Do mention the war!

This week, Europe gears up for the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Sure enough, Russian propaganda does everything to use the narrative of Russia the liberator – then and now – for their purpose of whipping up patriotic fervour. At the same time, the Central Europeans from the Baltics to Bulgaria have a different view: The Soviet victory of 1945 brought them from one catastrophe to another one. And today, Putin’s Russia is a clear and present danger to their freedom, and their ambitions to strengthen democracy and the rule of law in the Eastern Neighbourhood. So there is a clear alternative to Russia’s narrative about war and about its own place in history.

But there is another war we should think and talk about: Russia’s blatant aggression against Ukraine. The West should not have been as surprised as it was, back in March 2014. The writing had been on the wall since Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 – and its ongoing violation of the ceasefire agreement afterwards. The Kremlin is waging war against Russia’s neighbours because it sees successful democracies in the region as a threat to its own power. It needs the narrative of the alleged past humiliation at the hands of the West in order to justify its aggression.  It needs the confrontation with the West in order to distract attention from the failure of the economy. In the words of Ed Lucas, the West’s reaction to this war has been mixed, at best.  It is true, we have managed to maintain unity on sanctions – so far. And yes, NATO has reacted robustly by beefing up its capacities to come to the rescue of Balts and others threatened by Russian aggression. Despite this, the assessments among Europeans of the significance of Russia’s breach of basic norms have not converged. And, no, the danger of an unravelling of EU and NATO solidarity is not over.

This brings us to the war that Russia is now threatening to bring upon the West every day in its media. In March, 2014, Kremlin media mogul Dmitri Kisilyov stated that Russia was ‘the only country in the world really capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash’. Ever since then, the Kremlin has hammered the message home to Russians that war with the West is looming. This is accompanied by the narrative that the ‘decadent’ West will roll over if you only threaten it firmly enough. Look at the ending of the infamous ruski okupant video and you know what we have to react to now.

Si vis pacem, para bellum – if you want peace, prepare for war. This apparent paradox is at the core of what has come to be called military deterrence in modern times, but in reality is a principle of conflict as old as mankind itself. In order to keep your adversary from attacking you, you have to prepare your defences, including counter-attack, precisely because you don’t want to have to use your weapons. So we must re-learn deterrence. We have forgotten about it in the last 25 years, as articulated by Anne Applebaum last year. Some of the members of our political classes have also been traumatised by the ‘peace movement’ of the 1980s which was essentially directed against the principle of possessing nuclear weapons.

However if we want to prevail in this confrontation, further spread democracy and the rule of law eastward, and live in peace, we cannot avoid relearning a couple of simple truths. Most importantly, is the truth concerning deterrence. If it is to be credible, it must be based on three pillars: The capacity to defend yourself, the willingness to do so, and the communication of both to the opponent. At this point in time, the West must  shape up in all three categories. That presupposes, first and foremost, a frank public debate about the military threat we are facing: conventional, hybrid and nuclear. It includes the insight that we can only live in freedom today because the United States has been, and ultimately still is, risking thermonuclear war for us – remember the Cold War? And it also means that we – political parties, leaders, think tanks and NGOs, need to start a frank and rational debate about all of this.

So do mention the war: the one that ended 70 years ago and about which Europe still has to find a narrative that lives up to our values. The one that Russia has started against Ukraine, and to which the West is still struggling to find a consistent, determined and sustainable answer. And the big one between Russia and the West, which will hopefully never happen but which we have to be ready to wage if we want to prevent it.