Pivotal moments in Europe’s history
- 1789: French Revolution. Monarchy overthrown, republic founded
- 1815: Congress of Vienna redraws map of Europe, restores balance of power and ushers in decades of peace after the upheaval of the Napoleonic wars
- 1848: A wave of liberal and democratic revolutions across Europe
- 1919: Treaty of Versailles. New independent sovereign nation states replace old multi-national empires
- 1945: Yalta – great powers agree to partition Europe into Western and Soviet «spheres of influence». Iron Curtain falls across the continent
- 1989: Democratic revolutions in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe tear down the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union collapses two years later. Vladimir Putin calls this the «greatest catastrophe of the 20th Century»
Vladimir’s Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has changed the world. We are living in new and more dangerous times – the post-Cold War era that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall is overIt is a rare thing to live through a moment of huge historical consequence and understand in real time that is what it is.
In November 1989, I stood on a snow-flecked Wenceslas Square in Prague, the capital of what was then Czechoslovakia, and watched a new world being born.
The peoples of Communist Eastern Europe had risen in defiance of their dictatorships. The Berlin Wall had been torn down. A divided Europe was being made whole again.
In Prague, the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel addressed a crowd of 400,000 from a second-floor balcony. It was an exhilarating moment, dizzying in its pace. That evening, the Communist regime collapsed and within weeks Havel was president of a new democratic state. I sensed, even at the time, that I had watched the world pivot – that it was one of those rare moments when you know the world is remaking itself before your eyes.
How many such moments had there been in the history of Europe since the French Revolution? Probably, I thought then, about five. This, 1989, was the sixth.
But that world – born in those dramatic popular revolutions – came to an end when Putin ordered Russian forces into Ukraine.
The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called this moment a zeitenwende – a turning point – while UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said it was a «paradigm shift». The age of complacency, she said, was over.
Quentin Sommerville, one of the BBC’s most experienced war reporters walked through the wreckage in Kharkiv recently and said of the Russian bombardment: «If these tactics are unfamiliar to you, then you haven’t been paying attention.»
He should know, he spent enough time under Russian rockets in Syria to be paying very close attention. But the governments of the democratic world – how much attention have they been paying to the nature of the Putin regime?
The evidence has been building for years.
Two decades have passed since he sent troops into Georgia claiming he was supporting breakaway regions.
Later, he sent spies into British cities armed with nerve agents to murder exiled Russians.
In 2014, he invaded Eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea.
Despite all this, Germany, and much of the EU, were locking themselves into an unhealthy dependence on Russian gas. A year after the annexation of Crimea, they approved the building of a new pipeline, Nord Stream 2, to boost supplies.
The «complacency» Liz Truss refers to also indicts her own country. London has been a safe haven for Russian money since John Major was prime minister. Russian oligarchs have parked billions here, laundered their money, bought up the most prestigious private homes in the capital, socialised with politicians and donated to their campaign funds. Few questions were asked about where their vast wealth, acquired so suddenly, had come from.
So, no. The Western democracies have not been «paying attention» to the nature of the menace that has been incubating on their eastern frontier.
First, he believed the West was in chronic decline, weakened by internal division and ideological rancour. The election of Donald Trump and Brexit he saw as proof of this. The rise of right-wing authoritarian governments in Poland and Hungary was further evidence of the disintegration of liberal values and institutions. The US’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan was proof of a waning power withdrawing from the world stage.
Second, he misread what was happening on his borders. He refused to believe that a series of democratic uprisings in former Soviet Republics – Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004-5) and Kyrgyzstan (2005) – could possibly be authentic expressions of the popular will. Because each was aimed at removing corrupt and unpopular pro-Moscow governments, it seemed self-evident to the Kremlin that these were the work of foreign intelligence agencies, the Americans and the British in particular – Western imperialism’s forward march into territory that was rightfully and historically Russia’s.
Third, he has failed to understand his own armed forces. It is clear now that he expected this «special military operation» to be over in a few days.
Russia’s military incompetence has astonished many Western security experts. It brings echoes for me of a smaller, more containable, but nonetheless devastating war, in former Yugoslavia.
In 1992, Serb nationalists launched a war to strangle the newly independent state of Bosnia at birth. They argued that Bosnian identity was bogus, that Bosnian statehood had no historical legitimacy, that it was really part of Serbia. It is exactly Putin’s view of Ukraine.
Like Russia today, Serb forces enjoyed overwhelming firepower superiority. But they often stalled wherever local non-Serbs put up resistance. They seemed unable to seize towns or cities – unwilling to fight street-by-street on foot. The Bosnian defenders were initially very poorly equipped – I remember boys in tennis shoes in the trenches of Sarajevo with one AK-47 between three of them. But they defended their capital for nearly four years. There is a similar resolve in the young men volunteering to defend Kyiv.
So instead of taking the cities and towns, the Serbs laid siege to them – surrounding them, bombarding them, cutting off water, gas and electricity. It is already happening in Mariupol. Besiege a city and cut off its water supply, and within 24 hours, every toilet is a public health hazard. Citizens have to go out into the streets to find water standpipes and fill up receptacles just to flush their loos. Cut off the electricity and you freeze in your own home. Soon the food runs out. Is that what the Russians intend for Mariupol, for Kharkiv, for Kyiv? To starve them into submission?
But nearly four years of this cruelty gave Bosnian nationhood a founding narrative of resistance, suffering and heroic struggle. Ukraine’s identity, too, will be strengthened further by the way Ukrainians have fought. Ukraine’s Russian speakers have not felt «liberated» by the invasion. The evidence is that they, too, believe in Ukraine as a sovereign state. Putin’s war, aimed at reunifying what he sees as two parts of the Russian nation, is already having the opposite effect – strengthening the will of most Ukrainians to seek a destiny free from Russian domination.
In 1994, while the war in the Balkans was still raging, the rest of Eastern Europe was looking to the future – each nation eager to take what it saw as its natural place in a Europe of independent sovereign states at peace with each other. But it was still far from certain that any of them would be allowed to join Nato.
There was a debate, back then, about whether a third security block should be formed by the newly-liberated East European nations, to act as a buffer between Nato and Russia. Russia was weak in the 1990s, and the nations that had endured Soviet occupation for 40 years did not trust it to stay weak for long. In the end, they wanted nothing short of Nato membership.
Under President Bill Clinton, the US pressed ahead with Nato expansion. The Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who saw himself as a loyal ally of Clinton’s, was said to be furious when he found out – at a press conference – that Nato was planning to admit new members without consulting Moscow.
And the tearing down of the Iron Curtain had raised a new question in geopolitics – how far east does the Western world extend? I was commissioned by the BBC to take a road trip through Poland, Belarus and Ukraine to address the question, «Where is the eastern edge of the Western world now?»
I went to the hunting lodge in Belarus where, in late 1991, the President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, had met his counterparts from Ukraine and Belarus. Here, they agreed to recognise each other’s Soviet Republics as independent nation-states. They then rang the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and informed him that the country of which he was head of state – the Soviet Union – no longer existed.
It was a moment fraught with both danger and opportunity. For Belarus and Ukraine, it was the chance to liberate themselves from Moscow rule – domination by Russian imperialism in both its Tsarist and Soviet forms.
For Yeltsin, it represented the chance to liberate Russia too – from its historic role as an imperial power. The UK and France had both ceased to be imperial powers after World War Two – as Austria had done after WW1. In Turkey, Kemal Ataturk had built a modern European secular republic – a Turkish nation-state – after the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire had been defeated and dismembered in 1918.
Could Boris Yeltsin do the same thing – build a modern Russian nation-state, at peace with its sovereign neighbours, on the ruins of the Soviet Empire? In the early 1990s, he began his Westernising experiment, to try to turn an imperial power into a democratic state.
But the rush – encouraged by the Western democracies eager for investment opportunities – to turn a sclerotic, state-owned command economy into a free-market system was disastrous. It created gangster capitalism. A tiny elite became fabulously rich by plundering the assets of the major industries – especially oil and gas.
The wheels finally came off the experiment in 1998. The economy collapsed, the rouble lost two-thirds of its value in a month and inflation hit 80%.
I stood with a middle-aged couple in a queue at a Moscow bank. They wanted to take their money out in dollars or pounds – anything other than roubles. The queue was long and slow-moving and, every few minutes, a bank employee changed the displayed exchange rate, as the rouble plunged further. People could see their life savings dropping in value by the minute. The couple got close to the head of the queue when suddenly the shutters came down – there was no cash left.
I went to a former coal-mining region near the Ukraine border, where the mines were barely functioning. I met a graduate mining engineer who had lost his job – a man in his 30s with a young family. He took me to his dacha outside the city, which had about an acre of land. «About 80% of what my family eat in the year,» he said. «I grow on this patch of land. The rest, like coffee and sugar, I barter for. I haven’t used or even seen cash in about 18 months.» Nothing spoke more powerfully about Yeltsin’s failure to transform Russia than the sight of this highly educated man digging for his own dinner.
«Stalin turned a nation of peasants into an industrial superpower in a generation. Yeltsin is doing the same thing in reverse,» he told me.
Ordinary Russians felt robbed. The great westernising experiment had been a con trick that had enriched a criminalised elite and impoverished everyone else. Many of the reports we filed from Russia at that time boiled down to a single question: «What are the political consequences of the profound disenchantment that Russians now feel?»
The answer was that Russia, eventually, would revert to type – a retreat from democracy and a return to authoritarian rule. A retreat from nation-statehood and return to a more assertive imperial attitude to its «near abroad» – the countries that had previously been part of the Soviet Union.
The former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski famously said that Russia could be a democracy or an empire, but it could not be both. The Russian emblem, the double-headed eagle, looks both east and west. History has pulled Russia in opposing directions – democratic nation statehood in one direction, domineering imperial power in the other.
Go to St Petersburg and you will see another aspect of this dual character. It is the country’s beautiful bay window on the Gulf of Finland. It is an 18th Century city, facing west. It is the European Enlightenment in architectural form. Under the Tsars it was the imperial capital.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks moved the capital back to Moscow and power retreated behind the high, crenellated walls of the Kremlin. It is the architecture of defensiveness, of suspicion, even fear. When Russian leaders look west from here, they see flat open countryside rolling away to the south and west for hundreds of miles. There are no natural frontiers.
When I was the BBC’s Moscow correspondent in the late 1990s, there was a driver who could remember, as a boy, seeing German troops on the outskirts of Moscow in the 1940s. Every time he took us to Sheremetyevo Airport, we would pass a monument designed to look like metal anti-tank defences – so-called Czech hedgehogs – and he would say: «This is how close they came, the Germans.»
Napoleon’s army had gone further the previous century. That experience – that chronic sense of an insecure western frontier – informs the way Russian leaders have thought about their «near abroad».
In another conversation about the «near abroad», a friend recited a rhyming couplet to me. In Russian it rhymes nicely, but in English it goes: «A chicken’s not really a bird; and Poland’s not really abroad.» Russia’s sense of what it is entitled to in the lands to its west penetrates popular consciousness, too.
I will borrow an anecdote from another friend in Moscow at the time. The same driver picked her up from the airport and asked her where she had been. «I’ve been for a weekend in Prague,» she said. «Oh Prague,» came the reply. «That’s good. That’s ours.»
But it wasn’t. The Berlin Wall had come down nine years earlier and the nations of Eastern Europe had ceased being «ours».
Except Ukraine. Putin regards it not as a neighbouring country, but as the frontier land of Russia itself – and he wants it brought back into the Russian fold.
What would it take to do that? How can a nation that has put up so unified a resistance be subdued? Almost certainly he has overreached himself. Several factors must now be alarming him.
The first is the state of his own armed forces.
The second is the resilience of the Ukrainian defence. Did Putin really expect the Russian-speaking people of Ukraine to welcome his troops as liberators? Did he really believe that the uprising of 2014 – which replaced the pro-Moscow government with one oriented to the West – was all a Western plot? If he did, then it reveals how little the Kremlin understands about its «near abroad».
But his biggest miscalculation has been to underestimate the resolve of the West. And this is what makes 2022 one of those pivotal years – the zeitenwende, in the words of Chancellor Scholz.
Almost overnight, Germany has transformed its attitude to its role in the world. Traditionally reluctant – for sound historical reasons – to throw its weight around, it had preferred the exercise of soft power to hard. Not now. It has announced a doubling of defence spending, and is sending lethal weapons to Ukraine. Gone, too, is the ostpolitik – the decades-old German policy of seeking peace through engagement, especially trade.
Germany, along with the rest of the democratic world, will now move to end its dependence on Russian gas. The Nord Stream 2 project is suspended – though not yet scrapped. We are seeing a root-and-branch redrawing of the map of global energy distribution, aimed at cutting Russia out of it.
Russia is highly integrated into the global economy. But now it has been expelled from the system the world uses to exchange payment for goods and services. Its industries, including oil and gas, depend on imported goods and components. Soon production will grind to a halt. Employers will have to lay off their workers. Unemployment will rise.
No-one expected the West to sanction the Russian Central Bank. Already, the rouble has collapsed and interest rates have doubled. No other major economy has ever been subjected to a package of sanctions this punitive. It amounts to the expulsion of Russia from the global economy. More workers will be laid off. Major industries will find it hard to carry on. Unemployment will rise further. Soaring inflation will erode life savings.
We will all be affected. Potentially, this is the rolling back of the globalised economy that emerged after the end of the Cold War.
The US and the EU have, in effect, divided the world up. Those states and companies that continue to trade with Russia will find themselves punished – also frozen out of trade with the rich world.
It amounts to a new economic iron curtain separating Russia from the West.
Much will depend on how China negotiates this new landscape. China and Russia are bonded by their shared antipathy to American power, and their conviction that the greatest threat is from a resurgent, more unified democratic world.
China does not want Putin weakened, or the West strengthened. Yet that is exactly what the effect the war in Ukraine has had.
Some China watchers believe Beijing will try to challenge the dominance of the dollar as a reserve currency by carving out a distinct yuan zone as an alternative space in the global economy that can be protected from any future attempt by the US to sanction China. Putin’s war, therefore, could redraw the international financial map.
But above all, this is a war that pits the world’s democracies against the world’s authoritarian regimes.
It is also a war between two conflicting conceptions of the rules by which international relations should function.
The Oxford scholar Timothy Garton Ash says these two world views can be expressed in short form by two words – Helsinki versus Yalta.
At Yalta in 1945, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill carved post-war Europe into «spheres of influence» – most of Eastern Europe to Russia, the West to the trans-Atlantic alliance that would set about rebuilding Europe’s democracies.
«Helsinki», by contrast, describes a Europe of independent sovereign states, each of which is free to choose its own alliances. This grew out of the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and gradually evolved into the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Ukraine’s defenders are fighting for Helsinki. Putin has sent his troops in to impose a modern version of Yalta – which would kill off Ukraine’s independence and leave it under Russian domination.
Garton Ash argues that the West has been too half-hearted in defending the values of Helsinki – that it has formally acknowledged Ukraine’s right to join Nato at some unspecified date in the future without ever intending to make it happen.
But Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has signalled a readiness to compromise on Helsinki principles, by agreeing to abandon Ukraine’s ambition to become a Nato member. With all the risks that entails, it may yet be the price Ukraine pays for the survival of its statehood.
My generation grew up with the existential terror of the threat of nuclear annihilation. The conflict has brought that fear back to public consciousness. Putin has threatened to use Russia’s nuclear arsenal.
That makes this the most dangerous moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Then, the Soviet Union shipped nuclear missiles to its ally Cuba. The US assembled a fleet of ships to mount a sea-borne invasion of the island.
What the Americans did not know is that the Soviets didn’t only have long-range strategic missiles. They also had smaller, tactical nuclear missiles – so-called battlefield nuclear weapons. And that Soviet military doctrine delegated first-use decision making to commanders on the ground.
Had the threatened invasion gone ahead, it would have triggered a nuclear exchange.
The then American Defence Secretary Robert McNamara only found out about this when the Soviet archives opened in 1991. Only then, did he understand how close the world had come to catastrophe.
In a remarkable film called Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert McNamara, he explained how the world had avoided destroying itself. Was it skilled diplomacy? Wise leadership? No.
«Luck,» he said. «We lucked out.»
That experience, now fading from memory, should focus minds.
Correction: This article previously referred to Zbigniew Brzezinski as a former US secretary of state, rather than former national security adviser