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Ukraine as the World’s ‘David’: Time to Change the Narrative

Opinion Piece

David with the Head of Goliath by Caravaggio

Legitimacy subjugated by a grossly inflated aggressor, a biblical victory of meekness over might, despite all odds; the ‘David and Goliath’ fable is one we all know in some form. Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year, Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Volodymyr Zelensky, has been banking on it. Ukraine’s likeness to David, the universal paragon of underdogs, has been a mainstay across global media narratives for the last twenty months. Zelensky has seized the sheer force of the comparison to communicate the imbalance of power between his nation and its Russian adversary in his continual appeal for Western support. True to his comedic roots, he is well aware that selling a story is vital to survival on any stage. This one in particular has touched international audiences and turned the heads, and policies, of Western leaders.

Yet David defeated Goliath within one throw of a single pebble. He was also assisted by a power far mightier than himself. For Ukraine, a swift victory and assured backing are nothing but a pipedream as things currently stand. The war drags on, and after this summer’s modest counter-offensive, there is everything to suggest that the fighting has settled in for the long haul. In what would have been entirely unprecedented in February 2022, the question now arises whether Ukraine’s allies are prepared to sustain support for a war of indeterminate length. While the initial shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shocked Western democracies into helpfulness, which was no doubt expedited by the widespread expectation of a short war, it is unrealistic to expect sustained support at the rate that it was at the start of the invasion. Hands will inevitably return to pockets, the fires of immediate compassion cooling as they do.

Appearing at the Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference last month, Zelensky proved astute to the perception of the relented speed of his troops’ advances and checked his supporters’ potentially dwindling faith: "Complex war, complex processes. Many things have slowed down. When some partners say ‘what's up with the counteroffensive’, my answer today is: Our steps are faster than the new sanctions packages.” Yet the endurance of current allegiances is subject to the upcoming mass of global elections next year. Specifically, America; upon which all eyes anxiously rest. A potential Trump win in January 2025 could see support for Ukraine sporadically withdrawn. The ex-president recently boasted that he could put an end to the conflict ‘in twenty-four hours’, adding little further explanation as to how that would be done. Uncertainty is all that can be guaranteed.

What is lacking on Ukraine’s part is a narrative with the capacity to detail how the war is actually going to be won; a theory of victory. It is existential. Without it, the presiding dialogue is exposed to capture by those becoming ever more reluctant to fund the defence against Russia. Putin will see the loss of faith and try to force a more sinister growth from the seeds of ambivalence already planted in America and its allies abroad. Look no further than the recent G20 summit for the kind of disquieting neutrality prone to being targeted; world leaders bent to the man of no negotiation by adopting a consensus declaration that carefully avoided condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

For a Ukrainian success story to emerge, some impression as to the end of the war must be in sight. The problem with the ‘David’ narrative is that it works against the realisation of that end vision. Granted, it still holds that all-important emotive purchase; there’s undoubtedly something of the fable captured in the image of Ukraine’s unassuming, homemade drones damaging Russian fighter aircraft and targeting major domestic infrastructure. Scrappy, small-scale innovation, the product of cardboard and discarded e-cigarettes set on by squadrons of hopeful volunteers is crucially rousing amidst a dangerous parity in resources on each side of the conflict.

However, the concept is open to hijacking, providing cautious allies with a handy framework that maintains Ukraine’s underdog position. This suits the likes of the US and Germany, who refrain from supplying Ukraine with too much muscle for fear that its wielding of top-grade weapons would cause an even deadlier Russian retaliation. This has not been the reality thus far though, even after Ukraine’s recent missile strikes on Russia’s Crimean Achilles heel. What it does is project an image of Ukraine as the master of hard knocks, one whose prevailing power is to out-suffer its aggressor, withstanding the long slog out of sheer necessity, rather than steadfast might. This is surely no way to model a convincing vision of victory.

So, if a shift in dialogue is needed for this advanced stage of the conflict, what’s the new story that sells? Really, a war of attrition offers little more in terms of narrative than a perpetual tableau of heads down, noses to the grindstone. The current ditty of allied support - the promise of “as long as it takes” - might be stirring enough to loosely bind a chorus line of Macron, Biden, Sunak and Scholz but their successors aren’t guaranteed to think identically. Russia is well aware that a seemingly unending commitment presses the limits of democratic governance. Blindly drip-feeding funds to guarantee that democracy prevails in the East at some point has little clout to rouse specific strategic support. Even the staunchest allies need to see that their investment yields more than the promise of visible results.

An answer may lie in the continual promise of EU accession. Much like the commitments that galvanised eastern members in the 1990s, brandishing an EU roadmap of clear compliance milestones would signal a Ukraine that can thrive throughout a long war, incrementally renewing its staying power amidst reforms. That all-important theory of victory, prone to deceitful evasiveness, would be brought ever closer, made tangible in its division between improvements in anti-corruption policy, military strategy and economic restructuring. The mere chance to become ‘European’ would offer a vital counter to Putin’s bid to seize an unpopulated, poor and corrupt Ukraine. Ukraine would instead stand, not as a lone fighter, but as an active and worthy part of a constantly enlarging beast.


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