Europe’s 9/11

A refugee after crossing the Ukraine-P oland border
Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto
Julia Ioffe
March 3, 2022

It can be hard for Americans to understand why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has touched such a raw nerve in Europe. Even the Biden administration did not expect the European response to be so fast and so furious. The widespread expectation, after all, was that sanctions, coordinated between the United States and Europe, would be rolled out slowly. A batch here, another batch a week later, steadily ramping up the pressure on Russia and imposing incremental punishment for its war of aggression. Instead, the sanctions came crashing down all at once. (From what I heard, individual delegations went into the European Council meeting fearing that other delegations would water the sanctions down, so they promised themselves that they would stand firm. On arriving, they discovered that the opposite was true: everyone wanted to hit Russia hard.) In addition to the sanctions, we saw other sea changes on the continent. Germany, which has been understandably wary of militarization, shredded its post-Cold War doctrine over the weekend, agreeing to send lethal aid to Ukraine and to boost its military spending to two percent of G.D.P. The E.U., for the first time in its history, declared it was sending weapons. Switzerland—Switzerland!—which stayed neutral even through the horrors of World War II, decided to impose sanctions on Russia and freeze Russian assets. 

The White House, which had been laying the groundwork for sanctions and trying to get the E.U. to agree—which is typically like herding cats—was taken aback by the unity and swiftness of the response. Why did Europe react the way it did? “Seeing children using metro platforms as bomb shelters stirs the collective memory of World War II,” a U.S. official told me. “It has made them react with anger and emotion, rather than the logic that usually results in the lowest common denominator.”

For America, World War II was Pearl Harbor, island hopping in the Pacific, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge. As bloody and horrific as those events were, they pale in comparison to what Europe experienced. In six years of war, the continent was leveled. Tens of millions of people were killed in the most novel and horrific ways. Many countries endured the brutality of military occupation. The trauma of that war is still present today in Europe in a way that is foreign to the United States. It is passed down from generation to generation. (The same thing is true of Ukraine and Russia. The Soviet Union lost 27 million people—15 percent of its population—in just four years. Every family lost many, many loved ones, and the trauma of that war is alive and well, thanks in part to Putin’s propaganda machine.) If you could make the images coming out of Ukraine black and white, it might be hard to tell the difference between September 1939 or June 1941. The fact that there is a land war happening again, in Europe, less than a century since the last one, and using a lot of the same language, has been extremely triggering for Europeans (as well as for Russians and Ukrainians). For Europeans, as some of the continent’s officials have told people in the Biden administration, “this is our 9/11.”

Or Europe’s Syria?

Over the weekend, the unexpected happened: Russia’s blitzkrieg faltered and ran aground against a wall of Ukrainian resistance. It was clearly unexpected for Vladimir Putin, who thought the Russian army would cut through Ukraine like a hot knife through butter and that Ukrainians would greet the Russians with flowers. Instead, they met them with Molotov cocktails and Javelins. They put their bodies in front of rolling tanks. They carried live land mines with cigarettes dangling from their lips. They told a Russian warship to go fuck itself. The courage and wit of Ukrainians—as well as their pure, unadulterated rage—went viral. It hit every American pleasure point: heroic self-defense, action movie gunplay, and a made-for-Hollywood, come-from-behind story of an underdog triumphing in the face of an overwhelming enemy—like Cool Runnings, but with tanks. 

Unfortunately, the world rarely follows Hollywood plotlines. When Russia watchers and military strategists saw those videos, we did not feel giddy. We felt sick knowing what was to come: Ukraine would be run into the ground. 

A little context: On Saturday, RIA News, a state-owned Russian news organization, ran an op-ed by a propagandist named Pyotr Akopov. “A new world is being born before our eyes,” he wrote. “The Russian military operation in Ukraine has opened a new era…Russia is reconstituting its unity. The tragedy of 1991, this terrible catastrophe of our history, its unnatural twist, has been overcome.” There were still bullets flying, Akopov wrote, but the war was won. “Ukraine will no longer exist as an anti-Russia,” he continued. “Russia is rebuilding its historical fullness, gathering the Russian world, the Russian people together—all the Great Russians, the Belarusians, and the Little Russians”—imperialist jargon for Ukrainians—“if we had not done this, if we had allowed the temporary division [of the three] to become cemented for centuries, we would have betrayed the memory of our ancestors and would have been cursed by our progeny for having allowed the collapse of the Russian world.” By gathering Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia as autonomous regions of one Slavic, Russian-speaking bloc, Akopov wrote, Putin has solved the Ukraine question once and for all. 

The article was curious. When it was published, the war was only in its third day, the Russian army had yet to take a single city, and its advance was beset by logistical problems, fuel shortages, and unmotivated conscripts who told their Ukrainian captors they didn’t know they were being sent to fight in Ukraine or why they were there. RIA News had clearly jumped the gun and published far too soon what was clearly pre-planned for the event of a lightning victory and the rapid fall of Kyiv that Putin had been counting on. The agency quickly deleted the op-ed, but you can still read an archived version in all its insane glory. Not to be missed is the talk of the Slavs versus the Anglo-Saxons, as if geopolitics had returned not to the 19th century, but to the 9th. 

It was a revelatory mistake: here it was, an unvarnished explanation of what Putin was after in Ukraine. This was not about NATO, this was about cobbling together some kind of pan-Slavic universe that existed nowhere outside the fevered minds of Putin and his most Rasputin-like ideologues. The op-ed was also terrifying because it indicated that, despite the fantasies of the Stephen Walts and the John Mearshimers of the world, there was no possible off-ramp. What can you offer a man who wants to recolonize Ukraine and fold it into his totalitarian utopia? Ukrainian neutrality? Arms control talks? If Putin wants an eschatological battle between the Slavic and Anglo-Saxon world, not only are these proposals insufficient, they are irrelevant.

And that means Putin is determined to see this matter through—all the way through. There is no way he stops now, and the more the Ukrainian people stand up to him, the more they mock him, the more determined he will be to crush them. He will not be humiliated by “Little Russians,” by residents of a country he doesn’t believe is real. He will not be vanquished by a Ukraine he thinks is a puppet of his mortal enemy, the United States. And because he has more troops and more firepower, he can have his way, even if it won’t be as easy as he initially thought. It’s why absolutely no one should discount the possibility that Putin might make good on his threat to use a nuclear weapon. He is that angry, and he wants it badly enough. It is existential for him now. As Russian TV host Dmitry Kiselev threatened on his Sunday night show, Russia is fully willing to fire 500 nuclear warheads at NATO countries. He explained why Russia would do this. “The principle is: why do we need the world if Russia won’t be in it?”

I fear, as many do, that every Ukrainian victory, every Russian setback will be punished disproportionally. All week, Russian missiles have been hitting civilian areas, as if on purpose. The use of cluster bombs have been reported, and Russia was seen rolling in its thermobaric bombs, which set the air on fire and create a vacuum that explodes your lungs and other organs. American officials are already warning of a bloody war of attrition even as one unfolds before our eyes. European intelligence is warning that the F.S.B. has already drafted orders for violent repressions and public executions in captured Ukrainian cities. Putin has had ample experience with waging this kind of war, grinding down civilians and military alike, leveling cities, starving and terrorizing local populations. He has given those orders in Chechnya and in Syria. If he couldn’t take Ukraine as a healthy, vibrant country, he has shown that he will gladly take her as a charred corpse. 

Earlier this week, I was on Morning Joe, and one of the other guests, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, said that he believes that, in the end, Ukraine will triumph. Good will conquer evil. For a moment, I was dumbstruck. Everything he had said on the show until then was so rational and honest, so deeply grounded in grim reality. And yet, somehow, he managed to shoehorn this cloying little bromide in there: Ukraine is vastly outgunned, a no-fly zone is not possible, Russia will eventually get the upper hand—but Ukraine will win, eventually, because good conquers evil

What a perfectly American sentiment, I thought, born of the privilege of having never been invaded or occupied, of joining world wars long after the opening shots have been fired and then claiming the victors’ podium, of wearing nice little blinders that allow you to believe that progress is inevitable, linear, and irreversible. How nice it must be, as a white man in America, to never have to experience the consequences of the moral arc of the universe collapsing under the weight of the universe’s capacity for injustice, of evil getting away with absolutely everything. 

Joe Scarborough turned to me and asked for my parting thoughts. I don’t have the exact wording of what I said, but it was essentially this: Good doesn’t always triumph over evil. It didn’t in Syria, where evil won the day. And even when good does ultimately triumph, as it did in the Second World War, evil took some 50 million lives down with it. 

Ukraine has some very bloody days ahead, if not months and years. What it looks like at the end, if it even stops with Ukraine, we don’t know. This is only the beginning and it will only get worse from here. 

The Ministry of Truth

In the last week, some 6,000 courageous Russians have been arrested for protesting against the war. But the protests, despite all the cheerleading on social media, have been small and sporadic: Russia is a country of 144 million people. This is no coincidence, though. Putin spent the last year disemboweling the Russian opposition. The people who could organize large, nationwide rallies—and did in 2014, the first time Russia invaded Ukraine—are dead (Boris Nemtsov) or in jail (Alexey Navalny). Navalny’s political infrastructure has been destroyed. His colleagues and many other activists had to flee. Protesting or showing dissent in any way has become far more dangerous in the past year. And now the Russian parliament is considering a law that would automatically conscript into the army people who are arrested for protesting.

Moreover, it’s hard to gauge what Russians think of the war because they are, increasingly, living in an informational blackout. Since the Russian war effort faltered over the weekend, the state swooped down with renewed zeal on what was left of independent Russian media. On Tuesday, the office of prosecutor general ordered Roskomnadzor (RKN), the state media watchdog, to block the websites of Echo of Moscow, an independent radio station which was one of the first post-Soviet media organizations, and of TV Rain, the last independent television network in Russia, which had already been forced off of cable and satellite packages online back in 2014. They had, according to the prosecutor general, violated the law by calling the “special military operation” a war. They had publicized what was actually happening in Ukraine—rather than what the official Kremlin line insisted was happening.

By Wednesday, Echo of Moscow ceased its broadcasts and TV Rain’s editor in chief—along with his wife, who is a host on the network, and two reporters—had fled the country. TV Rain’s sister network, the Silver Rain radio station, switched to broadcasting only music. The Village, a hipster lifestyle site, was also shut down and its founders fled. On Thursday morning, Echo of Moscow was dissolved by its board and TV Rain had ceased broadcasting.

RKN also began slowing down traffic on Twitter and Facebook, two of the last corners for free discussion in Russia. It also started shutting down access to YouTube. This last step is especially significant. Not only has it become the destination for young cord-cutters, YouTube has become the alternative to the garbage of Kremlin TV for people of all generations. Many journalists and commentators have made good livings and become celebrities by creating and monetizing their own channels on the platform. Now, the Kremlin is shutting that down, too, killing the Russian-language internet as we know it.

On state television, in the meantime, the news is great—and has little to do with reality. Until today, when the Russian Defense Ministry admitted that it had lost nearly 500 men, state TV said there were no Russian casualties. Ukrainians were greeting Russian soldiers as liberators. This was a peacekeeping war, a war of liberation that Russia simply had to fight. It had no other choice. To cement this narrative, the Ministry of Education planned a nationwide “lesson” on Thursday about “the backstory of today’s events: about the threat NATO poses to our country, about why Russia came to the defense of the peaceful citizens of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. It will also help distinguish between lies and the truth in the massive stream of information, photographs and videos that fill the internet today.” Of course, the government will help make that clarity a little more bracing: there is talk of a law that will make posting “fakes” about the war in Ukraine punishable by 15 years in prison.

I hear a lot of talk, both in the U.S. and in Russia, about how this war can end only if someone in Putin’s inner circle takes him out. This fantasy comes in many different flavors: an oligarch, angry at losing his fortune, with a careful bullet to the head. Or a general unwilling to fire a nuclear weapon quietly strangling the Russian president in his bunker. A snuffbox to the temple. A piano wire across the throat. It all sounds like a game of Clue: Sergei Naryshkin, in the conservatory, with the candlestick. 

Sure, eliminating Putin might very well end this madness, but, to me, these dreams of his demise say less about a plausible exit than they do about everyone’s utter powerlessness to stop it. In this view, the only two actors who have any say in how this unfolds are Putin—and death itself.

It is also, from the point of view of Russians propagating this theory, the ultimate abdication of responsibility. If the only way to end this war is to sit quietly and wait for a General Gerasimov or a Roman Abramovich to off Putin as part of a palace coup, then why go out and risk your own safety by protesting in the streets? If only a member of the inner circle can end this, then why should the average Russian think about another possible exit: millions and millions of people coming out into the streets and not leaving until the Russians soldiers leave Ukraine? But that is legitimately scary, and it’s much easier to do what you’ve been taught to do since Uncle Putin came to power 22 years ago: stay quiet and wait for the men up in the Kremlin to decide things for you.

A Good Jewish Boy

Finally, a few thoughts on Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s unlikely wartime leader—and heartthrob of the West. Much has been said about the former comedian, who played a politician on TV before running for president in real life. Less appreciated in the West, but immediately noticeable to anyone from Ukraine or Russia, is the unusual ethnic dimension of his celebrity: Zelensky, a nice Jewish boy, facing down the macho man in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin. 

In the Soviet Union, the stereotype, both among Jews and non-Jews, was that Jewish men are pale and sickly, bookish and unathletic, ungainly, awkward and bespectacled, like in the poem by the Soviet Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam: “I was given a body—what do I do with it?” And though some non-Jewish women preferred Jewish men—they were family-oriented, didn’t drink, didn’t beat their wives—the Jewish male was, in the Soviet imagination, the very antithesis of masculinity. This was, in part, reinforced by Soviet propaganda, which, from Stalin’s time onward, featured mostly Slavic types: blond, blue-eyed, tall and muscular. It was the ambient anti-Semitism of the era, absorbed as truth by Jews and Gentiles alike. 

Now comes the rematch: Putin versus Zelensky, the Slavic, blond-haired, blue-eyed, schoolyard bully turned hairless judo master, the alumnus of one of the most anti-Semitic branches of the Soviet state (the K.G.B.), versus the good Jewish law school student turned actor turned president, the naches machine. 

Putin has spent the last two decades showing us how manly he was—shirtless on horseback, working out in this home gym, shooting whales with a crossbow. But now that he has started a war, he has not left the Kremin. He meets with the ministers carrying out his orders in giant rooms, across comically long tables. He is scared of them, scared of Covid, scared of a palace coup. He has barely deigned to address his people. He has yet to visit the field of battle.

The nice Jewish boy, however, is there, in a flak jacket and helmet. He’s in the trenches, having tea and sausage with his soldiers; he is in the streets, addressing his people every day, sometimes several times a day, always wearing the same military green. He has not run or hidden, despite the assassination squad sent to kill him. He has not sent his family away. He is making fierce demands of the West and the West is listening. He, not the K.G.B. judo master, has become the hero of this war, the manliest of men, the revenge of every good Soviet Jewish boy who was once told by that tough Russian street kid that he was weak.