There is a slow moving 9/11 developing here in Ukraine, a threat that if mishandled could produce death and destruction equal to or greater than what the United States endured, and the world witnessed in horrified shock and disbelief twenty years ago.
So concluded many participants at a gathering of former heads of state, current political leaders, historians, and journalists at a conference here in Kiev organized by Victor Pinchuk and the Yalta European Strategy (YES) group he founded 17 years ago.
References to 9/11 were often heard at this two-day gathering – one of the first such summits since Europe has slowly emerged from the protracted pandemic-induced lockdown that has put foreign travel off-limits to all but the vaccinated and concern about emerging new virus variants palpable.
The tone of apprehension about this country's future was set at the start of the two-day meeting by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who warned that he could not exclude the possibility of a full-scale war with Russia, even as he tries to negotiate a peace agreement with the Kremlin to end fighting in two eastern regions and the occupation of part of his country. When asked about the likelihood of a full-scale war with Russia, Zelensky said that although it would be "the worst thing" that could happen to a nation that has endured more than its share of catastrophes, he could not rule it out. "There is such a possibility," he said, adding that such a move by Russia would be Moscow's "biggest mistake."
Ukrainians have been on edge for months since the Kremlin amassed more than 100,000 troops on its border in the occupied territory of Crimea, which Russian-backed forces invaded in 2014. So far, over 13,200 Ukrainians have died and some two million people have been displaced in the low-intensity war.
Growing concern about its ally America's lack of "strategic patience" and growing isolationism were also among the gatherings' main themes. America's shambolic departure from Afghanistan – its betrayal of the Afghan government in negotiations with the extremist Taliban, its failure to consult with its allies about the decision to leave by September 11, its unwillingness to take sufficient time and effort to extract not only Americans but the thousands of Afghans who had worked with U.S. troops and officials, and the military's abandonment of weapons that have now made the Taliban the world's best armed insurgents – were the formal and informal corridor talk of the informal summit.
Ukrainian spirits were somewhat lifted by President Zelensky's first meeting with President Joe Biden in Washington on September 1st, an official visit with an American president that he had been seeking since his election in 2019. Washington agreed to give Ukraine a $60 million increase in military aid, which brings total American aid for this year to over $400 million.
While Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who is attending the meeting, called the military aid a "good package," he said he thought that the crisis between Russia and Ukraine, and the danger of a full-scale invasion merited a "larger U.S. commitment."
Although Washington has been Kiev's largest single foreign supplier of military aid, the Ukrainian government has been seeking to deter Russia and integrate more firmly with the West by joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. While both Washington and EU members have expressed support for Ukrainian membership, they have set conditions that make such membership extremely unlikely anytime soon.
Several Ukrainian officials and conference participants expressed concern that America's chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan might embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official who is exquisitely sensitive to what he perceives as weakness in rivals and foes. "Putin will see American withdrawal as a success," Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's Minister of Foreign Affairs, told me. "Afghanistan is not Ukraine," he added. "But think of what we would have done with the military aid and support that Washington gave Kabul."
Some of President Zelensky's remarks, too, also echoed a sense of abandonment and a widespread conclusion that Ukraine was being insufficiently supported by America and the West. The world's and the West's failure to unite in the face of the deadliest pandemic in modern times, he said, led him to conclude that in a battle with a virus or Russian -backed separatists, his country would be on its own. In such crises, he said, "it's every man for himself."
Closing the conference, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair also expressed concern about Afghanistan's future under the militant Taliban, who had the determination and staying power that America lacked. Though one of America's staunchest supporters, Blair also criticized what he called the West's failure to learn what he called a main lesson of 9/11. "Know thy enemy," he said, be it militant Islamists or Russians.