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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.

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

How German dialects are battling back against ‘Hochdeutsch’

Hochdeutsch (standard German) is what's taught in schools, and what you hear on mainstream TV. But a huge variety of dialects are alive and thriving - especially in Bavaria - says Augsburg local Nic Houghton.

How German dialects are battling back against 'Hochdeutsch'

Sometimes I wonder if German isn’t so much a language as it is an umbrella term for the thousand variations on a theme. When I speak to my Bavarian neighbours, what I hear is not the standard German or Hochdeutsch I was taught in so many hours of classes at the Volkshochschule (adult education centre). Most are self aware enough to realise when they’ve strayed too far into dialect, or they simply look at my confused countenance and adjust when necessary. Others, such as the Kartoffel Bauer who comes to sell potatoes at the end of the street every Tuesday evening, can’t. He only speaks dialect, Schwabisch to be precise, and if you don’t know what he’s saying, well, no potatoes for you I’m afraid.

When you read about the history of the German language, you quickly realise that much of it is a story of the search for a standardised way of communicating across the country. From medieval merchants trying to sell their wares, or Protestant reformer Martin Luther printing the first German language bible, to the Brothers Grimm compiling the shared fairytales from across the country, all have had a hand in creating a version of German that can be understood by everyone, even someone as remedial as me. The reason for this quest for standardisation was that for centuries Germany was not only divided politically, but also linguistically. There wasn’t just one German language, there were hundreds. 

READ ALSO: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany 

The process of change wasn’t easy, nor was it always welcome. Many Germans then, as today, were proud of their versions of German that identified them as coming from a particular area or group, and they didn’t welcome the change. Writing was codified, but often the spoken language remained in defiance. Of course, progress is rather more of a steamroller than a welcome mat, and soon even the holdouts had to learn to communicate, especially once Germany became a nation in 1871. Many dialect speakers would learn standard German as a foreign language, much as I did, but they would still retain their own particular dialect in spoken form, passing it down to the next generation. 

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries.

A woman holds mini German dialect dictionaries. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Peter Kneffel

My own experience of living in different parts of Bavaria has been a lesson in how stubbornly many protected their own dialects. In Nuremberg I was exposed to Fränkisch, which to my untrained ears sounded like whole sentences made up of only B, D and double G sounds. I then moved to Augsburg, where Swabisch is the dialect of choice and everything seems to have this sweeping ‘Schhhh’ sound or is legally required to end in the diminutive suffix ‘-le’; sometimes because the thing in question is small, sometimes because it is cute, and other times because it’s just fun to say words that end in ‘-le’. 

READ ALSO: From Moin to Tach – How to say hello around Germany

Hochdeutsch became the ‘goal’

With all this dialect flying around, it might be assumed that the many versions of German were in rude health, however on closer inspection, that isn’t the case. As the late Germanic linguist Ulrich Ammon pointed out in the 1970s, dialect suffered from post-war conceptions of the correct way to speak German. Dialect was not only frowned upon wherever it was found, but it became interlinked with perceptions of intelligence. Hochdeutsch or High German, was the goal, not dialect. No one wanted to employ some dialect speaking bumpkin, the orthodoxy ran, and so children across the country were taught standardised German, and still are today.

Books, most German TV and radio, and dubbed British or American TV shows all follow the standard version of German too, which has become a concern for those lovers of dialects. They see the creeping homogenisation of the language, and in somewhere like Bavaria, which prides itself on being different from the other 15 states, this is a real problem. It’s just another erosion of the native culture, another traditional value lost, so it comes as no surprise that there are those out there who fight to preserve it. 

For an English speaker, especially from Britain, the discussion of dialect vs standard pronunciation seems familiar. For decades British children were taught that Received Pronunciation or the more grand “Queen’s English” was the goal of all speakers. This rather haughty, clipped version of English is still considered the standard in German schools, even though more modern preferences have taken hold in the UK. Where once the BBC was the beacon of standard pronunciation, through my lifetime I’ve seen different dialects of English become more prevalent and accepted. Now BBC newsreaders or announcers can come from around the country, and a Scouse, Brummy or Geordie isn’t automatically disqualified because they don’t sound as regal as they should. In Germany however, it might be a very long time before we hear dialect on the evening Tagesschau.

A teacher scores out "Tschüss" and writes regional greeting "Grüß Gott" on a board.

A teacher scores out “Tschüss” and writes regional greeting “Grüß Gott” on a board. Photo: Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Armin Weigel

Not the end of dialects

So we may never see the varying dialect of German on the national news, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t interested in them. From my own experience I know that many local and national newspapers have monthly columns from linguists that promote dialects, while sharing the familiar and unfamiliar bits of dialect on Instagram can be a recipe for social media stardom. Others have been more focused on reopening education to dialect. In 2019, Bavaria’s Ministry for Education backed a project entitled “MundART WERTvoll” (dialect worth) which seeks to promote and reward schools, educators, and pupils for projects that focused on Bavarian dialects. This is not to say that dialect was suddenly spilling into standard classes, but that schools were now looking seriously at how to bring students both standard and dialect German.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s minority languages 

Of course, this wasn’t without criticism. The Bavarian Language Association was critical of the fact that many would still hide their dialects in situations where they wanted to be taken seriously, and by doing so they were only furthering the deterioration of Bavarian variations of German. Others went even further, Ludwig Zehetner, a writer famous for his articles about Bavarian dialects, declared that the efforts to preserve Bavarian dialects was commendable, but decades too late. The damage had already been done, all these projects were doing was caring “for a corpse”. 

Clearly at my level of German I’m no judge of the health of Bavarian dialects, but all I know is that I hear dialects far more than I hear standard German. If Bavaria’s dialects are dead, they’ve got a very funny way of showing it. Perhaps Germany has lost something from the drive for standardisation of language, but it doesn’t mean the end of dialects, I believe something so integral to people’s identities is harder to eradicate than that. Maybe some words fall out of favour, while others remain, but ultimately that’s how language works. 

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