History sped up; the impossible has become possible. Changes that no one imagined two weeks ago are taking place at an incredible speed.
It turns out that nations are not pieces in a game of risk. They do not have, as some scholars have long imagined, eternal interests or permanent geopolitical orientations, fixed motivations or predictable goals. And human beings don’t always react the way they’re supposed to. No one analyzing the coming war in Ukraine last week imagined that the Ukrainian president’s personal bravery and his emotional pleas for sovereignty and democracy could alter the calculations of foreign ministers, bank managers, business leaders and thousands of ordinary people. Few imagined that the grim television appearances and brutal orders of the Russian president could alter international perceptions of Russia in just a few days.
And yet it all happened. Volodymyr Zelensky’s courage moved people, even hardened oil company CEOs, even obtuse diplomats accustomed to rote declarations. Vladimir Putin’s paranoid rantings, meanwhile, have frightened even people who praised his “sense” just days ago. It is not, in fact, someone you can do business with, as so many in Berlin, Paris, London and Washington mistakenly believed; he’s a cold-blooded dictator happy to murder hundreds of thousands of neighbors and impoverish his nation, if that’s what it takes to stay in power. Whatever the end of the war – and many scenarios are still imaginable – we already live in a world with fewer illusions.
look at germany, a nation that has spent nearly 80 years defining its national interest in purely economic terms. If the government of a remote place where Germans buy and sell things was repressive, it was never the Germans’ fault. While military aggression reshaped Europe’s outer borders, it was also peripheral to Germany. Former Chancellor Angela Merkel, although she spoke a great deal about liberal and democratic values, was in practice much more concerned with creating the right conditions for German companies, wherever they operated. This economy-oriented attitude has infected his nation. Shortly after the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, I participated in a panel discussion in Germany on “the greatest threats to Europe”. Due to timing, I mentioned Russia and assumed the others would too. I was wrong. One of the other panelists called me a warmonger. Another argued vehemently that the biggest threat was a proposed trade deal that would have allowed Americans to sell chlorine-washed chicken to German supermarkets.
I remember this detail because I was unaware of the big chlorinated chicken talk that was then engulfing Germany, and I had to go home and search. But I’ve had a version of that experience several times since. I was on a German TV show two weeks ago with three German politicians who even then claimed that, despite the thousands of soldiers and armored vehicles gathered on Ukraine’s borders, the only conceivable solution was dialogue.
On Saturday, in a 30-minute speech, the current German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, threw all that out the window. Germany, he said, needs “planes that fly, ships that sail and soldiers perfectly equipped for their missions”: the German army must reflect its “size and importance”. The German government has turned around and will even send weapons to Ukraine: 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles. More incredible, this 180 degree turn has the support from an astonishing 78 percent of the German public, who now say they support much higher military spending and will gladly pay for it. It is a fundamental change in Germany’s definition of itself, in its understanding of its past: Finally, the Germans have understood that the lesson of their history is not that Germany must remain eternally pacifist. The lesson is that Germany must defend democracy and fight the modern version of fascism in Europe when it emerges.
But the Germans are not the only ones who have changed. Everywhere in Europe, people realize that they live on a continent where war, in their time, in their own country, is no longer impossible. Platitudes about European “unity” and “solidarity” are beginning to make sense, as is “common foreign policy,” a phrase that in the European Union has until now been largely fictional. In theory, the EU has a single spokesperson for foreign policy, but in practice European leaders have entrusted this job to people who know little about Russia, and whose fall-back position when Russia misbehaves is always the expression of “deep concern.” Former European High Representative for Foreign Policy Federica Mogherini was more interested in EU relations with Cuba than with Kiev. The current incumbent, Josep Borrell, stumbled during a meeting with his Russian counterpart last year and appeared surprised to be treated with disdain.
But now everything is suddenly different. The “deep concern” was traded for real action. Less than a week after the start of the invasion, the EU not only announced tough sanctions against Russian banks, companies and individuals – sanctions that will also affect Europeans – but also offered $500 million military aid to Ukraine. Individual European states, from France to Finland, also send weapons and apply their own sanctions. The French say they are compiling a list of Russian oligarchs’ assets, including luxury cars and yachts, in order to seize them.
The Europeans also abruptly dropped some of their doubts about Ukraine’s accession to their institutions. On Monday, the European Parliament not only asked Zelensky to speak, by video, but gave him a standing ovation. Earlier in the day, parliamentarians from across the continent voted to accept his application for EU membership for Ukraine. Joining the EU is a long process, and it won’t happen right away, even if Ukraine comes out of this conflict intact. But the idea was launched. It is now part of the continent’s collective imagination. From a distant, misunderstood place, it’s now part of what people mean when they say Europe.
Ukraine itself will never be the same again. Events are happening so quickly, with moods and emotions changing every hour of every day, that I can’t guess what’s going to happen next, or predict how people are going to feel. But I am sure that the events of this week have changed not only the world’s perception of Ukraine, but also the perception that Ukrainians have of themselves. In the long run up to that war, the conversation in Washington and Berlin always focused on Putin and Joe Biden, Sergei Lavrov and Antony Blinken, NATO and Russia. It was the kind of talk that academics and pundits liked: big topics, big countries. In that conversation, Ukraine was, as political scientist John Mearsheimer put it in 2014, nothing more than a “buffer state of enormous strategic importance to Russia.” But the Ukrainians have now put themselves at the heart of the story, and they know it.
As a result, thousands of people are making choices they too could not have imagined two weeks ago. Ukrainian sociologists, baristas, rappers and bakers join the territorial army. Villagers stand in front of Russian tanks, shouting “occupiers” and “murderers” on Russian soldiers shooting in the air. Construction workers with lucrative contracts in Poland drop their tools and take the train home to join the resistance. A decade of experience in countering Russian propaganda is finally paying off, as Ukrainians are creating their own counter-narrative on social media. They post videos telling Russian soldiers to go home to their mothers. They interview captured teenage Russian conscripts and post the video clips online. Electronic road signs leading to Kyiv have been reconfigured to tell the Russian army to “fuck you”. Even if it ends badly, even if there is more bloodshed, every Ukrainian who lived through that moment will always remember what it was like to resist – and that too will count for decades to come.
And about Russia? Is Russia still doomed to be a vengeful state, an old retrograde empire, still seeking to regain its old role? Must this huge, complicated, paradoxical nation always be mismanaged, cruelly, by elites who want to steal its wealth or oppress its people? Will Russian leaders always dream of conquest rather than prosperity?
Right now, many Russians don’t even realize what is happening in Ukraine. State TV has yet to admit that the Russian military attacked Kiev with rockets, bombed a Holocaust memorial or destroyed parts of central Kharkiv and Mariupol. Instead, official propagandists tell the Russians that they are carrying out a police action in the far eastern provinces of Ukraine. The public gets no information about casualties, war damage or costs. The extent of the sanctions was not disclosed. Images seen around the world – the bombing of the Kiev TV tower today, for example – cannot be seen on the Russian evening news.
And yet there is a strong, consistent drumbeat of alternative information. Yury Dud, a famous blogger with 5 million Instagram followers, posted a photo of a bombed-out building in Ukraine. The YouTube channel of Alexei Navalny, the imprisoned Russian dissident leader, was equally clear to its 6.4 million subscribers. Members of his team speak out against the war alongside the extension of his prison term, both part of the same story of internal and external repression. Millions of Russians know, because they have friends and relatives in Ukraine, that Putin has invaded a neighbor they do not consider their enemy. Some called these friends, crying on the phone, to apologize.
What could happen in Russia if the story became better known, the details clearer? What if the Russians could possibly see the same graphic images that we see? What if the price of this unnecessary violence became tangible for them too? The unpopularity of this war will grow, and as it grows, the other Russia – the different Russia that has always been there – will grow too. The Russians who took to the streets in 1991 to cheer the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russians who protested the fake elections in 2011, the Russians who turned out in large numbers across the country to protest the arrest from Navalny in 2021, Russians, rich and poor, urban and rural, who don’t want their country to be an evil empire – perhaps their numbers will increase enough to matter. Maybe one day they will also change the nature of their condition.