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The sirens of democracy: Putin’s attack on Ukraine and the European idea

Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine has naturally caused alarm in Europe and around the world. Having faced pressure from the Kremlin for eight years, Kyiv now fully finds itself on the frontline of a battle for the very values of freedom and democracy.

March 2, 2022 - Joshua Kroeker - Articles and CommentaryUkraineAtWar

Territorial army recruits walk past St. Andrews Church in Kyiv. February 13th 2022. Photo: Vincent Mundy / Shutterstock

The unimaginable has become reality. We once again are facing a war in Europe. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, under the malicious pretext of seeking to “protect” Ukraine, has invaded his southern neighbour in an all-out offensive contrary to international law. To the dismay and disbelief of experts, scholars, journalists, diplomats, and politicians alike, the invasion of Ukraine and the attack on a free and sovereign European nation did not only occur in the country’s eastern regions. Instead, it has taken the shape of an incursion into the entire Ukrainian nation. For the first time in nearly 75 years, the very system of European security is under assault. Regardless of the outcome of this conflict, it will have lasting effects throughout Europe and the world.

A stalled blitzkrieg?

For months, the Russian military has been building up massive numbers of troops and weaponry along Ukraine’s northern, eastern and southern borders. At the same time, much of the West sought to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Eastern Ukraine. This issue has proliferated since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the emergence of pro-Russian separatists in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. On February 22nd, Putin made the unilateral and illegal decision to recognise these two so-called republics in Donbas as independent states. This resulted in immediate condemnation and rejection by the West and much of the global community. First, sanctions targeting the Russian economy were announced. The world was on edge.

In the early morning of February 24th, the first bombs hit Ukrainian territory. Around six o’clock, President Putin announced that he had been given permission to employ the Russian military abroad and had ordered a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Within only a few hours, Russian missiles had hit targets across all of Ukraine. These attacks focused on military installations and airfields, such as the airport in Ivano-Frankivsk, located only a few hundred kilometres from the Polish and Romanian borders. Throughout the day, Russian soldiers pushed across Ukraine’s frontiers into the country, causing the deaths of some 150 Ukrainian soldiers according to the ministry of defence in Kyiv. At the time of writing, Russian casualties have not yet been reported. The Russian military captured multiple cities in the East, but in some cases, these were recaptured by Ukrainian troops. This murky and rapidly changing situation makes it impossible to provide any concrete details on Russian gains or losses. Nevertheless, the first day of Putin’s war against Ukraine attests to the strength and defence capabilities of the Ukrainian military.

Different realities

The Russian leadership claims that this assault on Ukraine is to protect Ukrainians and free them from the yoke of fascists and neo-Nazis. They assert that they intend to demilitarise the country and allow it to democratically choose new leadership. President Putin, Press Secretary Dmitri Peskov and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov maintain that “no one is talking about occupying Ukraine.” This operation, they argue, is purely to protect Ukrainians. The real question persists, however, as to what exactly they are protecting Ukrainians from? Russian bombs are landing on Ukrainian cities, Russian tanks are driving through parks and streets and Ukrainian civilians have been killed. Russia’s leadership is flagrantly breaching international law and the territorial integrity of Ukraine, committing heinous crimes for seemingly illogical purposes and the achievement of unjustifiable goals. How can this be understood?

In the days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Putin spoke at length on the history of the country. In his address to the Russian nation, in which he recognised the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk, Putin spoke to the fact that the emergence of the Ukrainian nation was a “fluke of history”. He argued that Ukraine was created by Russians and that the first mention of “Ukraine” as a concept was made by the father of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin. By manipulating and revising the history of Ukraine, Putin resolutely denied Ukraine’s right to exist. In the Russian president’s eyes, Ukraine is and always has been a part of a greater Russia, a union of Eastern Slavic peoples that belong united together. In employing this argument, he rejects Ukraine’s sovereignty and its right to choose its own path. Moreover, he has spoken openly that he intends to topple the Ukrainian government and return the country to its rightful place as Russia’s “little brother”.

Putin’s arguments that genocide is being committed by fascists and Nazis against ethnic Russians were intended to legitimise his attack on Ukraine. The use of revisionist Second World War historical narratives focused on Russia’s battle against fascism provides him, as he sees it, with the justification to “liberate” Ukraine. He believes that Russia must protect all Eastern Slavic peoples from fascists and neo-Nazis. As a result, the purpose of this special operation is the “demilitarization and denazification” of Ukraine. This is the alternative reality that is guiding Vladimir Putin’s decisions and which led him to attack and invade a democratic European state.

Solidarity with Ukraine

On February 24th sirens sounded throughout Ukraine. Ukrainians hid in metro stations and air raid shelters. Many also fled towards the country’s western regions as bombs landed on towns and cities. Thousands of cars lined up on thoroughfares trying to evacuate from Kyiv as Russian Sukhoi fighter jets flew over the city. In the south and north of the country, explosions have rocked apartment blocks. The Russian military successfully took control of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine. Bonafide war, death and destruction have taken hold of Ukraine, its military and its people.

Ukraine’s sirens did not fall on deaf ears. They have echoed throughout the world. Images and videos of injured soldiers and civilians have flooded the internet. Every influential news outlet the world over has focused directly on Putin’s war in Ukraine. A solidarity movement also appeared simultaneously. People haven taken to the streets in Europe, Canada, the United States, Israel, Australia and New Zealand in order to express solidarity with Ukraine and condemn Putin and his war. In London and Berlin, thousands protested in front of Russia’s embassies. In Tel Aviv, Russians even burned their passports. Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, Number 10 Downing Street and other parliament buildings in the world’s capitals were lit up yellow and blue, the colours of Ukraine’s flag. Ukraine has won the world’s attention and its hearts.

Even in Russia, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in nearly 100 different cities. Chanting “No to war!”, they were confronted by the country’s riot police, a common sight at opposition protests throughout the country. According to multiple Russian media outlets, over 1700 Russians were arrested for illegally demonstrating against the war on the first two days of protest. Russian celebrities, writers, singers, rappers, media personalities and journalists have joined in the solidarity movement on social media. The Russian people have shown that this is not their war and that instead it is Putin’s war alone. They do not accept it and they do not support it. Russians, unlike their western counterparts, risk paying a much higher price for voicing their opposition and arrests are only the beginning. As history has shown, the Russian regime is not afraid to punish demonstrators with long prison sentences. Russians, despite their leader dragging them into a war, are making their point clear: this is Putin’s war.

Already on February 24th, the European Union, United States, Great Britain and others rolled out some of the most arguably wide-reaching sanctions directed at any one state. Sanctions have been focused on Russia’s economy, banking system, military capabilities and technological sectors. Multiple individuals have also been put on sanctions lists, which will include President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov as well. In only a few days after the beginning of the war, they removed Russia from SWIFT, which will effectively alienate Russia from the world banking system. The sanctions are intended to hit Russians hard, both in the short and long term. Individual states have taken further steps, such as ending visa applications for Russian citizens, closing their airspace to Russian airlines, or in the case of Germany, putting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project on an indefinite hold. Russia will no longer hold the UEFA Champions League football final later this year. It is expected that supplementary sanctions will continue to be published in the coming days and weeks. Notably, however, the European Union has not spoken of a willingness to end the purchase of Russian oil and gas. Western sanctions will hit the Russian economy hard, but it remains to be seen if they will be effective or not.

A threat to all of Europe

For the first time in nearly seven decades, Europe once again finds itself in a state of war. For the time being, this war has not spilled over from the borders of Ukraine. The involvement of NATO is currently not on the table, though the United States and other countries are sending further troops to Germany and their Eastern European partners in case of an attack on the territory of a NATO member state. Whilst an all-out war between Russia and NATO members still seems unlikely, Putin has referred to the use of nuclear weapons if Russia were to require a necessary response. The West, watching and listening closely, appears as unwilling as ever to go to war over Ukraine. Its response will be strong but likely not strong enough to put an end to the current conflict.

Putin’s threat regarding “consequences greater than any you have faced in history” is not just a threat to Ukraine. Indeed, it is a threat to the West and the whole world. These words recall the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, when peace in Europe and even the whole world could have been ended by the push of a button. This reality ultimately hints at his goal. Putin has not invaded Ukraine to save Eastern Slavic peoples from so-called fascists. Putin has launched an assault on Ukraine because he is afraid of democracy, afraid of its freedom to democratically choose its government, and afraid of the country leaving Russia behind. Ukrainians understand this, the West understands this, and Russians are beginning to understand this.

Once again, a dark cloud is forming over Europe. The post-Cold War world order is being violently torn at its seams by the Russian president and his anti-democratic regime. When and how this conflict will end can hardly be predicted. Until then, let us ring the sirens of democracy for Ukraine and for Europe.

Joshua Kroeker is a historian and political scientist. He holds degrees from the University of British Columbia in Canada, Heidelberg University in Germany and St Petersburg State University in Russia. He is currently undertaking doctoral study at Heidelberg University and specialises in modern Russian and Ukrainian history and politics.

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