February 15, 2022

Almost a year before Putin closed in on Ukraine, British policymakers saw the whole thing coming. Russia would become “more active around the wider European neighbourhood,” stated the Government’s 2021 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. Presented to parliament last March, the report described “a growing contest over international rules and norms … and the testing of the boundary between war and peace”. Such conclusions are rarely highlighted to the public, so as not to alarm us.

What the British government couldn’t accept then, and won’t acknowledge now, is that the most powerful leaders in Europe have long been Putin’s enablers. Of course, today the continent’s leaders are engaged in a flurry of diplomatic activity, in an attempt to stop Russia invading Ukraine. But those close to the Russian Front are less than impressed. Commenting on Boris Johnson’s recent trip to Warsaw, Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki suggested that Western Europeans need to shed the belief that they will live in a 21st century “free of armed confrontation”. Russia’s Ukraine policy, he argues, is “for all its madness… painfully rational”. Putin is “effectively exploiting European weaknesses”.

And it’s not just that Europe had lulled itself into believing war in its neighbourhood is impossible. It has also, through its own hypocrisy, given Russia the perfect justification for waging it. Back when Western nations held all the cards, they didn’t always follow the international rules they imposed on others. Warnings to Putin about the fundamental evils of war may resonate with Western audiences, but they can ring hollow elsewhere, once leaders recall the US and UK-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, or the 2011 Nato-led military intervention in Libya — both of which had disastrous consequences for millions of people. The illegal former invasion, in particular, set a dangerous moral precedent — one warmongers worldwide will continue to exploit in the crucial battle of narratives.

Putin doesn’t need to convince Brits he’s right — especially as Britain has said it will not be sending troops to Ukraine in the event of an invasion. Still, he will be keeping a close eye on European opinion polls. A January survey in seven European nations showed a clear majority, 62%, believe Nato should defend Ukraine if it is invaded by Russia. That is a solid sign of European solidarity, considering Ukraine is not even a Nato member. But in a crisis, the true test of solidarity is always in how much pressure it can withstand.

When presented with risk factors, European appetites for a direct confrontation with Russia reduce significantly. Among Germans, Fins, the French, Italians, Poles, Romanians and Swedes, only in Poland were most respondents willing to accept the risks of economic downturn, higher energy prices, cyber-attacks, a refugee crisis and Russian military aggression. Nowhere else was a majority willing to accept them. “People mainly seem to support sanctions that will hurt Russia but will not hurt them”, the report noted. This is crucial, for, as the survey’s authors pointed out: “today, geopolitical strength is determined not just by military and economic power but also by the capacity to endure pain”.

And after decades of enjoying safety and prosperity that’s virtually unmatched anywhere else in the world, the West’s pain threshold is low. Some may feel tempted to blame “generation snowflake” for this weakness. But, while young Fins, for instance, are indeed significantly less likely than older Fins to be willing to suffer to defend Ukraine, younger French and German citizens are more willing to make such sacrifices than older generations. This is no straightforward generational divide.

For Putin and his circle, who will be following such surveys (as will European governments), they are evidence of the weakness of modern-day Western societies who generally just want to be left alone to continue enjoying their high standards of living. Knowing that true democracies have to be governed by public opinion, Putin will likely see this risk aversion as encouragement to invade.

Still, it’s public opinion at home he’ll be most worried about. In raising the stakes so high, Putin has forced himself into a corner particularly dangerous for dictators. If he doesn’t see any of his major demands met and then doesn’t go through with any military action, Russians may start wondering what all the fuss was about. Did our tsar blink first and chicken out of a confrontation with the West? What exactly did Mother Russia get from all this? These are questions Putin can’t afford to have too many Russians asking. It will be difficult for him to explain away all the events of recent weeks — the troop movements and drills — as nothing more than Western “hysteria”, which is Russia’s current official line.

Moreover, as he has now unambiguously displayed his intentions towards Ukraine, he will know that if he withdraws his troops now, Western nations — wary of making the same mistake twice — will likely invest significant resources into shoring up Ukraine’s defences. That would make the country more difficult to threaten in the future, let alone successfully invade. It’s no secret that Putin wants a 21st century, multi-ethnic empire, in which Ukrainians and Russians, who he describes as “one people”, will live side by side. Even if he was bluffing a month ago, and had no intention of actually invading, Putin might end up deciding that it’s now or never.

Of course, an attempt to conquer all of Ukraine would border on lunacy. It is the second-largest country in Europe — more than twice the size of the UK — and Putin’s antics have only galvanised Ukrainian nationalism. So trying to seize the whole territory would indeed be a “bloody business”, as Boris Johnson has suggested, especially as Ukraine has a history of effective guerrilla warfare dating back to the Second World War.

The prospect of a long conflict, costly in terms of both lives and money, is more likely to deter Putin than any attempt at appeasement. Yet even if Putin is dissuaded, Russia is not the only global power that could take advantage of the West’s weakness. The centre of economic gravity is shifting eastward. The seven largest emerging economies today — Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia and Turkey — are projected to overtake the G7 in economic size during the 2030s. These countries want a much bigger say in how the world is run than they have today. Why wouldn’t they, one may ask.

The only real question is how they will opt to expand their influence. Some will likely focus on peaceful means, but others will be tempted to use their increasing military power to shift the status quo in their favour. China, for one, is closely observing events in Ukraine. It came out in support of Russia, by saying it, too, opposes Nato expansion. And it will draw lessons from whatever happens on how to handle its own inevitable attempt to achieve Taiwanese “reunification” with China this century. Meanwhile, Nato member Turkey is on the side of the West in this particular conflict, supplying Ukraine its long-range armed drones, much to Russia’s displeasure. But it has shown on several occasions that it will go its own way militarily when it deems fit.

The Ukraine crisis, then, is not an anomalous conflict, but the beginning of a future for which Europe appears utterly unprepared. The continent has had it so good for so long, it has come to take everything it has for granted, including its security — which is gravely threatened by that very complacency. This century will test the West in ways it hasn’t been tested in a long time. It can only survive with the kind of fight it seems resolutely determined to avoid.

Sign up to UnHerd's new weekly email, in which Will Lloyd selects the best (and occasionally worst) writing from around the web.

Free, every Friday morning.