How Europeans View Putin’s War in Ukraine: A Personal Survey
All the world is fixed on Vladimir Putin’s audacious attack on Ukraine — universally seen as an attack on the liberal, democratic, rules-based international order, whose institutions have, by and large, furnished the norms and kept the peace since the end of World War II.
Europeans, because they live in the precincts of this new war, fix on it perhaps more than the rest of the world — for obvious reasons: Propinquity compels. Thus the questions abound: Will Putin, having attacked Ukraine as a first step, try for other territory he deems part of Mother Russia, thus widening the war in Europe? Will he, having issued the nuclear alert, actually act on it in Ukraine? There is much talk in the commentariat of Putin using a tactical nuclear weapon in-theatre, theoretically confining the damage to a “manageable” level — or would it? Will he use biological or chemical weapons in-theatre, breaking another rules-based norm? These hard questions resonate especially on a continent that endured, in the 20th century, two harrowing world wars.
It was with these questions that this American approached her European family and friends, to ask: Really, how are you doing, what are your thoughts, especially about a wider war in Europe? (At posting, Ukraine has fought the invading Russians to a stalemate, but this war, in its fifth week, is by no means over, with peace talks repeatedly failing, meaning all the above questions remain.) Response to my survey was impressive, with the input thoughtful, rich, and personal. With my correspondents’ permission, and noting this sample is small (13) and subjective, what follows is one profile of how Europeans view this potentially History-upending war.
But first, introductions (all are identified by their preference). First, to family: Finnish cousin Juhani, a medical doctor, wife Ursula, a journalist, and daughter Tuuli, also a medical doctor; and cousin Hannu, a church provost (pastor). Next, to friends (in order of nationality): Maja Hadziomerovic, Bosnian-American-British, leadership consultant, London; Milan Boehm, Czech Republic, entrepreneur in lasers; FL, France, communications consultant (retired); Goetz Muhlhausser, Germany, civil engineer (retired); MTH, Italy, CEO of a cultural organization; George Saliba, Malta, former Maltese ambassador to the Russian Federation, the U.N., and the U.S.; John Huige, the Netherlands, political economist; and in the U.K., both associated with London’s Wall Street, the City of London: VL, human resources executive (retired), and Ana, investment manager of private equity. All professionals, I would characterize them as humanist; highly conscious politically, socially, and culturally; and cognizant of History in a bred-in-the-bone way.
Before getting to the question of a wider war, some lead-up questions:
Do you think the liberal, democratic, rules-based order can stop Putin before he levels Ukraine?
The consensus: No. As Goetz (Germany) puts it: By themselves, “Liberal, democratic rules and political tolerance will certainly not stop Putin,” adding: “The West trusted Putin too long, Putin pretended too long that after Gorbachev there would be something new” — democracy — but “he was always the emperor in disguise.” U&J (Finland) point to the evidence: “The vast majority of [liberal] Europe strongly opposes Putin, but he just keeps going.” Notes Hannu (Finland), to exercise a liberal right like free speech in Russia against this war leads to “15 years in prison.”
What can stop Putin?
A newly-united NATO can deter, for now. Says Milan (Czech Rep.), “Putin is a dictator and as such he only understands power and fear. Anybody who doesn’t understand him should read on Hitler.” U&J (Finland) wonder about a “palace revolution,” “i.e., oligarchs who are losing their money and power and turn on him.” Says Ana (U.K.), “China can stop him, but they won’t, although they won’t help him with military aid — they won’t risk their economy.” In the long term, the sanctions will bite. Also says Hannu (Finland), “Pressure from ordinary Russians can grow and cause change, I hope.” For now, consensus is, Ukrainians must do the fighting. Says Milan (Czech Rep.), “I hope that our guns and money can help the heroic Ukrainians to stop the [expletive].”
What are your feelings about the invasion — its impact on Ukrainians?
Almost all participants express deep admiration for the Ukrainians, their fighting spirit and unity. U&J (Finland) have one word for what Putin is inflicting on them — “Abominable!” — while countryman Hannu has two: “Extremely cruel.” Says Ana (U.K.), “I feel terribly sorry for the Ukrainian people, but also encouraged by their strong resistance.” Milan (Czech Rep.) takes a moment: “Terrible is every death, every family divided and forced to emigrate. Positive for the nation is only one thing: They were able to withstand and fight the mighty [expletive]. This makes the people proud of themselves. The Czechs did not fight Hitler in 1939, the Russians in 1968, because we had felt left alone….so I have a strong feeling for this.” All acknowledge Ukraine is more European than Russian, “by history and culture, mentality and society,” as Goetz (Germany) says. As for Ukraine’s president-cum-commander, Maja (Bosnian-American-British) says it best: “Zelensky has been a joy and an inspiration to observe as a leader. It gives me hope amidst the heartbreak I feel when I see Russian troops advancing on civilians.”
What are your thoughts about NATO imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine?
The consensus: No. Milan (Czech Rep.) posits both sides: “A tough decision for NATO. On the other hand, we the West could threaten Russia the same way with the same rockets that Putin has.” Others are firmly No: “A risk too far” (Ana, U.K.); “It might be a solution, but dangerous” (Hannu, Finland). Such a zone would mean direct confrontation with Russia, about which John (the Netherlands) warns: “The use of tactical nuclear weapons by Russia cannot then be ruled out. Then it really is Armageddon.”
Do you feel Putin, if he “wins” Ukraine, will attack the former Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs)?
The consensus: A real possibility. Milan (Czech Rep.) thinks No: “Putin is not strong enough to do that. And he woke up the democratic world.” But others fear it: As Goetz (Germany) says: “Putin will continually try to re-establish the old Soviet Empire again, including some East European countries which became part of E.U. and NATO. Cold war will be started again.” Says Ana (U.K.), “Possibly would absorb Belarus and parts of Moldova. Might try to build a land bridge to Kaliningrad (but this would involve NATO countries).” As U&J (Finland) assess it: “The former SSR countries are NATO members, so we don’t foresee attacks toward them, except Moldova. But if NATO is seen as weak, Putin will seize the opportunity to eat them right that minute.” Countryman Hannu agrees: “If Putin wins Ukraine, it is not the end of this war. In Finland we say, ‘The appetite grows while eating.’” Not to jest, but note the eating metaphors Finns apply to Russia, their enormous neighbor, with good reason: Finland was occupied by Russia throughout the 19th century and fought a ferocious but losing Winter War (1939–40) against the Soviet Union during WWII, with Finland forced to cede the eastern territory of Karelia.
So, all these things considered, we come to my leading question:
Do you fear a wider war in Europe?
Consensus: Split, not just as a group, but each participant is of two minds. MTH (Italy) is the exception: “I do not fear nuclear war, I do not fear Putin will march to war to reconquer former USSR countries, and I do not fear to see war in Europe.” Everyone else echoes U&J (Finland): “Yes and no. Yes, if a Russian missile by accident lands in, e.g., Poland, the Ukrainian war could escalate into a bigger war. No, as long as NATO is plausible. Putin only appreciates power.” Says Ana (U.K.): “Yes, I fear, although I believe it is a low likelihood.” Hope, that slender reed, figures in the question of a wider war: “It is always possible, but I really don’t hope it” (Hannu, Finland) and “No, but this answer is more a wish, because the idiot [Putin] is able to start it” (Milan, Czech Rep.). “War in Europe,” says Goetz (Germany), “would be disastrous.”
Do you fear a nuclear war?
Again, a mixed response. Milan (Czech Rep.) restates himself: “No, but this answer is more a wish, because the idiot [Putin] is able to start it.” But Hannu (Finland) thinks nuclear war will not happen, “because the superpower [Russia] is not that desperate” — not yet. U&J (Finland) note their President, Sauli Ninisto, often serves as Putin’s sounding-board: “Putin said to Mr. Ninisto on their last phone call that terrible things will happen” [Putin’s veiled threat, should any country intervene in his “special military operation” in Ukraine]. They go on: “We do not fear nuclear war because that would also kill his own people. Having said that, we must add crazy autocrats seldom love their people.” But Ana (U.K.) say, simply, “Yes”: She fears nuclear war.
In reality, this mixed response, leaning more on hope than certainty, seems to bespeak “a feeling of helplessness,” which FL (France) bravely confesses. FL goes on to explain: With this new reality of brute force — the West being essentially helpless to stop Putin’s further incursions, whether or not he wins Ukraine (FL salutes the “brave” Ukrainians) — then, at that point, what do institutions like the International Court of Justice even mean, or for that matter, what does justice mean? In response, I note it has been ever thus throughout History: Civilization has so few defenses, vis-à-vis brute force. But this History-upending war in Ukraine is revealing how truly invaluable Civilization’s values are — for one, justice; for others, truth and self-determination. The question becomes: how to restore these values, how to defend them better? Our participants have some ideas, seeing conclusions to be drawn even before this war concludes.
This gets us to the origins of Putin’s war in Ukraine and how to forestall another like it. NATO membership and neutrality are central here. Putin cites as a causus belli Ukraine’s early quest for NATO membership, deeming it intolerable if a neighbor state belonged to a defense alliance organized by Russia’s putative enemy, the West. Thus, returning to our survey:
Is your country a member of NATO? If not, do you want it to apply for membership, post-crisis?
Participants from NATO member countries (U.K., Germany, the Netherlands, Czech Republic) express emphatic gratitude that, as a result of Putin’s assault, NATO has overcome its drift and united in a powerful way. Conversely, those from countries not under the NATO umbrella now want to join, i.e., Finland, as all Finnish participants agree: Hannu, U&J, daughter Tuuli. Per Tuuli, Putin’s war in Ukraine shows “the true face of Russia and we were a bit foolish to believe otherwise. Hopefully we will join NATO.” Say U&J: “Vast majority of Finns want our country to join NATO. The question is, how fast can we do this?” Says Hannu: “All trust in Putin and Russian politics has vanished and we are in a new situation. NATO is perhaps the only option, but it is sure that Russia won’t like that at all.”
The advisability of Ukraine opting for NATO membership surfaces often in current debate. At posting, Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky, to avoid further Russian decimation of his country, has shelved NATO membership, offering to settle for neutrality, with one proviso: It must come with robust NATO guarantees….which approximates regular NATO membership.
Which raises the question of geography and fate: Must countries abutting a big power like Russia, as Ukraine does, submit its fate to that big power? That question will be decided by the outcome of Putin’s war in Ukraine: Yes, if Putin wins; no, if Putin loses.
John (the Netherlands) usefully makes this point: “After the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, the West has shown insufficient understanding for the security needs of the Russian Federation.” George Saliba (Malta) echoes this position. As Malta’s former ambassador to the Federation, he writes from deep experience: “The expansion of NATO was uncalled for and the possible inclusion of Kiev [Ukraine] would certainly be problematic for Moscow. Russia has suffered from invasions, just to mention the Napoleonic war and the Second World War is enough. Russia lost more than 20 million people in this last war.” He poses an important question: “Are you aware that during the Yeltsin period Russia wanted to apply for NATO and was refused outright?” One can only wonder at this what-if. George adds: “I personally see no reason why Ukraine was not advised to go neutral. In this world we can choose our friends, but we do not choose our neighbors.” (Malta is a neutral, nonaligned state, thus not a full member of NATO but in a partnership.)
Here, a difference with a distinction emerges: Based on this survey’s small sample, it seems it is the voices of Western Europe that recommend neutrality for small neighbors of big powers. About Ukraine president Zelensky’s early bid for NATO, MTH (Italy) writes: “Ukraine and its President have been foolish knowing that Putin is next door. What was he thinking?!?” — a not-uncommon sentiment. MTH goes on: “We have foolish politicians all around! The price as usual is the civilians. So we pray we pray we pray.” But: It cannot be said that, in Ukraine, it was only politicians pushing NATO membership, freedom, and democracy. Very clearly these are the heartfelt objectives of the Ukrainian people themselves. What if We the People of small countries want to live free and democratic? I should note all other West European participants here are silent on these questions regarding Ukraine.
Those not silent, however, about these vital questions — of NATO membership and neutrality, of freedom and democracy — are those living on the Baltic Sea neighboring Russia (see again: the Finns) and Central Europe. Milan (Czech Rep.) has strong feelings about living under Soviet rule, which ended with the nonviolent “Velvet Revolution” when the USSR collapsed, in 1989. Over succeeding elections as a new democracy, he has decried any backsliding among his countrymen toward “the old system.” For neutrality to work, everything depends on the nature of that big-power neighbor: Is it benevolent or malevolent? In Ukraine, Russia is showing itself to be the latter.
Before we conclude with next steps, let us hear from one other voice originating from a small country, to reinforce that, in the post-crisis world to come, all countries, small ones included, deserve to live in security and not as a pawn in big-power politics.
Maja Hadziomerovic, before she became a hyphenate Bosnian-American-British, was a proud Bosnian hailing from “the Paris of the Balkans,” Sarajevo. She was a girl when the city came under siege by the Serbs, first from snipers, then shelling by its military — a siege that lasted four years, the longest of the 20th century. During this siege, there was no intervention, from NATO or otherwise; U.N. peacekeepers were in the city, not-keeping peace; the world watched the carnage on CNN. I was privileged to make two dear friends from Sarajevo, one of them Maja’s father. These friends are now having a hard time dealing with Ukraine’s destruction; Maja is, too, but she elects to participate here. (Maja is now our “NMF,” newest member of the family.) She writes:
“Having personally lived through the siege of Sarajevo and subsequent escape to a refugee camp in the early ’90s, the similarities that are now being live-streamed on a global scale are eerie. There are even parallels between Milosevic and Putin’s rhetoric: national defiance, the goal of a ‘Greater Russia’ or ‘Greater Serbia,’ shameless propaganda, and all compounded with cowardly violence on civilians.
“On a personal level it also made me angry about the inaction during the war in Bosnia — the arms embargo in particular, which condemned Bosnians to unimaginable losses and locked in the inequality of what was one of the world’s strongest armies at the time against civilians. I am encouraged that the bloody price we paid for the arms embargo decision was a lesson that isn’t being repeated today by NATO.
“I was really proud of the way the West quickly reacted — arming Ukraine, the heavy sanctions on Russia, welcoming refugees. I am also sad for the Russians who are impacted by this war and these sanctions and who don’t approve of any of it, but can’t speak up for fear of prison or violence. Wars are always a lose-lose, in my opinion. Finally, wars don’t end when peace treaties are signed — the knock-on effects are felt for generations to come.”
The magnanimity of the survivor….
Now: Back to our survey and next steps:
If the rules-based order wins in Ukraine, how could it better counter autocracy’s rise?
Consensus, emphatic: Protest — at the time it occurs — any and all violations of international norms made by any and all autocrats. At its heart, the rules-based order is about rule of law, thus it must call out any and all illegal actions, like autocrats’ land-grabs, persecution of their ethnic peoples, killing of their nationals in other countries, jailing their journalists, etc. As Ana (U.K.) puts it: “Stop trying appeasement. That approach has clearly failed.” Says Milan (Czech Rep.): “We in the West let Putin take Crimea and the eastern part of Ukraine. He changed the regime in some countries, speculating that these are countries nobody knows about. Hitler again, step by step.” Goetz (Germany) agrees: “We were far too tolerant and did not dispute any military actions of Putin’s, for example, in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. The economy was deemed more important — what a big mistake.” “Big mistake,” indeed: Putin, meeting with no objection, advanced to his next conquest.
A rethink of doing business with autocrats is urged. To echo Goetz (Germany), “What a mistake,” almost all participants state the need for Europe to quit its reliance on Russian oil and gas, and quit it now. Moreover, Ana (U.K.) advises, “Reduce trade-related reliance on autocracies — start reducing reliance on China now” (recall, Ana works in finance in the City of London). In the coming economic readjustment and instability, FL (France) says, “Let us hope we may accept restrictions in our daily life, sharing scarcity.” Milan (Czech Rep.) notes, “We have sufficient information on dictators, but we support them anyway, we try to make money with them. Not only Russia, China is the same issue.” Additionally, to counter autocracy’s rise, Milan urges, “We need to be ready to defend ourselves, not to close our eyes, not to focus on stupidities.” This last, about stupidities, needs to be taken to heart in the Land of the Free and Home of the Too-Often-Idiotic (America).
What analogies in Europe’s history, or your country’s, resonate with you during this crisis in Ukraine? What work of literature, drama, or philosophy do you find illuminating?
In addition to the painful “replaying of family memories of the Second World War on our continent,” as FL (France) put it, Hitler is the instructive figure from History cited most often (Milan, Goetz, U&J). Milan (Czech Rep.) recommends reading history, to learn the lessons found there, and “not to believe that the world is different now, because it is not.” U&J (Finland) recommend the novel “Life and Fate” by Russian author Vasily Grossman; also Hannah Arendt on totalitarianism and “the banality of evil”; George Orwell, Aldous Huxley. Hannu (Finland) recurs to the Finnish Winter War, as a David-and-Goliath contest. Goetz (Germany) recommends reading the history of Central Europe during the period 1871–1945 for the similarities of political development, notably the influence of fascism, adding: “Fight it from the start.” Germany failed to do this, he says, “starting and losing two disastrous world wars within one century…. The country had to do penance for all these crimes, til today,” which explains Germany’s reliance on diplomacy; Goetz applauds NATO’s newfound unity. MTH (Italy) cites Thucydides’ account of the war between Athens and Sparta, for its latter-day recapitulation in the U.S. and Russia. Which leads to:
Do you have a message for Americans?
America remains a great power, but is undergoing severe stress, both internally (to its democracy, most vividly reflected in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol) and externally (our disastrous exit from Afghanistan). As America regroups, what messages do our European friends have? Milan (Czech Rep.): “The democratic world needs you. Please don’t wait too long before you decide to help. Hitler again.” Maja (Bosnian hyphenate): “Even though (or precisely because) you may be so big and so powerful, you mustn’t lose sight of the interconnected nature of our globalized world, the power of collaboration, the importance of the collective.” Recurring to Finland’s newly fervent desire to join NATO, Tuuli notes, “Of course, if you elect Donald Trump again, NATO might not be much of a comfort to us then.” U&J (Finland) urge greater skepticism of Russia, citing as “great naivete” George W. Bush looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing an honest man: “When a Russian says that he will not attack, it means in plain language he will attack.” Goetz (Germany) likewise admonishes American leaders for overestimating “the Russian emperor” (Putin) as a democrat: “We have to mount the horses again, put on the armor, and show the invader our readiness to preserve our democracy, freedom, and human rights.”
Hannu (Finland), speaking as a churchman, alludes to the moral: “We have to prevent the spread of evil ways inside our own hearts, as well as outside,” adding: “I would like to be the idealist, but sometimes I must prevent evil with force and protect my values…. It will be dangerous, never pleasant. I hope the Americans find suitable ways to help the disadvantaged side [in Ukraine] in front of an overpowering enemy.” MTH (Italy) also strikes a spiritual note, urging a “less money-oriented” culture in America. George (Malta), invoking President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning in his farewell address about “the military-industrial complex,” worries about its influence “in this [Russia-Ukraine] and other crises engineered by Washington.” John (the Netherlands), noting Putin’s war in Ukraine is a “game-changer in international relations,” worries we will “now see a return to imperialist geopolitics.” (John, a longtime sustainability advocate, laments that the sharp increase in inflation due to this war will derail the “planetary politics necessary to avoid climate catastrophe,” which failure will have outsized impact on lower-income countries.)
With all this, though, Maja (Bosnian hyphenate) says: “I get the sense that this war [Putin’s in Ukraine] features more heavily in the households and dinner tables of Europeans than for Americans. Perhaps because it is on our doorstep, the emotion around it is heightened.”
As an American, I can assure our European friends that all America is riveted by the Ukraine crisis and “gets” its significance: As a 20-something told me recently, it’s about “bad guys up, good guys down.” From our broken democracy, we see, and are moved by, how clearly Ukrainians voice their democratic values. From our continental security, we get how brute force, unfettered, is “no-go,” thus America needs to stay in the world, not retreat from it; we value NATO anew. Despite their mutual hostility, Congressional Democrats and Republicans united to pass monumental packages of military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. President Joe Biden gets good marks for steering the American superpower vis-à-vis Putin. Democrats see ex-president Trump as proto-autocratic and master of the Big Lie, ala Putin; Republicans do not; thus it’s up to Democrats to make that case, fend off Trump’s comeback. Your notes for America — money-culture, wars driven by the military-industrial complex — are all my own as a commentator; I have long argued for a more responsible exercise of American power, a more responsible handling of our liberal values, a more mature culture. I recognize America’s sins: I protested, in print and in the streets, America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq, its descent to torture.
As a final grace-note: In addition to their governments supplying under-armed and -manned Ukraine with arms and other materiel, participants remark on the extraordinary kindness and welcome shown Ukrainian refugees arriving in their countries. Many have donated money. Milan (Czech Rep.) is hosting a Ukrainian family in his home. Others report people making room in their apartments, volunteering in emergency soup kitchens. Early in the war, VL reports a Ukrainian restaurant in her London neighborhood put out the call to patrons for aid donations to send to Ukraine — and was “overwhelmed” by the response: mountains of medicines, blankets, tents and sleeping bags, tinned food, diapers, mobile phone charger packs. It is as if Putin’s “extreme cruelty,” to recur to Hannu’s term, has galvanized, as a kind of compensation, extreme kindness.
Yes, many wonder how long this welcome will last. And Maja (Bosnian hyphenate) wonders if the warmth of this welcome is due to Ukrainians being white and Christian, as contrasted to refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Africa. I cannot speak to motivation, but I can say: Not a civil or sectarian war, Ukraine presents a crystal-clear case — for all the world to see — of Good and Evil, of brute force assaulting the post-World War II rules-based order, trying to force the world back to History’s millennia-long default position: that of all-powerful rulers and all-powerless masses. Putin’s war in Ukraine truly is History-upending; we all — Europeans, Americans, the world — can feel the earth’s axis shuddering under our feet.
To close, we must end with hard reality — the growing evidence of Putin’s hideous war crimes in Ukraine (also here, here, and here). Compounding his unwarranted war of aggression, Putin has been committing war crimes in plain sight for weeks now — killing not just combatants but civilians, attacking refugee flows, reducing cities to rubble. Now, having met far more resistance from Ukrainians than he expected, Putin is regrouping his forces, no doubt temporarily, and deploying foreign fighters, all to attack again this sovereign nation, this time with overwhelming force. And now comes news reports of a new war crime, a new depravity: Russian troops using Ukrainian children as human shields on their tanks — repeat: Russian troops using Ukrainian children as human shields on their tanks — as they change position and regroup. Cruelty upon cruelty, Russians as they leave are documented murdering Ukrainian villagers, with a bullet to the back of the head, and mining the areas they occupied, setting the scene for more havoc to come,
The question becomes, and comes soon: With Putin blowing to smithereens the so-called “rules of war” and all decency and morality, at what point in this cavalcade of depravity will the rules-based international order — if it is to keep faith with its vow to human life, to decency and morality, to Civilization, and if it is to keep its Soul — at what will it be forced to act and enter the arena…?