Upon hearing the news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last Thursday morning, I did what I often do on days when global news trumps national: I listened to BBC Radio 4. Regular listeners to his Today show will know that at 7:52 a.m., the show typically airs a “thought of the day” — an implicitly religious reflection offered by a vicar or elder.
Last Thursday, the Thought for the Day was delayed: the Archbishop of Canterbury would be in the studio later in the morning, so he would offer the thought then. (It was bad enough: the situation was so dire that the head of the Church of England had to offer pastoral advice in person.) Instead, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg was asked to offer some thoughts on the moving tectonic plates of Europe. and world politics.
Kuenssberg is sometimes prone to quiet hyperbole, but last Thursday she offered a stark and sobering assessment. During the days of the Soviet Union, she said, the West may have had extreme ideological differences, but at least viewed the Soviet Union as a stable player on the world stage. When they reached an agreement, they stuck to it; everything was done by his book; and even though his ideology was completely at odds with the West, when they said something, they meant it.
But now, Kuenssberg argued, Western leaders needed to put aside their perception of Vladimir Putin as the Soviet-minded president of Russia. Instead, they now had to view him as an irrational actor: offering false explanations to justify the invasion of another country, completely at odds with international intelligence, or even his own government’s account of events. The West was no longer dealing with an obnoxious statesman: it was dealing with a nuclear thug. Pyongyang had their match in Moscow.
This was the analysis broadcast by the BBC last Thursday morning, in the slot usually reserved for morning prayer.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and bewildered by the magnitude of what has changed in the past week. Part of what makes the Russian offensive in Ukraine so appalling is that it has no plausible justification. Prior to the invasion, the supposed fear was that Russia would be threatened by Ukraine’s NATO membership and harbor Western weapons – an argument undermined by the fact that Russia already shares a land border with five members of NATO anyway. None of them may have the emotional resonance of Ukraine, but all are sovereign and capable of being used as a Western military base.
Then, when he launched his invasion, Putin said the exercise was necessary to prevent a Nazi-like Ukrainian government from perpetrating “genocide” against Russian speakers in the country’s easternmost regions. This is such an absurd and outlandish claim that it defies any valid analysis. (There is real marginalization of Russian-language media, but genocide?!)
The rest of the world therefore has no real understanding of what its end goal is. Is it the fear that a prosperous and prosperous Ukraine will demonstrate to the Russian people that a brighter future lies in the west than in the east? Is Moscow simply paranoid about the mere presence of a rival military force nearby in a once like-minded country? Is Russia simply now ruled by an increasingly isolated, aging and detached madman who will throw his military toys out of the pram if his sphere of influence diminishes even a little?
Last Thursday, it seemed like a stretch for Ursula von der Leyen to speculate that Russia’s ambition would not end with Ukraine – that it could be Ukraine now, the Union then European. But maybe she’s not wrong. Neutral Finland is now having a national discussion about joining NATO out of sheer obligation, given the volatility of its eastern neighbor. But even the public debate about it has led to an immediate threat of Moscow intervention (read: invasion) if Finland gives up its neutrality. So if an independent country can’t choose its own future because of its neighbor’s paranoia, how are we supposed to feel?
Will Putin throw good money after bad, and good bodies after the dead, in an increasingly futile attempt to dismantle the post-war Western order? Will he take the standpoint of the classic despot and ignore global condemnation, as long as his domestic audience is satiated – or at the very least kept in the dark about the true nature of his regime’s actions?
And what will happen the next time the Russian Navy informs us that it is undertaking military exercises off the coast of a country that does not have enough manpower to operate its own naval fleet?
The European Union is, at heart, a peace project: it is the modern evolution of a coal and steel union that was specifically designed to prevent European countries from hoarding the resources of war . Now, because of the threats at his doorstep, he is actively funding the military defense of a non-member.
The old world is so usurped that Ukraine’s president yesterday signed a letter asking for EU admission in a dimly lit underground room while wearing military fatigues.
We are all in a new world now. Let’s just hope we’re safe there.