The Russian invasion of Ukraine was not the start of Vladimir Putin’s assault on the European order — that began with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 — but it marks the moment when the West finally woke up to the threat that he poses to us all. Ukraine’s fight, as its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has rightly reminded us, is our fight. Our struggle is not yet being waged militarily, but such a conflict can no longer be ruled out, especially if Russia overruns Ukraine and moves on to implement its stated intention to roll back Nato by threatening Poland, Romania and the Baltic states. It is therefore right to give the Ukrainian government every assistance short, for now, of active intervention.
In this wider contest between the West and the emerging Chinese-Russian axis, our societies and governments will have to engage comprehensively. In the levée en masse (conscription) that the French Republic proclaimed in the face of foreign attack in 1793, young men were called upon to go to the front, married men to make arms and transport provisions, and the old men to “repair to the public places, to stimulate the courage of the warriors” and “preach unity”. It is in this spirit that this middle-aged academic offers some reflections on the extraordinary drama unfolding in the east of our continent.
The last few days have been shocking, certainly, but they have also been strangely reassuring and revealing. Whatever the mistakes and gaffes in the lead-up to war, the recent British response has been admirably robust. British (and American) intelligence called Putin’s intentions right, London was far ahead of the pack in the provision of vital anti-tank weaponry that has helped to slow the Russian advance, and the UK was also an early advocate of cutting Russia out of Swift (though much more needs to be done about Russian money in the City and elsewhere). The contrast with the early stages of the Bosnian war, when the Major administration did everything it could to equate aggressor and victim, and to prevent the legitimate government from defending itself, could not be more stark.
[See also: Has Vladimir Putin launched an unwinnable war?]
The European Union, unfortunately, has performed dismally, although there are some signs that it is belatedly catching up. It underestimated the Russian threat, tried to appease Putin and dragged its heels on shutting Russia out of the Swift bank transfer system. President Emmanuel Macron of France was mercilessly “played” by Putin. The Italians sought a sanctions opt-out for their luxury goods, the Belgians one for their diamonds. Worst of all was Germany, which defended its oil and gas links to Russia almost to the last. It has now jettisoned its reluctance to supply arms to Ukraine (a distorted hold-over of German war guilt which conveniently forgets that Ukrainians, and not just Russians, were victims of Nazi aggression in the Second World War) and, after years of foot-dragging, has committed to increasing its military spending to the 2 per cent of GDP set by Nato as a target.
In all this the EU channelled its inner Karl Kraus by showing once again that while the situation might be desperate, it was not serious. The strong measures announced on Sunday, especially the EU-funded supply of arms to Ukraine and the proposal to offer three years of asylum to all Ukrainian refugees, are most welcome but still only a fraction of what a truly united Union could achieve. These failures are particularly painful for those who, like the author, are citizens of a member state and who passionately wish the Union would finally live up to its potential.
Now look at Ukraine, so often derided and belittled. To watch a whole nation mobilise in defence of its freedoms has been a moving and humbling experience. Unlike in Afghanistan, the army stayed at their posts, and so did the political leadership, most remarkably President Zelensky. In this sense, the Ukrainians have already won: they have a national story which will sustain them through what lies ahead. No matter how this ends — and it may be horribly — we will never look at Ukraine with the same eyes again. From now on the Ukrainians will meet other mainland Europeans not as supplicants but as equals. Indeed, they are in many respects the best Europeans, because they have the spirit and courage most of the EU lacks.
If I once thought that state quality in Europe improved as you moved from east to west, recent events have shown that our continent is more like a croissant. From the United Kingdom, across Scandinavia, the Baltic States and Poland to Ukraine, we see polities that have mounted a vigorous defence of Europe against its biggest foe, Putin’s Russia. But at the heart of our continent, sadly, there is a void, without heart or head, and nowhere more so than in Germany, best described as amoebic — until now. When the current crisis has passed, this is something that Washington and London will urgently have to address.
In the meantime President Zelensky has asked us to admit Ukraine to Nato and the EU without delay after the conflict is over. This is the least we can do for the Ukrainians. Europe would be lucky to have them.