What responsibility does the European Union have to intervene in a war it didn’t cause, involving a country beyond its political borders? The same responsibility an adult has when they witness a child being beaten up by the neighborhood bully. Intervention is a moral duty; indeed, there is even a legal responsibility to protect. Europe’s values will be null and void (its credibility, too) if the EU fails to do everything in its power (short of military engagement) to disarm the Russian bully and protect his Ukrainian victims.
It is perhaps the most significant conflict in Europe since World War II. Sure, we had Yugoslavia and the war crimes committed there, but that conflict did not involve a massive military invasion of a sovereign nation. In Greece, when we talk about Yugoslavia, we think of NATO’s bombing of Belgrade in retaliation for the Milosevic regime’s ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s Albanian population. We conveniently forget the genocide of the Bosnian Muslims, the martyrdom of Sarajevo, the murderous Arkan the Greek media treated as a hero. Our recollection is prone to selective amnesia. Ukraine is the most significant conflict in Europe since 1945, also because a nuclear superpower is involved; a Russia that is unhinged, not tightly coordinated like the USSR during the Cold War. The Soviet Politburo, old Communists, conservative risk-averse people, acted as a filter and a brake on the Soviet leadership of the day. Now, an authoritarian leader takes the decisions alone, has slipped off the safety catch, and is convening with Russia’s age-old destiny. All of which couldn’t be more dangerous.
It is a clash between systems: Western rule of law versus revisionist nationalism. The Putin regime has worked its way through the whole totalitarian playbook. Starting with the false narrative of a nonexistent Ukrainian nation ruled, supposedly, by Nazis – even though the Ukrainian far-right won less than 3% of the vote in 2019 and failed to get into Parliament; even though far-right attacks on minorities are more widespread in Putin’s Russia than in Ukraine. “Denazification” is Russia’s alibi for the mass liquidation of “Nazi scum.” The totalitarianism playbook also includes everything from sending off unsuspecting 18-year-old conscripts to kill and be killed, through to the brutal repression of all domestic protest and crude Orwellian propaganda. A footnote on the last point: Russian television presented the butchery in Bucha as the work of the Americans, linking it to Biden having called Putin a butcher in order to “prove” the massacre was staged by NATO. And the propaganda is working. According to polls that are considered reliable, Putin’s approval rating in Russia is at 80%. It remains to be seen how long this will last.
So this is indeed a confrontation of two worlds, two systems, and it is clear which system we belong to and why we stand with the West. But let there be no doubt: Come the next day, the two systems must be able to talk to each other again. The channels of communication must remain open, as they remained open throughout the Cold War. Especially given the closed and highly personalized power system which Putin has erected around himself.
Europe will have to take the lead if it is to ensure a stable back yard for itself when the conflict is at an end. America provides the umbrella protecting Europe against a nuclear foe, but it’s up to Europe to prepare for the next day when that comes, and help stabilize the broader European neighborhood. Why? Because it’s Europe’s concern. America is Europe’s closest ally, its defender and nuclear shield, but it is Europe that has had to deal with crisis after crisis within and on its borders: First, the waves of desperate refugees from the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, from the conflicts in Africa, washing up on Europe’s shores in their millions. Then ISIS, whose terrorism hit Europe hard. Now Ukraine, whose uprooted people are heading for Europe’s borders. What’s more, the energy and economic crisis is primarily impacting Europe, and the food crisis that is about to hit Africa will make itself felt in Europe, too, in the conflicts it will trigger and the new waves of migrants it will unleash.
So Europe does right to act in accordance with its values, helping Ukraine defend itself. But it cannot afford to ignore the consequences. And it would be irresponsible to fail to prepare for the next day, whenever that should come.
George Pagoulatos is a professor at the Athens University of Economics and Business, a visiting professor at the College of Europe, and director general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).