Explaining Europe’s reaction to Putin’s war

What explains Europe’s dramatic, costly and even revolutionary response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Germany’s newfound commitment to rearmament, which for decades would have caused an international outcry, has been widely applauded. And with traditionally neutral Finland and Sweden now considering joining NATO, the alliance suddenly looks anything but ‘brain dead’. Even Switzerland has abandoned 500 years of neutrality to impose financial sanctions against Russia. Most startling, perhaps, was the announcement by the Netherlands and other European states that they would send weapons to help Ukrainians kill Russian troops, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s snarling threat that any country intervening in his ‘special military operation’ would pay a grisly price.

European outrage at Putin’s war is not limited to governments. Four out of five German citizens support Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s decision to help arm Ukrainians. The current surge of solidarity in European civil society has refuted the Putinistas’ bare-chested rhetoric that effete debauchery had incurably sapped Europe’s fighting spirit. Fundraising initiatives to help Ukraine are mushrooming everywhere. Countries often labelled as xenophobic, such as Poland and Hungary, are receiving Ukrainian refugees with open arms. The Ukrainian flag and its colours are now visible across the continent, from web pages to painted pets to soccer stadiums.

Europe has displayed more unity and resolution in the last 10 days than it has in the last 10 years. But why?

Democracies, as Alexis de Tocqueville argued almost two centuries ago, tend to be slow in reacting to aggression. Once provoked, however, they have a capacity to mobilise militarily that autocracies can only envy. For years, European capitals reacted indecisively to Putin’s maskirovka playbook of cyberattacks, fake news, assassinations, electoral manipulation and funding of extremist parties and populist candidates. Since 2007, Russia has worked assiduously to destabilise Europe and divide it against itself. Europe’s governments barked but failed to bite. Even the annexation of Crimea and the engineering of a violent separatist movement in eastern Ukraine—overt acts of war and violations of international law—ultimately met with grudging acquiescence.

The world’s failure to anticipate Europe’s fierce reaction to the invasion arguably stems from the assumption that a peace-loving European public could never perform a dramatic volte-face and renounce its tepid reaction to Putin’s previous assaults on the rules and norms of decent, civilised international behaviour. And yet that’s what it did.

Sheer horror at the stomach-churning images of the barbarism of the assault and the suffering of so many innocent civilians on European soil—evoking the trauma of World War II—no doubt helps explain the response. But it was Covid-19 that paved the way.

For starters, Europeans are now used to crisis government, huge public expenditures in response to emergency conditions, and the closure of international borders. Two years of extreme public-safety measures have readied the public for exactly the type of radical overnight shifts that governments are now making in response to Russian aggression.

On top of this, and somewhat at odds with the crisis factor, the European public has been nursing an intense craving for a return to normality. With the Covid-19 pandemic seemingly (although perhaps not) drawing to a close, Europeans were expecting that they could work, study and party the way they did in early 2020. But just as these hopes were taking root, Putin’s war of choice has plunged all of us back into a state of emergency. Unlike the pandemic, this latest shock to our lives was not a natural event, but instead the intentional plan of a twisted, vengeful and violent man who has replaced Europe’s thinning viral cloud with a gathering atomic one.

In this sense, Russia’s calculated crime of aggression was hopelessly ill-timed. Deliberately thwarting rising expectations, as Tocqueville would have predicted, is a sure recipe for enraging citizens of democracies and galvanising their will to fight.

These two factors, reinforced by sympathy for the victims, have created a public mood, and indeed public pressure, that has at least temporarily freed European governments from the fear of a pacifist backlash against their decision to respond uncompromisingly to Russian aggression. Overwhelming public support gave them the latitude they needed to act swiftly and with unprecedented tenacity.

But pandemic-related dynamics alone cannot explain why Europe’s leaders reacted in such a bold, decisive way in the face of credible Kremlin threats. The reason must be that they are profoundly shaken and afraid of what Russia might do next if it takes over Ukraine. Russia has already effectively annexed Belarus and strongly suggested that it will place nuclear-armed missiles on the Polish and Lithuanian borders, and perhaps in Kaliningrad, from where they could reach all European capitals within a few minutes. It now seems to be positioning itself to extract all manner of concessions from European governments faced with populations that, while eager to support Ukraine, would presumably baulk at the risk of nuclear war.

Governments’ reasonable fear of losing political support in case Putin resorts to unnerving the European public with nuclear brinkmanship may explain the alacrity with which they have been willing to supply weaponry to Ukraine, an undoubtedly hostile act that defies Russian warnings. The risk of provoking Putin now presumably is preferable to confronting Russia later, after it had successfully managed, in a worst-case scenario, to break the will of Ukraine’s defenders.

It is evidently in Europe’s interest to keep Russian troops tied down in a relentless insurgency—if not an open war—until the fierce sanctions now cratering Russia’s economy erode the invaders’ ability to sustain a prolonged occupation.

In the meantime, we can ask if the increasingly ill-fed, poorly supplied and unmotivated Russian soldiers will persist in slaughtering their brethren and razing their cities. Might not some of them at least be tempted to march back east to settle accounts with the bloody-minded autocrat who sent them to fight a senseless war?