War truly is the father of all and king of all, as Heraclitus said. A little over a week ago Europeans were still debating COVID-19 and hoping for an end to the pandemic. In Brussels conversations turned to the latest ideas for the regulation of digital platforms or to the Green Deal. Then the world changed, seemingly overnight. In reality, it was not that fast. On Monday President Vladimir Putin discussed the recognition of the occupied provinces in Eastern Ukraine. In the early hours of Thursday, the first bombs fell on the capital and many other Ukrainian cities. War had returned to Europe and everything else must now take second place.
Many pointed out that the wars in former Yugoslavia happened less than three decades ago. And in Ukraine a war in the east has been raging since 2014. Still, this time it feels different. The large-scale invasion of Ukraine, coupled with the nuclear threats issued by Putin, have created a dramatic situation where Europe as a whole appears in the role of contestant and no one is sufficiently removed to prevent events from steering out of control.
The speed with which the war took over European life was breathtaking. I never felt I understood the Europeans of 1914 or 1939 so well. The same European Union that liked to choose the most diplomatic terms in its public statements suddenly offered to provide war intelligence to Ukraine from its satellite communications centre in Madrid. A top foreign policy official went to far as to suggest Ukraine could be offered fighter jets in order to better resist the Russian aggression. In a historic speech, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called February 24 a “watershed in the history of our continent.” He added that the issue is whether brute power is allowed to prevail “or whether we have it in us to keep warmongers like Putin in check. That requires strength of our own.” His speech promised Germany will develop the capabilities needed for a new and dangerous world. In a break with the past, Germany will invest more than two percent of its gross domestic product on defense.
At this point, a question looms. Did Europe fail? The political order in Europe after 1945 was built to exorcise the ghosts of the past once and for all. Never again was the refrain. And yet here we are, impotent to stop a war of genocide. In all his public pronouncements Putin has repeated that the Ukrainian people do not have a right to exist. His war has one main goal. As one editorial in a Russian news outlet this week put it, the Ukrainian question must be solved once and for all.
The loud rage sweeping over the European continent at present is born of this feeling of impotence. Nothing worked. Everything turned out to be a failure or an illusion. And now we must watch the old world go up in flames, in the mad spectacle of Putin’s orcs descending upon Kyiv to execute his macabre plan. The complete barbarization of Ukraine will be played daily on our screens, a spectacle from which there is no redemption.
That is one reading, but there is a different one. Perhaps the E.U. was never a project of peace, but a project of power. Its purpose was not to create the universal brotherhood of man but to bring Europeans together and make them strong enough to survive in a dangerous world of planetary technology and unbridled thirst for power.
War has arrived and it is unlikely it will go away anytime soon. Imagine for a moment we allow Ukraine to fall. The country will be subject to a puppet government controlled from Moscow and kept in power by a permanent deployment of Russian troops. The barbarism will never end. It will just move closer to the Polish and Romanian borders. Putin will want those borders to be permanently destabilised, finding pretexts, real or imagined, to threaten the peace. Every insurgent attack will be blamed on Europeans. They will be ordered to disarm and neutralise and prove their complete impotence over and over again. They will, in sum, be placed in the exact role Ukraine was forced to play over the last decade. Already Foreign Minister Lavrov has demanded that the U.S. remove all nuclear weapons from Europe, the first stage in a process of demilitarisation.
In the past, some Europeans made the mistake to think that the European peace project applies only within the current borders of the Union. Some would say Ukraine belongs to a different world, a world governed by different rules. That worldview has just collapsed. There is only one world, one where the possibility of war never goes away, where peace must be built on strength. In this world, Ukraine is not a foreign country. It is the centre, the very capital of Europe, the place where the critical issue of war and peace is being resolved. It has been a week of shock and trauma, but these emotions need to be properly interpreted. Europeans have not been defeated. They have just realised the work they deemed finished is never really finished. There will be a peaceful Europe again, but for the next few years the task will be arduous, as we correct our illusions and set once again to work on building that peace.
A little over a week ago, on my last Sunday before departing Kyiv, I spent an afternoon walking on the beach at Trukhaniv island. Some locals played volleyball on the beach, bare chested in the cold February weather. Life felt almost entirely normal, but others received military training, gathered in circles and listening intently to the instructor. A few days later they would join the trenches, ready to repel the Russian invader. There was a vital lesson in the contrast. Peace and enjoyment do not survive on their own but need to be combined with struggle and sacrifice.
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