NICOLAS TENZER, PARIS
If we don’t fight it now, we will lose it—like all the previous ones
Ukraine is at war. Europe is at war. America is at war. The world is at war. Putin’s criminal regime has unleashed a war against the world and Ukraine is, once again, its victim. But let us not forget that Putin’s war against freedom and humanity is still ongoing in Syria. It is still ongoing in Belarus, where the Russian dictator has lent a hand to the dictator in Minsk—and Belarus is currently occupied by Russian forces.
Russia’s monstrous, tragic, and deadly attack on Ukraine is an intensification of Putin’s wars. But it is not a surprise. It was not merely announced, clearly, months ago—it was understood for many years. We didn’t know when or how, exactly, it would happen, but that it would happen was not only predictable, but openly planned. Only the uninformed and the unthinking failed to see it coming. The complacent bastards.
This has been underway for 22 years. It clearly signalled its birth in Chechnya, at the turn of the 21st century; it entered a new phase in 2008 with Russia’s invasion and predation of 20 percent of Georgia’s territory; then came the illegal annexation of Crimea and the occupation of the Donbass in 2014; most of all, it announced itself in 2015 in Syria, with Putin and his minions’ massive and monstrous war crimes. I wrote about it then: “The crimes of the Russian regime are literally changing the world order.”
So the war is here, again, in Europe. It was already there. We just didn’t want to see it. We pushed it out of our field of vision and, in fact, out of our understanding. For 22 years, Putin has moved in only one direction—forward—and the free world has moved in only one direction—backward.
After Putin’s war crimes in Chechnya—to which Anna Politkovskaya, Natalia Estemirova, Boris Nemtsov, and so many others alerted us, paying for it with their lives—the outrage of the world quickly subsided.
George W. Bush pledged his administration’s support for the legal government of Georgia, but in the end did nothing more than condemn the 2008 aggression against Tbilisi. Barack Obama had no qualms about launching his reset in March 2009. Then in 2015, the same Barack Obama refused to enforce the red line he himself had enunciated in Syria. He allowed Assad, Iran, and then Putin to massacre hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians, using weapons of mass destruction. He made it clear to Putin that he had a free hand—and less than a year later, Putin attacked Ukraine.
The master of the Kremlin was not mistaken; the West’s reaction was, as he foresaw, pusillanimous and vacillating. Russia continues spreading death and terror in Syria to this very day; it bolsters the bloody Maduro regime in Venezuela; it murders Africans with its mercenary armies; and, with China’s help, props up the savage Burmese junta.
We have refused to understand. We have accepted defeat. We have no excuse.
We wanted to avoid war, but the more we in the West tried to prevent it, the more we rendered it inevitable and the more difficult we made it to win when it came. The more we tried to avoid the risk, the closer we came to its fulfilment. The more we sought to appease, the further we moved from peace. The more we tried to limit our deaths, the more we prepared to increase their number.
Some are now waking up after a long sleep. Let’s hope that one day they will apologize not only to those who warned them—and whom they dismissed—but the world. But that is for tomorrow. The harsh judgment of history will be rendered in time. The emergency today is the war—the war we must fight. Our war.
A NEW UNION, BUT FOR WHAT?
Much has been said already about the West’s reaction, and the world’s, to the horror Putin has unleashed against Ukraine. After initial dithering and missteps, the free world has become more cohesive and united. Consultation processes have multiplied; isolated and uncoordinated comments are now rare; above all, for the first time, we have applied strong sanctions that truly hurt Putin and his accomplices. These could be stronger and much improved, but their magnitude is welcome. What a pity they were not applied long before, as so many of us begged—but the past cannot be undone. Now it is the time to build new mechanisms, at the international level, to stop Putin’s criminal enterprise.
At last, the US President has abandoned his inane rhetoric about a “stable and predictable” relation with Putin’s Russia. His administration was looking at an abstraction—a “Russia” of their imagination, not the reality of Russia and its regime. Macron has abandoned his grand abstract plans for a stable order for the European continent that would bring Russia into its bosom in an “architecture of security and trust.” Those faddish, nonsensical notions cost us a lot of precious time, but they are behind us now, forever—or so we hope.
At last, the appropriate organizations are regaining legitimacy. Above all, NATO: The idea that it was no longer relevant after the dissolution of the USSR was never more than Kremlin propaganda, but its cohesion nonetheless came into doubt. Today, it’s clear not just that NATO is relevant, but that it is unique and indispensable. Anything that weakens NATO threatens the West’s security.
The United Nations will be unable to function properly so long as the Chinese and Russian regimes are permanent members of the Security Council, but the General Assembly’s overwhelming vote to condemn the invasion has, slightly, enhanced the organization’s battered image.
Finally, the European Union has begun asserting itself as a power that matters—even if, here too, there is still a long way to go—and indeed, it is a fundamental bulwark for countries threatened by the Kremlin. The candidacies of Kyiv, Tbilisi, and Chisinau are proof of this.
I must admit that these developments are a miracle. The leaders of Europe and the free world have matured, almost overnight. At the end of 2021, many were still jejune. They have lost the youthful innocence that made them lose their lucidity.
The last and most necessary step, however, remains: effective action. Western leaders are undoubtedly sincere, but are they serious about defending Ukraine? Do they accept what this means? Do they truly understand the extent of the threat from Putin’s regime? How do they see the future? Emmanuel Macron said, twice, in early March: “The worst is yet to come.” What would it take to forestall this?
Sanctions may have a medium-term effect on the Russian regime, but we cannot count on the circle of oligarchs around Putin resolving to bring him down. The courageous protests of large factions of Russian society will have no immediate effect: Putin can rely on a brutal apparatus of repression and a caste of hardliners, not the least of whom is Patriarch Kirill, a rabid apostle of war and destruction. Western leaders may vow to prosecute all of Kremlin’s crimes in Ukraine in a special tribunal—for which I have I have long pleaded—but by then, Kyiv may have fallen and Ukraine may be under Moscow’s criminal yoke. The growing tempo of arms deliveries to Ukraine is welcome, but insufficient given Russia’s disproportionate force.
We cannot simply dismiss as impossible Western military intervention in support of Ukraine. This tool must be weighed with the appropriate gravity, conscience, and seriousness. Only by this yardstick may the unity of the Allies ultimately be assessed.
INCONSISTENCY AND RISK
The alliance of democracies against the Russian regime runs a double risk of inconsistency.
We are already hearing inconsistency from Putin’s indirect allies. It’s as if they have already mourned Ukraine, as they had already mourned Georgia, Crimea, Transnistria, Belarus, and Syria. Some are saying that it is too late for Ukraine, but the red line is NATO member countries, protected by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.
The implementation of this guarantee requires the unanimity of the Alliance Council, so it’s not automatic. And if democracies show no will to defend Ukraine, why would Putin believe in their resolve to protect, for example, the Baltic states? All in all, would there truly be more risk—including the risk that Russia will use nuclear weapons—if the Allies came to Ukraine’s aid today than if they invoked Article 5 tomorrow? It is undoubtedly in Ukraine that Putin is testing the Allies’ ultimate resolve to defend a NATO country under attack.
No one can penetrate Putin’s mind with certainty and claim, today, to know what he’s capable of doing. An analysis of his record and his ideology shows that he is, a priori, ready for anything and his destructive purpose is limitless, including the destruction of his own country.
I am prepared unambiguously to call for a no-fly zone over Ukraine and for the protection of Ukrainian territory against missile attacks, no matter which country the missiles are coming from. But I appreciate that the wisdom of this proposal may be legitimately contested. I do not blame leaders of NATO member countries who, on March 4, ruled out—at least for now—implementing a no-fly zone. I only plead that every single leader of the free world—in the same grave spirit, and with the same torment of the soul that causes them to fear a global confrontation and its nuclear risk—understand the risk of not intervening: the disappearance of Ukraine as a nation and massacres the extent of which we cannot imagine.
Likewise, I beg that the absolutely necessary policy of welcoming Ukrainian refugees be no camouflage for cowardice. I salute the extraordinary mobilization of European governments and peoples to welcome Ukrainian refugees—though I note that Syrian refugees, in particular, and Afghan refugees, more recently, did not benefit from this generosity, even though, in the first case, they faced largely the same aggressor. But we all know what the “humanitarian” management of a war means: the refusal to address its cause and act decisively against the aggressor.
I fear another scenario, too, that would add inconsistency to inconstancy. I welcome the sanctions while deploring their tardiness (and they are still, in some countries, far less than the situation demands); had we implemented them with the same force sooner—as we had every reason to do in 2008, even more reason in 2014, yet more reason because of Putin’s crimes in Syria—they would have changed the course of events.
But let us assume an unlikely scenario in which Putin backs down. Governments may be tempted to weaken or lift these sanctions, re-establish SWIFT, reopen Russia to the euro and dollar capital markets, and once again do business with Putin’s intimates. They may be tempted to let up before Crimea and the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk are returned to Ukraine, Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgia, and Transnistria to Moldova. Some may, again, seek to avert their eyes from Syria. Some are already suggesting it is foolhardy even to discuss prosecuting Putin and his clique for war crimes.
In the name of “stability” and for illusory security, they would allow the crimes to be forgotten. This would be immoral and undignified—an insult to the numberless victims in Ukraine, Syria, Georgia, and beyond. Above all, it would reduce international law and the principles upon which it rests to a tissue of nonsense; monsters and criminals, around the world, would rejoice.
In the name of normalization, we would soon, again, let down our guard. The small strategic victory that we have acquired since the beginning of 2022 would evaporate. Putin would eventually triumph, and we would have betrayed not just Ukrainians, Syrians, and Georgians, but the hope that Russian dissidents have once again vouchsafed to us. I will never stop repeating the message they entrusted to me: Never give in; never compromise on anything.
Some of us have been sounding the alarm for years. We have been called radical, extreme, warmongers, conspiracy theorists. Everyone who has called for action against Putin’s regime has heard these epithets. Our leaders, deaf for the past twenty years, seem at last to have heard the alarm. Those who dismissed us before would be well advised to listen to our radical proposals now.
They must draw, from the evidence before them, three simple conclusions.
The first. There can be no compromise, agreement, or middle ground with Putin. There can be no armistice—only unconditional surrender. Putin has always won, so far. Now he must lose—totally. His defeat must be complete and radical. No part of the world that he has conquered so far can remain in his possession.
The second. The fate of the world depends not only on our ability to contain Putin’s regime, but our willingness to end it. It is not for us to do this by force of arms; that is up to the Russian people alone. But we can and must help them, far more than we have. So long as Putin is in power, there will be no peace, no security, no prospect of lasting freedom in Europe and far beyond. The leaders of democracies must stop pretending it could be otherwise.
The third. If we wish to make clear our will not just to contain but to roll back Putin’s conquests, we must include the countries that are most threatened in Europe’s primary political and security alliances—the European Union and NATO. Yes, this will take some time; yes, the countries concerned, especially Ukraine, are not ready; the requirement that they meet EU standards is not dispensable. But this goal must be loud and clear. Ukraine’s fate is decisive not only for the defense of Ukrainians, but for all of Europe. There is a security continuum between NATO countries and Ukraine—as well as Moldova and Georgia, and tomorrow, Belarus. This continuum is inseparable from our freedom and theirs.
If we remain in the middle of the ford, we are doomed to sink. The attack on Ukraine is an attack on every European country. Every Ukrainian murdered by Putin’s regime is a murdered European—just as every Syrian child murdered by the same Putin was an attack on our humanity.
This is our war—and we know what it would mean to lose it.
Nicolas Tenzer is a senior French civil servant and the founding president of the Paris-based independent think tank, Centre d’étude et de réflexion pour l’Action politique (Center for Study and Research for Political Decision). He teaches at Sciences-Po Paris. This is a revised edition of an article published at Tenzer Strategics.