Russian President Vladimir Putin has become known for his verbosity in recent years. Last summer he published a lengthy, pseudo-historical essay, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which ran close to 7,000 words. It wasn’t his first venture into historical misrepresentation. The previous year, he had tried, with a heavy dose of twisted and highly selective logic, to somehow make Poland responsible for World War II.
His declaration of war on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, was about half as long, but followed the same pattern. After another retelling of recent and more distant history as he sees it and then referencing “the genocide against the millions of people living [in Donbass],” he included his audience in the responsibility for his actions, explaining “You and I simply have not been left with any other way to protect Russia, our people, except for the one that we will be forced to use today. Circumstances require us to take decisive and immediate action. The people's republics of Donbass turned to Russia with a request for help. In this regard, … I decided to conduct a special military operation.”
One month on it is clear that Putin has miscalculated badly. His “special military operation,” for which Kremlin propagandists chose the letter “Z” (“Someone stole the other half of the swastika,” goes the dark joke in Moscow), a blitzkrieg that aimed to oust the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, has failed. Ukraine’s incredibly brave and resilient defenders have slowed or stopped the Russian advance.
In turn, Russia’s army has resorted to what it did in Grozny, Aleppo, and elsewhere: encircling cities, terrorizing and brutalizing Ukraine’s civilian population, bombing apartment buildings and hospitals, waging a war of annihilation. (“Our plans do not include the occupation of Ukrainian territories. We are not going to impose anything on anyone by force,” Putin had said on February 24, words that now sound particularly hollow.)
The war, whichever way it will end or, more likely, pause, will have dramatic consequences for Europe and beyond. “Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine is a global turning point that finally puts an end to the European security order negotiated after the end of the Cold War,” argues one of Germany’s leading Russia experts, Stefan Meister, in this issue. Putin’s Russia will find itself weakened, but it will be unlikely to change tack. All spaces in Europe not covered by NATO’s security guarantees will be in danger of being turned into battlegrounds.
Like Meister, renowned Russia scholar and one-time US administration official Fiona Hill, in an interview, sees Vladimir Putin personally as the driving force. With his talk of nuclear and chemical weapons, “Putin wants to … escalate the situation, get Germany and everybody else in Europe and the West really scared and pressure us to back down. And we must not do that,” Hill warns.
Instead, Hill calls for more diplomatic efforts to isolate Russian further internationally. “We have really got to focus on getting other countries that are sitting on the fence thinking this is just a battle between the West and Russia to see it for what it is: a postcolonial, postimperial grab of territory.”
And Olena Prokopenko, who was in Ukraine when Putin launched his war, points out how inadequate Europe’s security mechanisms have turned to be. “With the existing security fora, a single war criminal in charge of a nuclear state can uninterruptedly terrorize a 43-million nation and pose an existential threat to Europe.”
In their reactions so far, the countries of the European Union and of NATO have shown great unity, thanks in particular to strong leadership on the part of the Biden administration. What’s lacking still are answers that take a longer view, also addressing the core of the problem, which German governments of all stripes have preferred to ignore for far too long. As Meister writes, with Vladimir Putin, there will be no peace in Europe.
Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.