matter of course. In recent times, there have even been speculations that Ukraine is about to go on the offensive and may even be considering retaking Crimea. Yet we should not forget that the mood around the world was quite different when this war started. Many thought that the capital Kyiv would only last a few days, with the United States and Europe even discussing how to support a government-in-exile outside Ukraine.

At the start of the war, President Putin must have thought that if the great power Russia struck hard, the Ukrainians would immediately surrender for fear of their lives, the comedian-turned-president Zelenskyy fleeing in terror. Chinese President Xi Jinping was likely of the same opinion. It is easy to find fault with this, but the truth is that we had no doubts of this prospect either.

Fighting of their own volition

The international community is in a state of anarchy, lacking a central government. Within a country, the expectation is that any unjustified “change of the status quo by force” by a strong actor will be undone by the government. But that is not the case in the international community. A status quo changed forcefully by a strong state is often accepted by the international community, especially when the use of force is limited and human casualties are low.

In the case of Ukraine, the Crimean situation before the war was close to that. In this war, if the Ukrainians had surrendered to Russia to prioritize the saving of lives over independence, a puppet government would have been established and the new situation would have been de facto accepted by the rest of the world, albeit reluctantly.

What prevented this from happening was the determination of the Ukrainian people to defend their country. In Japan, there were those who said that President Zelenskyy should give up on resisting in order to reduce civilian casualties, flee the country, and try to make a comeback at a later time. But this call is decisively mistaken because it fails to take into account the fact that the Ukrainians are fighting of their own volition.

From a Russian perspective, this war is “Putin’s war.” The Russians did not want this war. They are being made to contribute to a war that was initiated on Putin’s orders.

The question posed to the Japanese people

By contrast, the Ukrainians are not fighting “Zelenskyy’s War.” They rose up of their own volition to defend “the aggregation of various institutions, customs, values, and ideals that make Ukraine Ukraine and that make Ukrainians Ukrainians.” They believe that “to surrender is tantamount to becoming Russians” (Andrey Kurkov, one of Ukraine’s most renowned authors) and are determined to risk even their lives in opposition to that.

It is only because of the strength of their determination that Ukraine remains steadfast in its resistance against the aggression of the great power Russia. Being in an international community that lacks a central government, one must ultimately defend oneself with one’s own hands. Seeing the determination of the Ukrainians to do so, many countries around the world, including the United States, European countries, and Japan, are also strengthening their resolve to support Ukraine even if it means confronting Russia.

To protect oneself with one’s own hands in the state of anarchy, one needs the power required to do so. Yet what should not be overlooked is that, along with that power, it is also necessary to possess the determination to stand up to aggression.

Witnessing the ongoing situation in Ukraine, it appears that the security awareness of the Japanese people is rapidly becoming more realistic. It is favorable that there is a growing momentum for discussions about building defense capabilities without taboos. Yet another question posed to the Japanese is whether we have the determination to defend our country. It is not simply a matter of making brave statements. The Japanese ought to look at the behavior of the Ukrainians right now and think long and hard about what determination to defend one’s country really means.

(This is the English translation of an article written by KAMIYA Matake, Vice President, the Japan Forum on International Relations / Professor, National Defense Academy of Japan. The article was first published on the “Seiron” Column in Sankei Shimbun on May 16, 2022. It was also reprinted on the JFIR Website on the same date.)