“4am Kyiv is bombed”.
That’s not a statement from this week – and that’s what makes it all the more tragic.
For most Europeans, ground war driven by a foreign superpower was an omen of the twentieth century. Only recently have we begun to see the World War Two generation give way to a new society that knows of ground conflict only through history and second-hand memory.
Whether down to the media’s narrative or our own experiences, war has a very different meaning for Europe in the twenty-first century. We hear of metaphorical ‘wars’ on drugs, health, or climate change, so-called “transnational threats” that affect us all but have no clear aggressor. We’ve learnt (or are learning) to combat them – with international pacts, accords, and agreements, creating new alliances of cooperation and understanding. NATO’s own 2030 agenda highlights a need to “better use non-military tools to address common security challenges”. The European war and security mindset has clearly moved on.
But more than 70 years after the end of World War Two, Ukrainians are once again experiencing war at its most debased: a brutal military invasion by a foreign superpower, driven by opportunism and self-interest. For the rest of us in Europe, it serves as a reminder of what we thought had been left behind in the textbook, but is in fact very much still a real threat.
The UK Government’s own Intelligence and Security Committee delivered a report last summer finding that the UK “badly underestimated” the Russian threat. Has it done the same, along with the rest of the European powers, with Russia’s long-planned invasion of Ukraine?
But history is not merely repeating itself. This is a twentieth century mode of conflict equipped with twenty-first century tools, with widescale cyberattack as much a fear as artillery rounds.
What does this mean for Europe’s response? Boris Johnson spoke with a tone of pride and strength in announcing the UK’s “largest set of sanctions ever” to “hobble” the Russian economy. But “squeezing” Russia from the world economy isn’t as straightforward as the NATO allies of old may wish it to be. It won’t just be Russians that feel the strain of skyrocketing oil shares and an exacerbated cost of living crisis; it’ll be the whole of Europe. What’s more, there will be yet another considerable refugee crisis for Europe to contend with; not only from Ukraine, but also from other countries whose populations will slip into grave poverty as food prices rise in response to reduced Ukrainian wheat exports.
It seems there’s no answer yet to this dilemma. Sanctions are vital – Ukrainian lives depend on them – and yet they cannot comfortably be deployed with national pride. Sir Kier Starmer’s own muddled tone reflects this, at once supportive of the “hardest possible” sanctions on Russia and yet cautious of the “economic pain” for Britons in response. The uncomfortable truth remains that sanctions will only do so much; what Ukraine really needs is military support, that which is politically impossible for the West to provide due to the geopolitical strategic implications of NATO countries directly fighting Russian forces.
As the numbers of both Ukrainian and Russian casualties begin to leak out of ever-breaking news cycles of this 21st century conflict, we would do well to remember the lessons of old: war is not simple, its impact has no borders, and its consequences are difficult to predict.
The Whitehouse team are expert political consultants providing public relations and public affairs advice and political analysis to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org.