Russia invades Ukraine: a European war that affects us all

Steven Blockmans

It has happened. The dark spectre that has been looming large over Europe for weeks has now finally come to pass. Russia has launched an invasion of Ukraine, an invasion that is without any justification whatsoever. In defiance of international appeals for a peaceful solution and warnings about severe consequences and crippling sanctions, President Putin has not been deterred. It is nothing more than a flagrant act of aggression by one of the world’s foremost powers against a sovereign European nation. The crisis now moves into a new phase, one which threatens a devastating inter-state war between major European countries bigger than any other since the end of the Second World War.


Europe’s darkest hour


This really needs to sink in. It cannot be emphasised enough just how much President Putin’s despicable actions and great deception (he has claimed for weeks now that Russia would not invade Ukraine) are a direct existential threat to a European security order that has prevailed for more than 30 years since the end of the Cold War. Thursday 24 February 2022 is arguably the darkest day in European history since the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s. This conflict, even though it’s playing out on the outer periphery of the EU, nonetheless impacts all Europeans and should deeply concern us all.


At the time of writing, firm details are still scarce as to what is happening on the ground. There have been reports of Russian missile attacks across Ukraine, on Kyiv and even on Ukrainian military installations as far west as the city of Lviv, only a stone’s throw from the Polish border. It seems the Russians have undertaken a pincer movement, with heavy armoured forces rolling in from Crimea, across the Donbas border and from Belarus.


A tale of two presidents

Reports that actual fighting is now taking place are starting to trickle in, with losses on both sides. In an address to the nation, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for any Ukrainian with military experience to come forward and volunteer to defend the country. He also urgently appealed for citizens to donate blood to help treat the wounded.


President Putin, in his own address to Russia to announce the start of the invasion, has invoked a bizarre and twisted account of history to justify his decision. He spoke about Ukraine ‘being turned’ by the West and that he aims to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine, a ludicrous statement when comparing his authoritarian regime with Ukraine’s lively and boisterous democracy. It is now clear that President Putin does not view Ukraine as a sovereign nation equal to Russia but as a lost territory that must be brought back into the Russian fold, come what may.


More practically, President Putin invoked Article 51 of the UN Charter as a justification to take action that defends two self-declared ‘People’s Republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk from supposed (but equally ludicrous) Ukrainian genocidal intentions. This is a twisted interpretation of international law and an obvious smokescreen to rationalise his warped world view. This world view is not just concerned about the eastward expansion of NATO but also takes into account his sense of Russian identity and the need to rectify ‘errors’ made during the Soviet period that allowed Ukraine to emerge as a ‘fake’ country that should never have been separated from Mother Russia in the first place.


A robust response against Russia

So, now that it has happened, what is the West to do? In short, the European Union, the United States and the UK need to unleash a tidal wave of crippling sanctions against Russia. On 23 February, the Council of the EU, within the existing framework for sanctions, agreed a package that extended targeted restrictive measures to cover all 351 members of the Russian Duma who voted in favour of the appeal to President Putin to recognise Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states. Further sanctions were also imposed on an additional 27 high profile individuals and entities who have played a role in undermining the integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. The sanctions also include an asset freeze, a prohibition of making funds available to the listed individuals and entities and a travel ban. Given the circumstances then, this was a suitably strong package, especially when paired with the (positively surprising) German decision to shelve the opening of Nord Stream 2 that would have delivered gas directly from Russia to Germany.


Today, these measures are now no longer enough. More needs to be done. In an address this morning, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen defiantly stated that ‘we will not let Russia replace the rule of law with the rule of force and ruthlessness’. She also announced that she will present to the European Council ‘a package of massive and targeted sanctions’, aimed at strategic sectors of the Russian economy by blocking their access to key technologies and markets. Additionally, Russian assets in the EU will be frozen and Russian banks will not be able to access European financial markets. Von der Leyen also confirmed that these actions are being coordinated with all major Western allies, including the UK, US, Canada, Japan and Australia.


The rouble has already slumped on news of the invasion and tied with such crippling sanctions against ‘strategic’ sectors of the Russian economy, it is the regular Russian on the street that will feel the economic pain because of the decisions taken by Putin and his cronies. Nevertheless, such severe sanctions must be imposed and they must be imposed quickly.


Confronting a worst-case scenario


Article 4 of NATO’s Washington Treaty explicitly calls for consultation over military matters when the ‘territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened’. Indeed, Russia’s offensive in Ukraine risks a devastating war in the heart of Europe and, quite possibly, the start of a bloody counterinsurgency against Russian occupation, right next door to NATO itself.


The prospect of a Russian occupation of Ukraine is still, thankfully, not a certainty, but with today’s events and with Putin’s rambling and deluded justifications of his decision to invade, the West really has no idea where he might decide to take this crisis next.


Europe – and NATO – need to be prepared for the worst. Crippling economic sanctions is the right response now. But it’s also morally right for the EU and its allies to provide any and all support they can to help Ukraine resist the invaders.