Day six and while military action continues there is something of a lull in the events. News feeds are less busy, the supply of viral memes has diminished, and the EU hasn’t done anything rash for at least 24 hours. It is not only Putin who is now partly propelled by events rather than controlling them; the few days since the invasion have created their own internal logic elsewhere too.
Ukrainian representatives are making impressive and impassioned speeches which have been rapturously received by the UN and the EU. It is not on only millennials on Instagram who are swept up in the heady fervour of undeniable righteousness. The conflict now seems to be free of the complexity and nuance and conflicting viewpoints that bedevil most great events and politicians can enjoy the feeling of doing things that have almost universal approval rather than indulging in the grubby horse-trading that is their stock in trade.
Ukraine has applied to join the EU and a number of member countries have already voiced their support. This seems like madness. Is membership now a reward for undergoing bombardment, a prize for having a photogenic leader? Although the differing views on sovereignty are at the root of the crisis, even Ukrainians don’t dispute Putin’s view that there are broad and deep cultural, historical and family ties between the two countries. Economically Ukraine is similar to Russia, by some measures it is worse. In terms of social attitudes, it doesn’t seem to be demonstrably more liberal or “western”. The persistent stories about Africans being prevented from fleeing aren’t encouraging.
Nor is Ukraine a small country. In land mass it is second only to Russia in European terms and population-wise is almost as large as Spain. It will have a significant influence on the balance of power within the EU. Apart from the fact that they are on opposing sides in the conflict and one is led by a man now perceived to be an ageing psychopath who may have now be ill or mentally unstable, and the other by a charismatic former comedian who is a media natural and once appeared on Strictly Come Dancing, there is not so much to distinguish these countries. Their opposition and the contrast in their leadership doesn’t seem a sound basis for this kind of policy decision. If Ukraine, why not Russia?
None of this is intended to denigrate Zelensky who has performed admirably, heroically even, in a situation where most expected him to crumple. However, given the travails of the EU over the last 15 years it may be better to take a cold, beady-eyed view of further expansion, even if that is unpopular in the current heady atmosphere, but with Germany rapidly overturning 70 years of military restraint, France, or at least Macron seeing the conflict as an opportunity to burnish his reputation on the world stage and Britain no longer with a seat at the table, there is no one with clout that seems able to say ‘Hang on a minute.’
Once you do say that though, much that seemed clear about the course of the war suddenly seems less so. Where are we exactly? What are we doing? What are we trying to achieve? Our reactions and thought processes can’t adapt quickly enough to the change in circumstances. Before hostilities the support for Ukraine and threat of economic sanctions seemed reasonable, albeit they were then intended as a deterrent. Now they are in place and, both in terms of military hardware and economic restrictions, they exceed anything envisaged only last week. This step change is partly due to the ferocity of Putin’s assault. Any hopes that it would be surgical or tactical or restricted to existing areas of dispute in the east were quickly consigned to the dustbin.
The line separating us from full entry of NATO into the war is becoming more and more theoretic and legalistic. Both the public and political mood seem to be fully behind increasingly uninhibited declarations of support and measures. This is fueled by the sense in the first days that things were going badly for the Russians and that a humiliating failure was possible, even likely. But this assessment is largely fed by the media and social media, both of which are much more inclined to tell us what we want to hear than the more constrained approach of the past. All it would take is a successful Russian assault on a major target to cast a totally different light on things. It might not guarantee them victory, but it could presage a long and horrific campaign, and would certainly break the spell which has been cast on the west by events so far and has sent things spiralling.