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The West's fault?

Arjen Berkvens, director Max van der Stoel Foundation

In this horrific time of war, the West is often blamed for Russia's attack on Ukraine. It is alleged to have provoked Russia by advancing ever further towards its borders. I doubt that this is so. Rather, I would argue that the opposite is the case. Because of (internal) weakness and lack of international "ambition", the West gave Russia the opportunity to invade.

In recent years, the West has shown less and less international ambition. Brexit took place and the European Union stopped expanding. Countries that had actually already received a commitment disappeared from view. Serbia was slipping ever further towards dictatorship and Bosnia & Herzegovina was on the brink of civil war. NATO member state Turkey disappeared from view through its own efforts. For countries without commitments, such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, it became clear that joining the EU and NATO was never going to happen.

Why is the West showing such restraint these days? It is because of Iraq. The fabricated reason for invading that country in 2003 led to Western trauma. In Syria, President Assad was then allowed to cross President Obama's red line with impunity. He used poison gas, terrorised the population, Aleppo was flattened by Russian warplanes in 2016, and managed to restore his power with the help of Russia. The fight against IS kept us on the ground for a long time, but ambitions to democratise Syria disappeared like snow in the sun. The West shamefully withdrew from Afghanistan last year after 20 years. Russia was able to invade Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 with virtual impunity.

In recent years, the West fell prey to internal divisions over refugees, climate change and most recently the covid-19 pandemic. Within the EU, lack of ambition and internal divisions prevailed. The US is more divided than ever by Trump and his possible return as president casts a long shadow over the future. The moment the US and EU lay paralysed in a corner, Putin seized his opportunity. His goal: to restore Russia's power in the territory of the old Soviet Union. He made impossible demands prior to the invasion on the assumption that the West would again limit itself to words and weak sanctions, and did something with the invasion of Ukraine that no one in the West had seriously thought possible.

Ukraine's heroic resistance has changed everything. Looking away is no longer an option. Slowly, European unity and Atlantic ties with the US and UK are recovering. I also hope that political ambition and courage will return. We owe that to the victims who are now falling.


Image: Unsplash