A New World Since Thursday

Thursday 24th February was a day like ‘9/11’ 2001 when the US was attacked, or like ‘11/9’ 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. For the third time in 33 years the world has changed, in the sense that world politics will not be the same again after last Thursday. 

In four astonishing days, Europe has rediscovered itself – thanks to brave women in Ukraine filling Molotov cocktails, and amateur soldiers picking up weapons they barely know how to use to defend their cities. Michael Clarke outlines the case.

If Ukraine had rolled over in the face of President Putin’s aggression this week it would have been a tragedy. Indeed, it may still be a tragedy in a week’s time, but in the way it is playing out it has also been an inspiration to a western world that for over thirty years has taken for granted its freedoms, as if they would never seriously have to be defended. President Putin has reminded us all that they do. And President Zelensky of Ukraine has shown post-modern Europe what pre-modern courage looks like. What a contrast to Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani last year who made one defiant speech then fled from Kabul – after which Afghanistan’s army, unsurprisingly, melted away – taking western policy with it.

But here, this week, the European Union has been quick to meet and to act. It began with all the usual selective back-sliding among the 27, but has now moved with speed and decisive intent to take the pain of sanctions and visit on Putin’s leadership clique the pariah economic and social status it deserves.

NATO has played a strong role in reinforcing its borders and has made it clear that it will not be intimidated by Putin’s threats. The role of the United Kingdom has been positive and shown a sense of welcome consultation and leadership at the European level. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is – characteristically – a very lucky boy. Thanks to the hapless decision-making of the Metropolitan Police and now of President Putin, he has a crisis to which he can rise. And so far, he has; clearly giving it top priority which puts every other government issue on the back-burner for a little while – doubtless a high tension but blessed relief for him. And it is apparent that he has been personally and genuinely moved by the turn of events in Ukraine and the heroic stance of his counterpart in Kiev. It matters, he cares, and it shows.

For President Biden, this will now be the defining crisis of his Administration – perhaps an ironic relief to him too, after the disaster of the withdrawal from Kabul last August. He has stepped up and, notwithstanding all the concerns of the US in Asia and the Pacific, has shown that the US really will commit itself to European security when the peace of the continent is under structural threat. Many of us thought that in practice those days had gone forever. But now it seems not.

Above all – and most important for Europe over this last astonishing week – Germany has taken the centre-stage role among European-NATO that it vacated at the end of the Cold War; the lack of which had created a sense of general drift in the alliance. The new government in Berlin, the ‘traffic light coalition’, the untested SPD Chancellor, all seemed to be characteristically ambiguous and wobbly about reactions to Russian behaviour, sanctions and responses. Many observers rolled their eyes knowingly as they tried to read the tentative signs coming from the German government.

But since Thursday, Berlin has agreed that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline may be full of gas, but it will certainly not open. It may actually turn out to be a dead 10 billion Euro asset, whatever that means for Germany’s gas dependence on Russia. And Berlin has agreed that it will help banish most Russian banks from the SWIFT payments system – a big risk that could result in Russian gas being directly cut-off. Berlin has finally – almost too late – lifted its ban on the supply of weapons to Ukraine, sending 1,000 of its own anti-tank weapons and 500 of its Stinger missiles. More importantly, this policy reversal also allows other weapons systems containing German components, as in the case of some of the Netherland’s weapons offered to Kiev, for example, now to be sent to Ukraine. And, most remarkable of all, Olaf Scholz announced on Sunday that Germany would immediately invest over 100 billion euros in Germany’s defence budget, taking it well over the 2% of GDP target for all NATO countries. At a stroke, this puts Germany back at the core of the European-NATO alliance, where for straight geopolitical reasons, it should always have been. 

As Laslo says to Rick at the end of Casablanca, ‘welcome back to the war Monsieur Rick. This time I know we will win’. European security may be in a parlous crisis, and this may turn out to be cold comfort in the immediate future for Ukraine, but the European security consensus has not looked this strong in decades. The citizens of Ukraine, and their leaders, have shown us all what Europe is, and what it might need to be prepared to fight to hold onto. Perhaps, after all, Europe as a version of freedom, of prosperity, and of some self-confidence, is back in business. We can only hope that the Ukraine we now know can be part of it.

Michael Clarke is co-author of Britain`s Persuaders: Soft Power in a Hard World (Bloomsbury/IB Tauris, 2021) and Tipping Point: Britain, Brexit and Security in the 2020s (Bloomsbury/IB Tauris, 2019). He is author of The Challenge of Defending Britain (Manchester University Press, 2018). 

Photographer: PO Phot Dave Jenkins Copyright: UK MOD © Crown copyright 2021