17th Mar 2018


The year history came back to Europe

  • Unidentified snipers killed more than 100 protesters in Kiev in February, prompting Yanukovych's departure (Photo: Christiaan Triebert)

The latest war in Europe began on Friday 21 February 2014.

It began, without a shot being fired, when 16 armoured personnel carriers from Russia's 801st Marine Corps brigade left their leased base in Crimea, Ukraine, and took up defensive positions in the nearby Ukrainian towns of Kaha, Gvardiiske, and Sevastopol.

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The same day, in Kiev, Ukraine's pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych was preparing to flee his mansion.

His riot police had tried and failed, for months, to clear protesters from the city centre. Dozens were dead. The crowds, at times, had numbered more than 1 million people.

They waved EU flags because Yanukovych had rejected EU integration and its promise of prosperity and rule of law.

The officials in Brussels who drafted the EU-Ukraine free trade and political association treaty could hardly have imagined the role it would come to play.

The events which unfolded over the next 10 months redrew the European map and opened a new chapter in modern history: Vladimir Putin's Russia vs. the West.

Little green men

As Yanukovych fled, little green men - balaclava-clad Russian soldiers without insignia - fanned out to occupy public places in Crimean cities.

Russian agents provocateurs organised small pro-Russia protests in Crimea and in Donetsk and Luhansk in east Ukraine.

Russian media began to broadcast "news" that Ukrainian-speaking "fascists" were coming to kill Russian-speakers in the east after a US and EU-orchestrated "coup".

Putin himself took to the airwaves to promote two projects: Novorossiya and Russkiy Mir.

Novorossiya is a claim that east and south-east Ukraine belong to Russia for ancestral reasons no matter what international treaties say.

Russkiy Mir - meaning "Russian world" - is the claim that Russia is a unique civilisation destined for great things and that Russian forces can intervene to "protect" ethnic Russians who live in neighbouring countries.

The conflict quickly escalated.

History is back

By the end of March, Putin changed the map by "annexing" Crimea - a term not heard in Europe since Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938.

By August, Russia-controlled and Russia-armed separatists in east Ukraine were fighting pitched battles with the Ukrainian army and Russia had cut off Ukraine's gas.

By December, Russian tanks and infantry were in south-east Ukraine. More than 4,000 Ukrainians were dead and more than 1 million had fled their homes. Almost 300 people, most of them EU citizens, had also lost their lives when a stray rocket shot down a passenger plane.

Looking back, Poland's Donald Tusk said on 1 December, the day he took over as the new president of the EU Council: "Politics has returned to Europe. History is back".

Hybrid war

Nato has called Russia's new form of warfare - a mix of covert military action, political subversion, economic coercion, and propaganda - "hybrid war".

It's a war designed to legitimise Putin's authoritarianism at home and restore Russia's influence in former Soviet states.

It's also a war against Nato and the EU more directly.

Putin made wild comments that his troops could invade Warsaw, while his jets waged a campaign of harassment against Nato air and naval assets.

But Russkiy Mir is a more credible threat of military action.

If little green men appear in Nato members Estonia or Latvia, it will test the Nato treaty's Article V on collective defence. If the US or Germany are unwilling to risk escalation by confronting Russia, it will be the end of the Western alliance.

National Front loans

There is already political subversion.

Kremlin-linked firms have channelled millions in loans to the National Front, a far-right anti-EU party in France, to help it contest 2017 elections.

Russia is also co-operating with anti-EU parties in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Italy, Hungary, and Latvia.

There is economic coercion: Putin has used the lure of gas pipeline investments and the threat of gas cut-offs to split EU leaders. EU arms suppliers, oil companies, engineering firms, and banks lobby on his behalf to protect their Russia contracts.

There is also propaganda: Russian media, such as RT or Sputnik, broadcasting from EU capitals in several languages, tell the story of Ukrainian fascists, Western coups, and Europe's homosexual aberrations, while pro-Russia trolls police coverage of the crisis in European online publications.

Merkel on the phone

For their part, Nato and EU leaders reacted step by step.

Nato states rejected Ukraine's appeal for modern weapons and eastern European allies' call for new military bases.

But they agreed to fund Ukrainian military logistics, cyberwarfare, and command and control capabilities.

They increased air-policing and drills in the Baltic region and will launch a "spearhead" force by early 2015 to deter Crimea-type scenarios in the Baltic states.

The EU is injecting billions of euros and sending security instructors to help Ukraine's post-revolutionary state deliver reforms.

It tried a variety of diplomatic initiatives: trilateral trade talks and gas talks; "Normandy" ceasefire negotiations; "Minsk" and "Geneva" negotiations; informal summits; phone calls - Germany's Angela Merkel spoke to Putin more than 40 times.

It also crossed the rubicon by imposing sanctions - at first blacklists, then "targeted" economic measures against Russian banks and energy firms.

Pipelines and sanctions

Putin's preparations began long before the Ukraine crisis.

He redoubled military spending in 2012.

He acquired a major economic and political asset in the EU when Germany in 2005 agreed to build the Nord Stream gas pipeline.

He started a crackdown on pro-European liberals and their ideas in Russia even earlier.

The ideology of the Russkiy Mir also predates the new crisis.

Henryk Wlaszczyk, a Polish aid worker who visited Gori University in Georgia shortly after the Russian invasion in 2008, found an EU flag which had been torn down, bayonetted, and shot by Russian soldiers.

"This symbol of the EU countries and of Georgian aspirations was an object of direct physical hatred," he told EUobserver at the time. "EU countries should realise that this is being seen as a conflict between two empires".

Parts of the EU establishment - France, Italy, Hungary, and the Socialist party in Germany among others - are willing to cede ground in order to get back to business as usual, or, pre-history.

Holy land

But as the year ends, it's becoming clear the conflict will last a long time.

Russia needs a land bridge to Crimea if its new province is to be economically sustainable. But Merkel said in November that if Putin attacks the Ukrainian city of Mariupol - the Crimea bridge - more EU sanctions are "unavoidable". She said in December the existing sanctions can be rolled back only if he gives up conquered territories.

The EU measures and low oil prices cost Russia $140 billion in lost revenue in 2014 (6% of the state budget). Capital flight cost another $100 billion and the rouble has plunged to all-time lows.

But Putin, in his state-of-the-nation speech on 4 December, didn't blink. He told Russian people to expect more economic hardship and described Crimea as Russia's "Holy Land".

Whether he intended to stop at Mariupol, or Kiev, or to go to Tallinn when the 16 armoured vehicles left their base in Crimea on 21 February is not known.

But if political and market forces cause a Russian economic crisis, it might make him even more unpredictable.

This story was originally published in EUobserver's 2014 Europe in Review Magazine.

Click here to read previous editions of Europe in Review magazines.


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Napoleon's shadow still falls on Europe

Two hundred years after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, the French Emperor still stirs passion, while his political legacy endures in the EU.


Macron: Hegelian hero of EU history?

The election of the 39-year old newcomer injected new hope and dynamism. But the French president still has to find solid allies in the EU and deliver his ambitious agenda at home.


In 2018, make Europe great again!

Is the EU back on track to make Europe great again? The fifth edition of EUobserver's Europe in Review magazine looks at the biggest events that shaped the EU in 2017 and prospects for 2018.


In 2018, make Europe great again!

Is the EU back on track to make Europe great again? The fifth edition of EUobserver's Europe in Review magazine looks at the biggest events that shaped the EU in 2017 and prospects for 2018.

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