It is with pain and anguish that we prepare to commemorate the first anniversary of the new Russian offensive against Ukraine — a first anniversary which is, in fact, let us never forget, the ninth.
Perhaps the worst thing is that democratic leaders and peoples, as if accustomed to war, do not finally ask themselves the only valid question: why did we in the West not stop the war? Why have we, the supposedly freedom-loving and law-abiding nations, not put an end to an aggression that violates all the principles we are supposed to cherish? Why have we, nations that proclaim the sacred value of the human person and the imprescriptible rights attached to it, not saved tens of thousands of human lives?
If leaders and peoples have not wanted to ask themselves this question, it is undoubtedly because they know only too well the answer: we have not wanted to.
This is nothing more than a repetition of the same history: neither in Syria, nor before in Chechnya and Georgia, did we want it — nor in Ukraine in 2014. Each time, communication advisers often know how to spread a kind of rumor: we were powerless — powerless after the de facto annexation by Russia of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia in 2008, powerless after the chemical attacks on Ghouta in 2013 and the siege and then fall of Aleppo in 2016 and, powerless again, after the occupation disguised as the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Donbas in 2014.
With this message of impotence, we humiliated ourselves before Putin. But it was a lie. Who can believe that the largest and most powerful army in the world, that of the United States, 20 times at least superior to the Russian army, and its European allies could not defeat the Russian army, whose power is even weaker than the most critical analysts assessed before 24 February 2022?
Thereafter, those same do-nothing advocates in government became do-littles. They went directly to the Kremlin to get their talking points: we should not escalate; the nuclear risk is too high; co-belligerence carries the risk of World War III; a direct engagement of NATO armies, even without boots on the ground and only through air support to a victim of aggression — the application of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter — would run the risk of a conflagration that would destroy the planet. We have self-poisoned ourselves with this nonsense because we refuse to understand the nature of war. We did not want to grasp its reality because its radical nature would have disturbed our comfort too much.
Our so-called prudence was, in fact, the worst imprudence, because it strengthens the enemy of humanity, that is, the regime of Vladimir Putin. It still gives him the message that we are indeed willing to help Ukraine, but that our support is not unlimited. We are allowing him time when he knows he has it on his side. Having commemorated this first anniversary, or ninth, we might not be so sorry to celebrate in 2024 the second — and tenth.
We have permitted tens of thousands of Ukrainians to be massacred — tens of thousands of times a life, always and each time singular and unique. Do our leaders realize this? What will these faces of the unsaved — children, women, and young men — tell them one day? Will they dare look at them?
Meanwhile, we are also giving Putin another ideological advantage: we are trivializing war. Analysts have compared the fighting in Bakhmut, Soledar, and elsewhere to that of World War I. It is true that the desolate landscapes, with charred trees and the debris of cold corpses in a gray fog, could resemble those of Verdun in 1916. A beautiful French documentary by Loup Bureau entitled Tranchées had already shown in 2018-2019 trenches quite similar to those of a little over 100 years ago. But the war model of Putin and his henchmen is not that of 1914 but that of Hitler’s war of extermination. Just as in Chechnya in 1999-2000, he gave his troops an absolute license to kill any soul by calling the enemies “terrorists” — rhetoric used again in Syria. By calling the Ukrainians “Nazis,” he gave his troops an incentive to murder endlessly and indiscriminately.
If these so-called analysts have such a need to normalize war, it is because they cannot think in the category of the extreme. They are in denial of this absolute evil that Putin has brought back to Europe. And if Putin’s war in Ukraine becomes, so to speak, in their eyes, an ordinary war, they will be able to fulfill their unworthy and indecent dreams: that of a negotiation, prefiguring a return to “normal” relations with a regime that they refuse to call by its true name — a government of evil?
This is the discordant music that one continues to hear in many Western countries. This discourse declares that “all wars are horrible”, and thus normalizes Russia’s slaughter in Ukraine by suggesting it is part of a continuum of classic wars. Its bloody radicalism is trivialized.
The indecency of the West’s piecemeal delivery of weapons to Ukraine, making the brave, victim nation bear the humiliation of each new request, hides the reality that I have been expressing for months: we are still halfway there. This way of doing things by halves takes tens or hundreds of lives every day. After invoking the risks, each time, of delivering more decisive weapons, we end up accepting it, and yet reveal in retrospect that such fears were unjustified.
This first anniversary is a time to reflect on our shame. It is also the revelation of our strategic myopia and our inability to project ourselves into the only desirable future: that of a radically defeated Russia.
And yet these self-satisfied geopoliticians, those who live among us and who like to present themselves as realists, usurp any claim to strategic sagacity. They do not even grasp that by disregarding the cost of human life in their analysis, they have constructed a strategic edifice devoid of moral foundations.
This then is the first anniversary, a moment of remembrance stained by our own guilt.
Nicolas Tenzer, non-resident senior fellow at CEPA, is the director of Desk Russie, guest professor at Sciences Po Paris, and a blogger on Tenzer Strategics. He is the author of 22 books and three official reports to the French government.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.