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Fintan O’Toole: West needs to think carefully about endgame in Ukraine

Shock of Al-Qaeda’s attacks on the US in 2001 led to some catastrophic responses

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, with whom Vladimir Putin has a strange love-hate relationship, remarked that “There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.” We are living, alas, in weeks like those.

Decades are happening before our eyes. The time before the invasion of Ukraine on February 24th is already a foreign country in which they do things differently. It is lit by that superior glow of hindsight in which everything that was done to avoid conflict with Putin, in good faith or in bad, seems irredeemably contemptible.

And the decades that are happening in these weeks of our lives are also those that stretch into the foreseeable future. Groping our way through the smoke and dust, we can feel in rough outline the ugly shape of things to come, the legacy of division and danger that will be with us in the 2030s and 2040s.

The reigning monarch of our new regime is the Queen in Alice in Wonderland who confesses that “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

If we get away with six on our screens as we rub our eyes and put on the kettle, we are doing well. Horrors, outrages, crimes against humanity, madness, the unspeakable, the unprecedented – that half dozen is enough to process before the day has fully begun in our time zone. We can catch the rest later.

In this rush of events, this dizzy foreshortening of history in which the unthinkable is already yesterday’s news, is it possible to stand back and think?

In a speech from another epoch, the distant past of 2019, the then much-admired German chancellor Angela Merkel – now reimagined as the great appeaser of Putin – advised graduating students to "not always follow our initial impulses, even with all the pressure to make snap decisions, but instead stop for a moment, remain silent, reflect".

That is a luxury her successors in Germany and the European Union have not been able to afford in the last fortnight. Putin’s barbarism demanded – and rightly received – a fast and furious response.

In the 1980s, when computing was developing through rapid improvisation, the software system used by Intel and Microsoft was called QDOS – "quick and dirty operating system".

The response of the West to Putin’s assault on both the people of Ukraine and any notion of law and order in international relations is a quick and dirty operating system. It prioritises speed and immediate impact over long-term utility.

What choice was there for the democratic world except a QDOS reaction? Before Putin launched his criminal war of aggression, there was room (and need) for complexity and calibration.

There is nothing ignoble in trying to avoid the catastrophe of war. In that foreign country that existed before February 24th, there was a moral imperative to try to think about the grey areas of history, to see things from as many points of view as possible.

But Putin tossed all that complication off a high tower in the Kremlin. He left the democracies with no choice but to act first and ask questions later. When a thug is coming at you, you don’t ask why, you do whatever you can to hurt him.

Yet we know from history that Merkel was not wrong about how good decisions are made. They are not born of emotional and instinctive impulses. They thrive only in the controlled atmosphere of reflection and deliberation.

The West has been here before in this century. The al-Qaeda attack on the United States in 2001 was very different from Putin’s old-style war on Ukraine. But it had the same quality of impossibility, the same raw vileness.  It, too, deranged our senses and overwhelmed our capacity to reflect. And the results of this derangement were disastrous for the world.

They included a 20-year war in Afghanistan that ended with the Taliban back in charge, and a flagrantly illegal invasion of Iraq dressed up in a campaign of disinformation that Putin surely studied and learned from. The current crisis of democracy in the West cannot be disentangled from the deep cynicism about authority seeded by that abandonment of democratic values and the rule of law.

At that time, if you tried to say that the invasion of Iraq was going to be a disaster, you were shouted down and accused of being an apologist for Osama bin Laden with no feelings for the dead of 9/11. Just as now, if you ask for any reflection on how Europe might best respond to this equally atrocious terrorism, you are an apologist for Putin with no feelings for the heroic Ukrainians.

But this is precisely why a deep breath is needed. Is Ukraine really going to be brought into Nato and the EU? Should those blocs then go to war against a nuclear power? What endgame does the West imagine – total victory over Russia, another "forever war", or a negotiated settlement? If the latter, what does it look like?

I don’t know the answers to any of those questions – but I suspect that our leaders don’t have them either. They too are being swept along on a high tide of anger toward destinations unknown. They need to chart a course.