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OPINION: This is Russia’s war, but we Europeans need to learn fast from our mistakes

For those of us living in Europe now, this is a scary and dangerous time, writes The Local's James Savage. The threat from Russia leaves European leaders with no easy choices, but peace and democracy in Europe depend on what they do next.

OPINION: This is Russia’s war, but we Europeans need to learn fast from our mistakes
A woman holds a placard reading "Hands off Ukraine" as another demonstrator displays a flag of Europe during a protest of Ukrainian and Polish demonstrators against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in front of Russian embassy in Warsaw, Poland, on February 24, 2022. Photo: Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP

The Russian army is invading Ukraine, putting an official stamp on a conflict that its President Vladimir Putin started when unmarked troops entered Crimea and Donbas in 2014. The consequences for Europe are potentially devastating.

In a bizarre and sinister speech televised this week, Putin denied Ukraine was ever a real country, falsely claiming it as “historically Russian land” that had been stolen from the Russian empire. Meanwhile, the enormous Russian military buildup in Belarus seems to have snuffed out any hope of real Belorussian independence for the foreseeable future. 

These are not faraway countries about which we know little. For Germans, Scandinavians and Austrians, these are our near-neighbours. Ukraine is part of the wider European community, many of us have friends there. Their previously comfortable, normal lives are now threatened by Putin’s self-indulgent fantasies about Russia’s position in the world.

From my vantage point in Sweden, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia can often feel like another world, but as the crow flies, the naval port of Karlskrona in southern Sweden is closer to Belarus than to Sundsvall in central Sweden. The highly-militarised Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is closer still.

Ukraine and Sweden have deep historic and cultural ties; there have even been small Swedish-speaking communities in Ukraine since the 18th century. For Germany, Poland, Austria and other central European countries, bonds across borders broken by the Cold War have become strong since the collapse of communism.

Nobody knows what Putin will do next if he successfully occupies Ukraine, but he has been opining constantly about the ‘geopolitical catastrophe’ of the collapse of the Soviet empire. This is bad news for three former Soviet republics, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, once subjugated by Moscow but now part of the EU and Nato. They are modern, sophisticated countries, which identify far more with the Nordic countries than their former Russian occupiers.

Any attempt by Putin to invade the Baltic states should trigger Nato’s Article 5, meaning an attack on one member is an attack on all. Some military experts warn that if Putin decides to attack these countries, he might first occupy the strategically-placed Swedish island of Gotland, a claim that was illustrated by Russian military exercises in 2013, when according to Nato it simulated a nuclear attack against Sweden.

Russia’s aggression has led to calls for Sweden to join Nato, something that would give the country protection, but would also draw unwelcome attention from Moscow. A poll in January showed support for joining was at 35 percent, higher than support for staying out. But many Swedes, especially among the ruling Social Democrats, have long opposed Nato membership, partly out of a strategic calculation that it would put Sweden at greater risk, partly out of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, and partly because they have talked themselves into a belief that someone would always come to their aid if attacked. So far, Sweden’s government is affirming that it will stay out of Nato, but Ukraine’s experience might at least lead some Swedes to review their support for that stance.

Calls for joining Nato have also been growing louder in Finland, as alarm grew over Putin’s aggression. This is understandable, given that Putin has also lamented Russia’s pre-Soviet territorial losses, which could be read to include Finland, which became independent in 1917.

What is happening now has been predicted by some experts for years. Russia spent most of the past decade slicing off bits of neighbouring countries, in Moldova, in Georgia and in Ukraine. It was never inconceivable that he would go further. But the west, after imposing some mild sanctions, mostly turned away and hoped that Putin would stop there, despite continued hostile Russian military exercises and bellicose rhetoric from the president. 

Former politicians including former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and disgraced former French Prime Minister François Fillon, took Putin’s rouble and became his mouthpieces in the west. Even today, Fillon was blaming Nato expansion for Russia’s aggression. Germany naïvely let itself become dependent on Russian gas. Britain let dirty Russian money pour into London, its political parties and its tax-haven colonies around the world, even as Russian agents murdered British citizens on British soil. We all let Russian propaganda channels pollute our airwaves. As recently as yesterday, Britain’s Guardian was embedding tweets, uncommented, from Russian propaganda outlet Ruptly. The tweet itself was innocuous, but the source was anything but.

Russia also got away with direct interference in democratic processes in elections in France, the US and many other places, and there are well-founded reasons to believe it also interfered with the Brexit referendum in the UK. People who raised the alarm were dismissed as paranoid or Russophobic. 

For those of us living in Europe now, these are scary times. We have no easy choices. But we have tried appeasement, we have let our politics be corrupted by Russian money, we have neglected our defences, and we have been slow to tackle Russian propaganda. We need to tackle all these issues now, as though peace and democracy in Europe depended on it. Because they do. 

James Savage is Publisher of The Local Europe

Member comments

  1. I don’t want to power my home with Russian ‘blood gas’, my conscious deplores that. It’s time to move forwards towards more sustainable energies and independence. What would prevent Putin from turning off the gas supplies to Europe at any time in the future when he demands even more land and power. Nothing! It’s time to bite the bullet and the determination to change, even though the ‘energy path’ forward isn’t mapped out 100%, it is something we can change, develop and work on. We must not be Putin’s toys, for even more blood on his hands.

  2. Excellent editorial comment. Widening the perspective to include the persistent miscalculation of Western governments in response to Putin’s enmity. If murders by Russian agents of UK citizens on UK soil with chemical weapons was not enough to demonstrate the lengths that Putin will go to, the deliberate strategic focus on causing deep discontent in the Westerns Social order through a campaign of a toxic information warfare should certainly have been. Instead the West sat by and responded with weak and ineffectual sanctions against a mere handful of Putin’s cronies. The West backed away from Syria having fought the wrong war in Iraq and in doing so emboldened Putin’s confidence as well as allowing him to sharpen the teeth of his newly modernised military. The West had all the signals of Putin’s intent for over 20 years and decided to profit from a revitalised Russia instead of containing his Imperial ambitions. Putin has been at war with the West or a decade only he’s the only one throwing and landing all the punches.

  3. This a dangerous time for Europe and calls for unity to stop this juggernaut trampling on states to regain its so called past glory.

  4. Very misleading article and completely ignoring the other side of the story. Putin never said that the Ukrainian land was stolen from Russia.

  5. War is bad, Putin assertions of Ukraine being of part of Russia is myth. This war will trouble Europe, and mostly because of spineless EU leaders (spl. German and France) who can’t stand to world politics against America and can secure “independent” good terms with Russia. This article completely ignores the devilish aspect of American (and UK) imperialisms, the every fact NATO is used as war machinery for global dominance post cold-war and collapse of Soviet Bloc. The complexity of ethnic and civil war in these eastern countries have gone thoroughly ignored in this article. Its shouldn’t be a secret to a fair reporting political journalists how pro-west government were setup in these countries and cajoled in joining NATO and the intention was not to provide security to these countries but to put insecurity in last bastion of communism – Russia. US has played its gambit to aggravate the situation and very well knew Russia’s reaction (NYT CNN Guardian announcing for last one month the imminent Russia attack) and things are happening. Nord2 has been sacrificed, interest of US companies secured. Sadly, Ukraine and its people has been scarified in the international politics. Europe will pay the bill of energy, damage and refugee.

  6. The other side of the story?

    Does it really matter what he said? He has invaded another country. Simple.

    Please explain why Russia or any other country has to right to invade its neighbour.

    Ukraine now, where next? Any country with a border with Ukraine once it is Russian?

  7. Thank you for stating this. It is high time for the West to become “woke” in the true sense of the word. I just hope it isn’t too late. The West is in the weakest position it has been in since the end of the Cold War, particularly the US.

  8. Exactly, Putin won’t stop with Ukraine. As difficult as it undoubtedly is Europe and every country who abhors this act of war must make hard decisions to out an end to Putin’s march. The pain will be significant for all but not as bad as what the future holds if he is not stopped now. Future generations will not thank us for being afraid to grasp the nettle now before Russia’s march becomes too monstrous to handle.

  9. Nobody has a right to invade a country. I pray for Ukraine and Ukrainian.

    My point being that almost all mainstream media outlet are only critical of Putin’s aggression. Presenting a simple narrative, overlooking events, background negotiation which was underway since months (may be years or decades) are ignored. And hence most public are only critical of Putin. But there are evidence which shows the hawkish attitude of US and NATO alliance – which is silently ignored. To put it simply – I blame all Putin, Biden, Macron, Olaf and Boris for this war. Ukraine has been sacrificed in this gambit by US by securing a big economic gain for itself.

    My opinion didn’t come out correctly above in statement – “Putin assertions of Ukraine being of part of Russia is myth”. Putin assertion of Ukraine being part of Russia is his myth (his false belief).

  10. Mr Savage is correct. Putin and his klepto-gang has started a war. They are the aggressors. The only reason NATO is not intervening with no-fly zone or boots on the ground is because Russia has nukes. The Baltics and Nordics must be defended. Hitler told the world what his intentions were. The world shrugged until it was too late. Putin has also told the world what he wants – a Greater Russia. Sure, he has thrown in some tactical lies. Believe him. Best offence is strong defence.

  11. Apologists for Putin always try to muddy the water by throwing around words like “imperialism of the West” without ever defining what they’re talking about. None of that has any relation to reality in the current situation. Putin invaded an independent sovereign country without ANY provocation. That is the only reality that matters here. He must be stopped and punished.
    Putin is a murderous criminal. For all the flaws of Western countries, the principles of democracy are still the overriding rules. Individuals in a democracy still have the right and ability to change a government they don’t like. They still have the right and ability to kick out corrupt and murderous individuals. Claiming those rights and taking those actions require energy and commitment. Unfortunately, too many people have become complacent over recent decades. Perhaps seeing the real threat in action today will wake more people up. Democracy takes vigilance and courage and work by EVERY individual.

  12. Aggressors are also the ones who are approaching your borders or invading countries. US and NATO are doing it all the time. Aggressors are also those who are oppressing the population of a particular nation. Russia’s invasion is not more than a reaction.

    If you remember how in the 20th century the US reacted to when Russia started arming Cuba (Carrebean Crisis), they didn’t like it at all and it almost started a war.
    Don’t approach Russian borders with threats and don’t get reactions. Simple as that. This applies to everyone. Not only Russia.

  13. The lesson of Ukraine for Swedes and Finns is that NATO cannot defend countries that are not part of it — no matter how egregious the invasion — or how angry they are about it.

    Americans in particular will not support such an action. That’s just the way it is. They hate being involved in European wars, but they honor their treaties.

    So of course Putin would attack Sweden first. And then Finland. And no one will be there to help.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: The Swiss obsession for the sun is a recipe for frustration

When it comes to weather, Swiss people have a one-track mind. Only the sun will do. Perhaps their proximity to the Mediterranean has made them yearn for a better climate. They need to accept the grey days, Clare O’Dea argues.

OPINION: The Swiss obsession for the sun is a recipe for frustration

The Swiss climate, at least where most of the people live in the Central Plateau, delivers a mixed bag of weather. There are sunny days, wet days and foggy days. We have falls of snow in winter, heatwaves in summer, hailstorms, and winds with quirky names – the warm Foehn and the cold Bise.

Yet for the sun-worshipping Swiss, the only right weather is sunny weather. The global climate crisis has had little to no effect on this obsession with being bathed in sunlight. The longing for sun runs deep in the Swiss psyche.

Who would want to be a weather forecaster in Switzerland? A big part of your job is to apologise to viewers or listeners that they are being denied their due dose of sun on that particular day. For 55 percent of daylight hours every year, the sun is behind the clouds, and that keeps everyone wanting more.

The weather men and women address the public as if their main purpose in life was pleasure seeking. It doesn’t matter how many days of drought the country has suffered; the focus will be on the possibility of spending the day outside in the sun.

Skiing without sun is considered a minor tragedy

Hikers, lake swimmers or skiers are their target audience. The poor famers don’t get a look in. Anyone temporarily and unjustly trapped beneath low fog, will be advised where they can escape to sunnier altitudes.

It is true that some regions of Switzerland are afflicted by long spells of low-lying fog. There I have more understanding for the sun fixation. These fog interludes occur from late autumn to spring, mostly along rivers and lakes where the air is very damp.

Low lying fog can be the source of much frustration for the Swiss. Photo by Samuel Ferrara on Unsplash

According to MeteoSwiss, the dry air of the north-easterly Bise causes low-lying fog to rise. Strong, persistent Bise wind can mean that the low cloud cover does not lift for several days or even weeks. It’s tantalising for some during those cold, grey days to know that the sun is shining above the stratus, not far away in the mountains.

For most of Swiss history, people avoided the mountains, unless they were unlucky enough to live on or near them. Now, thanks to tourist infrastructure first built for rich foreigners, the mountains are the playground of the Swiss, easily accessible in winter and summer.

But the first rule of a successful weekend is that it has to be sunny. Whatever activity you undertake, the first question people will ask is whether it was sunny. Skiing without sun is considered a minor tragedy. Little attention is paid to the harm of high temperatures and the regular problem of drought. Every day of sun is a win!

A nationwide epidemic of seasonal affective disorder?

In fact, there seems to be a general lack of awareness of how crucial precipitation is to the Swiss ecosystem, agriculture, water and energy supplies. Instead, every day of rain is greeted as an imposition.

Could it be that Swiss people have a physiological need that is driving all this? A nationwide epidemic of seasonal affective disorder? It doesn’t seem to be a version of SAD because the sun hunger is no less pronounced in the summer, when it is sunny more often than not.

Let’s not be too harsh. I’m not the Ebenezer Scrooge of sunny weather. While writing this article, the sun came out for the first time in many days. I was drawn outside for a break and I turned my face to the sky gratefully. It’s just that I don’t miss the sun terribly when it’s not here. I know it will always come back, and, eventually, with a vengeance. In the summer, I spend most of my time seeking shade.

One part of Switzerland is living the dream, where daylight hours are sunny more than 50 percent of the time. The rest of country looks enviously towards Ticino, known as the sun balcony of Switzerland, for its extra hours of sunlight. Not surprisingly, the canton on the south side of the Alps is the number one destination for domestic tourists.

Italy the top destination for Swiss residents seeking sun

There is a mass migration of Swiss to warmer climes in the summer. A 2022 survey by the insurer Generali showed that Italy was the top destination for Swiss residents taking holidays abroad (29%), followed by France (18%) and Spain (16%).

The inconsistency of Swiss weather is probably what wears people down and feeds the sun fixation. There is a perception that the summer should be warm and dry all the time but May to August is also when it rains the most.

The proximity to the Mediterranean doesn’t help. It’s frustrating to be so close to the European region with the ideal outdoor climate and to get a taste of that in your own backyard on some days but never often enough.

If I may advise, rather than fighting against reality, a little acceptance would take a lot of the frustration away. There’ll be plenty of dazzling days in the summer, don’t worry. It’s just that the pattern will be unpredictable. And, whether we like it or not, winter is actually meant to be a grey time, where we make our own light and find different joys. If it’s any consolation, the sun is always there, whether we can see it or not.

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