The past has invaded the present. Russia’s military aggression has burst over Ukraine like a storm cloud gathered from a different, darker time. It is raining terror and destruction on a country that has seen tank columns like the one Vladimir Putin has ordered to Kyiv before, but not in the last seven decades.
The Kremlin claims to be landing surgical strikes. The reality for civilians on the ground is butchery. Until this happened, the western imagination struggled to process the idea that Putin would go through with it. His cynical disregard for human life was never doubted, but his callousness was thought to include rational self-interest. Compassion was not going to stop the Russian president unleashing hell, but maybe some other calculation would impose restraint – the prospect of economic ruin, or of losing the support of ordinary Russians who have no boiling grievance against Ukrainians.
But success at domestic repression and years of international equivocation have convinced Putin that brutality works. I was in Chechnya in 2003, covering a Kremlin-rigged referendum to formalise the breakaway republic’s reabsorption into Russia. Grozny was still a smouldering ruin. The polling stations were empty. The only way to distinguish empty rubble from functioning homes was by the words “people live here” daubed on the bricks. That is what victory looks like for Putin.
And still, people thought the Kremlin’s capacity for violence had some psychological limit; that it could be checked by an invisible force field of diplomacy or economics.
The Russian line that Ukrainians need rescuing from their own government – that their sham nation wants dissolution into a greater Slavic motherland – sounded like some grotesque pastiche of a 20th-century dictator. But there was still doubt as to whether Putin actually believed that stuff. The question was answered when he reached the page in the fascist playbook where tanks fire on children.
Western conviction that this is not supposed to happen in Europe any more has not stopped it happening. The shock is producing dramatic policy changes across the continent. The most historically significant shift is in Germany, which is sending weapons to Kyiv and ramping up defence spending. Gone overnight is the taboo around military assertiveness that was born of national atonement for the Third Reich. Chancellor Olaf Scholz is using the old moral compass to reorient his country for an altered landscape. “It is a new era,” he told the Bundestag.
In Britain, the necessary adjustment has a different character. The UK has never been squeamish about hard power. Successive prime ministers have sounded more hawkish against Putin than counterparts on the continent. There are British soldiers in the Baltic and Poland, reinforcing Nato’s eastern boundary.
The British weakness is more subtle, relating to the dysfunctional relationship with the EU. It is the refusal to see the European project on its own terms: not just a trading bloc but a strategic alliance founded with a moral purpose – a framework of law and economic integration that locks democracy in and tyranny out.
That was understood by former Soviet satellite countries in eastern Europe when they applied to join the EU and Nato simultaneously. It was understood by the Labour government that used Britain’s seat at the top table of both institutions to champion those double accessions. It was understood by Ukrainians who wanted their government to sign an association agreement with Brussels in 2014. And it was understood by Putin, who saw that deal as an affront to Russia’s regional hegemony and engineered the secession of Crimea in retaliation.
But it was not understood by British Eurosceptics who indulged the Kremlin line, bemoaning the EU-Ukraine partnership as a provocation and proof that Brussels had quasi-imperial delusions of grandeur.
Boris Johnson was in that camp. In 2016, he told a referendum rally that the EU partnership agreement with Ukraine had “caused real trouble”. Things in Ukraine “went wrong”, Johnson said, because “all the EU can do in this question is cause confusion”. Putin, a supporter of Brexit, agreed.
That isn’t Johnson’s view now. It might not have been his view then, not a serious one. That is the problem. We have a prime minister with disposable values. He goes into a room with one opinion, but keeps a different take in his back pocket for the after-dinner crowd. In 2016, Johnson saw a way to narrate Ukraine’s tragedy as a parable of Euro-malfeasance. It involved stripping out historical context and facts but he had no qualms about that. Historical context and fact were not the Brexit stock in trade.
This was an ideological movement that nuzzled the hand of Donald Trump as it vandalised every institution for upholding the postwar liberal democratic order. Brexit was a doctrine for fellow-travellers of a US president who called Angela Merkel an enemy and Putin a friend.
Johnson would be glad now if that phase could be forgotten. He might have forgotten it himself, because everything is a phase for him. He grabbed the wheel of British foreign policy and yanked it this way and that, like Toad of Toad Hall in faddish thrall to a machine he could not control. Egged on by media ballyhoo and blasts of the Tory horn, he swerved off the road that was recommended by every former prime minister, every diplomat and every European ally. Parp! Parp! Into a strategic ditch. What was a question facing Britain in 2016 to which Brexit was a sensible answer? To what problem facing the country was Boris Johnson a credible solution?
Now events require a policy of European engagement that can only be achieved by ignoring everything the prime minister has said on the subject. It requires a style of grown-up leadership that Johnson can affect because he is a thespian and rhetorician of some talent, but not sustain because he is also a dilettante and a fraud. He embodies a trait in Westminster culture that treats politics as pantomime, where a prime minister can play at being Churchill without Churchillian gravitas and without being accountable for words delivered with a wink, in a stage voice tinged with perpetual jest.
The age of levity is over. Putin’s bombs should shake British politics into sobriety. When that happens, it will be clear that the past six years, the detour into Brexit fantasy land, have been squandered; that we need to restart relations with our neighbours from scratch.
That will be hard for a prime minister who has sunk so much political capital into Eurosceptic frivolity, and appointed a cabinet in his image. But the shift is inevitable. When targets of Kremlin atrocity call out to “Europe” for help, they are appealing not to a geographical space but an idea. They are talking about security in the rule of law and democracy – the antithesis of Putinism. They mean the European project. If Britain is to be an ally to Ukraine, it must learn to speak the language of European solidarity that Brexit despises and denies.
Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist
Guardian Newsroom: the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Join a panel of journalists, including Michael Safi, Luke Harding, Julian Borger, Juliette Garside and Patrick Wintour on a livestreamed event on the Russia-Ukraine crisis on Thursday 3 March, 8pm GMT | 9pm CET | 12pm PST | 3pm EST. Book tickets here.