Europhobes will never have a better argument against European integration than the seat of the European parliament in Strasbourg. It’s not just the €200 million per year it costs to move MEPs to and from Brussels once a month at great inconvenience to everyone; the building itself is a disgrace. It feels like a prison: identical glass corridors look out over a useless inner courtyard, so you can go on walks without the danger of escape. The former president of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso once suggested turning the building into the headquarters of the European Institute of Technology, which was an excellent offer both for the country and the city, but to no avail. In fact, though, the location made more sense to me once I visited Strasbourg’s archaeological museum. Argentoratum, as the Romans called it, began as a military outpost which guarded the Rhine for centuries. The two main streets of the old town are still where they were laid out by Roman engineers. Urban life continued in Argentoratum after the empire fell, while many Roman provinces, such as Britain, collapsed catastrophically into localism.
In the opening months of the second world war, many of Strasbourg’s inhabitants were relocated to southern France. When France fell to the Nazis, they returned and were subjected to brutal Germanisation, as my grandparents were in Poland. The Rhine is still the border between the Latins and the Germans, but centuries of bloody fighting for control over Alsace-Lorraine has taught them both that pooling aspects of national sovereignty is preferable to mortal combat. That is not a lesson Vladimir Putin has yet learned. One of the few positives of his invasion is that western Europeans are discovering that eastern Europe also has a history. Putin thinks that just because Russians and Ukrainians were more or less one people 1,000 years ago, he has the right to reunite them by force. But the Mongols split them into separate polities in the mid-13th century. Russian princes became the Mongols’ tax collectors, while the more westerly Ukrainians and Belarusians lived for almost half a millennium – longer than the Union of England and Scotland so far – in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Political attitudes and cultures diverged. Putin’s brand of ethno-imperialism also neglects the fact that while almost everybody in Ukraine speaks Russian, the people define themselves as ‘Russian’ if they have an authoritarian bent or ‘Ukrainian’ if they want democracy, rule of law and the EU.
Putin has already failed in absorbing all of Ukraine into his revived empire. The country’s heroic stance is now indelible in the imaginations of the Ukrainian people themselves, the world and, increasingly, even Russian nostalgists. Putin may still succeed in grabbing a province or two, but Europe’s last colonial empire is at last coming to an end. As the Russian army retreats from the outskirts of Kyiv and redeploys in the Donbas, the free world needs to remember that our goal now should not only be to give ourselves time for re-armament. It should also be for Ukraine to win and for Putin to pay.
Putin’s war isn’t just a crime; it’s a disaster for Russia. Say Putin takes over the ruins of Mariupol – it will take at least a decade to rebuild the city. The Russian army has suffered such heavy losses that it, too, could take years to repair. And he will have to do it with an economy that may well halve under the weight of western sanctions. If Putin is still in power in ten years’ time, he will preside over a Russia that is less modern, less wealthy and less powerful.
The West, on the other hand, seems to have woken up from its slumber. America’s timely strategic intelligence warnings gave Ukrainians an early advantage. US Javelin and Stinger missiles have probably been the decisive factor in Ukraine’s successes so far. Britain has done well too. The early decision to send anti-tank weapons, Boris’s visits to Kyiv and Warsaw earlier this year and the swift deployment of British troops to Nato’s eastern flank could set an encouraging pattern for the UK’s place in the world outside the European Union. Britain cannot do as much as the US or the EU, but it can act faster. It can set an example to follow and shame others into action. It cannot play the neo-imperial role some Brexiteers imagined, but it can be prominent, honourable and useful.
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Radek Sikorski is a member of the European parliament.
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