Vladimir Putin has rallied the West
Since the fleeting days after the unifying attacks of September 11th 2001, the century has not been kind to expectations that the world’s democracies would work together effectively. America’s costly wars and erratic leadership, Germany’s preference for engagement over confrontation, Britain’s rejection of the European Union, the backsliding of Poland and Hungary: even before President Joe Biden bungled America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, such interrelated developments weighed on hopes that he would reinvigorate not just nato but also, perhaps, the promise of liberal democracy itself. His one bold thrust in that direction—a new trilateral pact with Australia and Britain, to contain China—managed to blindside and anger Emmanuel Macron of France, reinforcing the conviction in the Elysée Palace that Europe should develop “strategic autonomy”.
A combination of Vladimir Putin’s viciousness and Ukraine’s courage appears to be changing this dynamic in ways Mr Putin clearly did not anticipate. The invasion is less than a week old, but already by February 27th it had succeeded, in one respect, where years of persuasion by Barack Obama and bullying by Donald Trump failed. Germany committed itself to dramatically boosting its military spending, to above 2% of gdp. Calling the invasion “a turning point in the history of our continent”, Olaf Scholz, the chancellor, declared: “It is clear we will need to invest significantly more in the security of our country to defend our freedom and our democracy.”
Hours after Mr Scholz spoke, the eu said it would close its airspace to Russian aeroplanes and send military aid to Ukraine, in the first such commitment by the 27-nation bloc to a country under attack. Norway’s prime minister, Jonas Gahr Stoere, said its $1.3trn sovereign wealth fund, the largest in the world, would sell off its Russian assets. bp, a British oil company, said it would get rid of its nearly 20% stake in Rosneft, an oil producer controlled by the Russian government. Two courier companies, Federal Express and United Parcel Service, suspended services in Russia.
On both sides of the Atlantic, foreign-policy analysts expressed astonishment at the swiftness and severity of the international response, including new sanctions aimed at crippling Russia’s economy by freezing the assets of its central bank. With China falling silent on Russia’s action and few countries besides the likes of Syria rallying behind it, America moved to underscore Mr Putin’s isolation. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, America’s ambassador to the United Nations, said that the White House would seek an emergency meeting of the un General Assembly and a vote, perhaps as soon as Wednesday, on a resolution deploring Mr Putin’s invasion. Under un rules, Russia has no power to veto such a resolution, as it did a draft resolution by the un Security Council on February 25th—although a vote by the General Assembly is not binding.
It is impossible to gauge the durability of the global reaction, whether the rare American political consensus in support of the Biden administration’s policy or nato’s concerted action. But appearing on “Fox News Sunday”, Condoleezza Rice, who was secretary of state under President George W. Bush, said Mr Putin has “managed to unite nato in ways that I didn’t think I would ever see again after the end of the cold war”. Citing Germany’s support for sanctions and increased military spending, Ms Rice added that he had “stirred up a hornets’ nest.”
Since the end of the cold war, Germany has vexed successive American presidents by failing to meet nato’s military-spending target of 2% of gdp for European members. But Mr Scholz called for Germany to make an investment greater than that “from now on”, proposing to enshrine the commitment in the country’s constitution. “Putin wants to establish a Russian empire,” Mr Scholz said, in an address to parliament. The question before Germany, he said, was “whether we can summon the strength to set boundaries to warmongers like Putin.”
Mr Scholz also proposed to invest €100bn ($113bn) this year in a special fund to modernise the armed forces. He announced specific procurement plans, to include armed drones from Israel and possibly F-35 fighters from America. He cited the utility of these fighters in amplifying nato’s nuclear deterrent, which has long been a politically toxic subject in Germany. Earlier, on February 26th, Germany had broken with its long-standing policy against sending weapons into conflict zones, saying it would dispatch anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to help Ukraine.
Claudia Major, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, a think-tank, calls Mr Scholz’s proposals “a revolution in German defence policy”. She says the announcements represent a recognition of the failure of the co-operative security policy Germany had pursued with Russia since the end of the cold war. It had done so in the belief that talking and trading with Russia would lead it to respect human rights and embrace a peaceful role within a community of nations. Now, Ms Major says, a new era of confrontation has begun.
Although there is no reliable polling yet on the public mood, Mr Scholz’s measures are backed by all mainstream parties in the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament. More than 100,000 people of all ages took to the streets of Berlin on February 27th to protest against the war. They gathered on the wide boulevard leading from the Victory Column to the Brandenburg Gate in the city’s centre, waving Ukrainian flags and holding signs, often in blue and golden yellow, that read “No Putin”, “No World War 3”, “We Stand With Ukraine”. Some signs bore pictures of Hitler and the warning “History repeats itself”.
Ms Major, who was born in East Germany, compares the shift in public sentiment to the one that occurred when the wall came down in 1989. “The refugees have arrived in Berlin,” she says. “The idea that we have war in Europe, and it has arrived at our doorstep and it might actually enter our house—it’s a fear that people feel.” She adds, “I really feel like Germany woke up. I think today they kind of realised what we in German call the Zeitenwende, the change of time, the change of an era.”
Our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis can be found here
This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.