There are decades where nothing happens, Lenin once said. And there are weeks when decades happen. Like this one.
On Thursday, Russia’s dictator Vladimir Putin did what many, the U.S. government in particular, have been warning about for weeks. He invaded Ukraine. And he hasn’t limited his attack to the eastern part of the country, as some observers thought he would. His military is attacking the entire country, including the capital of Kyiv. It is the largest possible catastrophe.
Democracies Must Now Defend Themselves
Putin demonstrated early on just how unscrupulous he could be when pursuing his aims. At the beginning of his tenure as Russia’s leader, he bombed Chechnya into a pile of smoldering rubble. In Syria, his warplanes intentionally target schools and hospitals. He also made no secret of his plans for Ukraine. Even last summer, he made clear that he didn’t recognize Ukraine’s right to exist. Despite all that, politicians around the world, but especially in Germany, played down his aggression to the very end. They simply couldn’t – or didn’t want to – imagine how far Putin would go. They refused to take him at his word. Indeed, Putin apologists around the world bear some of the responsibility for this war.
Putin’s attack isn’t just aimed at Ukraine. It is also aimed at Europe. Indeed, its target is the entire democratic, rules-based world. And that is why the democracies of this world must now defend themselves.
U.S. President Joe Biden with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June 2021Foto: KEVIN LAMARQUE / REUTERS
The attack on Ukraine marks the end of an epoch. The European order, which brought the Continent three decades of relative security and stability following the end of the Cold War, is in the process of collapsing. A new, more dangerous era is beginning. And the question is whether Europe is sufficiently prepared for what is coming.
The Europeans grew quite comfortable in the old order. They held grand speeches praising democracy and human rights – while at the same time doing business with dictatorships like Russia and China. And they had the Americans to take care of their security should it come to that.
Now, though, the time has come to discard a number of self-indulgent delusions.
One of those is the conviction that all conflicts can be solved through negotiations. "Keep the dialogue alive" has been the mantra of German foreign policy for years, no matter whether it is Putin, Turkey’s Erdoğan or Chinese leader Xi Jinping. It is pretty much the only strategy that the German government has. But what happens when people like Putin don’t want to talk, when they deny historical fact, when they use negotiations simply to buy time to prepare for war? The indignation currently felt in European capitals over Putin’s deceit is extreme. But it comes too late. The Europeans should have long ago adopted a far more confrontative position against the Kremlin boss.
Another misconception is that a country can obtain a majority of its fossil fuels from Russia – as Germany, in particular, does – yet remain completely independent of Moscow. It was an embarrassment how the German government continued to hang on to the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline despite Putin’s aggression. The sanctions that are now under discussion should have been deployed following Putin’s illegal annexation of the Crimea in 2014. The opportunism and hesitancy displayed by EU member states in their dealings with Russia merely encouraged Putin to carry on with his murderous game.
And finally, Europe has to get used to the idea that military strength remains, even in the 21st century, a factor in politics. Many thought that the fate of nations in the future would solely be determined by economic data, technology and artificial intelligence. Now, Putin has demonstrated that political goals can also be performed with far more primitive means – with tanks, warplanes and artillery.
It would be naïve to believe that the conflict with the Putin regime will be limited to Ukraine. Putin has been waging a hybrid war against Europe for years – through his financing of authoritarian parties, for example, or by disseminating misinformation through media outlets like RT. He is likely to continue fighting that war.
The Europeans must now defend ourselves by developing what French President Emmanuel Macron calls "strategic autonomy." We must defend against Moscow’s ongoing attempt to destroy our institutions from the inside out. Putin’s war against Ukraine must finally lead to Russia being thrown out of the Council of Europe, the continent’s most important human rights body.
Europe must make itself economically independent from Russian oil and gas. If more arguments were still needed in favor of a massive expansion of renewable energies, Putin has just delivered them with his war against Ukraine.
Europe must also strengthen its military power. A joint European defense policy is long overdue, also to make us less dependent on protection from the United States. One shudders to think where we would be in the current crisis if Donald Trump were still in the White House instead of a trans-Atlantic advocate like Joe Biden.
On Feb. 24, 2022, the world became a different place. Europeans must adapt to the new reality in order to survive.