It is all too easy to be smart in hindsight. Today, we are all armchair generals, self-proclaimed security analysts and moral preachers desperately trying to understand Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Yet it is not Putin we must examine, but ourselves: our own blatant misjudgment of Putin’s readiness to toss Europe back into the age of wars and terror.
We, the EU politicians, helplessly watched Putin’s military build-up at the Ukrainian border and in Belarus during the past months. It was not the first time we have been silently watching. Over decades, the Kremlin has removed one democratic layer after the other, crossed red lines again and again. We have been watching the oppression of independent media and journalists, the cleansing of civil society, the suppression of minorities, the vilification of feminism and the crushing of the freedom of the arts and historical disputes. How many military interventions and war crimes have we accepted? From Chechnya to Syria, from Georgia in 2008 to Ukraine in 2014. We’ve been watching.
How many of those MEPs now voting for the resolution condemning Russia’s invasion last month have secretly admired and copied Putin’s political “innovations”?
Not only this, but Putin’s Russia has also become a laboratory for so many. How many of those MEPs now voting for the resolution condemning Russia’s invasion last month have secretly admired and copied Putin’s political “innovations”? From his nonsense about illiberal democracy to his strategy of marking organisations as “undesirable”, from his emotionalising domestic audiences with rhetorical crusades against feminism to his campaigns against LGBTI communities.
We’ve been watching and we’ve been mirroring. How many European governments have desperately tried to stay in power by gerrymandering, cultivating their own little oligarchs, media tycoons and corrupt darlings, and cleansing their media and their civil spaces, just like in Moscow? How many of those, on both the left and the right, undersigned the harsh words of our parliamentary resolution on Ukraine and yet had been condoning the developments in Russia as persistent Putin-Verstehers? For how many of you was Nato the root of all problems while you gave Putin a pass? All too many politicians and intellectuals fell into the ideological trap of whataboutism when confronted with the Kremlin’s aggressive policies. Putin’s obvious imperialist propaganda and totalitarian style didn’t worry them: the leftist supporters did not care about his proto-fascist ideologies, and the right-wing did not care about his flirtation with the Stalinist past. What was this political hypnosis of Putin?
Even if you have to live side by side with dictators, you don’t have to finance, justify or copy them. What we really need is a de-Putinisation. We must de-Putinise ourselves.
And how many of those who are screaming for the immediate stop of fossil imports now have blocked the green transformation for years, investing in fatal dependencies on Russian fossil fuels instead? I know it first-hand: one after another, past German governments have only deepened those dependencies, with current Russian imports accounting for 34 per cent of oil, 55 per cent of gas and half of Germany’s coal imports still today. This status quo is deplorable, and it is the making of those who were politically responsible for years.
The wake-up call is rude and cruel, but it will force the EU to rethink. For now, we need to stop this atrocious war by hard sanctions against the aggressor. But above all, we need to support Ukraine, both financially and with the strongest military equipment possible, so as to enable Ukrainians to effectively safeguard their skies. And we need to remember the lessons from the past for our own future: even if you have to live side by side with dictators, you don’t have to finance, justify or copy them. What we really need is a de-Putinisation. We must de-Putinise ourselves.