For some time now, a depressing little tune has been rising on all sides: the Ukrainians are not being reasonable, Nato is going too far, we have to think about inflation, and above all, we have to be careful with Vladimir Putin. The most explicit formulation of this line of thinking comes from Henry Kissinger, who last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos maintained that Ukraine had to accept ceding territories or risk “a new war [by Nato] against Russia”. In Germany, where Olaf Scholz’s government is dragging its feet on delivering weapons promised to Ukraine, part of the political class clearly believes that the solution to Germany’s dependence on Russia for energy is not to put a somewhat painful end to it, but to close their eyes and quietly return to its sinister comforts. As for Emmanuel Macron, he is now leading the band. “Russia must not be humiliated,” he recently said just before finally heading to Kyiv.
What a colossal error this is. And what a sign of debility and lack of strategic vision, which Vladimir Putin will not hesitate to exploit in every way possible. As one Russian billionaire close to the Kremlin recently told the investigative journalist Catherine Belton, Putin already “believes the West will become exhausted… and he believes that in the longer term, he will win”. To accelerate our capitulation he is using every means at his disposal: maximum pressure on the supply of oil and gas through carefully orchestrated cuts; destabilisation in the Balkans; blackmail via grain shortages that are rapidly provoking a major catastrophe in Africa and could bring about a new immigration crisis. Not to mention the nuclear threats, which Putin constantly repeats as if he were truly ready, as the price of his ambitions and his personal survival, to drag the world and Russia with it straight towards extinction. Because beyond his initial surprise at the rapid and coordinated response of the West to his invasion of Ukraine, Putin is once again betting on the long term, on the divisions within Europe, and especially on western Europe’s weakness and apparent utter inability to comprehend the Russian imperial imagination.
Lying was at the core of Putin’s training, a natural tool. Dialogue, for him, serves only to garner advantages and to push his pawns forward, before switching back to force as needed. A negotiation or an agreement – such as the 2014-15 Minsk agreements intended to end the conflict in the Donbas, in eastern Ukraine – is simply a moment used to lock in a gain, until there is an opening to make new gains. This is how it works. To believe, as Kissinger does, that we could return to the status quo ante, is a complete failure of judgement. To think that anyone could convince Putin to begin negotiations in good faith, and that he might (finally!) respect the terms of his promises, is simply ridiculous. If we hadn’t been so impotent, so timid, so blind, if we had begun to rearm Ukraine in 2015 or placed Nato troops on Ukrainian soil, even just as trainers, Putin – who only understands one law, the law of the strongest – would never have risked this war. If we allow him the slightest profit from it, we are only preparing the ground for the next one.
We must applaud the change of heart of Macron and Scholz, who have finally understood that they could no longer block a Ukrainian candidacy for EU membership. Meanwhile, their illusions or false hopes about Putin seem to die hard. For decades now, part of Europe, starting with Germany, has surrendered its energy security to Moscow, while blissfully ignoring the warnings of climate scientists and refusing to leave fossil fuels behind. So much time lost, and such good fortune for Moscow. By the middle of June Russia had received €93 billion for its fossil fuel exports since the war started, most of it from the EU, according to research by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. That is two and a half times as much as the €37 billion pledged by the US to Ukraine. Now, we whine because the price of petrol is over €2 a litre (nearly £2 a litre in the UK), and we are already looking for a way out. It’s shameful, and it’s scandalous. In Ukraine also, petrol is expensive, and the lines in front of the filling stations are endless. But no one is complaining. What the Ukrainians want is not cheaper petrol, but weapons and ammunition to repel the invaders, liberate their cities and regain their lost territories. And they are right.
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In invading Ukraine, Putin has overturned the table of the post-1945 world order: the hope that the pieces can be glued back together is an illusion. When confronting the world, Putin and his acolytes bark ceaselessly because this is their normal way of doing business, but among themselves they gauge the reality of power relations and calculate the consequences. When the Ukrainians, through their relentless resistance, blocked the Russian offensive against Kyiv, Putin pulled his troops back and thus revealed to the world the extent of the horrors visited by his “liberation” army on the civilians of Bucha, Irpin, Motyzhyn and so many other towns. When, through its own resistance, Mykolaiv blocked the Russian offensive out of Crimea towards Odesa, Putin was at least temporarily forced to give up on capturing the famous port city. Now that he is finally conscious of just how weak his ill-trained and utterly corrupt army is when faced with the hyper-motivated and Western-equipped Ukrainian military, he is concentrating all his forces on the Donbas, deploying his air force and heavy artillery to level city after city, the only way left for him to wage his war. Here too he must be definitively stopped and pushed back. The Americans and British have promised to deliver long-range missile systems to redress the balance of forces, and this is a step in the right direction, but more must be done.
Putin is a man who, in the 21st century, is waging a 20th-century war to attain 19th-century objectives. For him, who now compares himself with Peter the Great, the total annexation of Ukraine is an existential question, which has nothing to do with his ranting about Nato. Ukraine must no longer exist, that is all. And no concession, no diplomatic overture, no “reasonable” compromise we can offer him will prevent him from fulfilling his ambition or will be capable of guaranteeing the territorial, political and economic integrity of Ukraine, as well as its European future. To ask the Ukrainians to stop fighting and negotiate a Minsk version 3, 4 or 5, is to invite a reinvasion of Ukraine in a few years, whenever Putin has managed to rebuild his army and replenish his stocks of men, weapons and ammunition. And if he dies in the meanwhile, but his regime survives, his successor will do the same.
Macron, on 9 May in Strasbourg, discussing hypothetical negotiations with Russia, alluded to the 1918 Versailles treaty which, by humiliating Germany, “ravaged the paths of peace”. This was indeed true for the fine democratic experiment of the Weimar Republic but Macron has clearly failed to understand the historical moment we are actually living in. If there was indeed a 1918 moment for Moscow, it was 1991. Since then, just as in Germany after the Weimar Republic disintegrated in the 1930s, a revanchist and fascist – not to mention entirely corrupt – regime has placed an iron grip on Russia, crushing its civil society and its greatest talents, taking over the whole of the nation’s economy for its own profit, and defying the democratic world and the order on which our collective peace and security are founded.
Today is not 1918, it is 1939. And just as with Hitler’s Third Reich, the only path to peace will at some point require the total collapse of Putin’s regime, which, no matter what the “collective West” seems to think, is not consubstantial with Russia. Only a free and democratic Russia, led by its citizens and not by a mafia clique drunk on messianic ideas, can rejoin the concert of nations and become a full member of the international community, as Germany and Japan finally did after 1945. For the Poles, the Baltic states and the countries of central Europe, who tirelessly repeat this fact, it is utterly obvious; the Americans seem to have finally understood it, and are working in this direction together with the British; even the Finns and the Swedes have jettisoned 80 years of painstakingly maintained neutrality to seek refuge with Nato, which they see as their only guarantee against the demented acceleration of the Russian regime.
Yet in western Europe, our leaders are still stuck in their myths, their intellectual laziness and the moral weakness induced by an overly long peace, and seem perpetually tempted by compromise. Compromise is often necessary; but in this situation it could only mean disaster for the European dream, and oil poured on the fire of Putin’s ambitions. Only a complete military defeat of the Russian forces in Ukraine can bring back a semblance of security to our continent. And it is only on the basis of such a defeat that we will be able to enter into genuine discussions with Russia and pass agreements that have the slightest chance of lasting. Without a clear and obvious victory for Ukraine, diplomacy will be nothing but chattering or capitulation.
“Russia must not be humiliated.” For 20 years now, the more we have bent over backwards to accommodate Russia or at least spare it, the more Putin has loved to clamour that it is being humiliated, all the while treating the humiliation of his interlocutors like a science. The fact that we continue to play his little game is astonishing. In reality, Putin is humiliating himself. By wanting to join the grandees of the world without accepting its most basic rules. By trampling on and violating the rights of people whenever it suits him, in Chechnya, in Georgia, in Syria and now in Ukraine. And by launching a war with a miserable, inept, archaic army, half-looted and half-starved by its own generals. If he truly resents us for this, indeed mortally resents us, it is not up to us to apologise to him, but rather to teach him a firm lesson and send him back to the place he deserves, the place he has chosen for himself.
(Translated from French by the author)
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