At 4 AM on February 24th, the world changed. This was the 9/11 moment for Europe and much of the rest of the world.
Just as 9/11 dramatically changed the flow of history, resulting in two wars and hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of lives ruined, so too will Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Right now, we are seeing only the first effects and getting glimpses of second-order effects. The broad third-order effects will not be visible for a long time, though they’ll be obvious in hindsight.
On March 7, 1936, the German army violated the Treaty of Versailles and entered into the Rhineland. Here is what Hitler later said:The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life. If the French had then marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance.
Those two days determined what Germany would do next: build out its army and start World War II. Putin’s 1936 moment was in 2014 and 2015 when Russia invaded Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. (Some would argue it started earlier, in 2008, with the excursion into Georgia.)
At the time, the West put toothless sanctions on Russia. Despite pleas from the US, the EU did not even consider increasing its defense budget. This inaction emboldened Putin to start his war with Ukraine.
Today we are close to 1939, with Germany’s invasion of Poland and the start of what later became known as WWII. Except that it seems that Europe, acutely aware of its dark history, has finally woken up.
A day or two after Russia invaded Ukraine, the US and European countries started to come out with sanctions. They were pathetic and laughable.
The low point was when Italy excluded exports of Gucci bags to Russia. It seemed like 2014–2015 all over again, in line with what Putin was expecting.Then something changed on February 26th.
- I don’t think it was just one factor but a confluence of events: The horrors of this war were broadcast on social media for the world to see. This time it was not happening far away but just a few countries over to people who looked just like most other European citizens.
- When Sweden and Finland declared in recent days that they were exploring joining NATO, Putin threatened them with political and military actions (war!). Let’s pause. I want you to process this for a second. Russia was threatening war with two other nations, neither of which had even been part of the Soviet Union, if they made decisions to determine their own fate. This time it did not feel like an empty threat.
- Volodymyr Zelensky did not escape to Poland or to the US. In a rejoinder to the US’s offer of safe haven, he said, “I need weapons, not a ride.” He reenergized not just Ukraine but the rest of the world. (I wrote this article about this wonderful man when he was elected). The bravery of the Ukrainian people was and is inspiring.
European countries suddenly woke up and realized that they might be next.
As Russia has been cut off from the rest of the world in everything from planes to smartphones, it has been pushed into Chinese hands. Russia has what China needs – commodities.
Photo credit: Tina Hartung on Unsplash