May 9, 2022 — Standing on the viewing platform in Red Square, President Vladimir Putin observed the military parade commemorating the 77th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany. This Victory Day, he had reason to be especially proud of his country.
Earlier that week, a group of 150 Russian special forces — bearing no insignia and disguised like the “little green men” who had occupied the Crimean peninsula eight years prior — had slipped into the tiny neighboring Baltic state of Estonia. Seizing a government building in Narva, a city on the border with an ethnic Russian majority, they planted a Russian flag on the roof and promptly declared the “Narva People’s Republic.” In a statement released to international media, leaders of the nascent breakaway state announced they were “defending ethnic Russians from the fascist regime in Tallinn,” Estonia’s capital. Most of Narva’s Russian-speaking citizens looked upon the tumultuous events with passivity. Ever since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, they suspected something like this would eventually happen.
In the months leading up to the incursion, Kremlin-backed television networks — widely watched by Estonia’s Russian-speaking minority — had beamed inflammatory reports about an impending Estonian “genocide” of ethnic Russians, much as they had warned of a similar phantom “genocide” allegedly perpetrated by the Ukrainian government against its own Russian-speaking population years earlier. Tensions reached a climax in March when Russian media accused an “Estonian fascist gang” of kidnapping an ethnic Russian teenager. Agents of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) in Narva were aware from the very beginning that the boy had actually died in an alcohol-induced accident after falling off a bridge. But such facts need not get in the way of a pretext, which came in the form of an ethnic Russian leader in Narva calling for Moscow’s “fraternal assistance” in staving off an incipient pogrom.
Within an hour of Russian Spetsnaz forces commandeering the administrative building in Narva, the Estonians rushed into action. Approaching the outskirts of the city, the Estonian army announced that if the men did not exit the premises with their hands above their heads, Estonian officers would enter and clear the structure by force. Yet it immediately became apparent to all involved that this was an idle threat: Over the course of the previous evening, 25,000 Russian soldiers had amassed on the eastern side of the Narva River, along with 200 tanks and 50 attack helicopters. The operation took Western intelligence agencies completely by surprise. American spy satellites ought to have detected any Russian troop movement along the borders of one of its easternmost NATO allies, yet Moscow, having gained access to Washington’s European communications network, was able to mask its maneuvers. (Edward Snowden, on whose chest Putin had pinned a Hero of the Russian Federation Prize in 2018, had seen to that.)
By the time Tallinn realized what was happening, there was little a force of several hundred Estonian soldiers could plausibly do. And since U.S. President Donald Trump had ordered the removal of all U.S. forces from the Baltic States in 2019 — his demand that NATO members “pay” for American protection oblivious to the fact that Estonia was one of the handful of countries meeting the alliance threshold of spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense — Putin no longer worried that his move into Estonia might set off an automatic American “tripwire.”
With no ability to repel an impending, full-scale Russian incursion on its own, Tallinn immediately appealed to its NATO allies. At a hastily assembled meeting of the North Atlantic Council in the alliance’s Brussels headquarters, the Estonian representative stated that Russia’s actions constituted an act of war and therefore required the alliance to implement Article 5 of its founding charter, mandating that an attack on one member amounts to an attack on all. This was the moment of truth.
Despite countless speeches over the years by Western leaders attesting to the inviolability of NATO’s borders, Putin knew such promises were hollow. He had read the polls indicating that majorities in leading NATO countries opposed providing military support to allies threatened by Russia. The Kremlin had also exploited the openness of Western societies by orchestrating an assiduous, years-long, covert campaign to fund European political parties, media, think tanks, and nongovernmental organizations committed to undermining public support for the Atlantic alliance. This sowed discord across Europe and further sapped the will of its populations to protect liberal values by force of arms. Trump’s repeated impositions of conditionality on the alliance’s mutual defense clause also suggested weakness to Moscow.
The campaign had worked even better than Putin hoped. While it was expected that some countries on NATO’s western periphery, like Spain and Portugal, would be more circumspect about enlisting in military conflict over a tiny member state on the other side of the Continent, in fact, the strongest opposition to invoking Article 5 came from none other than Europe’s predominant political and economic power: Germany.
Such a state of affairs would have been improbable less than a decade earlier, when the stable “grand coalition” government of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SPD) led Europe in confronting Moscow over its revanchist foreign policy. Yet German politics entered a new era after the 2017 federal election, when the CDU suffered the greatest defeat in its history. Merkel’s 12-year run as chancellor had been second in longevity only to that of Konrad Adenauer and her former mentor Helmut Kohl. But the fateful decision she made in September 2015 to open Germany’s doors to an unlimited number of Syrian refugees — a move initially welcomed by most Germans, eager to bask in the theretofore unknown glow of international admiration and gratitude — would be her undoing. Proving that, in politics, good intentions matter less than consequences, the chancellor’s policy of humanitarian unilateralism emboldened a right-wing populist uprising across the continent.
When WikiLeaks impresario Julian Assange, still ensconced at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, published an email exchange between German government ministers appearing to massage the costs associated with resettling migrants, the insurgent Alternative for Germany party (AfD) seized the opportunity. Its leaders bashed Merkel as a “traitor to the people” in connivance with the lügenpresse, or “lying press,” terms that had not been used in Germany since the Nazi era. In a move unprecedented for an American president, Donald Trump inserted himself into the German electoral campaign, attacking Merkel repeatedly for her migrant policy and calling on the German people to vote her out of office. With the quiet assistance of White House counselor Steve Bannon, the newly launched Breitbart Deutschland amplified Trump’s criticisms with incessant, and often factually wrong, stories about “migrant crime” all illustrated with a doctored image of Merkel’s trademark “rhombus” hand gesture splattered in blood.
At the September 2017 federal elections, the AfD broke new ground in postwar German politics when it became the first party to the right of the Christian Democrats to enter the Bundestag winning 20 percent. With the electorate fractured among seven parties, the SPD — which had distanced itself from Merkel’s pro-migrant position and won a plurality of the vote — formed a government with Die Linke, (“the Left”), and the ecologist Greens as junior partners, forming Germany’s first “red-red-green” coalition. “Angela Merkel’s migrant policies ruined her country and her career. AUF WIEDERSEHEN, LOSER!” President Trump tweeted upon the chancellor’s resignation.
So. it was that Sahra Wagenknecht became Germany’s foreign minister. A Marxist true believer, she had joined the Socialist Unity Party (SED) in 1989 just months before the East German dictatorship collapsed. While many of her more opportunist peers had seen the writing on the (literal and proverbial) wall, leaving the SED and positioning themselves for a post-communist political future, Wagenknecht remained loyal to the faith.
The coalition agreement reached by the new German government endorsed an increase in the minimum wage to 25 euros per hour; gay marriage, tax, and pension increases; major defense cuts; and a reversal of most of the liberal labor market and spending reforms instituted by former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. One of its most popular moves (after granting Edward Snowden asylum) was its cancellation of basing agreements with the U.S. military. That was a decision warmly welcomed back in Washington where President Trump saw no purpose in a forward-deployed American military. Over the strenuous but irrelevant objection of the remaining handful of trans-Atlanticists in the Bundestag, the U.S. Army, stationed in Germany since the end of World War II, completed its phased evacuation by 2019.
Absent American forces in Europe, NATO was essentially a dead letter. At the North Atlantic Council’s emergency session to discuss the Estonian crisis, the German representative (a 75-year-old former Stasi officer) began his remarks by voicing sympathy for the plight of the country’s Russian minority, whom, he said, “faced official discrimination and exclusion” at the hands of the Estonian authorities. Though the violent takeover of government property was of course “unacceptable,” the lack of Russian insignia on “separatist” uniforms as well as Putin’s strenuous denial of any Russian involvement rendered application of Article 5 “reckless and irresponsible.” Furthermore, given the history of Estonian “bellicosity” toward Russia, the possibility that the entire event was a “provocation” designed to “drag Europe into war” could hardly be ruled out.
Following the debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was highly unlikely that the leaders of the flabby and decadent Western democracies would ever be able to convince their citizens to undertake another serious military operation, let alone one aimed at stopping Russia. Moscow had improved its image in many Western capitals with its Syrian machinations, convincing many of its indispensability in fighting the Islamic State. Also hovering over the entire discussion was the fear that Russia might drop a tactical nuclear weapon in the Baltic region if NATO defended its subjugated member. As far back as 2000, Putin, had lowered the threshold in Russia’s military doctrine such that any “aggression utilizing conventional weapons in situations critical to [Russia’s] national security” — and not just threats to Russia’s “existence” — could trigger a nuclear first use.
Fearing for their own hides, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania insisted that Washington meet its security commitment to a fellow alliance member and redeploy troops to the Baltics bilaterally. The betrayal of Tallinn, they insisted, “amounted to another Munich.” But President Trump refused. Following a series of short, carefully worded speeches by each of the assembled delegates, the NATO Secretary General called for a vote on invocation of Article 5. The “nays” had it, 4-21, with only the two other Baltic States and Poland siding with Estonia.
Putin smiled to himself as he remembered that moment during the 2007 Munich Security Conference, when, staring at all those perplexed faces lined before him in the grand Bayerischer Hof Hotel, he declared that Russia would no longer allow itself to be humiliated. How they cringed! What was it that Merkel had said about him during the Ukraine operation? That he lived on “another world”? That he had replaced “understanding and cooperation” with “the law of the jungle”? Well, he showed her who was boss.
Back in Red Square, glancing at the impressive display of Iskander missiles rolling past him, and raising his arm up to his forehead to salute the passing troops, Putin realized he would have to give some sort of medal to the Kremlin apparatchik who had presciently suggested that a Russian bank extend an $11 million loan to the National Front party (FN) in early 2015, which had helped clear Marine Le Pen a path to improbable victory in the 2017 elections.
Immediately upon taking office in 2017, Le Pen fulfilled her pledge to hold a referendum on withdrawing France from the EU, which she won handily. Her distaste for multilateralism soon turned to NATO. NATO was not for France, she said, which should be free to pursue a “neo-Gaullist” foreign policy — and she promptly withdrew from the alliance. France could now take full advantage of the arms export market offered by a hungry Russian client without having to endure complaints from pesky, erstwhile “allies” like Poland (the West’s sanctions on Russia over its aggression against Ukraine crumbled completely by 2019). It did little to improve the stagnant French economy, however; Le Pen’s extension and deepening of her socialist predecessors’ dirigiste policies (reducing the hours in a work week, lowering the retirement age, fattening up pensions, implementing new regulations) combined with France’s withdrawal from the single European market, drove unemployment to record levels. Meanwhile, the Le Pen administration’s heavy-handed and indiscriminate antagonizing of French Muslims radicalized greater numbers of young men, made France a flytrap for Islamic extremists from across the globe, and saw Paris’s majority-Muslim banlieues rocked by regular rioting.
At the 2019 European Parliament election, anti-EU parties — helped along by the Kremlin — increased their presence in the pan-Continental legislature to the point where nearly half the body’s members belonged to nationalist factions advocating the dismantlement of the EU altogether. Protectionist governments across the continent instituted tariffs that sharply reduced the Continent’s aggregate trade with the United States and, within Europe, chipped away at the free movement of goods, labor, and services that had been a signal achievement of the European project. Carve-outs were regularly made (thanks to a few greasy palms) for Russia, whose gas deliveries to Europe doubled in quantity. Anti-fracking groups successfully stalled progress on a European Energy Union, leaving Russia as the continent’s leading energy supplier. Germany’s impulsive decision to abandon nuclear energy after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, combined with the disappointing results of its Energiewende (“Energy transformation”) and approval of the NordStream II pipeline, left the Continent even more dependent upon Russian gas. Less European cooperation, whether on defense, foreign policy, or the thwarted common energy market, meant that Moscow could return to what it knew best: haggling with an assortment of small, constantly squabbling nation-states, weaker individually than united, all seeking out their own modus vivendi with Moscow. After defeating Democratic presidential nominee Elizabeth Warren by a comfortable margin in 2020, President Trump hosted a forum for European nationalist leaders at the White House, where he expressly offered his administration’s support for the gradual dismantlement of the EU.
Meanwhile, Great Britain was hurtling forward on a path to becoming Little England. When he was elected leader of the Labour Party in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn struck the parliamentary press gallery as a joke. By the 2020 election, however, the economic disaster wreaked by Britain’s departure from the EU (formalized in 2019) along with public disgust over a pedophilia scandal involving a senior Conservative cabinet minister, swayed bookies to cut 1-to-1 odds on a Labour government. When the votes were tallied, Labour achieved a hung Parliament with a bare plurality (259) of the body’s 650 seats. The U.K. Independence Party (whose leader Nigel Farage had endorsed Corbyn’s party leadership bid back in 2015) pocketed 10 seats at Westminster after making a pre-election pact not to run candidates in the same constituencies as Labour, thereby maximizing the anti-Tory vote. Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson was not far behind with 240 seats, but as Labour won more constituencies than any other party, Queen Elizabeth II (still spry at 94) called upon Corbyn to form a government, which the bearded radical socialist promptly did by inviting the Scottish Nationalist Party and UKIP into a bare working majority. To gain their support, Corbyn promised a second independence referendum for Scotland.
As was the case for their brethren on the Continent, life grew increasingly difficult for British Jews under the Corbyn premiership. Unlike in France or Belgium, where attacks on Jewish individuals and institutions had become a regular occurrence, the experience for British Jewry was characterized not so much by episodes of violence but subtler forms of intimidation. There had been the government’s decision to heed the cries of its most active supporters in the unions, peace movement, and academia and implement a full boycott of Israel; no longer could oranges grown in Jaffa be found at Tesco or Waitrose or even Marks & Spencer, itself once the target of boycotts decades earlier due to the Jewish provenance of its founders. In keeping with the culture to which British Jews had so well assimilated, their departure was reserved and understated. They didn’t organize massive protests against the government or issue public appeals to world Jewry for help. The process was accompanied by quiet transfers of funds from pound sterling to dollar bank accounts and acquisitions of flats in Sydney and Vancouver, all executed with the steely resolve of that famed, stiff upper lip.
Fulfilling his campaign pledge, Corbyn withdrew the U.K. from NATO and expelled American military bases from Britain. Domestically, he renationalized key industries, instituted a maximum wage (taxing at 100 percent all annual income over 200,000 pounds), and set about dismantling Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent in accordance with the resurrected 1983 Labour Party manifesto, (infamously dubbed “the longest suicide note in history” by one of the party’s own parliamentarians). The attorney general brought war crimes charges against Corbyn’s Labour predecessor Tony Blair, who, having caught wind of the indictment just hours before it was announced, promptly fled the U.K. on a Sydney-bound private jet generously provided by his old friend Rupert Murdoch.
The outer edges of Europe were beset with their own crises. The secessionist flame lit by the successful Scottish independence campaign spread like wildfire: Catalonia finally voted to split from Spain, and the Veneto region seceded from Italy. In Northern Europe, meanwhile, right-wing populists were on the march. Angry reaction to years of untrammeled immigration saw to it that the Sweden Democrats, a nationalist party with neo-Nazi roots, formed a minority government in 2019 after all the other parties announced their refusal to join a coalition. A country that was once the most welcoming to refugees eliminated asylum altogether, a clear violation of EU regulations; similarly, right-wing nationalist governments had also come to power in the Netherlands, Norway, and Finland.
In Greece, the ouster of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras by his own Syriza party’s radical wing brought an end to negotiations between Athens and its creditors. Were Syriza to win the next election, Tspiras’s replacement announced, Greece would prepare to leave the eurozone. On election night, when results indicated a Syriza defeat, the new prime minister delivered a live address to the nation declaring that “fascist conspirators” under orders from “northern European bankster hooligans” had stuffed ballot boxes, intimidated voters, and perpetrated numerous other electoral violations. Declaring that the police — heavily penetrated by sympathizers of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party — could no longer be trusted to keep order, the prime minister called in the army, which promptly arrested parliamentarians from the center-right New Democracy and social democratic PASOK parties, shut down the presses of anti-government newspapers, and cut the transmissions of independent television stations. Italian Prime Minister Beppe Grillo, a former comedian, applauded the coup, as did Prime Minister Corbyn, who praised “our Greek comrades’ valiant resistance against the neoliberal elite and their triumphant defense of people’s democracy in the birthplace of democracy itself.” Alexander Dugin, the Russian fascist ideologist, also issued a supportive statement. Over five decades after the “colonels’ coup” brought a military junta to power in Greece, tanks once again rolled along the streets of Athens.
The breakup of the EU was proceeding apace. After years of centralizing power, stuffing public media institutions with partisan allies, and cracking down on nongovernmental organizations, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban finally fulfilled his 2014 vow to render Hungary an “illiberal state.” After the 2018 election, Fidesz stunned Europe by entering into coalition with the neo-fascist Jobbik party. Headed by a suave former KPMG accountant, Marton Gyongyosi, Jobbik had toned down its bloodcurdling rhetoric against Roma and thinly veiled anti-Semitic incitement, making it more palatable to Hungarian voters wary of its reputation as a gang of brown-shirted ruffians who terrorized Gypsy villages for fun. Gyongyosi, who earned international infamy in 2012 when he demanded that the Hungarian government draw up a list of Jews posing a “national security risk,” convinced a third of the electorate to cast a vote for his party.
Brussels was confounded by the emergence of the Fidesz-Jobbik coalition. Outraged speeches were delivered in the well of the EU parliament, “action” was called for, chin-stroking editorials were published in newspapers across the continent, but nothing was done. Hungary’s new government would eventually save Europe the trouble of having to punish it, however, by becoming the third country, after Britain and France, to leave the EU and NATO. Upon signing the formal renunciation documents in Brussels, where he delivered a fiery farewell speech condemning “Europe’s betrayal of fundamental Christian values and the sanctity of sovereign nationhood,” Orban returned to Hungary a conquering hero. After receiving a congratulatory phone call from President Trump (arranged by Bannon), Orban announced to a cheering crowd at Freedom Square — the same spot, incidentally, where he had called for the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops as a young law student in 1989 — that Hungary would enter the other “EU,” the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union, a collection of post-Soviet authoritarian regimes.
Hungary’s flip was long in the making. One of Fidesz’s first acts upon returning to power in 2010 with a two-thirds parliamentary supermajority, (enough to rewrite the constitution, which it did), was to designate a “day of national belonging” in commemoration of the post-World War I Treaty of Trainon that broke up the Austro-Hungarian Empire and forced Hungary to surrender two-thirds of its territory. Though the declaration of an irredentist holiday went against the most fundamental precepts of the European Union, Brussels gave Orban a pass. (In nodding appreciation to her Hungarian counterpart, President Le Pen instituted a “day of national sorrow” marking France’s withdrawal from Algeria).
But Orban’s appeal to nationhood beyond borders was more than sentimental. Granting citizenship to the millions of ethnic Hungarians dispersed among Hungary’s neighbors, as the Fidesz government did in 2011, instantly created a new political constituency for the ruling party. It also roiled the region. In Slovakia, once part of the Hungarian Kingdom in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and latterly disparaged as “Upper Hungary” by Magyar nationalists, a law regulating the use of languages other than Slovak in government offices, on official signs, and within a vaguely defined “public” sphere elicited the ire of ethnic Hungarians and their newfound protectors in Budapest. Hungary and Slovaki’s joint membership in the EU, however, had largely smothered nationalist passions under a supranational embrace, so that such disputes never rose beyond the rhetorical level. But once Budapest left the union, relations rapidly deteriorated.
The Hungarian Guard, a Jobbik-linked paramilitary organization whose ban had been upheld by the European Court of Justice, immediately regrouped after Hungary left the EU as Budapest was no longer subject to ECJ jurisdiction. In the summer of 2020, a Hungarian diaspora group held a rally in the majority-Hungarian Slovak border town of Dunjaska Streda, attracting a 15,000-strong crowd with speeches denouncing the “Bratislava bandits” and demanding Slovakia’s “return” to Hungary. When the organizers unfurled a giant flag of “Greater Hungary” displaying the country’s imperial borders, Slovak police entered the stadium and declared the event cancelled on grounds that display of such maps had been deemed illegal by Slovakia’s highest court.
Unfortunately for the police, a 1,500-strong Hungarian Guard regiment had traveled to Dunjaska Streda from the deindustrialized provinces of eastern Hungary. They did not take kindly to the dispersal order and attacked the police, who fired live rounds into the crowd. Orban had to restrain his Jobbik coalition partners, who were publicly demanding that the Hungarian army “march to Pozsony,” Bratislava’s Habsburg-era Hungarian name. The role of peacemaker was left to Putin, who called Orban and explained that military conflict between Budapest and Bratislava had the potential to disrupt construction of the Russian-financed South Stream pipeline, whose planned route snaked its way to Central Europe through Hungary via the Black Sea.
Hungary’s democratic regression had ripple effects across the region. That a European political party could abuse the instruments of democracy to entrench itself in perpetuity — and get away with it — proved attractive to many in post-communist lands where liberalism’s roots did not run so deep. Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice Party had long admired Orbanism from afar and went about mimicking the concentration of power, weakening of checks and balances, bullying of independent media, and other illiberal measures that were its hallmark. Eurosceptic to begin with, Law and Justice’s antipathy to the EU grew stronger following the U.K.’s departure from the union, which forced many young Polish workers to come home. Under the influence of returning Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who regained the job in 2019, Warsaw buried much of the goodwill it had fostered with Germany during the Merkel era. A particularly embarrassing moment came at a joint press conference in Berlin with the new German Social Democratic Chancellor, whom Kaczynski accused of harboring secret plans to annex parts of western Poland, a charge he had leveled at Merkel a decade earlier in a book entitled “The Poland of Our Dreams.” Roundly lampooned at the time, Kaczynski was now cheered on by like-minded nationalist-populist leaders in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as Breitbart’s Polish language website.
Even still, despite the now near-complete decimation of the EU, the invasion of Estonia would have been nothing more than a gleam in Russian war planners’ eyes had they not brought down the Ukrainian government of President Mikheil Saakashvili in 2020. A year after the Maidan uprising, the post-revolutionary Ukrainian government recruited the brash former president of Georgia to serve as governor of the corruption-riddled Odessa region. In 2019, Saakashvili launched a surprise campaign for the presidency and became, after Simon Bolivar, the second person ever to become president of more than one country.
The lifting of sanctions by the United States and EU the year prior had emboldened Moscow, which launched a new offensive shortly after Saakashvili’s election. As Russian tanks rolled toward Kiev, Putin directed his generals to capture the Georgian, who had earned himself a top spot on the Russian president’s enemies list after the 2008 Russia-Georgia War. Putin had long contemplated the punishment he would mete out to his Georgian nemesis should this day come, and remanding Saakashvili to the pro-Russian regime in Georgia, from where he had been exiled for nearly a decade, seemed the most humiliating form of retribution. There would of course first be a detour to Moscow, where Saakashvili could be subjected to the tender mercies of the FSB’s finest “interrogators” at the notorious Lefortovo Prison and then paraded on international television to confess his manifold crimes.
At a press conference the following day, Putin joked that he would finally have the opportunity to “hang Saakashvili by the balls,” as he once privately confided he would do to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. When forces loyal to the Ukrainian government decamped to the western city of Lviv, longtime home of Ukrainian nationalism and now capital of a new, pro-European rump state, they were joined by millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the prospect of renewed Russian rule. Awoken from a drunken stupor at his dacha in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, the self-exiled ex-president Viktor Yanukovych was deposited onto a Russian jet bound for Kiev, where he “reclaimed” his position as Ukraine’s duly elected leader. The “EU coup” — as it had been labeled by diverse voices ranging from UKIP to the National Front to Die Linke — was finally reversed.
After the Cold War ended, Americans and Europeans steadily took for granted that the set of values and network of alliances which had upheld the liberal international order since the end of World War II would continue to shape the 21st century in the way they had positively influenced the second half of the 20th. But even before the prospect of a President Donald Trump, many voices on the Continent, citing persistent economic stagnation, difficulties absorbing migrants, and heightened tension with Russia, were calling for a gradual end to the European experiment altogether. Some were pulling out dusty copies of the European Security Treaty, a 2009 initiative dreamed up by then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, which proposed supplanting NATO with a new security architecture stretching from “Vancouver to Vladivostok.” Had they accepted Moscow’s offer when they had the chance, many Europeans wondered, could they have avoided today’s imbroglio?
A chance to fix things presented itself at the Second Yalta Conference of 2019, where Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were feted alongside Viktor Orban, Sahra Wagenknecht, Beppe Grillo and Dutch Prime Minister Geert Wilders. Putin relished the irony of returning to the Crimean port city, back in rightful hands, where the West once again conceded a Russian sphere of interest in Europe. Back at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin had flattered European consciences when he asked why “countries that forbid the death penalty even for murderers and other, dangerous criminals are airily participating in military operations that are difficult to consider legitimate.” Why indeed, many German Social Democrats, British Laborites, Greek Syrizians, Hungarian Fideszians, and French National Frontistes asked, were their peace-loving countries — proper “nations” with proud histories and cultures — allying themselves with that uncouth “hyperpower” across the Atlantic? Did not Putin have a point? Was not Trump the ultimate expression of the American id? Was not the former reality television show star a far more dangerous man than the former KGB officer?
And how could Americans complain about Crimea or the reoccupation of Estonia — where, after all, hardly anyone had actually died — when Washington was responsible for so much misery and suffering in Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere? Having borne the brunt of the two World Wars, fought on their fields and in their cities, Europeans had learned the lessons of history far better than the Americans, who could never get enough war, as evidenced by their insatiable thirst for appallingly violent video games and Hollywood action films, not to mention their lusty backing of a madman who bragged about “bombing the shit” out of America’s enemies or their enthrallment to handguns, an obsession that had reduced the “land of the free” to a virtual Wild West. Why should we suffer blowback from the imperial follies of those armchair warriors in Washington, itching to start another Cold War with us Europeans once again stranded in the middle as their pawns?
Soon, prominent Europeans began voicing ideas that not so long ago were heard only on the political fringe: NATO is “obsolete,” Russia wants peace, Europe is “occupied” by America. “We Europeans,” read the open letter signed by some 250 eminent political leaders, journalists, intellectuals, and industrialists,
… have to share a continent with Russia, a geographical fact with material consequences that often eludes the Americans. We may not approve of every action taken by the Russian government, but disagreement must not mean eternal enmity. History has taught us that.
Entitled “A New Peace for the Eurasian Era,” the declaration — which went onto call for the merger of the European and Eurasian Economic Unions, the dissolution of NATO and its replacement by a “European Security Treaty Organization” including Russia and excluding the United States — was published as a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, the Times of London, Le Monde, El Pais, Die Zeit, La Repubblica, and every other major newspaper in Europe. Posted online, the manifesto gathered 15 million signatures in little more than a week.
Although his critics fingered Putin for orchestrating the demise of European unity, the Continent’s disintegration was almost entirely self-inflicted. It wasn’t Russia, after all, that controlled European defense budgets, economies, foreign policy, or borders. No, European disorder was mainly the fault of Europeans, abetted by absent Americans. Putin had merely taken advantage of the opportunities laid before him.
For a brief moment, Putin remembered that Monday night in October of 1989. It was just a few weeks after his 37th birthday, and he was serving as a young KGB officer in Dresden, East Germany. A group of several thousand demonstrators had gathered in the city center for the weekly protest against the communist regime, and Putin realized that Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe was approaching its final act. With shouts of “Freiheit!” audible outside, he ordered his men to pour their files in the wood-burning stove. When he called a nearby Red Army detachment for protection, he was told in reply, “We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow,” and that “Moscow is silent.” It was one of the most humiliating experiences of his life, second only to watching the Berlin Wall collapse a month later. Then and there Putin vowed to his comrades that he would dedicate himself to avenging Russia’s “humiliation” in whatever way he could.
None of the men standing in the room that cold, October evening could have possibly imagined that the slight, fair-haired, and soft-spoken 37-year-old, sporting an impressive potbelly earned from four years of regular consumption of Dresden’s finest ales, would one day become president of a post-communist Russia (indeed, none of them could have conceived that the Soviet Union itself would dissolve a mere 2 years later). But such is the nature of fate that it places ordinary men in extraordinary situations. What distinguished Putin was his ability to grasp the opportunity at hand, to take the main chance. He had done so when offered the job of president, again later when laying waste to Chechnya, annexing Crimea, intervening in Syria, and then, perhaps most daringly, ordering a full-spectrum influence operation to swing the election in what had been referred to as the “world’s greatest democracy.” Now, he was proving his decisiveness once again with the first-ever state attack on a NATO member.
Putin was a strong man, rarely given to overt emotion. But the enormity of what he had accomplished was difficult for even a stone-faced KGB man like himself to process. A solitary tear poured from his eye and slid down his freshly botoxed cheek. The parade was nearly over. It had taken three decades, but finally, the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” had been avenged.
What you have just read is a work of speculative fiction. The likelihood that any one of the aforementioned events will transpire differs to varying degrees; that all would occur in the nightmarish concatenation I’ve foretold is unlikely. Yet a France beset by low-level civil war in its banlieues, a Hungarian government with fascist ministers, the emasculation of NATO, or the dissolution of the EU: None of these options can be written off as the stuff of pure dystopian fiction. If we’ve learned anything in this era of Brexit and President Donald Trump, it’s never say never.
Europe’s bloody history imprinted on successive generations of statesmen the perils of nationalism, xenophobia, and war. To avoid the mistakes of the past, and to protect against encroachment from the east, they invested their hopes in two vitally important multilateral organizations: the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Today, Russia is trying to destroy both, from without and within. If it succeeds in doing so, the consequences will be dire not only for Europeans, but for America and the entire world. With a new administration in Washington that promises to be as detached from European affairs as any since the interwar period, the possibility the continent may run off the rails again is extremely high.
In 2012, the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, as that institution meekly confronts internal dissolution and external menace, the award may seem inappropriate. But for anyone who has spent time in the countries on the EU’s periphery, the reasons behind the Nobel Committee’s choice were obvious. The most visible emblem on Kiev’s Maidan during the anti-government protests of 2013-2014 was the EU flag. For the brave Ukrainians who risked their lives, Europe is the apotheosis of liberal values, stable government, and peace.
As the forces of reaction and populism gain strength on both sides of the Atlantic, it is easy to become fatalistic about the fate of Europe and liberal democracy. There is nothing inevitable, however, about the course of human events. Yet the longer present trends continue — the longer Russian aggression and subversion goes unchallenged, Western defense budgets shrink, the roots of illiberal populism and nationalism go unaddressed, migratory waves continue unabated, economies stagnate, and America forgoes its role as guarantor of continental stability — the more probable this European nightmare becomes.
James Kirchick is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age.” (@jkirchick)
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