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I’m Tom Friedman, and I’m the Foreign Affairs columnist for The New York Times. I just returned from Kyiv, Ukraine, and I would start every day by walking around the grounds of Saint Michael’s Golden Monastery, which is a beautiful Orthodox Church, but also with incredible grounds. There was something very new in the piazza, and it was an exhibition of captured Russian destroyed tanks and armored personnel carriers. Some were fairly intact. Others were just completely gutted and rusted.
But as I would walk there, this contrast between this rusted military equipment in the middle of this beautiful piazza, and I eventually realized that it reminded me of a meteor, that it was like a meteor that came from outer space and landed on this country. Of course, it wasn’t a meteor. It was an invasion by Putin’s army. And they’re still trying to figure out how to get this meteor out of the heart of their city, out of the heart of their country. That’s really the struggle that’s going on there.
My recent trip to Ukraine taught me the West’s focus has to be engineering some kind of end to this conflict. And it can only come to an end if Ukraine is in NATO and the European Union. Adding Ukraine to NATO and the European Union would be the biggest geopolitical shift in our lifetime. You put Ukraine in the EU, and that becomes our Russia policy. I think the best thing that happened in my life was the creation of the European Union.
Now, most Americans will do anything for the EU, except read about it. OK? So the EU is this really boring thing that the Europeans do. And there’s a parliament and a commission, and we can’t figure out any of it. But in fact, the EU is one of the greatest miracles in global history, a continent, a giant space that, from time immemorial, basically, was famous for endless tribal, ethnic, nationalist, family conflicts. It became the biggest center, geographic center of free markets, free people, the rule of law and human rights. That is a miracle. It’s an incredible, boring miracle.
If we bring Ukraine into that European Union, that would be one of the most consequential geopolitical tipping points since East Germany was united with West Germany. Oh, oh, oh, East Germany’s Germany. Who was the Russian spy in East Germany who was introduced to international relations by running the KGB there? It was Vladimir Putin. It was Vladimir Putin whose big introduction to geopolitics was watching the magnet of the West melt down East Germany and lead to the unification of these two countries. Well, that, for me, has always been my framework about Ukraine and Russia.
NATO expansion was never the issue. The real threat for Putin was that Ukraine would become the new East Germany, that it would become an incredible model, magnet, and mentor for the rest of Russia, an example of a Slavic successful economy, start-up country and democracy, next to Putin’s Slavic kleptocracy and autocracy. That’s what this war has always been about in my view.
I think we’ve done the right thing, which is rushing to Ukraine’s support and supporting Ukraine militarily as best we can for as long as Ukrainians want to fight. The big decision point going forward is, when do we say to the Ukrainians we may have to settle for a dirty deal? Because people are not going to sign up to support you indefinitely. And they know that. People have asked me, so what’s a possible dirty deal? The natural dirty deal is that Russia gets to keep some or all of its ill gotten gains, where it is right now, roughly those lines, even though that will mean sanctioning of one state, taking territory of another by force, and in return, Ukraine gets to be in NATO and the European Union.
Meanwhile, Putin — I don’t want to give him anything, but again, we’re talking about a dirty deal now — will be able to go and say, I showed those Nazis in Ukraine. I punished them enough. I’ve come back with more territory than I left with, and all hail the emperor. But Ukraine joining the EU would be an existential threat to him because he’s the one who keeps telling us Ukraine and us, we’re the same. We’re brothers. Because the whole proposition was, marry me or I’ll kill you.
Vladimir Putin is a guy who is always looking for dignity in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways. And so rather than saying, I want to build my country up to be a real competitor for the EU, it was all about fulfilling some fantasy, Peter the Great dream of forcing Ukrainians to unify with Russia so he could groove on the map, basically. And look at the price he’s paid. People forget Russia put the first satellite into orbit in 1957. It’s called Sputnik. It led the world. It led the world in that science and technology.
And today, Putin’s Russia, have you ever tried to buy a Russian watch? Have you ever thought of buying a Russian car? This is a country more famous now for poisoned underwear, poison tipped umbrellas, and locking people up in penal colonies in Siberia, and pumping oil and gas. It’s a tragedy of what this guy, the country that gave us Dostoevsky and Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky and Sakharov and all these great writers, has given us rusted, burned out Russian tanks in the heart of Kyiv.