Putin’s War Is Europe’s 9/11

The continent has finally woken up to the necessity of hard power.

de-Gruyter-Caroline-foreign-policy-columnist6
de-Gruyter-Caroline-foreign-policy-columnist6
Caroline de Gruyter
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
Smoke rises from a military airport near Kharkiv, Ukraine, as the Russian invasion begins — Europe's 9/11.
Smoke rises from a military airport near Kharkiv, Ukraine, as the Russian invasion begins — Europe's 9/11.
Smoke rises from a military airport near Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24, as the Russian invasion began. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

On the morning of Feb. 24, as Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, German army chief Alfons Mais got up and wrote on LinkedIn that he had “never ever expected to experience war again” in Europe. After years of budget cuts, he observed that the Bundeswehr, the German military, “stands naked. The options we can offer our government to support the alliance [NATO] are extremely limited.”

Only three days later, on Feb. 27, after Putin had put his nuclear deterrent forces on alert, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz committed an extra 100 billion euros, around $112 billion, to his country’s defense budget. In another major turnaround, he also authorized third countries like the Netherlands to ship German-made defensive weapons to Ukraine, and he supported a call for the European Union to finance the supply of defensive weapons to Ukraine. All this, he said in parliament, was needed “to protect our freedom and our democracy.” According to Claudia Major, a defense analyst for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, these and other decisions constitute “a revolution.”

In other European countries, Putin’s ruthless attack on Ukraine has also been a watershed moment—a kind of European 9/11.

On the morning of Feb. 24, as Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, German army chief Alfons Mais got up and wrote on LinkedIn that he had “never ever expected to experience war again” in Europe. After years of budget cuts, he observed that the Bundeswehr, the German military, “stands naked. The options we can offer our government to support the alliance [NATO] are extremely limited.”

Only three days later, on Feb. 27, after Putin had put his nuclear deterrent forces on alert, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz committed an extra 100 billion euros, around $112 billion, to his country’s defense budget. In another major turnaround, he also authorized third countries like the Netherlands to ship German-made defensive weapons to Ukraine, and he supported a call for the European Union to finance the supply of defensive weapons to Ukraine. All this, he said in parliament, was needed “to protect our freedom and our democracy.” According to Claudia Major, a defense analyst for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, these and other decisions constitute “a revolution.”

In other European countries, Putin’s ruthless attack on Ukraine has also been a watershed moment—a kind of European 9/11.

Suddenly, Europeans are starting to understand why their more than two decades of talking to Putin has come to nothing: because their diplomacy, however well-intentioned, lacked the foundation of hard power. Europeans see war as a curse of the past. Putin does not. Since the Europeans were talking from a position of weakness, not strength, Putin saw war in Ukraine (and in Georgia before) as a better option than talks. He reckoned that by waging war he could probably get what he wanted, because Europeans would not stand in his way—while in negotiations he would have had to compromise.

On Feb. 24, the day of Putin’s invasion, this finally dawned on Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s defense minister until December 2021. In a pair of tweets worth quoting in full, Kramp-Karrenbauer wrote: “I’m so angry at ourselves for our historical failure. After Georgia, Crimea, and Donbas, we have not prepared anything that would have really deterred Putin. We have forgotten the lesson of [former German Chancellors] Schmidt and Kohl that negotiation always comes first, but we have to be militarily strong enough to make non-negotiation not an option for the other side.”

In the face of Putin’s blunt nuclear threats, she and other Europeans are rediscovering the well-known Latin proverbSi vis pacem, para bellum”—“If you want peace, prepare for war.” This is what the war in Ukraine shows Europeans today: To have peace, you need both sides to prefer peace to war, and to achieve that you need to make war too costly to remain an option. It’s called deterrence. If Europe wants to continue to live in peace, it must finally build a strong foreign policy and common defense.

This will not be easy. Most Europeans have lived in peace for generations—since World War II ended in 1945, to be precise. Those born shortly after that war have perhaps felt the dark clouds still hanging over their heads, through their parents’ stories, because the ruined continent was still under reconstruction, and because a traumatized generation reacted strongly to the Korean War (1950-1953), the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, or the Suez war in the same year. Most Europeans born after 1960, however, have come to believe that peace is the normal state of affairs—with war only breaking out when peace fails.

And so, for decades, while the United States took care of Western Europe’s security—so as to try to ensure that a war with the Soviet Union would take place in Europe and not in North America—Europeans dedicated themselves to the consolidation of peace among themselves. They tried so hard to be good at it that until last week, they hardly took war seriously anymore. Most European countries no longer have active conscription and had cropped defense budgets until U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to withdraw the security umbrella a few years ago. Some even euphemistically described their contribution to wars in Iraq or Afghanistan as “peacekeeping.” Having become the world’s most dedicated pacifists, Europeans hardly understand war anymore. Even the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which was a European war, was a distant reality for most. Many viewed it as the last manifestation of what people do to each other when don’t yet live in democracies governed by the rule of law. Somehow, Europeans felt that, after centuries of bloodshed, they had grown out of it. Wars are what others do, and we send them humanitarian assistance and special peace envoys.

As Canadian military historian Margaret MacMillan writes in her book War: How Conflict Shaped Us, “For those of us who have enjoyed what is often called the Long Peace it is all too easy to see war as something that others do, perhaps because they are at a different stage of development. We in the West, so we complacently assume, are more peaceable. … The result is that we do not take war as seriously as it deserves.”

Former war offices are now called ministries of defense. In Western universities, the study of war has been ignored for years, “perhaps because we fear that the mere act of researching and thinking about it means approval,” MacMillan writes. Once, she had a visit from an educational consultant, whose job it was to help making courses more appealing to students. She told him she was preparing a course called “War and Society.” “[H]e looked dismayed. It would be better, he urged, to use the title ‘A History of Peace.’”

The situation she describes is not just widespread in small European countries or in Germany, where militarization remains painful for historic reasons. Even in the United Kingdom, which still has the most serious army in Europe (followed by France), military budgets decreased in the years after the 2008 financial crisis. Last November, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson mocked the idea of armed conflict returning to Europe. He said, in Parliament: “The old concepts of fighting big tank battles on European landmass are over.”

By ignoring war, Europeans have undermined their own peace and that of their neighbors. When one no longer knows what war is, when one does not understand why video games set on the battlefield are popular, one ends up not recognizing warmongers anymore. Moreover, one forgets how to negotiate with them. As numerous European attempts to change Putin’s mind have shown, one can only deal with bullies from a position of political and military strength. Only then can one force one’s opponent to make concessions—because the alternative, fighting on, would cost them too much.

This is what deluded Europeans over 22 years in their increasingly difficult relationship with the president of Russia. Putin has been clear about his wish to restore some sort of Russian Empire for years. He erected statues for Tsar Alexander I, who, in the early 19th century, was an important decision-maker in Europe’s security architecture. Putin said and wrote many times that he considers Ukraine as Russian and that he wants to bring Belarus and other former Soviet states under the Kremlin’s leadership again. Around this new Russian Empire he wanted to establish a ring of neutral countries. Hence, in December 2021, his demand that NATO troops leave Central and Eastern European countries that had joined the alliance after 1997.

Already after her first meeting with Putin, in 2000, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noted that “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country [the collapse of the Soviet Union] and determined to restore its greatness.” Compared to Putin’s emotional and courteous predecessor Boris Yeltsin, she found Putin “so cold as to be almost reptilian.”

Stephen Kotkin, a history professor at Princeton University and acclaimed biographer of Joseph Stalin, has compared Putin to Stalin during World War II, bent on using opportunities to retrieve lost territory and status. Putin is trying to reassemble an empire that broke up after 1989, just as Stalin seized large parts of Central and Eastern Europe after 1945 to avenge the territorial losses of 1919. Both, Kotkin recently said, are characterized by an imperial mentality and a profound fear of Western democracies. In fact, they are more afraid of Western democracy than Westerners are proud of it: “It’s just the very existence of our system that threatens … the Russian regime.”

Where will Putin stop? So far, he has done everything he said he would do. There is no reason to assume he is not serious about the next step: forcing former Eastern Bloc countries out of NATO. This is why the war in Ukraine is such a turning point for Europe and for NATO. It finally makes Europe understand there is only one way to stop this nuclear aggressor: to make the price he pays for war as high as possible—politically, economically, and now also militarily.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 print issue. Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to FP.

Caroline de Gruyter is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She currently lives in Brussels.

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