Support 110 years of independent journalism.

We are already at war with Russia

War with Russia is not just a matter for Ukraine. Putin understands this. The West does not.

By Jonathan Littell

Our leaders, a few weeks ago, reacted with shock and emotion to the images of hundreds of slaughtered civilians littering the streets of Bucha and other suburbs of Kyiv. Emmanuel Macron said: “The images reaching us from Bucha are unbearable.” Olaf Scholz: “Terrible and horrible images.” Antony Blinken: “A punch to the gut.” They are absolutely right. But I have the disturbing impression, listening to them, that this is the first time they have seen such images: images of civilians murdered by Russian soldiers.

Yet we have been seeing such images for 22 years. African or Libyan corpses. It was disquieting, but not enough to make us challenge our conciliatory policy towards Vladimir Putin, our near-constant “reset” policy when confronted with his provocations and his crimes. It was far from us, and we could without too much effort close our eyes and continue to do business, continue to buy his oil and his gas and sell him our Renaults and our Mercedes.

Yet these conflicts, and the corpses they left behind really weren’t all that far away, and many European and American journalists witnessed them. I saw a few of those bodies myself, in Chechnya after Russian zachistki [“cleansing operations”]. In November 2001 Rizvan Larsanov, a key figure of the 1996 Russian-Chechen negotiations, and someone with whom I had worked extensively and come to appreciate a great deal, was shot in cold blood in his car and left to rot until the end of the operation. This is just like the Ukrainian civilians trying to flee with their families on the E40 highway west of Kyiv.

In Georgia too, in 2008, I counted the blackened bodies covered in maggots scattered left and right throughout the villages between Tskhinvali and Gori, civilians murdered by Putin’s Ossetian auxiliaries. As for Syria, I was there before the Russians came in, but many of my fellow journalists, risking their lives under the rockets and the barrel bombs tossed out of Russian helicopters, photographed their victims in Aleppo, in Idlib, in Ghouta. Each time, these corpses were written off as Russia’s “internal affairs,” or at best a situation “we can’t do anything about.” We simply didn’t see them. Now that they lie on our doorstep, in a city that most of us, eight weeks ago, considered a normal European capital, we are finally opening our eyes. How curious, and how sad.

When Nicolas Sarkozy, with his usual cynicism, rushed to sell warships to Russia in 2010, two years after its invasion of Georgia, this was not unexpected, and nor is Emmanuel Macron’s obstinate belief that he can make Putin see reason by speaking to him. Barack Obama’s refusal to be overly bothered by the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of the Donbass, and the way the Russians muscled their way into Syria might feel obscene, but appears logical when coming from a United States that had long since turned its back on Europe and was exhausted by the Middle East.

[See also: John Mearsheimer and the dark origins of realism]

I am more surprised by the attitude, through all these long years, of Angela Merkel: how could a woman raised as she was under the Russian heel, with such an intimate and personal knowledge of the Soviet system, the KGB and the Stasi, seriously believe it would be enough to do business with Russia, lots of business, to moderate its policies? These last two decades, she was probably the Western leader who best understood Putin, yet she never ceased to cling to the famous “Wandel durch Handel”, “change through trade.” Even after Crimea, even after the shooting-down of flight MH17 over Donbass; she confirmed and defended the construction of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, affirming against all evidence that these were purely economic projects, without any geopolitical implications. The Baltic states, the Poles, and the Ukrainians, of course, clearly understood what was happening, and never ceased warning us, sometimes even in a strident manner; but no one listened to them. No one ever listens to Cassandras or hysterics.

Today, we understand the situation a little better. Even Macron, even the Germans, now understand that Putin has us in a chokehold with his oil and his gas, and that this hold must be loosened, as quickly as possible — but not too quickly, because the French or German or Italian consumers cannot accept a pump price of €2.50 per litre, and our factories cannot run without all that gas. In the meantime we continue to finance his war directly: since 24 February, we have sent Russia more than €40bn to pay for our fuel. After a few initial rounds of sanctions that don’t impact on us too harshly, we are now stuck on the really difficult measures. We hesitate, we procrastinate. We divert attention to Russian coal, which no one really needs, to gain a little time. We are not ready. And why? Beyond even the geopolitics, we’ve known for 40 years that we needed to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, and we did nothing. The scientists too, we wrote off as Cassandras or hysterics. Instead, we put ourselves right into Putin’s hands, claiming that never, oh but never, would he use our dependency as a weapon against us. And now we are well and truly in it up to our necks.

[See also: War at the end of history]

And in the midst of all this, a mantra: “We are not at war with Russia.” Of course not. War is the Ukrainians’ business: let them handle it, with our help, of course, but only what is needed and no more. Light weapons, so as to carry out guerrilla warfare and slowly bleed out the Russians, fine; armoured vehicles and anti-ship rockets, so as to repel them, why not? Planes, tanks, and missiles, so as to beat them, out of the question. The warning sounds from all sides: this would risk dragging us into the war. And a war with Russia, that’s impossible: they have the bomb, and are capable of using it. But how can our leaders fail to understand that from the point of view of Putin and his siloviki [hard men], we are already at war with Russia, and have been for a long time now, since well before the invasion of Ukraine? As far as Putin is concerned, since at least 2008 and certainly since 2012, we have been waging constant war against Russia, and against him personally, which in his mind is actually one and the same thing. The defensive expansion of Nato to the Baltic states? An aggression against Russia. The 2012 demonstrations against Putin’s return to the presidency? An American plot to overthrow him. The Ukrainian Maidan uprising in 2014? A coup d’état sponsored by the US State Department to weaken Russia. The sanctions after the invasion of Crimea and the Donbass? The proof that the West will never accept Russia as an equal partner.

Putin has thus drawn the logical consequences of his paranoid vision of the world and of its power relations. For 10 years now, he has been working to weaken us, to undermine the European Union and hollow out American democracy. He finances most extreme right parties in Europe, he buys off as many of our politicians as he can (think of François Fillon and Gerhard Schröder); he supports Viktor Orbán and Matteo Salvini; he had his troll farms and his security services use every means at their disposal to push Catalan independence and Brexit; he largely helped Donald Trump get elected. If this is not waging war against us, then how are we to understand the word? And especially, if Putin sees every spontaneous popular uprising as an act of war under our guidance, how then must he see the current sanctions and our weapons deliveries to the Ukrainians, limited as they may be? From his point of view, we are at war. The only questions in his head are those of means, and of limits.

Yet for our part we do precious little to impose these limits. “Don’t even think about moving on one single inch of Nato territory,” thundered Joe Biden in Poland. Putin must have had a good laugh at that. Or rather, he must have narrowed his eyes and asked himself what would be the best way to test that statement. A few missiles fired at a weapons convoy on Polish soil? A massive cyberattack against Estonia or Latvia? Renewed interference in the French elections? At some point, we have to decide: either we are at war or we aren’t. When you are attacked, as directly as we have been, by such a ruthless enemy, appeasement is not only factually impossible, it is also immoral. Putin cannot accept that Ukraine exists as a sovereign state; he wants the end of the European Union, the end of Western democracy, and a world in which only the strongest and the most vicious reign supreme, without any rules of the game, or only his, the rules his forces applied in Bucha: if you surrender, I’ll put a bullet in your head.

[See also: Vladimir Putin, agent of chaos]

Let us be clear: I am not suggesting that we allow this conflict to escalate into World War III, far from it. As brutal as his local wars have been, overall Putin is fighting a “slow war” against us, a new kind of Cold War — a war of disruption, disinformation, and political economics. So let us fully engage in that war, before we end up fighting the other kind whether we want to or not. Because only on the day when we finally genuinely deploy the means to enforce our red lines will Putin respect them, as his soldiers are now forced to respect the Ukrainians. Up to now, in spite of all our sanctions and all our weapons deliveries to Ukraine, Putin continues to see us as cowards, too mired in our own comfort, unlike Russia (in his mind at least), to consent to the least sacrifice.

Now, after Mariupol, after Bucha, after Borodyanka, the time has come to prove him wrong. Sanction Gazprom, Rusal and all the other Russian entities we say we still ‘need’, but which we really don’t and really shouldn’t. Place a full embargo on Russian oil, and let Putin go sell it to the Chinese at 30% of its market value. End all Russian gas deliveries to Europe: if the three Baltic nations, who are entirely dependent on this gas, can do it, then so can Germany, Austria and France. We will find solutions, perhaps even some of the sustainable solutions that scientists have been proposing for decades now, and which our politicians have endlessly postponed. And finally give the Ukrainians the weapons they are clamouring for. Since we are at war, but won’t send our own soldiers, then let us give the Ukrainian soldiers the means not only not to lose, but actually to win this war we are all embroiled in.

This article was first published in French in Le Figaro.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action