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