As Ukrainians fight for their lives and for Europe, European leaders need to recognise that they have blundered into this disaster, sleepwalking off a cliff. Putin could lose this battle, but on the other hand, he does not need to do much to win.
The tragedy in Ukraine goes on, and the world continues to be in awe at the courage of Ukrainians fighting for their survival. Those who are most vulnerable suffer most, like children and unaccompanied minors who need evacuation and care. Europe has been shaken once again by crisis and disaster, now with a war on the European continent that generations of Europeans could not imagine would return. What European leaders and the European publics do now will shape this continent for a generation, as well as the future of democracy and human rights in the world. Ukrainians are fighting and suffering for the right to be a part of a democratic Europe, and for the right of the European Union to exist. Their cause can only succeed if European leaders wake up to this fact.
For over a decade, Europe and the European Union have stumbled from one crisis to the next, leaving each mostly unresolved, while tumbling headlong with eyes closed into the next. The causes and impacts of the Eurozone crisis were met with a strategy of keeping policy-makers’ heads firmly in the sand. The crises of the Arab Spring, Middle Eastern civil wars, and refugees coming to Europe were met with a hodgepodge of fragmented and unimplemented policies, which never addressed the real issues. What followed were stealth under-reported moves to prevent refugees coming into Europe at all costs, including pushing people to drown in the sea, and to pay off dictators and warlords to leave refugees out in the desert or in remote camps.
Now, thankfully, the European reception of Ukrainian refugees is much more humane and welcoming than any other refugee group in recent history. The whole of the EU, including Ukraine’s neighbours, have mobilised to support. Some European governments are providing military support, some seem to seriously consider the need to invest much more in joint European action.
Many young high-school students often discover that a year of laziness cannot be undone in one night of cramming for an exam. In much the same vein, European leaders discover that a decade of suicidal and fragmented foreign policy cannot be undone the moment disaster strikes. European, especially German, dependency on Russia gas and oil are literally funding Putin’s criminal war. That is a dependency intentionally built in over year, that is hard to change overnight. But why in the world has it not changed in the 8 years since the illegal annexation of Crimea? Those are 8 years since the threat of exactly this current eventuality has been crystal clear.
The courage of the Ukrainians at war, and the miscalculating hubris of the Russian military, give a glimmer of hope that in the end democracy could prevail. It is prudent to advise caution. Putin in fact needs to do very little to win this round. The Russian government has set out clear objectives for this war – No NATO or EU membership for Ukraine, annexation of the so-called ‘People’s Republics’, a demilitarised Ukraine, and a new government there. If Putin ensures that long term instability in Ukraine keeps the US, NATO and EU busy for years to come while Russia rejoins the world economy, that in itself would be an enormous win. This is a long-standing historic Soviet tactic that has been revived. It would be a victory of kleptocratic authoritarianism over democracy.
Accepting any of the Russian government’s conditions, either formally or de facto, would set a powerful precedent for the 21st century – that an authoritarian power is free to start a war of aggression against any state to achieve political goals. That in itself would invite the end of a rules-based international world order, and would welcome the next war, be it in Estonia, Poland, or Taiwan. We should not be complacent about these blunders of the Russian military. Even broken and demoralised armies can be rebuilt and reformed in a matter of a few year where there are the will and resources. For reference, see Germany in 1933-1939, the US and USSR in 1941-1945, and the Egyptian and Syrian armies from 1967-1973. A broken army today can come back ressurgent a few years down the line. The West cannot underestimate Putin’s endurance.
Nevertheless, the war must come to an end as soon as possible, the suffering must stop, and there must be some kind of negotiated cease-fire. For once, European leaders must take a long-term view, and understand that as long as there are authoritarian nationalists in power, there is a present threat they must act on. Even if a cease-fire is agreed, and Ukraine goes away from the headlines and the public eye, the EU must not let up the pressure, keep up the urgent drive to cut off Russian oil and gas, and ever increasing support for Ukraine to join the Union as soon as possible.
EU leaders and the public at large must understand that now is the time for far-reaching European reforms, and a real empowered foreign policy, with the abolition of the Veto in the Council. They should not wait for a tactical nuclear weapon, or for tanks on the streets of Tallinn.
For three generations of Europeans who have not known war, the urge to resume some normality, if such a thing still exists, will be great. The temptations to re-bury the head in the sand, to lull back to sleep at the wheel, are grave. For the sake of those Ukrainians fighting for Europe, and for the next European country not to go through the same, European leaders must be shaken awake, stirred to action, with their eyes fixed on the road ahead.