EU leaders, bewildered by Russian attack, seem stranded in the world of yesterday

As Russia flaunts its contempt for economic sanctions, the West must wake up fast

“Should I tell them to go f*** themselves?” A pause. “Russian warship: go f*** yourself.”

These were the last words of the border guards of Ukraine’s tiny Snake Island this week, after they were ordered to surrender by the invading Russian navy, according to apparent audio of the radio exchange shared online.

All 13 were killed, according to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who said they would be posthumously bestowed with the title “Hero of Ukraine”.

The island, a patch of grass and rock not far off the coast of Romania, had no military significance, according to Daniel Szeligowski, the Ukraine analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

“It was razed to the ground because the Ukrainian border guard unit present did not surrender,” he said, describing it as Ukraine’s “own little Thermopylae”, the legendary last stand of ancient Greeks against a larger invading force.

Ukraine’s humbling bravery was made clear directly to the European Union’s national leaders as Zelenskiy dialled in to their emergency summit late on Thursday night.

With a strange lack of urgency, EU leaders talked of further discussions that were needed for certain steps

He informed them it may be the last time they see him alive, and vowed to remain in Kyiv. The Russian forces converging on the city intended to kill both him and his family as their top targets, he later told the nation.

"I asked the 27 leaders of Europe whether Ukraine will be in Nato. I asked directly. Everyone is afraid. They do not answer," Zelenskiy said. "And we are not afraid of anything. We are not afraid to defend our state. We are not afraid of Russia. "

When EU leaders emerged in the early hours, the contrast was stark.

The atmosphere was grave. But they seemed slightly bewildered. With a strange lack of urgency, they talked of further discussions that were needed for certain steps. They seemed to speak from the world of yesterday.

‘Unfathomable’

European Council president Charles Michel noted the bravery of Ukrainians "touched directly by a war which we all thought was impossible".

“Just a few days ago, this would have been unfathomable,” he said, shaking his head.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen marvelled that it was happening "in 2022, in the very heart of Europe".

The sentiment was particularly strange from a woman who until 2019 was Germany’s minister of defence, a role surely meant for someone aware of the realities of the world we live in.

It sheds light on a LinkedIn post published by the chief of the German army this week. “We all saw it coming and were not able to get through with our arguments, to draw the conclusions from the annexation of Crimea and to implement them,” Lieut Gen Alfons Mais wrote.

“And the Bundeswehr, the army which I have the honour to command, is standing there more or less empty-handed. The options we can offer the government in support of the alliance are extremely limited.”

Repeatedly in recent years, we have seen the naivety and entitlement of many people in Europe

The developments of this week were not so unfamiliar to my grandparents, who began sending me concerned WhatsApp messages early on as they grew anxious about Ukraine.

Both survived the London blitz as children, and remember diving for cover under the kitchen table; the homes that disappeared in the overnight bombardments; and seeing fighter jets strafe the streets on which they lived. “We’ve got a lot of history with European wars, and it brings a lot of things back,” my grandfather said.

Repeatedly in recent years, we have seen the naivety and entitlement of many people in Europe, who seem to presume, despite the horrors of living memory, that we have a right to expect that nothing bad can happen to us.

Russian contempt

UK prime minister Boris Johnson drawlingly told a parliament committee in November that "the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on the European landmass ... are over".

Johnson should have known from his Brexit campaign that there are other motivations apart from economic rationale. The Russian regime flaunted its contempt towards the limits of the economic sanctions ahead on the eve of its invasion of Ukraine.

"We understood long ago that this is the only tool the West has," foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told the BBC.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin suggested to journalists that he and his fellow leaders had reckoned with their limitations in Brussels this week. An assumption that others will behave rationally is a “fundamental vulnerability of democracies”, he reflected.

But many democracies were in fact all along sounding the alarm.

The EU countries that border Russia and were once ruled by Moscow, and who know it best, were for years disparaged in the rest of the bloc as paranoid for their watchfulness towards Vladimir Putin.

Ireland is a proudly peaceful country with good reasons for being that way. But we shouldn't shield ourselves from reality

All this week I have heard repeat in my mind a remark made to me on a reporting trip in 2017, by an Estonian dental saleswoman who trained on weekends as a volunteer in her country’s paramilitary reserves.

Kitted out with her rifle and snow fatigues in the forests bordering Russia, Marju Prosin told me in her Nordic tinkle: “We have to be ready for who wants to come and take our little country.”

Ireland is a proudly peaceful country with good reasons for being that way. But we shouldn't shield ourselves from reality. That luxury has passed.

"Europe was never going to go to war with Russia," foreign minister Simon Coveney said in Brussels this week.

It would be nice if people who don’t want a war could simply choose not to have one. As war survivors know, war sometimes chooses you.