Two weeks ago tanks rolled across Europe’s frontiers again. Ukraine and NATO’s worst fears had been realised, Russia had started a war.
With this dramatic act President Putin rolled back the geo-political clock and has thrust Europe into a crisis that feels better suited to the bloody twentieth century than modern Europe. Francis Fukuyama has long been chastised (perhaps unfairly) for declaring the end of history at the fall of the Soviet Union, but European leaders have been guilty of a similar hubris. Just three months ago UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson justified military cuts by insisting ‘the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on European land masses are over.’ This now seems tragically optimistic, but the Prime Minister was by no means alone in his confidence in continental peace. While there have been dissident voices in European parliaments that now deserve credit, the broad geo-political consensus crucially misread Putin.
This crisis has been brewing. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was no subtle hint, it was a clear indicator of Putin’s disregard for the sovereignty of ex-Soviet states. As German dependence on Russian gas deepened, as oligarch’s harboured wealth in London, and as European armies have shrunk, Ukraine’s position became ever more precarious. Unwilling to provoke Russia through alliance, but unable to defend the country without one, NATO has for a long time left Ukraine in a geo-political limbo in which strategic thinking appeared overly dependent on the presumption of peace.
President Zelenskyy’s words have been cutting. Speaking last Friday he delivered a simple message; ‘This morning we are defending our state alone. Like yesterday, the world’s most powerful forces are watching from afar.’ NATO countries have provided significant intelligence, equipment, and weaponry to aid the Ukrainians but no-fly zones and ground forces are a clear political red line. The Ukrainian resistance has been genuinely extraordinary, and there is no doubt Russian forces are behind military schedules, struggling logistically, and poorly prepared for an extended occupation, nonetheless the dire situation for Ukraine’s people must not be underestimated.
For the second day in a row Russian forces have violated ceasefire agreements and fired on civilians being evacuated from the city of Mariupol, last week shells hit the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, and reports continue to proliferate about Russian use of illegal cluster and vacuum bombs. But NATO remains firm, they will not establish a no-fly zone, and NATO troops will not participate in this war.
NATO’s thinking is as clear as it is reasonable in this assertion; ultimately, any NATO involvement will significantly escalate this conflict. Putin is absolute, direct NATO involvement is tantamount to a declaration of European war. But the paradigm of European peace seems to continue to dominate NATO’s thinking, even in the face of a devastating war.
This is not to say that nothing is being done, nor to suggest NATO are not absolutely aware of the risks they presently face, but Putin’s plan relies on European weakness, and the alliance is overdue a show of strength. Ukraine’s sovereignty must be maintained, this conflict must be a final stand against Putin.
There are significant non-military measures that have not yet been enforced. Sanctions against Putin’s kleptocratic structure have been piecemeal and at times insufficient, although the decision to remove Russia from SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications) was both necessary and effective. The country has effectively been shunned from the international banking system and Russia is feeling the pinch. The ruble is plunging, interest rates are soaring, and internal dissent is unprecedented in the cities of Putin’s Russia. Demonstrations have taken place across 53 cities, with reports suggested approximately 7,500 anti-war protestors have been arrested. The sense that this is ‘Putin’s War’, not Russia’s, is very real. For as long as NATO is unwilling to become militarily entangled, domestic dissent will be crucial.
To this end, it is crucial that European countries freeze the imports of Russian natural gas. Whilst this will create a notable economic challenge, Germany and Italy receive over 40% of their natural gas from Russia, its impact in Russia could be crucial. For all the European talk of sanctions, the fact remains that days after the outbreak of war European nations transferred £300 million to Russia for natural gas. It is a clear sign of European weakness and it is one that must be resolved. The oil and gas sector accounts for approximately 40% of Russia’s federal budget revenues, NATO’s cumulative economy is twenty times larger than Russia’s, if properly managed an imports freeze can serve to damage the Russian economy to a much greater extent than the European.
NATO is right to try and stay out of this war, escalation brings Europe no closer to peace. But European nations must accept their own complicity with the tanks that roll across Ukraine, and they must realise this is the crucial moment to take a stand. After the Crimea, after the manipulation of foreign elections, even after the Novichok attack, the European assumption of peace remained – it has now been shattered. European conflict with Russia is tragic and lamentable, economic hardship is undesirable, but after years of strategic complacency over Putin, the question now has to be asked; if not now, when?