IT was shocking to wake up to the news last Thursday that Russia had invaded Ukraine, an independent, sovereign and democratic European country. We’d been warned a full-scale invasion was possible, likely even. Reality when it came was still chilling. Is it hyperbole to suggest that Western liberal democracies are facing their most dangerous moment since the Second World War? Six months ago the notion would have seemed laughable. Now, not so much. Suddenly our own political disagreements seem so inconsequential.

Today four EU states – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania – border a war-zone. To them falls the daunting task of processing thousands of refugees fleeing from Russian tanks rolling over their country. And any attempt by President Vladimir Putin to force back within Russia’s orbit the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would lead inevitably to a direct military confrontation with Nato. This may still seem unlikely. However, that such a prospect is even being discussed shows how the risks of escalation have increased sharply.

Most of us belong to generations who take for granted peace in Europe. Terrible atrocities were committed on European soil in the 1990s during the Balkans’ ethnic conflict, as Yugoslavia unravelled. While the Western powers were engaged to restore peace to the region, the fighting never threatened our own sense of security.

And what of the Cold War? Well, the clue’s in the name. It was not a hot war, with full-scale combat operations on NATO’s doorstep. Moreover, NATO had a strategy and the means for deterring Soviet aggression. A balance of risk kept the peace. Western resolve ultimately caused the collapse of a sclerotic Soviet system, unable to continue to compete economically and militarily.

During the Cold War stand-off, China was an economic minnow and hostile to the Soviet regime. Today China is an economic and military super-power, with its own designs for absorbing Taiwan. Before the Beijing Winter Olympics, China’s leader Xi Jinping signed a new long-term, strategic agreement with Putin. The two autocrats ominously described their new-found friendship as having “no limits”. Their agreement is a deliberate and direct challenge to a world order shaped by liberal democratic values.

Putin offers the risible excuse for his invasion that Ukraine somehow threatens Russians. Ukraine has never been anything other than a good neighbour. Under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum – signed by Russia, the US and UK – Ukraine agreed to relinquish its legacy Soviet nuclear arsenal in return for assurances to respect the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The tragic irony of this act of unilateralism – taken in the interests of nuclear non-proliferation – is not lost on Ukraine’s current leaders.

Before Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 only 13% of Ukrainians had a negative view of Russia. It has been Putin’s relentless aggression, which has gradually turned most Ukrainians against Russia. And the fact he now feels able to carve up a peaceful nation is evidence of Ukraine’s and NATO’s restraint, not provocation.

Apologists for Putin excuse his bloody assault as a reaction to Russia’s perceived humiliation following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when ‘historic territories’ were lost. Yet what Putin feels threatened by – more than anything – is democracy taking root on his borders. In his version of democracy opposition politicians are murdered or imprisoned, the rule of law is subverted, peaceful dissent crushed, and the pockets of the Russian people picked to line those of an elite group of cronies and oligarchs.

For years Putin has failed to diversify and strengthen his country’s economy. Russia has a population of nearly 150 million, over twice the UK’s size. Yet Russia’s economy is significantly smaller than ours. Oil and gas account for nearly two-thirds of Russia’s exports and nearly a third of its entire economic output. Its economic fortunes wax and wane as the oil price rises and falls.

Putin enriches himself and his friends, but he doesn’t enrich the mass of Russian people. Average living standards in Russia lag well behind the UK and the EU – little wonder that Ukraine and other former Soviet republics look west rather than east. This is what makes Putin so dangerous. He promotes aggressive nationalism, sustained by a defence budget consuming a whopping 11% of public spending, to compensate for his own economic failures and maintain an iron grip on power.

The West has scrambled to provide a credible and effective response to Putin’s uncompromising aggression and disruption. Sanctions are being deployed to attack the soft underbelly of a stagnant Russian economy. Yet some EU members were initially reluctant to adopt the most potent measures, including blocking Russia from the SWIFT international payments system and disrupting its ability to trade.

What should be obvious to EU and NATO leaders, as Putin issues his nuclear threats, is that he must be stopped. With every liberty he has taken, his appetite has only increased. He clearly poses an existential threat to a world order, which has prevailed throughout most of our lives. He also strikes at the foundations of the EU’s self-image as the world’s most successful peace project.

Defeating Putin will not be quick, easy or economically painless. Putin calculates that NATO governments and their publics – grappling with the financial havoc wreaked by Covid – won’t have the stomach to resist for long. We must all prove him wrong, by demonstrating the resolve to match the scale of events.

It was 32 years ago when I joined crowds in the courtyard of Prague Castle to witness Vaclav Havel sworn in as President of Czechoslovakia, freshly liberated from the yoke of Soviet oppression. The sheer joy on the faces of the Czech people that day was wondrous to behold. They testified to this simple truth: tyranny will never crush the human spirit. The spirit, which today summons up the courageous defiance of the Ukrainian people, as they fight for their country’s freedom.

Putin doesn’t understand this. That will be his downfall.

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