With yesterday’s assault on Ukraine, no one can close their eyes to the fact that war has returned to the European continent. Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his orders to invade Ukraine while the UN Security Council was still in session. His actions could not have exposed more the weaknesses of the multilateral system that liberal democratic countries take such pride in. Sanctions have been ineffective. Ukraine is the direct victim of the fact that we have unlearned deterrence.

This is my most personal blogpost yet. I lived in Russia for almost a decade, since New Year’s Eve 1999 when Vladimir Putin took office. And in Ukraine from 2012 until 2017. I have witnessed how Ukrainians took to the streets to demand their civil rights in 2013. The European Union to them seemed like a lifeline and a framework to enact their own efforts opposing politicians who put their particular interests above those of their citizens.

Vladimir Putin is misjudging the ground

Then came the annexation of Crimea and the occupations of local administrations in east Ukraine by so-called separatists. I still think the image that a Russian journalist drew on is the best: Putin threw a burning match in 2014, expecting an explosion. But he misjudged. The match hissed and crackled. But it took further Russian intervention to keep the match from going out and keep small fires going.

Mr. Putin believes that if he overthrows the Kyiv government, he can bring the Ukrainian military and security services under Russian control and turn Ukraine into a vassal state. He has succeeded in doing so in Belarus. I find it difficult to believe that he will succeed in Ukraine.

Will the system introduced in the so-called People’s Republics work in the whole of Ukraine?

For this he needs networks that function according to his principle of rule, which is based on loyalty and corruption on the one hand, and violence and impunity on the other. This is the system that Moscow ran in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. The civically active part of the population fled when the so-called separatists tortured some in cellars to make an example, made others disappear, or killed them outright.

The so-called People’s Republics lived under the disguise of so-called separatists, but the command line to Moscow had been clearly established. Internationally, Russia presented itself as the well-meaning mediator in this swamp of war and lawlessness that until now was limited to eastern Ukraine.

The plot to destroy Ukraine

The British defense think tank Royal United Services Institute alleges (based on interviews with senior Ukrainian intelligence officials) that the Russian security services used the past years to penetrate more Ukrainian local government structures as well as to locate Ukrainian leaders who might rally resistance in order to target them when the time comes.

Yesterday began what the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence Kyrylo Budanov predicted as recently as last December: Air and missile strikes all over Ukraine. The offensive has been shaping into a coordinated land, sea, and cyber campaign. We in “the West” have been warned but are unprepared.

In Europe, we worry peace is at stake; Ukrainians fear for their lives

President Putin’s goal of “denazification” of Ukraine is based on a wild mixture of backward-looking nationalism, imperialism, spiritual-religious transfiguration, and falsification of history for political ends. Thereby he tries to justify what deserves only the response of a war crimes tribunal.

Anything we consider doing now will come too late in what has turned into large-scale war in Ukraine. The United States and NATO are currently the only ones that can keep Russia in check with the appropriate hard power. But because Ukraine is not a NATO member, it receives only very limited military assistance. Lack of air defense proved fatal yesterday.

Some attach hope to Russian citizens

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky reached out to the Russian citizenry directly: “Much depends on you, whether your country will continue to invade us.”

Even before pictures of dead Ukrainians and Russians started to turn up on social media, there was no majority in the Russian population in favor of this war. A stable majority, however, has been for Russia and Ukraine to be independent yet friendly nations.

The question now is how many Russians will actually hear president Zelensky’s plea? It is not uncommon that the internet is blocked in Russia. And with Russian repression having reached new heights, there have already been the first arrests of those brave Russian citizens protesting their state’s aggression.

We must face the rivalry of systems to uphold our liberal system of democracy

Vladimir Putin has not created a strong state, but his personal power vertical. Autocracies are by no means stable by default. Mr. Putin is concerned with securing his own rule. He can do this best by disrupting other, more successful developments. In his own country, he has failed to create a national idea and to shape modernization.

The policy of securing power through authoritarianism prevents modernization, which Russia so desperately needs. It also makes grand corruption a system-building element in today’s Russia, augmented by the possibilities of globalization.

This is why it is in our own interest to take vehement and strategic action against financial networks ranging from Moscow to London, Switzerland or Trump’s America. Here too, there is not a problem of knowledge, but of action.

Freedom comes at a price

Europe can no longer rely on soft power alone. We must act according to the lesson that military power is still an important instrument of deterrence in the 21st century. This includes the necessary investment in the military and the political backbone to credibly threaten to use it.

At present, the least we can do is to remain united and put national economic egoisms aside. We should make our own substantial contribution to peacekeeping in Europe and beyond if we want to keep benefitting from globalization. Personally, and as a convinced European, I feel deep sadness and shame in the face of the suffering that is enfolding in Ukraine, and that my country and the European Union have not prevented it from being inflicted on Ukrainians.



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Miriam Kosmehl has been Senior Expert in the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe’s Future Program since 2017 working on the Eastern Partnership region from Berlin.