Liberal democracies must defend their values and show Putin that the west isn’t weak

Show caption Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder is still sitting on Russian company boards. Photograph: Kay Nietfeld/AP Opinion Liberal democracies must defend their values and show Putin that the west isn’t weak Andrew Rawnsley Europeans will have to become much more serious about ensuring that we have the means to protect ourselves and our allies against despots who respect only hard power Sun 27 Feb 2022 08.30 GMT Share on Facebook

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The haunting wail of air-raid sirens urging people to shelter underground. The howl of warplanes. The crump of artillery. The death rattle of tanks. Civilians who have never held a weapon arming themselves with a gun to defend their homeland. War has returned to Europe.

And it has returned in a form and on a scale that many complacently thought could never again happen on our continent. A large and despotic power is hurling its military might at a smaller, democratic neighbour. At minimum, the Russian invasion of Ukraine aims to eliminate an independent, sovereign nation’s right to self-determination. Vladimir Putin’s onslaught is designed to prevent Ukrainians from choosing any other destiny than subservience to Moscow. At worst, he will satisfy his appetite to swallow up a country that he has mendaciously argued has no right to exist.

Many voices lament that this opens a new, dark chapter of history. I’m afraid there’s an even less palatable truth. The world has been on a trajectory towards an event like this for some time. The Russian attack is shocking, but it ought not to be altogether surprising to anyone who has been paying attention over the past decade. The barbaric battering of Ukraine is the savage expression of a global contest for the soul of our planet. It is a struggle between the democracies and an axis of autocracies led by China and Russia who seek to impose their authoritarian systems not only on their own populations, but on people beyond their borders.

Putin has been brutally honest about his ambition to redraw Europe’s borders through violence

Putin repeatedly lied in the buildup to an invasion that he denied was going to happen, making dupes of Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz and the other leaders who shuttled to the Kremlin for a jaw-jaw while Russian generals made their final preparations for war-war. Yet we can also say that Putin has been brutally honest about his ambition to redraw Europe’s borders through violence. He has written about his loathing for the west and his desire to reforge a Russian imperium; he has made speeches about it and he has acted on it. The annexation of Crimea in 2014, the 2008 war that tore a chunk out of Georgia, the ferocious intervention in support of the Assad dictatorship in Syria, the cyber-attacks and information warfare: all were warnings of what he was capable of and how little he was bothered by western condemnation. Then there were the assassinations, including the Salisbury nerve agent attack, which was an act of war on British soil.

The response to earlier aggressions was some heavy denouncing and some light sanctioning, counter-measures that were much too puny to deter the Russian leader. Putin’s greatest strength has been the weakness of the west. Nato and the EU passed heated motions. The Kremlin coldly planned its next war. The democracies repeatedly gave him reason to believe that they only pretended to care about naked violations of the rule of international law. Russia hosted the Winter Olympics in the same year that he grabbed Crimea and then the Fifa World Cup four years later.

All the blood of this conflict is on his hands, but some of the guilt is borne by a variety of actors in the west who have enabled or emboldened Putin. Figures on the populist right fawned over him as a nationalist strongman worthy of admiration – and still do. Donald Trump described the “genius” Putin as “very savvy” for launching this invasion under the ludicrously fictitious disguise of being on a peacekeeping mission.

Moscow has also received succour from hard leftists in the west. Even as 190,000 Russian troops massed around Ukraine, Jeremy Corbyn and 11 Labour MPs signed a Stop the War petition blaming Nato and British “sabre-rattling”. The 11 later removed their signatures under pressure from Sir Keir Starmer, who has been unequivocal in his denunciations of Putin’s “jackboot of tyranny”. Labour now has a leader who can be trusted to take the right stand, but that can’t obscure the fact that Mr Corbyn was its candidate for prime minister at two elections.

Take the cash first – and don’t ask too many questions afterwards. That has been the Tory party’s attitude to plutocrats bearing gifts

That was one of many signals sent from this country and others that encouraged the Kremlin to think there would be no meaningful push back from the liberal democracies. How likely was Putin going to take ritual warnings of pariah status and threats of sanctions when so many members of the European business and political elite have been willing to put themselves on the Kremlin’s payroll? The former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder is still sitting on Russian company boards, including Rosneft, the state-owned oil corporation. François Fillon, a former prime minister of France, sits on the boards of a Russian petrochemicals business and a state-owned oil group. Only after the tanks were rolling into Ukraine did former leaders of Austria, Finland and Italy quit their seats on the boards of Russian companies. Lenin had a phrase to describe these people. Useful idiots.

Instead of legitimising Russian interests, European politicians should have been concentrating on how to contain the threat posed by Russia’s leader. There has been an awful absence of strategic thinking. That is nowhere more obvious than in allowing so much of Europe – and notably Germany – to become so dependent on hydrocarbons supplied by a regime that is so starkly hostile to democratic values. The talk now is of “crippling” sanctions. The toughest measure available is to boycott the oil and gas exports that finance Putin’s war machine. That isn’t happening because of Moscow’s grip around the windpipe of Europe’s energy supplies.

This has attracted self-satisfied criticism from Boris Johnson, but that is the British pot trying to establish bragging rights over the German kettle. While they became hooked on Russian gas, too many of Britain’s elite have been addicted to Russian cash. Successive governments have indulged, facilitated and encouraged Russian oligarchs to purchase influence in our political, commercial and cultural life. Our capital acquired the nickname Londongrad because of its global reputation as a laundromat for dirty money. Take the cash first – and don’t ask too many questions afterwards. That has been the Tory party’s attitude to plutocrats bearing gifts.

Outlining Britain’s “severe” response to the invasion, Mr Johnson has talked about establishing a “new kleptocracy cell” in the National Crime Agency. Why did he wait until Russian troops were motoring on Kyiv? There will now be a ban on any further exports to Russia of technology that can be used for military purposes. Why did our government wait until after cruise missiles had taken out critical defence facilities in Ukraine? If the latest tranche of measures is to have a greater impact than previous efforts to penalise aggression, the sanctions will have to be sweeping, strictly applied and sustained. Putin is betting they won’t be. He calculates that Russians can endure hardship for longer than soft western governments will tolerate economic pain.

We already have a squeeze on living standards and it will be made more acute by higher oil and gas prices accompanied by increased costs for cereals and minerals essential for the production of many goods. There will be a cost to confronting despotism and the leaders of the democracies will have to convince their electorates that the cause is worth the sacrifice.

This must be the end of the lazy assumption that security and freedom can be taken for granted in the west. The democracies will have to relearn the arts of deterrence and become much more serious about ensuring they have the means to protect themselves and their allies against despots who respect only hard power.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disarmament that followed, the UK and its neighbours have mainly spent the “peace dividend” on giving ageing populations better healthcare and pensions than they would otherwise have enjoyed. A reluctance to spend more on defence has continued even as China and Russia have become increasingly belligerent. Only a third of Nato’s 30 members are currently meeting the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on their armed forces. Germany, Italy and Spain fall very short of the target.

Liberal democracies urgently need to rediscover the resolve to defend their values against tyranny that they displayed during the cold war. The autocrats in Moscow and Beijing believe that the west is divided, decadent and in decline. They have to be proved wrong. Otherwise, all the rhetoric about freedom is merely noise before defeat.

• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer