SHARE
COPY LINK

UKRAINE

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.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Why Germany can’t break out of its Covid rules rut

Despite other countries getting rid of strict Covid regulations like mandatory masks on public transport, Germany remains devoted. Brian Melican asks why the country can't move on from absurd rules.

OPINION: Why Germany can't break out of its Covid rules rut

If you’ve always dreamt of being able to travel in time, there’s now a surprisingly easy way to do it: just take the ICE from Brussels to Cologne. When you get on at Midi station, things are just like they were in Germany in July 2019: friendly guards greet passengers at the doors and, soon after departure, someone from the BordBistro comes through to first class with a tray of coffee; the weather is fine, the train is punctual, and everyone is beaming ear to ear. You can see they are, of course, because they’re not wearing masks.

Then, in one of the tunnels between Liège and Aachen, we speed into July 2022 Germany: “Meine Damen und Herren…” The jarring announcement tells passengers in four languages – and in no uncertain terms – that they have to wear a medical face-mask on public transport in Germany; they may remove it to eat and drink, but must not overextend the break, and must make sure that it always covers both their mouth and their nose; any deviation from this rule will result in them being removed from the train. Suddenly, the guards and waiters re-appear – and this time, they’re not smiling…

Okay, so this may not be genuine time travel, but it’s certainly a good piece of absurdist theatre and, what is more, a graphic example of just how dysfunctional the German approach to dealing with Covid has become. It’s not that Germany is the only country with an irrational fear of people catching corona on trains and buses (but not, say, in pubs, gyms, or shops): in the UK, France, and Belgium, public transport was one of the last non-clinical settings in which masks were still required; in Sweden, trains were the only one in which they were officially recommended. Yet, everywhere else, common sense eventually prevailed.

In Germany, meanwhile, the world’s largest beer festival and proverbial germ-den, the Oktoberfest, will be returning on 17th September, from when each of the 16 largest tents will be welcoming up to 10,000 guests belting out Schlager (and virus particles) from 11am to 11pm daily for two weeks straight. It will, however, still be illegal to take the underground to the festival site without wearing a mask.

READ ALSO: The worst of both worlds: Germany’s coronavirus policy pleases no one

In view of the manifest absurdity of the current situation – and the fact that we are now one of the few remaining European countries with any form of legally-required non-pharmaceutical interventions left in place – it’s worth asking what has gone wrong in Germany, a country which, in the first phase of the pandemic, took a more liberal, measured approach than many of its neighbours and which, since 1949, has tended to uphold constitutional freedoms to a laudably high degree.

People get on and off an S-Bahn train in Frankfurt.

People get on and off an S-Bahn train in Frankfurt, with many people wearing masks. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Arne Dedert

READ ALSO: Germany’s current Covid mask rules

Politics in favour of ‘hardcore’ restrictions 

So why do we still have patently pointless busy-body laws? The first answer to that is: politics. In the coalition, two of the parties – the SPD and the Greens – are wedded to hardcore restrictions, trying to delay their removal in March and inserting back-doors for the states to keep them in place; it was only thanks to the FDP that there was any loosening at all, and to get rid of the bulk of restrictions elsewhere, they opted to sacrifice mask-free public transport use. (Their core voters are car-drivers). As with all bad compromises, however, no-one is satisfied – and everyone is gearing up for negotiations on what replaces the current fudged legal framework for remaining restrictions when it expires on 23rd September. 

Beyond the inevitable spat between a bullish FDP and panic-stricken SPD and Greens, the political problem in Germany is broader. The legislative instrument up for renewal is termed Infektionsschutzgesetz – literally: ‘infection protection law’ – while the state-level restrictions derived from it are called SARS-CoV-2-Eindämmungsverordnungen, which means ‘statutory orders to halt the spread of SARS-CoV-2′. As such, the political debate in Germany is still being held on the premise that we are able to control the spread of coronavirus and that there are state interventions which can prevent it from infecting the entire population.

READ ALSO: German politicians clash over Covid rules for autumn 

In most other European countries, the Omicron wave led to the realisation that it was no longer possible to stop Covid spreading without opting for Chinese-level lockdowns – and to a slightly risky, yet thus far broadly successful strategic switch towards, on the basis of broad vaccination, using the milder variant to build up herd immunity at a lower cost in terms of sickness. While it is easy to understand just how difficult a plunge this is to take – applied too early (i.e. before inoculation), the herd immunity strategy was the reckless hallmark of Johnsonian/Trumpian policy – the facts of the matter are plain to see. Accordingly, from ex-WHO SARS research coordinator Klaus Stöhr to Andreas Gassen at the GP association, there is no shortage of epidemiologists and medical professionals in Germany arguing that now is the time.

People walk past a test centre in Frankfurt.

People walk past a test centre in Frankfurt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Arne Dedert

German angst over Covid remains

It isn’t the time, though, because – and this is the issue – Germans aren’t ready. That’s the other reason we still have these pointless busy-body laws: because the populace is willing to abide by them. Part of the reason the UK got rid of re-imposed coronavirus restrictions for good in February was because compliance was so low as to make a mockery of them: in a country where ONS statistics estimate that 90 percent of the population has already had Covid and where mortality has plummeted, people no longer see the point in protecting themselves; ditto across the Channel, where, after complying to a surprisingly high degree with the excessive regulations in 2020, the French rediscovered their Gallic shrug this spring once they’d all had the disease.

We Germans, of course, are different. There has been no shortage of ink spilled on our national willingness to comply with even obviously pointless regulations and on our communal love of policing each other’s conduct (least of all by me). The problem with corona is that our notorious obsession with compliance is multiplied by another of our national traits: hypochondria. German sensitivity to illness has its good sides – even before Covid, we didn’t go into the office or to parties with streaming colds – but can, like all worthy characteristics, become pathological.

As political parties well know, a majority of Germans is still terrified of corona and has now come to view others’ mouths and noses primarily as a source of danger. After sandals at swimming pools, towels in saunas, and removing shoes at apartment doors, masks are now the next behavioural modification Germans are willing to make – and enforce – in their quest for marginally improved hygiene.

The stress, of course, is on ‘marginal’. As last week’s report on government restrictions underlined, masks can be a useful tool in stopping the spread of respiratory illness – provided, of course, they are worn properly and continuously. Germans beloved FFP2 masks do not seem to offer much more protection than other forms of face coverings. So forcing restaurant diners to put on a specific type of mask from the door to their table, where they then remove it to eat, drink, and be merry, is an exercise in pointlessness. Ditto on trains, where people also eat and drink (not least in the BordBistro…).

Of course, we didn’t really need an expert commission to tell us this: it is borne out by the fact that Germany’s highest ever rates of infection were back in March, when – along with a whole other range of bewildering regulations (anyone remember “2G+”?) – mask-wearing was in force and, moreover, while even famously light-touch Sweden (with whom our per-capita death rate is comparable) had absolutely no restrictions and an exceptionally low case-load.

A sign at the Cologne carnival in February 2022 saying entry is '2G-plus' - only for vaccinated/recovered people who can show a negative test, or boosted people.

A sign at the Cologne carnival in February 2022 saying entry is ‘2G-plus’ – only for vaccinated/recovered people who can show a negative test, or boosted people. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Banneyer

This and other glaringly obvious incongruities, however, won’t stop German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach and his like from trotting out their tired mantra that a high seven-day incidence means that restrictions are needed (regardless of hospitalisation or the overall burden of illness) and that restrictions must mean masks. It won’t stop Germans from agreeing with him, either: our unappealing assumption that we know best means that, rather than asking why our death rate is so high after two years of uninterrupted Covid restrictions of one form or another, we simply assume that neighbouring countries must somehow be wrong.

READ ALSO: School closures in Germany ‘cannot be ruled out’, says minister 

So expect plenty more exercises in cross-border train-travel pointlessness – along with the widespread re-imposition of indoor mask-wearing, hand-disinfection, and testing requirements this autumn. When it comes to coronavirus, it’s Groundhog Day in Germany – and, really, our time loop is stuck somewhere back in 2020/21. The train to 2022 leaves from Cologne every two hours at 42 minutes past.

SHOW COMMENTS