How Worried Should We Be About Russia?

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From Berlin, Russia is a 7-hour drive. The Ukraine is only a little farther by car. And sometimes I feel, when staring out my windows to the East, over the Spree, that I can feel Putin breathing. You don’t need to be a historian for that to make you nervous.

Writing in the Washington Post on Friday, Anne Applebaum provided the most alarmist version of European security I’ve come across recently. Her piece ‘War in Europe is not a Hysterical Idea’ makes extreme historical comparisons, evoking the atmosphere of Poland in the summer of 1939 and the chaos and destruction of WW2. She asks whether Central Europeans need to be worried about events in the Ukraine as if it were Hitler’s invasion of Poland. She favors quotes from extreme right-wing Russian nationalists like Alexander Dugin and Vladimir Zhirinovsky (who earlier this month talked about the ‘total annihilation’ of Eastern European states). She evokes Hitler and Stalin in her analysis of Putin, and asks whether it is ‘naïve’ not ‘to prepare for total war’.

War in the Ukraine is not a hysterical idea. But it is, so far, hysterical to say that Putin will bring about WW3 on continental Europe. For one thing, Ukraine does not have the guarantees that Poland had from Western powers at the beginning of WW2. It is not a member of NATO.

Just how nervous we need to be––with Russian troops’ incursion into the Ukraine, their repeated violation of Finnish airspace, Kiev talking about a ‘point of no return’, the EU putting a one-week deadline on Russia before it will face consequences (can the EU possibly unite in these efforts?), the Lithuanian leader saying Russia is basically at war with Europe, and Putin reminding everyone in a press conference about the strength of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, all in advance of a major NATO meeting next week––depends on a few determining factors which are not yet entirely clear.

Will a conflict between Russia and the Ukraine remain within the borders of the Ukraine? And within the area of Russian domination in the Ukraine? If the conflict were to involve a NATO state like one of the Baltics, we are in trouble. This depends on just how crazy Vladimir Putin might be (‘living in another world’ was Merkel’s appraisal). Is he bent on making himself into a historic figure who wages war with the West, exposes the hollowness of NATO, and reunites Russians under a reinvigorated empire to overturn the Western victory at the end of the Cold War? Certainly, Stalin and Hitler had millennial perspectives on their historical roles, and scant concern for the immediate loss of human life. And Putin is boosted by his already booming public approval in Russia (supposedly over 80%).

Or is Putin rather more pragmatic? Do we see a limited, regional, operation, in which Russia has a few clearly delineated goals: to prevent the inclusion of the Ukraine in NATO, to extend its annexation from Crimea to Eastern Ukraine. Putin knows that if his goals are limited, Europe and America are likely to react only with strong words and economic sanctions.

One would do well to keep one’s eye on such factors rather than falling into axiomatic historical comparisons. Putin compared Ukrainian military movements in Eastern Ukraine to the Nazis last week; he is reminded of ‘the events of the Second World War, when the Nazi occupiers, the troops, surrounded our cities — for example, Leningrad — and point-blank shot at these settlements and their inhabitants’. The irony, of course, is that Putin’s aggressive testing of Europe’s balance of power in the East is rather more reminiscent of Hitler, and his violation of sovereign states starting in 1938. Putin’s chauvinism––his nationalistic, heteronormative agenda––can broadly be compared to the Nazis’ as well. The World War Two analogies, which are entering into the press discussion in force, might have some limited use after all.

The West must, in light of these aggressions, contend too with the legacy of appeasement. Neville Chamberlain was made foolish by the history books for not standing up to Hitler. And yet, perhaps, we have a little more understanding for him now when faced with our own tough choices, and our own memories of a catastrophic European war. Chamberlain lived under the shadow of WW1. Our inheritance is even less enviable: the greater brutality of WW2 and the re-emergence of old patterns in European history in the nuclear age. Will we find ourselves following Chamberlain in placating our enemy for fear of horrific consequences? For what is the alternative? Angela Merkel has already said there is no military solution to the Ukrainian conflict––a position unsurprising for the European country that has done the most reflection on WW2. Or do we have methods unavailable to our diplomatic predecessors: the arm of financial consequences in a much more interconnected world economy?

No one in the West is going to take big risks for Ukraine. I wish I were so sure about Putin. He did say: ‘Thank God, I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia’. But he followed these words with the warning: ‘I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers’. We see the re-emergence of military tensions on the European continent between the superpowers––fought over a territory, Ukraine, that finds itself at the intersection of their spheres of influence––and the real question is whether Russia, the EU and America have clear ideas of where a balance of power might be established. Will there be any room for compromise, or will this smack too much of appeasement, or might it embolden Putin and lead us down the road to real conflict? Or is this pattern expected precisely because we have overly axiomatic ideas about how European conflict occurs, from our historical examples? Right now, we are all waiting to find out how much the powers on both sides are willing to lose to defend their spheres of influence, and I expect Europe and America will eventually make larger concessions to Russia, than vice versa, because they care more about a broader peace on the Continent. They will likely turn to a policy of containment, backed by economic sanctions, like that which isolated the Yugoslav conflict from European life for four bloody years.

Meanwhile, within Ukraine, a tragedy looms that might make Yugoslavia look like child’s play.

Joseph Pearson

Joseph Pearson (1975) is writer based in Berlin. Born in Canada, he was educated at Cambridge University, UK, where he received his doctorate in history in 2001. Since 2008, he has written The Needle, which has become one of Berlin's most popular blogs. His portrait of the German capital, Berlin, for Reaktion Press was published in 2017. He is also the essayist and blogger of the Schaubühne Theatre, one of Berlin's best known state-funded institutions. His writing has appeared widely in the press, literary and academic journals, and has been translated into Italian, German, French, and Arabic. Having taught at Columbia University in New York City, he lectures in Berlin at New York University Berlin (since 2012) and the Barenboim-Said Academy.

7 thoughts on “How Worried Should We Be About Russia?

  • 01/09/2014 at 09:26

    In its essence, Russia is an imperial power, and the post-1989 setback was unlikely to endure for long.

    Two questions are important: first, how to draw the territorial line beyond which any Russian expansion will be treated as an act of war, and second, where exactly?

    In the past, Russia has ruled all of what is now Ukraine, Belorus, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, Estonia, and much of Poland…. Claims to all of these are fuzzy once it is accepted de facto that the post-WW2 order need not hold, as happened when the west effectively acquiesced to the occupation of the Crimea.

    We are in a dangerous time, and Europe has become soft. Barroso’s comments about “responsible proud nations” must have been greeted with hilarity in Moscow. In their view, responsible and proud nations don’t behave otherwise…..

  • 01/09/2014 at 21:59

    Hello Joseph, thanks for your thoughtful post. interestingly enough i came across it by searching for “United World College” and “Russia conflict Ukraine”. As a UWC-Alumnus I was wondering how the UWC-experience could help find answers in this situation. I am literally lost for words towards my Russian co-years who used to be some of my best friends at college but have since then gone silent or are posting unambiguous videos about “Novarossiya”. Putting it into a historical context I cannot help but wonder whether this is a kind of a pre-WW1 situation of a conflict arising despite high levels of international trade and plenty of personal cross-border connections. Do we have to conclude that the movements like the UWCs are powerless in the face of such stark political divisions? I’d be keen to hear your thoughts. Regards, Tobias

  • 01/10/2014 at 03:01

    Russia IS NOT 7 hgours drive from Berlin!!!! In 7 hours you can reach east border of EU (of Poland) but then you have to travel thru White Russia, or Ukraine, or Lithuania, Or Estonia….. A bnig mistake at the beginning of article!!!! SHAME!!!

    • 01/10/2014 at 19:33

      You’ve obviously never driven to the border with Kaliningrad, which everyone agrees is part of Russia. That’s 750 km from Berlin, more or less, which you can drive if you are lucky in even less than 7 hours. Not a mistake, and I’m not ashamed. Are you?

  • 23/10/2014 at 13:56

    Excellent article. However it is worth remembering that Ukraine DOES have security guarantees, albeit not as categorical as the historical ones Poland had. The Budapest Memorandum gave Ukraine assurances in exchange for the removal of its nuclear weapons. The intent was quite explicitly to assure Ukraine that it did not need nukes to defend itself against an agressive Russia, the West would do that.

    This has been conveniently forgotten.

  • 12/12/2014 at 17:54

    You all are right and wrong at the same time. The thing is that nowadays the world is involved into the massive media war. And to Know who is telling the truth is very difficult. To understand the situation a little, you need to watch the news from different countries and to communicate with the locals from Ukraine and Russia.
    By the way, Just watch Russian news. Every day we broadcast news about military operations in the Donbass, Donetsk, etc. These are all cities of Ukraine. And they fight with the Ukraine not with Russia!
    Yes, Russia sends humanitarian aid to eastern Ukraine. this is absolutely normal because there lives a large number of Russian people.
    Do you heard this news? hmmm seems not. I watch channel Euronews and Deutsche Welle and there has never been a report about the situation in eastern Ukraine.
    With regard to the Crimea, I agree, the Crimea connected to Russia too fast, and there are many uncertainties, but it happened with official referendum. And now in the Crimea is calm and quiet. But in eastern Ukraine is a real war. And who then Aggressive?
    As for my opinion, I believe that everyone is guilty, but dying and suffering of innocent people!
    But thinking that is to blame “aggressive Russia” is at least silly.

    • 17/09/2017 at 20:04

      Alina, excuse me, but you just repeat Russian propaganda (it’s not news, it’s certainly propaganda) word by word. I am from Donetsk, and I know what’s happening. Russia fully controls and supplies pro-russian terrorists and unofficial forces with money, weapons, fuel, and servicemen. A lot of Russia servicemen were captured during Ilovaysk operation. There were some interviews with Russia’s regular servicemen who recognized their presence at this war and with mothers of killed Russian soldiers as well. That war is definitely created and conducted by Russia and you won’t deceive the rest of the world by lying Putin’s propaganda machine. About Crimea “referendum” – it was carried out under the threat of the weapon from russians. Besides, it’s completely illegal. There are no laws by which you could conduct such things neither in Ukraine nor Crimea. The deputies, who proclaimed this “referendum” – were captured by Russia’s servicemen and brought to the administrative buildings and militants made them to “vote” for this “referendum”. Just see Igor Strelkovs’ interview, he recognizes that fact completely. So the facts tell us about Russia guilt, and of course, Russia will pay for that more and more. Which is great, generally. About the article itself: I think the author is too scared by Russians. Their army power is sufficiently exaggerated, and in case of the direct conflict with NATO it will end up in three-four weeks. We know their real power. 76-th Pskov airborne and 223-th Kostroma airborne, among others, were involved in this conflict, and believe me, they are not great warriors by evidence of our Ukrainian servicemen, some of who I knew personally and helped them a lot. All their power is deception and intimidation, and that’s it. Just continue to press on them and choke them by sanctions and you’ll see either USSR-2.0 crumbling story or just retreat from Ukraine and Crimea.

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