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 have been imposed. A diplomatic channel was opened. A new summit is convened this Thursday. Too weak. Too late. As for NATO, it is determined not to intervene militarily. Bis repetita Crimea in 2014... or 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 deep mistake. 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, there was a significant concentration of Russian soldiers: 17 armored and infantry divisions , nearly 190.000 men, 2500 tanks and 1000 support vehicles, the air force bombed the strategic sites (airports, factories) of the main cities of Hungary.

A brutal and rapid intervention

At the time, we are 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 dead all the same! About 2500 Hungarian combatants and civilians dead, nearly 13.000 wounded. 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 of Westerners. NATO gesticulates, puts forward its thousands of men, its hundred planes and ships mobilized. 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 hastened 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 inadvertently affected and thus requiring 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 will have to be short, limited and lightning. Otherwise, it could turn into a tomb not only for Russian soldiers, but also for Vladimir Putin's regime. Holding the country is not within reach of an armed force, even strong of several tens of thousands of men, in a fundamentally hostile country.

Let's hear what Russia says

Once the intervention is over, it will be necessary to recompose with Russia, to renew ties. To be (partly) false, Putin's words 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 and with respect for Russian power. Moscow takes revenge by using the same weapons: lies, circumvention of international rules, force rather than right. 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, poised. For this, we must now think about it! 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 read again.
  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).