A 21st-Century War in Europe

Putin is peddling a mythic version of history in hopes of dividing European loyalties. So far, they aren’t buying it.

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Aaron Meuser & Hayden Toftner

For months, the international community was poised on the edge of its seat as Russian President Vladimir Putin amassed an alarming number of military forces along its border with Ukraine. On February 24, 2022, this speculative tension broke as Putin launched a full-scale invasion of the country. As of this writing, there have been a reported 4,633 civilian casualties in Ukraine and over 4.8 million have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in neighboring countries. Despite being militarily outmatched, Ukrainian forces are fighting back against struggling Russian military forces.

THE JUSTIFICATION

Putin has justified his invasion with two primary narratives: one of a restorative reunification of Russia and one of defense against an encroaching West. Putin laid out his arguments for invasion in a heated speech to the nation on February 21, 2022. He fabricated stories to challenge the legitimacy and authority of Ukraine as an independent nation. According to Putin, the border of Ukraine is an arbitrary creation of Communist Russia that separated itself from “what is historically Russian land.”

However, Putin’s war is apparently about more than mere unification. Putin asserts that it is a war against extreme nationalism and in defense of Russian culture. He mentioned false claims of “aggressive Russophobia and neo-Nazism,” and warned of a fictitious Ukrainian government movement to “root out the Russian language and culture and promote assimilation.”

It is debatable whether or not Putin believes the stories he creates; however, the extent to which he accepts these ideas as fact is of little importance. Putin uses these ideas and stories to guide and justify his actions. The narrative he weaves, however, is not based in fact. While the histories of Russians and Ukrainians are connected, they are equally separate. Modern Ukraine is a product of centuries of history, with peoples of many different religions and cultures. While it may be true that some people in Ukraine identify themselves with Russian culture, that does not make them Russian and it certainly does not justify the invasion of a sovereign nation.

Yet Putin is not only worried about reunifying what he sees as disconnected Russians with Russia. His invasion is also politically motivated, stemming from a fear of Western encroachment that challenges his autocratic regime. Three days after his February 21 address, Putin gave another speech, this one targeted more directly at the West. In Putin’s eyes, the invasion of Ukraine is a necessary and preemptive action against a Western movement, bent on invading Russia and destroying its culture.For Putin, the possibility of NATO expansion would be a pivotal step in Russia’s destruction and must be prevented. “For our country,” he stated, “it is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation.”

To a certain extent, Putin is right to consider NATO and the West a threat, but not in the way his words suggest. The United States and Western Europe have no interest in invading Russia or destroying its culture. The threat that Putin perceives is one to his own regime and his hold on power. Putin’s autocratic regime is dependent on his ability to oppress opposition and control power through patronage and violence. The values of a democratic system–the very values that NATO is meant to protect–are antithetical to the basis of Putin’s regime. In this sense, Putin’s invasion of Russia was a preemptive move against the West, not in the defense of Russian culture but in self-defense. 

THE RESPONSE

After months of threats and repeated warnings from intelligence agencies, Russia invaded Ukraine during the early morning hours of February 24, sending shockwaves throughout Europe. Until recently, many European nations maintained close political and commercial links with Russia. In an effort to fight the forces that work to divide the continent, Europe has sought to present a united front against Russian aggression. Almost immediately after news of the invasion broke, European Union officials scrambled into action, developing a package of sanctions hitting key sectors and actors in the Russian government and economy.

Despite frequent and impassioned pleas from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for harsher measures against Russia, rapidly crafting a collective response to the assault on one of the bloc’s neighbors has not all been smooth sailing. A number of countries have found it is no easy task to sever deep trading ties — especially when those ties provide essentials like natural gas — and other recalcitrant nations are refusing to let go of long-held affinities for Russia. The EU must now manage a delicate balancing act between standing up for its values by punishing an aggressor regime and not inflaming the long-simmering tensions within its ranks. 

The EU’s most immediate and visible response to the invasion of Ukraine has been the packages of sanctions the organization has levied against Russia. While the EU had already imposed sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014, the organization has repeatedly expanded their scope in recent weeks. Initial sanctions targeted both the Russian economy and state as a whole, as well as prominent oligarchs and supporters of the Putin regime. Russian banks have been removed from SWIFT, a global messaging service for financial institutions. Planes owned or operated by Russian companies or nationals may no longer fly over EU airspace. And European nations have moved to seize the property of Russian businessmen and officials. In light of revelations that Russia committed atrocities against Ukrainian civilians — including the massacre of several hundred people in the city of Bucha, just outside Kyiv — the EU has also moved to restrict the import of various Russian goods, including construction materials and coal. 

Harsher sanctions on Russia are just one part of the EU’s engagement, as the bloc has also taken the exceptional step of providing roughly 1 billion euro in jointly financed military aid to Ukraine, supplementing commitments by individual member states and other partners, including Britain and the United States. This has included not only defensive equipment, but also lethal support, like anti-tank weapons and firearms. Some member states, particularly Poland, have suggested delivering fighter jets to Ukraine, but both European and American officials have pushed back on the idea, suggesting that it risks escalating the conflict; a no-fly zone, also requested by Ukraine, has been ruled out for similar reasons. 

In addition to sanctions and direct aid to Ukraine, the EU has also promoted the greater integration of the country with the rest of the continent. Ukrainians have long desired greater cooperation with Europe; the Euromaidan Revolution was sparked in 2013 by then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s withdrawal from an agreement that would have seen Ukraine build up its ties with the EU, with the eventual option of applying for membership. The process was put on hold after violence erupted in Ukraine’s east in 2014 due to Russian-backed separatist activity.

Both sides quickly revived talks following the Russian invasion in February. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced just days after the invasion that the EU would welcome Ukraine as a member, declaring, “They are one of us and we want them in.” During a visit to Ukraine in early April, von der Leyen reiterated the EU’s support for the country, offering President Zelensky paperwork that would put Ukraine on a fast track to membership status. 

THE CHALLENGES

Even in the face of such a clear threat as Russia, the underlying fault lines in Europe continue to hamper attempts at a strong and uniform response to Putin’s aggression. The most prominent opponent of European aid to Ukraine has been Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Having repeatedly clashed with the EU in the past over measures his government has taken to chisel away at cornerstones of democracy, he is now under pressure for his close diplomatic ties with Russia. During the first week of the war, Orbán stated that he would not allow NATO weapon shipments to transit through Hungary (a position he has since relaxed somewhat), and he has offered only humanitarian, rather than military, aid to Ukraine.

But Orbán seems unwilling to sever his relationship with Russia as much as the EU would like. In fact he may be feeling empowered by his party’s recent landslide reelection. In his victory speech on election night, the prime minister attacked Brussels and Zelensky in the same breath, naming both his “opponents.”

Still other threats to European solidarity loom in the near future. On April 10, French voters went to the polls in the first round of their presidential election and dealt a blow to the political establishment. While President Emmanuel Macron, a strident supporter of the European Union and Ukraine, emerged in first place, a majority of voters supported candidates on either the left or right who have expressed varying levels of sympathy for Russia in the past. In the runoff, Macron will face off against the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who has links to the Kremlin and has cautioned against delivering arms to Ukraine. Macron handily defeated Le Pen in the 2017 election, but as of this writing, polls show a much narrower margin for Macron this time, escalating fears in the EU that one of its central nations could fall to the political extremes. 

Efforts to aid Ukraine have also run into obstacles in Germany, where the far-right presents much less of a political threat than in France. For its part, the German government has made a number of moves to show its commitment to Ukraine. In February, Germany rescinded its long-time stance against distributing military aid, agreeing to ship anti-tank weapons and grenade launchers to Ukraine. A few days earlier, Chancellor Olaf Scholz had announced that the highly controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline would be frozen, yielding to calls that Germany reduce its reliance on Russian natural gas.

Despite these major steps, Germany has not taken as hard a line on Russia as some, including politicians from Scholz’s own coalition partners, would have liked. In a surprising reversal, the historically pacifist Greens have been among the most vocal proponents of increasing military aid to Ukraine. But the party’s economy minister Robert Habeck and foreign minister Annalena Baerbock have clashed with Scholz’s Social Democrats, who have maintained close ties to Russia, over delivering tanks to Ukraine. Scholz has also been hesitant to call for a complete European embargo on Russian gas imports, citing the risk of a recession in Germany, where Russian gas provides for a large portion of the nation’s heating demands. Even Ukraine itself has called Germany’s principles into question, rejecting a visit by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier over his record of closeness to Russia during his time as Angela Merkel’s foreign minister.

None of these challenges are insurmountable. The EU is likely to continue implementing tougher measures against Russia, and has already shown signs that it is preparing to completely shut off Russian oil imports to bolster its plans to choke off the Russian energy industry, a major source of funding for the war. This is no easy feat for the European Union, given that Russia provides roughly 25% of the bloc’s total oil.

Russia’s invasion has also pushed European nations in Russia’s neighborhood closer to NATO. Finland and Sweden, which have previously maintained official neutrality, have seen a surge in support for joining NATO, and the countries’ leaders announced in a joint press conference that both would be taking steps to join NATO in the coming weeks and months, citing the mutual protection that the alliance offers in the face of increasing Russian threats. Elsewhere in the Nordic region, Denmark has announced  a referendum on joining the European Union’s common defense policy.

Should these efforts — along with broader EU measures aimed at closing off Russia — succeed, then Putin’s attempt to divide the continent will have backfired drastically, leaving behind a more solidified European Union and an expanded NATO along Russia’s western border. In spite of the numerous and daunting divisions Europe must confront during this crisis, none appears likely to compromise the values that underlie the continent’s integration and cooperation.⬩

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