The argument that NATO provoked Russia is an obvious example of Moscow’s narrative being regurgitated in mainstream western media. The truth is, however, that we did not take enough action. This is what ultimately encouraged Putin to act in such a brutal manner.
On February 24th 2022 the world awoke to the news that the Russian Federation had begun a brutal invasion and attack from land, sea and air against independent and free Ukraine. That terrible winter morning confirmed that the evidence gathered by US intelligence and shared with the world weeks before was indeed correct. Russia’s large-scale military invasion was inevitable. It was to take place, despite our utter disbelief.
Russia’s plan of mass aggression directed at the Ukrainian people could also have been gathered from the televised speech that Vladimir Putin delivered on February 21st, just a few days before the invasion. In this over one-hour-long gloomy talk to the Russian nation (and indeed the whole world), Putin bluntly declared his hatred of the former republics, now independent states, and bitterness over the collapse of the Soviet Union. The communist state’s breakup is for him, as we have long known, the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. Today, it is crystal clear that Putin will not spare anything that humanity holds dear in order to restore the Russian empire and halt the NATO alliance from accepting new members.
Cowardice and denial
The brutality of the Russian army since the start of the invasion not only shows that Putin has no respect for international norms or human lives, but also that his own state – the Russian Federation – has become a repressive fascist system. The infamous letter “Z”, first painted on Russian military vehicles, has now become an explicit symbol of this fascism. But the truth is that Russia has been on the totalitarian path for quite some time now. We have just refused to accept this, naively believing that the lessons of the Second World War had been internalised long ago and its atrocities would never be repeated. This was especially true immediately after the Cold War, when it appeared that liberal democracy would prevail worldwide as part of the “end of history”.
Today, when news about Russia’s hideous crimes against the Ukrainian nation reaches us daily, we have to admit that Russia acted in this way partly because of our own cowardice and denial. To put it honestly, it was us, the international community, that absolved the Russian Federation from accountability for its many brutal invasions in the past. These actions started with Moldova and Chechnya in the 1990s, then Georgia, Syria, Crimea and Donbas in the first and second decades of the 21st century. Like now in Ukraine, all these other places witnessed the Russian army commit crimes against humanity. Yet, instead of punishing those responsible for the atrocities in our international system of justice, we stood by, silently watching as the Kremlin ordered the murders of those who had openly opposed them in Russia and abroad.
Among those who were killed is Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered for informing the world on the reality of the Second Chechen War. Natalya Estemirova, a human rights activist, was also assassinated in Chechnya for similar reasons. We all remember the murder of Boris Nemtsov, who was killed for his reports on the Russian military intervention in Donbas. The closure of Memorial – an organisation that investigated Stalin’s brutal crimes – should have been no surprise as the totalitarian regime began closing its ranks internally.
And while we may have been shocked by all these events and even expressed our anger publicly, we did very little to prevent them from happening again. Some in the West believed that these were even isolated incidents or that business with Russia did not necessarily mean business with those killers responsible for these horrible yet largely ignored crimes. Russian disinformation and propaganda fuelled ignorance and provided a cover for those who valued business over morals, and profits over lives.
Russia also gained a foothold in many of our own countries, often exploiting corrupt politicians and disseminating state-sponsored fake news and disinformation that inflamed internal divides. By allowing Russia Today, later RT, and Sputnik, primarily broadcast in English (the global lingua franca, but also translated into many other languages), to frequent our media landscape, we believed that we were adhering to our cherished democratic values like freedom of speech. Under the impression that these channels were offering “a different perspective”, we allowed Putin’s sick vision of restoring the Russian empire to take root in our societies and Kremlin-created narratives meant to divide us to enter into our discourse.
Thus, in 2014, instead of talking about the Russian war against Ukraine, we could read about a “civil conflict” in Ukraine; “the Ukrainian crisis”; and the problem of “Ukrainian nationalists”. These phrases, however, as many finally learnt in 2021 and 2022, were only to serve as a background for a much stronger lie. It was uttered by Putin himself and used as a pretext to start the current war. He falsely stated that Ukraine has no historical right to exist and even requires “denazification”.
The “denazification” of a state whose president is Jewish is obviously a groundless argument. Yet, we have to admit that many politicians in our own countries have long been under the influence of Russia. Thanks to this, we have witnessed many destructive trends that have severely damaged not only the operations of our state institutions and political processes, but also brought on deep divisions within our highly polarised societies. Almost any issue that requires a democratic choice has become prey to Russian manipulation via its disinformation machine, online trolls, bots and useful idiots. This is true for elections, but also COVID-19, Brexit, abortion rights, race relations, LGBTQ+ rights and many other issues. Instead of adequately diagnosing the sources of these divisions, we eagerly joined in; fanning the flames that were stoked by Russia’s interference. While we cannot blame Russia for everything wrong within our own societies, we do need to acknowledge all the risks it poses to our social cohesion through echo-chambers, bubbles and cancel culture.
Our money also allowed Russia to grow. We nourished the monster in the Kremlin through vast and numerous business deals that we now find so difficult to free ourselves from. For some, business with Russia is still acceptable even if their daily news reports highlight the inhumane blockade of Mariupol and the shelling of breadlines in Kharkiv. Several EU member states remain prone to pressure from Russia, having ignored repeated calls for the diversification of their energy supply.
Who provoked who?
Many commentators, politicians and opinion makers in the West continue to act as useful idiots for the Kremlin by claiming that it is NATO’s fault Russia invaded Ukraine. They say that NATO provoked the conflict and Russia is only acting in its own self-defence. Is Moscow defending itself by brutally killing civilians in the thousands? By destroying entire cities and forcibly moving their populations to various regions in Russia, including the Far East? How we can even point the finger at anyone else beyond Putin and his regime is still a deep-seated mystery. Besides, NATO does not “expand”; it has an “open door policy”. In other words, if a country wishes or decides that it is in its own best interests to join the Alliance, NATO will welcome them into the family after it conforms to the highest western standards. Seeing how Russia assaults those who even consider joining NATO, we should not doubt the importance of the Alliance. What if Poland did not decide to join NATO in 1999 and waited to announce such intentions until 2015? It would not take much imagination to fathom how Putin would have reacted in such a scenario. The argument that NATO provoked Russia is another example of the Russian narrative being regurgitated in mainstream western media. The truth is, however, that we did not take enough action. This is what ultimately encouraged Putin to act in such a brutal manner.
Not that long ago, we were disgusted by the revelations in Alexei Navalny’s film about Putin’s mansion. But no one really bothered to speak up against the gas pipeline that allowed him to reach such levels of wealth. Many in the West in fact never felt obliged enough to see their business with Russia as an act of corruption. Yet many of them were eager to point to Ukraine as being corrupt and hence unable to “meet European democratic standards”. We expected Ukrainians to listen to our guidelines on what modern statehood should look like, but their arguments (or those in Poland or the Baltic states) on why Nord Stream 2 is dangerous for the region and our security went ignored, written off as wild “Russophobia”.
Now, Europe and the West face their greatest challenge since the end of the Cold War and perhaps since the outbreak of the Second World War. The refugee crisis that the Russian forces have now set in motion through their indiscriminate attacks on Ukraine will be an immense and lengthy test. The tactics of total war have already forced a large percentage of Ukraine’s future beyond its borders. It must remain a priority for the international community to provide them with care and safety. Pushing these masses of civilians into Poland, Romania and Moldova in particular is also part of the Russian strategy to put these countries under pressure, sow divisions and exhaust resources. These countries and their allies must quickly come to terms with the fact that they are now on the frontline.
Towards a common victory
Now, of course, we have reached a stage of western unity and solidarity with Ukraine. The response by the transatlantic community to Russia’s invasion was impressive. Putin certainly did not expect such a reaction. A new emboldened sanctions regime has been introduced and Nord Stream 2 has finally been put on hold (yet for how long, we do not know). How this war will end depends on many factors. The brave and courageous Ukrainians defending their home, led and inspired by their democratically elected president, convince us that victory is not only possible but likely. However, peace at any cost cannot be the western-imposed solution to Putin’s war. Ukraine has already sacrificed too much. It has lost too many husbands, wives, sons, daughters and grandparents. Instead, peace can only come with Ukraine’s victory; its territorial integrity intact and its future bright and prosperous.
The Russian totalitarian regime must be held to account for its crimes in this war. This includes an end to Vladimir Putin’s rule in the Kremlin. A return to business as usual, drunk on Russian disinformation and corrupted by dirty money – to a place where we were before February 24th – is no longer possible. There is only one outcome: Ukraine’s victory and the renewal of the West and its promise of a new future. The price that Ukraine is paying today cannot and will not be made in vain. Understanding this is the first step towards our common victory.
This text was written by the editors of New Eastern Europe and was previously released by the NEE.
Adam Reichardt is the Editor in Chief of the New Eastern Europe magazine based in Poland. Published since 2011, the magazine is one of the leading publications dedicated to the region of Central and Eastern Europe. He is also the co-host of the “Talk Eastern Europe” podcast – the official podcast of New Eastern Europe.
Iwona Reichardt is the Deputy Chief Editor of New Eastern Europe. She has a PhD in political science from the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.
Daniel Gleichgewicht is an Editor with New Eastern Europe. He holds an MA in International Relations with a specialisation in intercultural relations from Collegium Civitas in Warsaw and has been working with Jewish youth initiatives in Eastern Europe.