SHARE
COPY LINK

UKRAINE

OPINION: This is Russia’s war, but we Europeans need to learn fast from our mistakes

For those of us living in Europe now, this is a scary and dangerous time, writes The Local's James Savage. The threat from Russia leaves European leaders with no easy choices, but peace and democracy in Europe depend on what they do next.

OPINION: This is Russia’s war, but we Europeans need to learn fast from our mistakes
A woman holds a placard reading "Hands off Ukraine" as another demonstrator displays a flag of Europe during a protest of Ukrainian and Polish demonstrators against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in front of Russian embassy in Warsaw, Poland, on February 24, 2022. Photo: Wojtek RADWANSKI / AFP

The Russian army is invading Ukraine, putting an official stamp on a conflict that its President Vladimir Putin started when unmarked troops entered Crimea and Donbas in 2014. The consequences for Europe are potentially devastating.

In a bizarre and sinister speech televised this week, Putin denied Ukraine was ever a real country, falsely claiming it as “historically Russian land” that had been stolen from the Russian empire. Meanwhile, the enormous Russian military buildup in Belarus seems to have snuffed out any hope of real Belorussian independence for the foreseeable future. 

These are not faraway countries about which we know little. For Germans, Scandinavians and Austrians, these are our near-neighbours. Ukraine is part of the wider European community, many of us have friends there. Their previously comfortable, normal lives are now threatened by Putin’s self-indulgent fantasies about Russia’s position in the world.

From my vantage point in Sweden, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia can often feel like another world, but as the crow flies, the naval port of Karlskrona in southern Sweden is closer to Belarus than to Sundsvall in central Sweden. The highly-militarised Russian exclave of Kaliningrad is closer still.

Ukraine and Sweden have deep historic and cultural ties; there have even been small Swedish-speaking communities in Ukraine since the 18th century. For Germany, Poland, Austria and other central European countries, bonds across borders broken by the Cold War have become strong since the collapse of communism.

Nobody knows what Putin will do next if he successfully occupies Ukraine, but he has been opining constantly about the ‘geopolitical catastrophe’ of the collapse of the Soviet empire. This is bad news for three former Soviet republics, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, once subjugated by Moscow but now part of the EU and Nato. They are modern, sophisticated countries, which identify far more with the Nordic countries than their former Russian occupiers.

Any attempt by Putin to invade the Baltic states should trigger Nato’s Article 5, meaning an attack on one member is an attack on all. Some military experts warn that if Putin decides to attack these countries, he might first occupy the strategically-placed Swedish island of Gotland, a claim that was illustrated by Russian military exercises in 2013, when according to Nato it simulated a nuclear attack against Sweden.

Russia’s aggression has led to calls for Sweden to join Nato, something that would give the country protection, but would also draw unwelcome attention from Moscow. A poll in January showed support for joining was at 35 percent, higher than support for staying out. But many Swedes, especially among the ruling Social Democrats, have long opposed Nato membership, partly out of a strategic calculation that it would put Sweden at greater risk, partly out of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, and partly because they have talked themselves into a belief that someone would always come to their aid if attacked. So far, Sweden’s government is affirming that it will stay out of Nato, but Ukraine’s experience might at least lead some Swedes to review their support for that stance.

Calls for joining Nato have also been growing louder in Finland, as alarm grew over Putin’s aggression. This is understandable, given that Putin has also lamented Russia’s pre-Soviet territorial losses, which could be read to include Finland, which became independent in 1917.

What is happening now has been predicted by some experts for years. Russia spent most of the past decade slicing off bits of neighbouring countries, in Moldova, in Georgia and in Ukraine. It was never inconceivable that he would go further. But the west, after imposing some mild sanctions, mostly turned away and hoped that Putin would stop there, despite continued hostile Russian military exercises and bellicose rhetoric from the president. 

Former politicians including former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder and disgraced former French Prime Minister François Fillon, took Putin’s rouble and became his mouthpieces in the west. Even today, Fillon was blaming Nato expansion for Russia’s aggression. Germany naïvely let itself become dependent on Russian gas. Britain let dirty Russian money pour into London, its political parties and its tax-haven colonies around the world, even as Russian agents murdered British citizens on British soil. We all let Russian propaganda channels pollute our airwaves. As recently as yesterday, Britain’s Guardian was embedding tweets, uncommented, from Russian propaganda outlet Ruptly. The tweet itself was innocuous, but the source was anything but.

Russia also got away with direct interference in democratic processes in elections in France, the US and many other places, and there are well-founded reasons to believe it also interfered with the Brexit referendum in the UK. People who raised the alarm were dismissed as paranoid or Russophobic. 

For those of us living in Europe now, these are scary times. We have no easy choices. But we have tried appeasement, we have let our politics be corrupted by Russian money, we have neglected our defences, and we have been slow to tackle Russian propaganda. We need to tackle all these issues now, as though peace and democracy in Europe depended on it. Because they do. 

James Savage is Publisher of The Local Europe

Member comments

  1. I don’t want to power my home with Russian ‘blood gas’, my conscious deplores that. It’s time to move forwards towards more sustainable energies and independence. What would prevent Putin from turning off the gas supplies to Europe at any time in the future when he demands even more land and power. Nothing! It’s time to bite the bullet and the determination to change, even though the ‘energy path’ forward isn’t mapped out 100%, it is something we can change, develop and work on. We must not be Putin’s toys, for even more blood on his hands.

  2. Excellent editorial comment. Widening the perspective to include the persistent miscalculation of Western governments in response to Putin’s enmity. If murders by Russian agents of UK citizens on UK soil with chemical weapons was not enough to demonstrate the lengths that Putin will go to, the deliberate strategic focus on causing deep discontent in the Westerns Social order through a campaign of a toxic information warfare should certainly have been. Instead the West sat by and responded with weak and ineffectual sanctions against a mere handful of Putin’s cronies. The West backed away from Syria having fought the wrong war in Iraq and in doing so emboldened Putin’s confidence as well as allowing him to sharpen the teeth of his newly modernised military. The West had all the signals of Putin’s intent for over 20 years and decided to profit from a revitalised Russia instead of containing his Imperial ambitions. Putin has been at war with the West or a decade only he’s the only one throwing and landing all the punches.

  3. This a dangerous time for Europe and calls for unity to stop this juggernaut trampling on states to regain its so called past glory.

  4. Very misleading article and completely ignoring the other side of the story. Putin never said that the Ukrainian land was stolen from Russia.

  5. War is bad, Putin assertions of Ukraine being of part of Russia is myth. This war will trouble Europe, and mostly because of spineless EU leaders (spl. German and France) who can’t stand to world politics against America and can secure “independent” good terms with Russia. This article completely ignores the devilish aspect of American (and UK) imperialisms, the every fact NATO is used as war machinery for global dominance post cold-war and collapse of Soviet Bloc. The complexity of ethnic and civil war in these eastern countries have gone thoroughly ignored in this article. Its shouldn’t be a secret to a fair reporting political journalists how pro-west government were setup in these countries and cajoled in joining NATO and the intention was not to provide security to these countries but to put insecurity in last bastion of communism – Russia. US has played its gambit to aggravate the situation and very well knew Russia’s reaction (NYT CNN Guardian announcing for last one month the imminent Russia attack) and things are happening. Nord2 has been sacrificed, interest of US companies secured. Sadly, Ukraine and its people has been scarified in the international politics. Europe will pay the bill of energy, damage and refugee.

  6. The other side of the story?

    Does it really matter what he said? He has invaded another country. Simple.

    Please explain why Russia or any other country has to right to invade its neighbour.

    Ukraine now, where next? Any country with a border with Ukraine once it is Russian?

  7. Thank you for stating this. It is high time for the West to become “woke” in the true sense of the word. I just hope it isn’t too late. The West is in the weakest position it has been in since the end of the Cold War, particularly the US.

  8. Exactly, Putin won’t stop with Ukraine. As difficult as it undoubtedly is Europe and every country who abhors this act of war must make hard decisions to out an end to Putin’s march. The pain will be significant for all but not as bad as what the future holds if he is not stopped now. Future generations will not thank us for being afraid to grasp the nettle now before Russia’s march becomes too monstrous to handle.

  9. Nobody has a right to invade a country. I pray for Ukraine and Ukrainian.

    My point being that almost all mainstream media outlet are only critical of Putin’s aggression. Presenting a simple narrative, overlooking events, background negotiation which was underway since months (may be years or decades) are ignored. And hence most public are only critical of Putin. But there are evidence which shows the hawkish attitude of US and NATO alliance – which is silently ignored. To put it simply – I blame all Putin, Biden, Macron, Olaf and Boris for this war. Ukraine has been sacrificed in this gambit by US by securing a big economic gain for itself.

    My opinion didn’t come out correctly above in statement – “Putin assertions of Ukraine being of part of Russia is myth”. Putin assertion of Ukraine being part of Russia is his myth (his false belief).

  10. Mr Savage is correct. Putin and his klepto-gang has started a war. They are the aggressors. The only reason NATO is not intervening with no-fly zone or boots on the ground is because Russia has nukes. The Baltics and Nordics must be defended. Hitler told the world what his intentions were. The world shrugged until it was too late. Putin has also told the world what he wants – a Greater Russia. Sure, he has thrown in some tactical lies. Believe him. Best offence is strong defence.

  11. Apologists for Putin always try to muddy the water by throwing around words like “imperialism of the West” without ever defining what they’re talking about. None of that has any relation to reality in the current situation. Putin invaded an independent sovereign country without ANY provocation. That is the only reality that matters here. He must be stopped and punished.
    Putin is a murderous criminal. For all the flaws of Western countries, the principles of democracy are still the overriding rules. Individuals in a democracy still have the right and ability to change a government they don’t like. They still have the right and ability to kick out corrupt and murderous individuals. Claiming those rights and taking those actions require energy and commitment. Unfortunately, too many people have become complacent over recent decades. Perhaps seeing the real threat in action today will wake more people up. Democracy takes vigilance and courage and work by EVERY individual.

  12. Aggressors are also the ones who are approaching your borders or invading countries. US and NATO are doing it all the time. Aggressors are also those who are oppressing the population of a particular nation. Russia’s invasion is not more than a reaction.

    If you remember how in the 20th century the US reacted to when Russia started arming Cuba (Carrebean Crisis), they didn’t like it at all and it almost started a war.
    Don’t approach Russian borders with threats and don’t get reactions. Simple as that. This applies to everyone. Not only Russia.

  13. The lesson of Ukraine for Swedes and Finns is that NATO cannot defend countries that are not part of it — no matter how egregious the invasion — or how angry they are about it.

    Americans in particular will not support such an action. That’s just the way it is. They hate being involved in European wars, but they honor their treaties.

    So of course Putin would attack Sweden first. And then Finland. And no one will be there to help.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

INTERVIEW

INTERVIEW: ‘Like before the Swedish financial crisis only the numbers are bigger’

Andreas Cervenka, the author of the hit book Girig-Sverige, or Greedy Sweden, is, you can safely say, not the cheeriest of economic commentators.

INTERVIEW: 'Like before the Swedish financial crisis only the numbers are bigger'

The situation the country is in, Cervenka explains in this week’s Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, is in some ways worse even than what it was in the run-up to the 1990-1994 Swedish financial crisis. 

“In the beginning of the 90s, we had a huge real estate and housing bubble that burst and sent Sweden into the deepest financial crisis since the Second World War, and we’re still actually feeling the effects of that,” he says. “What’s happening now is roughly the same, only the numbers are bigger.” 

Girig-Sverige, which won Cervenka Sweden’s most prestigious journalism prize last year, tells the story of how the decision to scrap a string of taxes on wealth and assets combined with years of zero or negative interest rates to make Sweden dramatically more unequal as a society, while turning its people and companies into the most indebted in the world after Hong Kong and Luxembourg.

For Cervenka, the Riksbank bears a lot of the blame for this depressing development.

“All parts of the state should be evaluated on their results. And the result is: have they fulfilled the target of inflation? No, in practically no period over the last 15 years have they been able to stabilise at around 2 percent. Has something else happened in society? Well, we have become the most indebted country in the world.” 

The bank, he believes, has been wrong to turn a blind eye to the extreme inflation in assets like property and equities, while focusing exclusively on consumer prices. 

“There’s obviously a lot of talk about inflation these days. But in fact, we have had inflation in Sweden for quite a long time, not in consumer prices, but in assets,” he explains.

“That’s rising prices of property, stocks, land or all kinds of financial assets, and that’s been quite explosive for a long time, which benefits people who own assets, and specifically people who own assets that they financed with debt.”

Normally, central banks only use negative interest rates as a last resort when the economy is in a deep recession, but the Riksbank has had them in place while the economy has been booming and unemployment low, changing the balance between rich and poor in Sweden.

“The central bank is supposed to be an apolitical institution. But low interest rates do create inequality in the way that they actually transfer money from people who don’t own things, who don’t have mortgages, to people who do. And that’s been a huge transfer of wealth.” 

The central bank has not acted alone, however. Parties of both left and right have acted to reduce the taxation on assets. 

“Sweden is still a very high-tax country when it comes to taxation of labour. We’re not number one in the world, but we’re still in the top five. But when it comes to taxes on assets and property, we’ve been abolishing a lot of taxes,” he explains.

Someone making a million kronor from dividends and rising stock prices would only have to pay about 7 percent tax on that income, he estimates, whereas someone making a million kronor in salary would pay about 35 percent. 

For Cervenka, it is not only the indebtedness in society which is a problem, but the way gross inequality slows economic growth and leads to rising crime and health disparities, while the near-impossibility of getting rich through earning a salary skews people’s choices. 

“The difference between a very high taxation of labour and relatively low taxation on assets definitely alters your incentives as a citizen,” he says. “It’s been much more profitable to own a house over the last 10 years than to work.” 

Soaring house price inflation has also led to segregation, with the young, immigrant populations, and other groups priced out of upmarket parts of Sweden’s cities. 

“If you look at the centre of Stockholm, you can almost have a sign saying, ‘If you’re young, don’t bother coming here, because you can’t afford it’,” he says. 

“It also affects, you know, ‘can you afford to have kids?’, ‘What kind of job should you be looking for?’ If you’re living in Stockholm, if you are a teacher, a nurse or a policeman, it’s almost like an economic sacrifice because the cost of living is so extremely high.”

“In the US, they talk a lot about gated communities, and in Sweden, we have that, but we have something much more effective than walls or barbed wire, we have high square metre prices.” 

Those who haven’t managed to get a mortgage or benefit from the low rates have ended up crammed together in the same segregated areas, he adds, fuelling some of the problems Sweden has had with gang crime. 

“The people who don’t own anything, they all stay in the same area and that creates some social problems and just this crazy tension in the fabric of society.” 

So will the economy have a hard landing? Cervenka believes the high level of indebtedness, both in the population and in the corporate sector, makes Sweden vulnerable. 

“I would say we are one of the most rate-sensitive economies in the whole world,” he says. “The Swedish state has very low debt, but the private sector is very highly indebted, so the rate increases have much more impact on Sweden than on a lot of other countries in Europe.” 

A huge proportion of many people’s income already goes to paying off their mortgages, he adds. 

“A lot of people in Sweden are practically working for their banks now, because that’s where the the lion’s share of their income goes. We talk a lot about how the price of eggs or butter has increased 20, 30, 40 percent. But interest payments have maybe gone up by 300 to 400 percent – four or five times what you used to pay – and a that’s a huge increase.” 

In the near future, Cervenka predicts, we will discover whether Sweden’s economy is in for a soft landing or a devastating crash.

“Right now, the markets are betting that we can avoid the worst-case scenario. But the jury’s still out, and I think the next six months will be quite crucial.” 

SHOW COMMENTS