Ulrich Speck is the editor of Morgenlage Außenpolitik, a daily briefing on German foreign policy.
BERLIN — With this week’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has abandoned the modus operandi that has defined his acts of aggression for more than 20 years. From his incursions in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 to his intervention in Syria in 2015, the former KGB operative had always pursued his military activities either in the grey zone of “plausible deniability” or with a legal pretext, such as being officially invited by the government.
Not anymore. As the tanks roll in and helicopters fly overhead, Putin has made it clear he no longer cares about the semblance of legitimacy, or about his global image, at least not in the West. He has already priced in the cost of being called a “war criminal” by figures like Rolf Mützenich, the leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party’s parliamentary group. Similarly, the suspension of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline is no longer a major factor. Putin has made his choice: He has put territorial revisionism, his dream of rebuilding a powerful empire, ahead of international legitimacy — and of the Russian economy.
This is going to change his relationship with the West. As long as Putin covered up his actions, many in the West felt they could live with him. When the Russian leader used violence, it was easy enough to look the other way. And even when his actions became too visible or outrageous, there might have been public condemnation or the occasional sanction, but still, the hope of turning Putin into a partner prevailed. There was always the hope that if enough effort was being made, Putin could be brought in from the cold — into the cozy postmodern world.
Today, it’s clear that this strategy has crashed. Putin is determined to force his world, his reality — shaped by nostalgia, grievance and the vision of a renewal of a great Russian empire — onto Europe, using the only dimension of power he commands, military power. After a period in which some Western observers allowed themselves to hope he had been brought into the fold, he has resorted to open warfare, starting an open war of aggression.
His earlier quiescence has been revealed for what it really was: war by other means. In the past seven years, it seems he believed he could achieve his goal — control over Ukraine — for a much cheaper price. But Russian-controlled separatists in the East failed to gain him decisive influence in Kyiv. Instead, Ukraine consolidated as an independent, sovereign state. His open aggression comes after a last attempt to use the threat of war, the military encirclement of Ukraine, to force the country into surrender, and the West into becoming an accomplice in dismanteling its statehood.
The assault on Ukraine is a brutal wake-up call. This is Putin unchained. He has crossed a major line, leaving European capitals with the question: Who’s next? Nothing seems to be off-limits anymore. If Putin is ready for a high-risk operation against Ukraine — ignoring costs to Russia’s global reputation and to its economy — he may as well be ready for other high risk-operations further West.
What the Russian leader wants is clear, he laid it out in his demands to the U.S. and NATO: the revision of the peace order that has emerged after the Cold War in Europe, namely in the territories of the former Soviet Union, potentially in the countries of the former Warsaw Pact — and even beyond. This is why Finish President Sauli Niinistö has argued that “Russia’s acts target Ukraine, but at the same time they are an attack on the entire European security order.”
That’s why Putin’s aggression must be met with a firm response. Russia’s Achilles’ heel is its economic dependency on the West. Targeting that — with swift, serious sanctions – has therefore become an urgent priority. This will require sacrifices, especially from European countries with close economic or energy ties to Russia. But the economic price that Europe needs to pay now is far cheaper than what it will have to pay later, if an imperialist-minded Russia, drunk on its victory over Ukraine, doesn’t stop there. It’s vital for Europe to frustrate Putin’s imperialist designs — to turn his war against Ukraine into a failure.