Putin’s bloody war on Ukraine should remake the West’s mindset
Scholz's welcome reversal of German policy could be the making of a powerful Franco-German partnership that would provide the anchor of European security.
Many things have to change in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine. The west’s surprisingly robust and cohesive response to Russia’s wanton aggression is a good start. Yet, vital as they are, sanctions, economic and cultural, fall short.
The big change required is psychological - a profound and sustained shift in mindset. Europe must relearn, and then hold on to, something it has found convenient to forget since the end of the Cold War. Freedom, democracy and the rule of law are not part of the natural geopolitical order. They must always be defended and, sometimes, fought for. This carries costs. It requires the leadership that puts building resilience ahead of offering instant gratification.
The Kremlin’s attempt to destroy Ukrainian nationhood is at once a terrible event and a crystallisation of the process underway for a decade or more. One thread runs directly from the invasion of Georgia in 2008 through the annexation of Crimea and seizure of parts of the Donbas in 2014 to the present murderous siege of Kyiv. A second links Putin’s persistent attempts to destabilise European democracies and interfere in elections on both sides of the Atlantic.
Putin’s goal has long been to replace Europe’s law-based order with a might-is-right division of power calculated to reduce Russia’s neighbours to the status of vassals. For as long as I can remember his sidekick Sergey Lavrov has given the same speech at the Munich Security Conference. Steeped in grievance and paranoia, but dressed up as a call for new European security architecture, it imagines a continent from which the United States has been expelled and any rules are set by Russian intimidation.
Amid the horrors playing out in Ukraine there are two points of light. The first is that Putin has overreached himself. His murderous intent has stirred ferocious resistance. Even as Russian forces gather at the gates of Kyiv it is obvious that the Kremlin will be unable to pacify Ukraine.
Taking territory does not confer authority To the contrary, every shell fired at and bomb dropped by the invading forces will have strengthened future resistance. The puppet administration the Kremlin plans to install will find the country ungovernable. Where will this Vichy regime find the police force and army to enforce Putin’s will? The Russian military can look forward to an insurgency far beyond anything the Soviet Union faced in Afghanistan.
The second glimmer is that, stirred by the extraordinary courage of Ukrainians, the west in general and Europe in particular have been jolted from their post cold war slumber. Germany’s leaders, above all, have woken up from the self-serving complacency of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship. Breaking decisively with his predecessor and encouraged by the Greens in Berlin’s SPD-led coalition, Olaf Scholz has put the defence of a law-based European order above Germany’s voracious appetite for Russian gas and its lucrative export sales.
Merkel spoke eloquently about preserving the liberal democratic order, and then set policy to prioritise Germany’s economic advantage. Scholz has acknowledged that appeasement has encouraged Putin in his revanchist ambitions. Assuming that France’s Emmanuel Macron is re-elected to the French presidency in the spring, one can see the making here of a powerful Franco-German partnership that would provide the anchor of European security.
The European Union has shown its worth, emerging for the first time as a serious actor in the security as well as the economic sphere. The European project was calculated from its outset to underpin freedom and democracy on the continent. These past few days it seems to have rediscovered its vocation
Anyone interested in what is at stake should read Ursula von der Leyen’s fine speech the other day to the European parliament. “This is a watershed moment for our Union. We cannot take our security and the protection of people for granted. We have to stand up for it. We have to invest in it. We have to carry our fair share of the responsibility”.
In other circumstances, Britain would have been part of the reawakening. Instead the test post Brexit for Boris Johnson’s government is whether it will match words with deeds by meeting its pledge to close down the vast “London laundry” so beloved of wealthy Russians. Britain’s contribution to the bolstering of Nato forces in the Baltics is welcome, but as long as Russian kleptocrats continue to launder their money and reputations in London, its voice will be disregarded.
Joe Biden’s administration for its part has walked a fine line with great skill. It has acted as a leader - both in the intense diplomacy aimed at forestalling Putin’s attack and in imposing severe sanctions in its aftermath - but it has also given allies in Europe the space to attend to their own national politics and make their own choices. It is sometimes said that Biden is too old. In recent weeks calm and resolve born of long experience have shown their worth.
If the opportunity is seized there is a framework here for a renewal of the transatlantic alliance at once to deter Putin from further aggression and to defend an international system rooted in the rule of law. The partnership must be one in which Europe shoulders its responsibilities and the United States lends its weight.
None of this will be easy. In the short term, the threat of defeat makes Putin more dangerous. And when the shock of this murderous war subsides there will be those in the west calling for a return to business as usual. In the shadows stands China. Embarrassed as Beijing has been by Putin’s flagrant violations of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, Xi Jinping shares his desire to weaken liberal democracy.
In Europe, a generation has grown up believing that military budgets are there to be raided to pay for better public services at home and that, whatever is happening elsewhere in the world, rich western nations can sit comfortably behind their borders. In the United States the impulse towards isolationism is strong. Ukraine’s suffering is a terrible reminder of where such complacency leads. Let’s hope it is not forgotten.
Thanks very much. A week is a long time in geopolitics.
Great piece Philip. There is much to be done. Defence and security has suddenly risen to the top of the priority list. The psychology of the past thirty years has eroded European defence capability. It will take a long time and significant resources to restore it. There are challenges not least recruitment. However as you point out Putin has transformed European security quicker than anyone could imagine and more effectively than any rational case. As you state the new security architecture should align with USA and have threats beyond Europe in mind.