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How Europe’s hypocrisy enables Putin We are woefully unprepared for an era of conflict

He doesn't really care what the West thinks. Credit: WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images

He doesn't really care what the West thinks. Credit: WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images


February 15, 2022   5 mins

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.


Dr Remi Adekoya is a Polish-Nigerian writer and political scientist. His book Biracial Britain: A Different Way of Looking at Race, is available now.

RemiAdekoya1

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Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

Take a quick look around the world.

Myanmar: all around the world politicians talked of sanctions a year ago. No change.

Libya: Chaos. Polititicians making speeches. Nothing will happen. Many Aftrican countries. North Korea. Saudi Arabia/Yemen.

If Russia invades Ukraine, nothing will happen. This will be a green light for China to invade Taiwan. Russia has already invaded Belarus and nobody has noticed.

What exactly is the point of the hugely expensive United Nations? Can’t we just remove it? What is the point of NATO?

In all of these areas, western powers get rich by selling arms and then look away when the arms are used. The west, led by the USA, is totally decrepit.

Alex Tickell
Alex Tickell
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Absolutely correct, the world is moving on while Western Europe, the UK and US seem rooted in the “Glory Days”
The assertion that NATO are the good guys, or even that they have any grip on Geo-politics is given the lie by their actions In Libya which arguably turned out to be a worse disaster than the UK/US war on Iraq.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that democracy in the West is no longer in place and has been usurped by a small group of degenerates who have succeeded in turning a once proud and freedom loving people into a “herd” of hopeless victims…….The real villains are the MSM who have masked and blindfolded the people.

Alka Hughes-Hallett
Alka Hughes-Hallett
2 years ago
Reply to  Alex Tickell

The people in the West have themselves to blame. The media, government, policies are all shaped by the western education & universities that emphasis safety first, defines science as exact- without debate, indulging and cowering to those funding programs, big money from foreign governments or technocrats silencing debate, there are not many bold and fearless iconic citizens, who like to challenge the populous, left in the West. Most are given to their indulgences and a sense of entitlement. As Covid passes through us, the most of the holiday/travel starved westerners are thinking of their next getaway -and they won’t let a WAR get in the way!!!

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago

Exactly. I find the obsession with foreign holidays intriguing.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Bill W

I find this obsession rather strange, too.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 years ago

Putin wants to “restore” Ukraine as part of Russia. Putin does not want a war with NATO. Putin has been told that NATO will not defend Ukraine whilst it is not in NATO. Putin has been told that Ukraine may join NATO. Therefore the West has told Putin his window of opportunity is now, before Ukraine joins NATO.
The West shouts about sanctions but depends on oil and gas from Russia. Putin will build gas pipelines to China and then threatens sanctions on Europe.
Is anyone in the West thinking this through.

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

No.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago

Mene mene tekel upharsin: that is probably the way President Putin would judge the West. If there is no invasion we could see this as an large-scale intelligence-gathering action. Too much of Europe relies on Russia for energy, The US is primarily concerned with China and anyway, hasn’t Europe run down its ability to defend its own interests?

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Hawkes

When was “Europe” able to defend its own interests. Post war Europe was divided in two of which Western Europe was probably strongest during the Cold War but still relied on the US guarantee. Post Cold War, Europe drew a premature peace dividend only to wake up to how weak it is in response to Russia. But for Russia. Europe would carry on slacking.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bill W
Saul D
Saul D
2 years ago

“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.”

  1. Under the great dictator narrative, why would Putin care what Russians think?
  2. In strategy, success is best achieved without the cost of military action. A few scared neighbours brought back under the Russian wing would be a gain (Belarus and Kazakhistan for instance)
  3. On the world stage, Putin has returned Russia to be a player. Russia is no longer just an adjunct at Nato meetings via the Nato Russia Council, expected to nod along while Nato does its thing.
  4. He is humiliating Ukraine and exposing the softness of the US and EU promises to help and European reliance on Russia for energy.
  5. The US will claim victory if he doesn’t invade. But if he turns the gas off, how are the Americans going to help? What if Ukraine and Russia negotiate a deal that will improve economic relations as a means of reducing tensions? Any Ukraine-Russia deal will undermine America.

So Putin doesn’t have to invade. He can achieve what he wants without invasion. But also, in some ways, the Americans need Russia to invade. It makes them Ukraine’s protector. It creates a tangible boo-hiss enemy. It justifies American-interventionism and military expenditure. The EU, by contrast, due to Russia gas and proximity, doesn’t want a Russian bear on its doorstep, and probably doesn’t want America rearming Europe recreating cold-war fear.
Will Russia invade? No idea. But no-one has explained to me the benefit other than as a Putin ego-trip, or how that benefit is worth the cost. If Putin is the demon mad-man aping Peter the Great then invasion it is. If not, someone has to explain what Russia expects to gain by an occupation and a resisting anti-Russian population other than cost and enemies.

Joe Donovan
Joe Donovan
2 years ago

This is very good. A couple of rather secondary points. (1) If you pull China out of that list of seven top “emerging economies,” the remaining six will be bupkis when lined up against the G7. (2) I very much don’t want this invasion to happen, but if it does, it is, I think, as likely to tell a cautionary tale to the Chinese vis a vis Taiwan as to encourage China’s own military adventurism. Putin may rue the day, notwithstanding the cultural weakness of the West.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

Europe can continue to get away with being unprepared as the Eastern EU countries will, probably after this event, develop a unified military response with support from the U.K. and USA, but not through NATO since that limits action.
Again I ask, what happens after Putin? This is what we need to prepare for.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I was going to disagree with you, comparing the will o’ the wisp of the EU foreign policy with the more focussed NATO, but then realised that you are right, given the potential quality of decisions made by the last three PsOTUS, and France, Germany and Turkey, maybe even Canada. It’s interesting to think that the members which are more committed tend to be the newer ones which Putin regrets having been allowed to join.
No doubt Putin has a secret chuckle as he uses the aggressiveness of NATO as his casus belli, supported by a surprising number of apologists in the West, when you and I know that it’s not even steadfast in defensive attitude.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

More self flagellation. Of course ‘the West’ is ambiguous and divided. That’s the damn point of democracy. Plenty of masochistic commentators on here over the past few weeks just longing for ‘a man on a horse’ to sort it all out and knock heads together. Meanwhile I for one am not going to be that old git down the pub droning on and expecting someone else’s son to spill his guts out in the snow or end up fried alive inside an APC.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

A democracy can choose to be prepared to defend itself, or unprepared to defend itself, and those seem to depend upon the patriotism of the electorate, the wisdom of the politicians who happen to be competing for power, or the realisation of how dangerous the world is.

George Knight
George Knight
2 years ago

The EU (aka Europe) has chosen a path of soft power rather than hard power, such as chosen by the regimes of China and Russia. Putin is both a good strategist and a very wealthy man. Any military adventurism will surely have to fit within a framework that does not diminish his cash flow as well as that of his associates. Remember, the power/wealth dynamic in Russia is between Putin and the Mafia. Both require significant cash inflows. War is fine if it can be wrapped up within a few months at minimal cost. Is absorbing Ukraine worth more than what Putin has already? My guess is that it is not, but rather that it is useful for leveraging his self esteem with European leaders visiting the Kremlin only to receive a lecture.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago
Reply to  George Knight

Concur. Very big lies need a constant flow of very big lies wrapped up with false patriotism and simplicity. Look at those Westerners- do you want to be confused like them? etc. Surely the West ( stupid generalisation- Iceland is like Poland for example) is divided. We have to be grown ups and not admire a Xi/ Putin approach where everyone gruesomely apparently agrees. Of course woke identity wars are silly but we do allow such statements. Like everyone I’ve an urge to grab a street blocker and chuck them in jail- well for a bit anyway but Navalny? Ai Wei Wei? A number of brave Hong Kong folk? Let’s not cringe in front of these despicable bullies.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 years ago

When you’re green, you’re growing; when you’re ripe, you’re rotten.

Alex Tickell
Alex Tickell
2 years ago

Confucius?

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Alex Tickell

McDonald’s.

Martin Logan
Martin Logan
2 years ago

It’s rather obvious that Putin wont invade.
Rather, he will try and weaken Ukraine’s economy, by keeping significant forces nearby. He will ratchet the threat up and down over teh coming months, trying to keep both Ukraine and the West off balance. Over time it will hurt all our economies.
But the real problem is Western disunity, not Western softness or greed. Europe and the US were the strongest economies in the Cold War, and still are.
And that disunity stems from people on both sides who would rather “own” the Libs (or “own” the Right), rather than realize that people like Putin and Xi are an existential threat to all of us. The same thing went on in France in 1940.
It didn’t end well.

Alex Tickell
Alex Tickell
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Logan

I disagree, the existential threat lies in supporting the “alphabet people” and their insane views.
We need to get back to basics where we have a society founded on real economics, real biology, and a realisation that “rights” should not be universal, but based on behaviour and contribution.
Trans people constitute a tiny percentage of our population, homosexuals under 2 percent, yet they and left wing activists control the media and government.
Homosexuals led all of the main parties in Holyrood not so long ago and are hugely over represented in Westminster. We can never achieve a realistic governance while these people are in control, as their agenda is the complete destruction of traditional society.