Too many in the West delusionally believed we had entered a new rational global era of peace, civility and light, despite the many bloody conflicts of the last two decades. The catastrophe in Syria provided Russian forces with a training ground for their barbaric invasion of Ukraine and Russia's proxy occupation of parts of Georgia and Ukraine and later invasion of Crimea, foretold the direction in which we were heading.
But the world chose to ignore the latter’s resemblance to the Anschluss, Hitler’s incorporation of Austria into the German Reich in March 1938. To so depict it seemed somewhat extreme. Putin made no secret of his imperialist ambitions yet, as with Hitler, world leaders chose to believe that easing his post-Crimea political isolation and rational discussion would prevent conflict. Peace would continue in our time.
Tyrants mimic each other's conduct but there is always a twist. Hitler in the 1930s always provided justifications for his invasions. He created something new and shiny for his domestic audience to generate public support. Putin's new and shiny narrative is to present himself as the welcomed saviour of the Ukrainian people from their neo-Nazi government engaging in an action replay of Russia's liberation of Ukraine from Nazi tyranny in 1944. While he has convinced many in Russia, his lies never had a chance beyond Russia's borders.
Unlike the Austrians in 1938 who cheered Hitler’s arrival in Vienna, in bombarded, decimated and encircled Ukrainian cities and towns Putin is being universally cursed. History’s twist is that today it is Putin who presents as the fascist. Outside Russia no credibility is given to his ludicrous depiction as a neo-Nazi of Ukraine’s first democratically elected Jewish president, some of whose relations were murdered in the Holocaust.
Tyrants mimic each other's conduct but there is always a twist. Hitler in the 1930s always provided justifications for his invasions
Putin started his Ukraine war with contempt for the West, believing it to be weak and lacking backbone. Despite all the critical rhetoric, the condemnatory motion passed by the UN General Assembly, the unprecedented economic sanctions imposed and the “defensive” arms being supplied to Ukraine, he has not yet been proved entirely wrong.
Putin's war is not just about Ukraine, its right to independence and to determine its own destiny. It is not just about the wellbeing, safety and security of Ukrainian men, women and children, the malevolent destruction of Ukrainian cities and towns, and the growing millions of refugees. It is also about the long-enduring conflict between autocracy and democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. For members of Nato and the West generally, it challenges the credibility of commitment to legally entrenched and much-vaunted universal values and principles.
Of course, Ukraine, despite its aspirations, is neither a member of Nato nor the EU. Prior to Russia’s invasion, this much trumpeted “big thing” resulted in the US and the rest of Nato prematurely signalling to Putin that should he attack, Nato would not get involved. This politically naive posture, designed to stop Putin alleging Nato provoked Russia’s assault on Ukraine, abysmally failed. To Putin, such sublimation confirmed western weakness and that Ukraine was there for the taking. He did not expect the courageous resistance of the Ukrainian people, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine’s politicians and of Ukrainian armed forces. Nato, I suspect, wrongly expected a rapid Ukrainian collapse and surrender.
Nato, I suspect, wrongly expected a rapid Ukrainian collapse and surrender
A swift Putin victory would have ended the crisis, at least temporarily until Putin made new demands on the Baltic states or perhaps Moldova or Poland. But that is not where we are. Where we are is that Putin’s Russia is on the march and Ronald Reagan’s 1983 depiction of the Soviet Union as “the Evil Empire” resonates with Putin’s global aspirations and today’s Russia. It is where we are going that requires the West to show some backbone and recalibrate its response to end Putin’s genocidal state-sponsored terrorism and imperial ambitions.
The world’s democracies cannot credibly furnish arms and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and then, like spectators in Rome’s ancient Colosseum, sit back and watch the carnage as Russia turns Ukraine into a massive killing field. Booing from the sidelines does not cut it when the only diplomacy of interest to Putin is securing Ukraine’s abject surrender, Zelenskiy’s assassination and the imposition of a repressive puppet government. So what to do?
The West must end its surrender to Putin’s posturing and manipulation. It must remember that peace was preserved in Europe during the cold war years because the nuclear arsenal and capabilities on each side acted as effective deterrents to war. Joe Biden and Europe’s leaders must stop fearing Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling and regain confidence in the deterrent effect of their own nuclear capabilities. Putin is not mad but cunning. He relies on the fear factor that he will go full nuclear to minimise the practical support given to an embattled Ukraine, but he also knows his doing so would not merely end the world as he knows it but would also render worthless much of the enormous personal wealth he has accumulated over many years in power.
Joe Biden and Europe's leaders must stop fearing Putin's nuclear sabre-rattling and regain confidence in the deterrent effect of their own nuclear capabilities
Addressing the Westminster parliament in 1983, Reagan rhetorically asked “Must freedom wither in a quiet deadening accommodation with totalitarian evil?” We forget Reagan played a pivotal role in the collapse of Soviet tyranny. His question remains relevant today. Restraint to avoid conflict is a virtue. Restraint when confronted by aggressive evil is folly and self-delusion.
Expressions of solidarity with Ukraine will not defeat Russia or end the war. For it to end and future Russian adventurism to be curtailed, Russian power must be neutralised. The funding and furnishing to Ukraine of “defensive” lethal weapons alone will not achieve that. The implementation of a no-fly zone over Ukraine for which Zelenskiy is pleading has been depicted mischievously by Putin and wrongly by Biden and other Nato leaders as offensive and not defensive action leading to World War Three. Language has got mangled and that distorted depiction has uncritically become part of the zeitgeist. But it is wrong.
An imposed no-fly zone would simply act as a defensive shield to protect Ukraine’s cities, towns and defenceless civilians from being mercilessly bombed by Russian planes. If not violated by Russia it would cause no escalation and Putin has nothing to gain from widening the conflict.
There is a need for the West to regain its moral compass, call Putin’s bluff and impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine as a defensive measure to partially neutralise Russian power. Doing so would send a clear message to Putin that he no longer has impunity to wage unrestrained war, and just might create real pressure to effect a reasonable diplomatic solution and end the conflict. It would also signal that the West is on the right side of history and is not prepared to sit back and watch the slaughter continue.
Alan Shatter is a former minister for justice, equality and defence, and a former member of the Justice and Home Affairs Council and Council of Defence Ministers