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On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Putin and his clique believed that they would succeed, and that Russia would face no international consequences for the invasion. Their beliefs weren’t groundless, because prior to 2022 there was no willingness to treat the Russian threat seriously in Europe. Instead, European leaders evaded the true nature of Putin’s Russia and its consequences. We can learn an important lesson from understanding Europe’s failure to identify and address the Russian threat.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 is its bloodiest act of aggression so far, but by no means its first. An early, obvious sign that Russia cannot be treated like a normal, peace-loving country dates back to 2007, but European leaders looked away. That year, at the Munich Security Conference, Putin complained about the “unipolar world,” by which he meant a world dominated by the U.S.:
What is a unipolar world? However one might embellish this term, at the end of the day it refers to one type of situation, namely one center of authority, one center of force, one center of decision making. It is [a] world in which there is one master, one sovereign.
Although the main adversary in Putin’s speech was America, he criticized its European allies as well. After all, they were a part of the “unipolar world” — a model Putin deemed “unacceptable” and “impossible.” Putin quite openly implied that Russia wants to change this “unacceptable” model. He was announcing his grievance that Russia didn’t have enough power over other countries and wanted more.
Europe didn’t have to wait long for Putin to move from words to deeds. On July 14, 2007, Putin announced that Russia would no longer adhere to the obligations of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. That treaty, negotiated during the Cold War, set limits on the deployment of tanks, artillery, aircraft, etc., and it’s sometimes called the “cornerstone of European security.” Then in August 2008, Russian forces invaded Georgia, calling their act of aggression a “peace enforcement” operation.
Some prominent European politicians wouldn’t condemn Russia even after the invasion, adopting moral agnosticism instead. Bernard Kouchner, then French foreign minister, said: “Don’t ask us who’s good and who’s bad here. We shouldn’t make any moral judgments on this war.” According to the German leader Angela Merkel, “both sides are probably to blame.” Most importantly, Russia faced virtually no consequences, as European leaders wanted to get back to “business as usual.” For example, the opening ceremony of Nord Stream (a natural gas pipeline that runs directly from Russia to Germany) took place in 2011.
A lack of clear, morally resolute opposition to Russia’s invasion of Georgia led to another act of military conquest: in 2014, Russian troops backed pro-Russia separatists from Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine, and the Russian Federation invaded and annexed Crimea. While many prominent voices condemned Russia’s actions, and some sanctions were imposed, European leaders didn’t ostracize Putin and other Russian politicians, as they should have.
European governments also refused to end their business relations with Russia. Construction of Nord Stream 2, another gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany, continued. Leaders of Germany, one of the strongest economies in the world, didn’t think that becoming dependent on an imperialistic authoritarian state that had already invaded two countries was a bad idea. They weren’t alone in their approach. In 2015, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy stated that “Russia and Europe should work together.” While Sarkozy spoke for himself, France’s then-president was on the same wavelength. Hollande said in 2016 that he saw Russia as a partner, “not [as] an adversary, not [as] a threat.”
In 2018, after the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (known as the Iran nuclear deal), European leaders wanted to make sure the agreement would be maintained. But French president Emanuel Macron needed Russia’s assistance to salvage the Iran deal (itself an act of grievous appeasement of the Iranian threat). During a joint press conference with Putin, he said: “We are quite aware that we have allowed some misunderstanding of our mutual relationships,” and added that they should “keep working on strengthening our mutual trust.” Earlier that same year, Sergei Skripal, a double agent working for the UK was poisoned by Russian agents on British soil. Is this an example of the “misunderstanding” Macron had in mind?
Despite initiating two unjust wars in Georgia and Ukraine, and despite being responsible for poisoning people on foreign soil, Putin, Sergey Lavrov and other Russian politicians were being invited to Paris, to Berlin, to London, and other European capitals as guests at various European forums. They were treated as if they were leaders of a civilized country, rather than a militant, imperialistic regime. Russian oligarchs, tightly connected to the Russian regime, could also safely spend their leisure time in their expensive villas or on their big yachts in European countries.'Europe has been dancing to Putin’s tune — to a murderer’s and a de facto dictator’s tune.' Click To Tweet
Europe not only encouraged but literally armed Putin. One of the most disturbing facts is that, at least until 2020, European countries had been selling Russia military equipment and technology used to build it. As of 2023 there are still European companies that supply the Russian military. European leaders didn’t see — or didn’t want to see — that they were arming a country whose foreign policy consists of threats and acts of aggression. They were arming an enemy.
Europe has been dancing to Putin’s tune — to a murderer’s and a de facto dictator’s tune.
Across two decades of his rule we have seen centralization of power, brutal silencing of critics, and growing domestic repression. Putin’s domestic policy should have been a sign of what to expect from Russia in the international arena as well. And instead of decisive responses to Russian aggression and atrocities (for example, severe sanctions, international boycott, halting of trade deals), what we witnessed was a pattern of appeasement. Europeans’ self-delusion cannot alter the fact that Russia is an international aggressor and Putin, a murderer.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz recently announced that Germany would support Ukraine “as strongly and as long as necessary,” and UK prime minister Rishi Sunak stated: “We are here to stay and we will [be] continuing backing Ukraine, not just now but for years into the future.” Such claims should have been made years ago. The question we should ask is: Would Russia have started another war if European leaders hadn’t appeased Putin at every turn?
The answer is no.
Why wouldn’t Putin think he could get away with another invasion, if he had gotten away with two previous wars and other crimes? Why would he stop if he was being whitewashed as Europe’s “partner,” and if European leaders’ goal was “mutual trust”? Nothing suggested that the consequences of this invasion would be different. To the contrary, everything suggested that Putin could do as he pleased. European leaders’ attitude and actions emboldened him to invade Ukraine yet again, and we’re all paying the price.
While we don’t know how and when the war will end, we should start thinking about the mistakes European leaders made — and perhaps the gravest of them was their policy of appeasement.
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