When Reality Bites
Russia’s war in Ukraine is not over, but it is not too soon to start thinking
about what comes next – for Ukraine’s future, and our own.
The author writes in a personal capacity.
In a 2014 article for the Financial Times, Simon Kuper writes: “History in the west often serves as entertainment, something to enjoy from a comfortable distance, rather like a horror movie. That is the spirit of much western remembrance of 1914 this year. In the Balkans, though, history is fresher, more vicious, always about to jump out and bite the present.” As far as I am concerned, “eastern Europe” could be added to this sentence. Eastern Europeans of my generation have first-hand experience of big history – the liberation brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union. We know that history can happen, for better or for worse. It cannot be ignored by hiding your head in the sand.
In the past, wars began with flags, parades, and a declaration of war, which could then be followed by weeks or even months before hostilities broke out. Many things are different today. Apart from intelligence services and the military, European air traffic controllers were among the first to learn of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. In the early hours of 24 February, Russia issued what is known as a NOTAM to Eurocontrol, the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, notifying it of the closure of Ukrainian airspace. This was an unusual announcement. Countries tend to close only their own airspace, not that of neighbours. And Russia did not conceal the fact that the reason for the closure was military action.
I slept three hours a night at that time. A phone call from a high-ranking European transport official at 04:09 Kyiv time did not wake me. Irresponsible, maybe, but that was how, at around 5 o’clock, I found out what it feels like to wake up to explosions – an experience that, as a European in his fifties, I had fortunately so far avoided.
Eastern European perspectives
In western Europe, this would be unthinkable. As a rule, people can relate personally to two generations before and after them – your grandparents and your grandchildren are the ones you see and whose stories you hear. The sun’s extinction in a few billion years is unlikely to be a personal concern for most people today, but the effects of climate change by 2100 may well be. Looking back, the Second World War is beginning to have only academic meaning for most Europeans. As this was the last major upheaval for western Europe, geopolitics tends to be a more theoretical concept towards the western edge of our continent. Furthermore, western and eastern Europeans often have quite different understandings of the war, its conclusion, allied relationships, and similar matters. The dividing line runs where Stalin’s troops came to a halt and never left.
European air traffic controllers were among the first to learn of Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
Geopolitics is mainly based on geography and history. It is only natural that living along the edges of the continent, on the borders of civilisations, in the Last Homely House as it were, one develops a sharper sense of geography. The same goes for history, as Simon Kuper suggested.
This difference in experience between western and eastern Europe also explains our different responses to the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the war in Ukraine that began in 2014. In eastern Europe, there was (and still is) great anger, but no shock. As the late Estonian history professor Enn Tarvel put it a few years ago: the question is not whether the Russians will return, but when they will return? I would qualify this by pointing out that, as a responsible NATO member with high defence spending, the question for Estonia is rather: when will the Russians make an attempt to return? For the inhabitants of the Last Homely House, this is reality, always about to jump out and bite.
For the western part of the continent, however, 2014 was a shock. It never occurred to them that two decades of appeasing Moscow might be one of the reasons why the Kremlin decided it could afford to start a war in Europe. At a Foreign Affairs Council meeting in November that year, the foreign minister of a western European country raised his voice at his Lithuanian colleague, who had called for a tougher response to Russia’s actions, saying: Linas, I understand that you have your own historical experience, but we need to conduct sensible foreign policy here! The bitter fact that Europe was at war had still not sunk in. Or, people just did not want to accept the fact that Ukraine is part of Europe, that Donbas is in Europe, in our immediate neighbourhood.
From the perspective of normal human experience, there was nothing surprising about this exchange. A distance of two generations makes horrors feel merely theoretical, right? In her excellent book, The War That Ended Peace (2014), Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan describes how wars in pre-World War I Europe, from the time of Napoleon onwards, either took place quickly and with little pain, like the wars of German unification between 1864 and 1871; or they were fought far away and did not directly affect the Europeans, like the colonial wars. A century or so later, Crimea and Donbas seemed to fall into the same category.
Mistakes of the past
Too soft a reaction to the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas was just one of the mistakes the EU (and the West in general) made. Even worse was taking the responsibility to end the war too lightly. Creating the so-called Normandy format in June 2014 was understandable – you seize the opportunity and talk to those who are there and open to talking. Excluding the European Union and the United States was short-sighted even then. But proclaiming this format to be the only diplomatic process to end the war, even when not much had been achieved in the seven years from February 2015, was irresponsible. And not only on the part of the participating countries, Russia, France, and Germany (Ukraine made several proposals to expand the group over the years), but also the Americans and the other EU Member States. We let this format tick along, telling ourselves that, well, there is a process – we have Normandy, we have Minsk, and the OSCE Trilateral Contact Group. Even when we saw that nothing really was being achieved, Russia wasn’t picking up the phone, the war was dragging on. But it was dragging on in a seemingly contained way and at a distance, like those colonial wars of the 19th century.
Geopolitics tends to be more theoretical concept towards the western edge of our continent.
The third mistake was to pay insufficient attention to developments in Ukraine. This is a familiar experience to everyone in eastern and central European countries – the bloodlands, to use Timothy Snyder’s chillingly apt description – which are often looked at through the prism of larger actors, without agency or rights of their own, as some function of greater powers. What went unnoticed was a fundamental difference between Russian and Ukrainian society. The latter has no trace of the former’s fatalistic inclination to surrender to the will of the tsar, but instead has a strong pluralistic tradition and a growing aspiration towards Europe. Western foreign policy between 2014 and 2022 mostly still sought to treat Ukraine as part of the Russian problem, as a function of it. The European Union, a voluntary club that as far as possible avoids debating divisive issues, had not reached a clear conclusion on whether Ukraine was a country fighting a war on our behalf (the view of one group of member states, albeit with different nuances) or a breeding ground of corruption, draining billions of euros for hard-to-understand reasons and little return (the view of another group of member states, also with nuances). We should not support a corrupt country for purely geopolitical reasons, the second group kept insisting.
Too soft a reaction to the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas was just one of the mistakes the EU (and the West in general) made.
Ukraine, meanwhile, had developed and freed itself to become far more than just a breeding ground for corruption. It is easy to see why it took the Ukrainians longer than it took, for example, for us in the Baltic countries. Ukraine had even less of a tradition of a state than we did with our two decades of independence in the interwar years. Ukraine was much more integrated with the Soviet system. And a flawed 1990s privatisation model had allowed a caste of oligarchs to emerge. If people do not yet have full trust in a newborn state and see that the market economy offers no just treatment either, then what should trust in that state be based on? This is why Ukraine’s emancipation took time. The first warning shot rang out as early as the 2004 Orange
Revolution, when people refused to accept blatant electoral fraud. When the same fraudsters sought to turn the country from its European course a decade later, the people rose up. In Ukraine, the years since 2014 have been a time of establishing democracy, the rule of law and European integration, despite all the difficulties and the poor starting position. Away from the old, away from the East, and to the West!
The European Union could not fully recognise this, the continent’s greatest geopolitical shift of our time. Because of its roots in economic integration and its legalistic nature, the EU is probably at its most helpless when a country comes along and says: we want to be your friends! Brussels does not say: great, we need allies. Instead, it asks: what is the legal basis for our friendship? We are still a long way from geopolitical thinking.
Many things have changed since 24 February this year. European leaders are no longer just talking about the need for dialogue (dialogue with an aggressor is, in any case, questionable) and are not refraining from action just out of a fear of ‘provoking Russia’. The cliche that there is no military solution to the conflict, which is at best ignorant and at worst only serves to stoke further conflict, is, as far as Russia is concerned, forgotten. On the contrary, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell said (in Kyiv, on 9 April) that the war will be won on the ground and the EU will do its part to help Ukraine win. The shift from the approach of just a few months ago has been momentous. The European Union, a peace project and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is coordinating its member states’ military aid to Ukraine, with billions in funding! The sanctions policy of the EU, US, UK, Japan, and other countries is also different from past policies. If in 2014 we (the EU) said that the purpose of our sanctions was to make the Russian leadership change course, we now have the courage to say the aim is to have a massive and severe impact on Russia. Earlier in April, US President Joe Biden announced another package of sanctions to “ratchet up the pain for Putin and further increase Russia’s economic isolation”.
The response to Russia’s aggression has brought along the best cooperation between democracies in decades. There is already talk of a rebirth of the West, a much tougher resistance to autocratic regimes than expected. The (at the time of writing, likely) NATO membership applications from Finland and Sweden show the attractiveness of the Alliance, which at the start of the war talked too much about what it could not do. And the Alliance is vigorously strengthening its eastern flank. However, it would be extremely careless and irresponsible to indulge in too much navel gazing about the historical moves we have made, and to leave our action related to the war unfinished or to procrastinate. So, let’s get to work.
What must be done
First, we must help Ukraine win this war. Ukrainians must receive as many and as powerful weapons as they need. As the Kremlin is fighting with no holds barred, including the possible use of nuclear weapons, Western countries and organisations should not rule out military response either. Every show of weakness only tempts this aggressor. Our intent to respond to any use of chemical or nuclear weapons should be openly declared.
Also, we must say to ourselves and declare publicly that our policy will not end even if a ceasefire is established in Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the president of a democratic nation, and no one should criticise him if he decides that the number of his fallen compatriots is too high and he must make peace, no matter where the Russian forces are on the ground. Even if Ukraine is once again forced to accept a ceasefire at gunpoint, as in 2015, the West will still have the right to say that our goal of inflicting enough pain on Russia to rule out new aggression still stands. In addition, for both practical and moral reasons, we must say yes to Ukraine’s aspirations to join Western organisations – the European Union and NATO. For practical reasons, because it is in our interests to have a large new ally in a strategic location. For moral reasons, because Ukraine is a European country in terms of its history, culture and increasingly also in economic terms, contacts between people and even church affiliations. If such a country wants to become part of Europe politically too, if the Ukrainian people have decided to become European, then who on Earth has the right to say otherwise?
Western foreign policy between 2014 and 2022 mostly still sought to treat Ukraine as part of the Russian problem.
Second, we already need to think about what to do with an economically collapsed (and hopefully militarily neutered) Russia. As generals prepare for the last war, and diplomats for the last peace conference, the 20th century offers us two models for treating the vanquished: Versailles and the European Union. It would be extremely short-sighted to try to repeat either. We must start with a question that is closer in time: what mistakes were made in treating the losing side of the Cold War, and what can we learn from them? The Kremlin does not respond in kind to playing it nice; it responds by seeking to exploit the do-gooder and by looking for opportunities for revenge. How do we treat a defeated Russia this time? A new Nuremberg process for Russian war criminals is only part of the solution. The goal must be to render Russian aggression impossible for decades, at least for the two generations that we can realistically relate to.
Third, as many countries and organisations as possible must join these processes. We have no right to repeat the mistakes of narrow formats. All the more so as the things at stake, questions of good and evil, are not as clear cut from a global perspective as they seem to us in Europe and North America. Countries from India to South Africa, not to mention China, also see the war in Ukraine as the West versus everyone else. A side remark: a mission to Odesa by NATO or a coalition of the willing with the humanitarian goal of enabling export of Ukrainian grain to the poorest countries in the world would strongly mitigate this perception. So far as this mission is not on the cards, the continuation of such a perspective is very dangerous, both in terms of the international order and the effectiveness of our sanctions against Russia. But if the West – in fact, the entire democratic world – stands united and determined, we will manage.
The author writes in a personal capacity