BERLIN — I’ve been writing nonstop about the Ukraine war ever since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, but I confess that it took coming to Europe and meeting with politicians, diplomats and entrepreneurs here for me to fully grasp what happened. You see, I thought Vladimir Putin had invaded Ukraine. I was wrong. Putin had invaded Europe.
He shouldn’t have done that. This could be the biggest act of folly in a European war since Hitler invaded Russia in 1941.
I only fully understood this when I got to this side of the Atlantic. It was easy from afar to assume — and probably easy for Putin to assume — that eventually Europe would reconcile itself to the full-scale invasion Putin launched against Ukraine on Feb. 24, the way Europe reconciled with his 2014 devouring of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, a remote slice of land where he met little resistance and set off limited shock waves.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
This invasion — with Russian soldiers indiscriminately shelling Ukrainian apartment buildings and hospitals, killing civilians, looting homes, raping women and creating the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II — is increasingly seen as a 21st-century rerun of Hitler’s onslaught against the rest of Europe, which started in September 1939 with the German attack on Poland. Add on top of that Putin’s seeming threat to use nuclear weapons, warning that any country that interfered with his unprovoked war would face “consequences you have never seen,” and it explains everything.
It explains why, practically overnight, Germany’s government dispensed with nearly 80 years of aversion to conflict and maintaining the smallest defense budget possible, and announced instead a huge increase in military spending and plans to send arms to Ukraine.
It explains why, practically overnight, Sweden and Finland abandoned more than 70 years of neutrality and applied for membership in NATO.
It explains why, practically overnight, Poland gave up playing around with pro-Putin, anti-immigrant populist Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, and opened its borders to more than two million Ukrainian refugees while also making itself into a crucial land bridge to funnel NATO arms into Ukraine.
It explains why, practically overnight, the European Union threw off years of baby-step economic sanctions on Russia and fired a precision economic-sanctions missile right into the center of Putin’s economy.
In sum, what I thought was just a Russian invasion of Ukraine has become a European earthquake — “an awakening — boom! — and then everything changed,” as Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister, put it to me. “The status quo ante will not come back. You are seeing a huge change in Europe in response to Russia — not based on American pressure, but because the threat perception of Russia today is completely different: We understand that Putin is not talking about Ukraine alone, but about all of us and our way of freedom.”
Whether we like it or not, added Fischer, modern Europe is now in a “confrontational mode with Russia. Russia is no longer part of any European peace order.” There’s been “a complete loss of trust with Putin.”
Is there any wonder why? Putin’s army is systematically destroying Ukrainian cities and infrastructure with the seeming intent not to impose Russian rule on these towns, communities and farms but rather to erase them and their residents from the map and make true by force Putin’s crackpot claim that Ukraine is not a real country.
At the Davos World Economic Forum last week, I interviewed Anatoliy Fedoruk, the mayor of Bucha, Ukraine, the town where Russia stands accused of murdering scores of civilians and leaving their bodies on the streets to rot, or piled into a mass grave in a churchyard, before the Russian troops were driven out.
“We had 419 peaceful citizens murdered in multiple ways,” Fedoruk told me. “We had no military infrastructure in our town. People were defenseless. The Russian soldiers stole, they raped and they drank. … I am really surprised that this is happening in the 21st century.”
If that was the “shock” phase of this war — and it is still going on — the “awe” phase is something I detected among European officials in Davos and Berlin. To put it bluntly, while the United States of America seems to be coming apart, the United States of Europe — the 27 members of the European Union — have stunned everyone, and most of all themselves, by coming together to make a fist, along with a number of other European nations and NATO, to stymie Putin’s invasion.
You could almost feel E.U. officials saying: “Wow, did we make that fist? Is that our fist?”
Since February, the E.U. has imposed five packages of sanctions against Russia — sanctions that not only badly hurt Russia but are also costly for the E.U. countries in terms of lost business or higher raw material costs. A sixth package, agreed to on Monday, will cut some 90 percent of E.U. oil imports from Russia by the end of this year while also ejecting Sberbank, Russia’s biggest bank, from SWIFT, the vital global banking messaging system.
Maybe the most impressive thing is how many Ukrainian refugees E.U. nations have been willing to house without much complaint. There is an awareness that Ukrainian menfolk are fighting to defend them, too, so the E.U. nations can at least house their women, children and elderly.
“They are being given the same health care, childhood allowances and education that Poles are,” Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister, told me. “Why not? They are working and paying taxes. The only thing they don’t have is the right to vote.”
Putin thought the E.U. would quickly splinter under his pressure, added Morawiecki, “but Putin was wrong. Europe is now much more united than before the Ukraine war.”
Putin, observing all of this, must be asking himself: “Is that a fist I see coming at me from the E.U.? Can’t be! No, wait … it is! What’s going on here! I thought I had Germany in my pocket — bought and paid for with my cheap gas. I never dreamed they’d rally to Ukraine this way and see my invasion of Ukraine as an attack on all of them.”
But that’s exactly what happened. Still, many in the E.U. are asking how long they will be able to maintain this painful fist. It is a legitimate question.
“Putin is counting on the fatigue of the West,” Morawiecki said. “He knows that he has much more time because democracies are less patient than autocracies.”
It’s true. Some E.U. leaders are already encouraging President Biden to call Putin and explore terms of a cease-fire. Putin’s forces in eastern and southern Ukraine are now out-pummeling the Ukrainian Army at various strategic junctions, volleying round after round of rockets and heavy artillery. They don’t need to be accurate; they just need to overwhelm the Ukrainian forces with their sheer volume.
I hope the Ukrainians can hold their ground long enough for more advanced Western arms to arrive to even the fight and for the E.U. sanctions on Russia to really hurt, so that Ukrainians have real leverage with Putin in any negotiated settlement.
That said, though, I could not help but notice another theme that has run through my conversations here. It is a conviction that because this is so much Putin’s war, and because the barbarism of his forces in this war has been so criminal, as long as Putin remains in power in Moscow it will be very difficult to trust Russia on anything regarding Ukraine.
I heard no one advocate regime change, but I also heard no one say the West could return to any normalcy with Russia without it. All of which is to say something very big with Putin got broken here, and that is going to be a problem when we do move to the negotiating table — as long as Putin leads Russia. But Putin is a problem for the Russian people to deal with, not us.
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