Blog AnalysisRussia Caucasus Ukraine

Russia violently attacks Ukraine. What to do: nothing, sanction or reflect?

(B2) Faced with the threat of a new open conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the Europeans tried to mobilize. Without success. Sanctions were imposed. A diplomatic channel has been opened. A new summit is convened this Thursday. Too weak. Too late. As for NATO, it is determined not to intervene militarily. Bis repetita from Crimea in 2014… or from Budapest in 1956?

Farkasrét cemetery in Budapest in homage to the dead of 1956 (© NGV / B2)

The good comparison to have: 1956

Russia's attack on Ukraine is not a replica of World War II. As some like to say. This is a profound error. A review of history. If it were to be compared, in intensity, in objective, in tactics, it is with the Russian intervention in Hungary in 1956. At the time, we had a significant concentration of Russian soldiers: 17 armored and infantry divisions , nearly 190.000 men, 2500 tanks and 1000 support vehicles, the aviation bombs the strategic sites (airports, factories) of the main cities of Hungary.

A brutal and rapid intervention

At the time, we were witnessing on the Russian side the same attempts at concealment, the same brutality of intervention, and the same false justifications. The bloodbath is edifying: 700 Soviet deaths all the same! Around 2500 Hungarian combatants and civilians died, nearly 13.000 injured. Of course, like yesterday, today solidarity is proclaimed with Ukraine Urbi et orbi, in living rooms, on television, on Twitter, at the UN Security Council. But that's all (1).

No military intervention

We are witnessing the same wait-and-see attitude among Westerners. NATO gestures, highlights its thousands of men, its hundred mobilized planes and ships. But that's all. These means – in fact undersized compared to the Russian intervention – remain wisely within the borders of the Atlantic Alliance. They will not intervene. Moscow knows it. Westerners have tacitly assured him of this.

A tacit green light

The United States rushed, a few weeks before the intervention, to withdraw the soldiers present on Ukrainian soil as in the OSCE observation mission (SMM). A signal not of weakness, but a sort of tacit green light for Russian intervention. The objective was not only to protect American citizens, but to prevent them from being hit inadvertently and thus forcing American intervention.

And tomorrow?

Beyond the short term, we must think about the long term.

A brief intervention otherwise ...

To be victorious for Russia, this intervention must be short, limited and lightning. Otherwise, it could turn into a tomb not only for Russian soldiers, but also for the regime of Vladimir Putin. Holding the country is not within the reach of an armed force, even several tens of thousands of men strong, in a fundamentally hostile country.

Let's hear what Russia says

Once the intervention is over, we will have to reconnect with Russia and renew ties. Although Putin's remarks are (partly) false, they are nonetheless based on a certain rationality. The West failed to give Russia the security assurances it deserved. On the contrary, from Kosovo 1999 to Libya 2021, via Iraq 2003, they have become comfortable with international law as well as respect for Russian power. Moscow takes revenge using the same weapons: lies, circumvention of international rules, force rather than law. You have to read (or reread) Vladimir Putin's remarks to the press on Tuesday (February 22) the day after his recognition of the separatist republics of Donbass (Read: The Minsk agreements are dead. Russia has chosen: it prefers the dark side of force).

Waiting for a new generation of Russian leaders

Will Russia remain an international “monster” for another century? We must not lose hope. We can hope that in a generation, a new elite of Russian executives and leaders will rise, capable of entering a new modernity, combining power and respect for the law. This will require a real mental revolution in the East, but also in the West. We will have to stop considering everything that comes from Moscow as “paranoid”. And try to reach a new European security agreement. Cold, thoughtful, calm. To do this, we need to think about it now! This is more important in itself than a new package of sanctions whose effect we know: to solidify the Russians even more around their regime.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

  1. I found in my archives the report of the United Nations Security Council of November 4, 1956, the day of the definitive Soviet intervention in Budapest. To reread.
  2. We cannot even say that the Europeans will have tried everything. The diplomatic negotiation was weak, very weak. No permanent European troika to negotiate between Moscow and kyiv. No proposal for an interposition force, an observation mission.

Updated with addition on notes

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

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