Europe is already at war with Russia — it's time to start acting like it

Jordan Maris, February 24, 2024

Since the outbreak of Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, Europe has walked an imaginary tightrope between supporting Ukraine, and preventing escalation. But as the war enters its second year, it is clear that this policy has backfired: our failure to supply the weapons needed to neutralise Russia has harmed Ukraine, emboldened Putin, and made a Russian attack on Europe even more likely. If we are to defeat Russia, it is time we admit that we are at war, and act like it.

It is commonly accepted that the Second World War broke out on September 1, 1939, when Hitler marched his troops into Poland. But why was this date agreed upon by historians ? Why not the complete invasion of Czechoslovakia? Why not the invasion of Sudetenland, or the Annexation of Austria? Taking the question to its extremes, why not the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, which exposed the weakness of the League of Nations, collapsing a fledgling attempt at an international world order and creating the conditions for war?

On New Year’s Eve, I found myself sitting in the underground car park of a high-rise building in the Kyiv suburb of Boryspil, sheltering from a Russian air raid, and asking that very question. I only found one answer: to mask the appeasement and inaction that led to the war. But failing to admit our failures dooms us to repeat them.

It’s time for Europe to take a good hard look in the mirror, and accept that we have been failing for some time now: We ignored the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, and for that, we got the invasion of Crimea and Donbas in 2014. We failed to act then and saw a build-up of Russian troops at Ukraine’s borders in January 2022. We did nothing out of fear of “escalation”, and we got a full scale invasion. We failed to arm Ukraine early, handing Russia more territory. We took almost a year to supply Ukraine with air defences, leaving Ukrainians in the cold and the dark. We took over a year to supply Ukraine with the tanks for its counter-offensive, giving Russia time to dig in and make the counter-offensive almost impossible. We stalled the supply of jets, and now, even on the eve of the delivery of F-16s, Russia’s improved air-defences will make it exceptionally challenging for Ukraine to gain air superiority.

Now, we continue to fail to deliver the necessary ammunition and support to Ukraine: in the United States, where far-right (and almost undoubtedly Russian-backed) politicians are blocking further military support, and in Europe, where France’s short-sighted self interest has seen it block the purchase of additional shells from outside the EU, all while Ukraine is facing a severe shortage of ammunition. The fall of Avdiivka, a city which Ukraine has been defending since 2014, is the unavoidable consequence of our failures.

Each of them has killed countless Ukrainians, strengthened Russia, and emboldened Putin. We even allowed Russian missiles to fly through NATO airspace on their way to kill Ukrainian civilians, something that anyone ten years ago would struggle to believe.

Vladimir Putin sees weakness as permission, and we have been weak. We have done so because, just like in the 1930s, we are in denial about what a Tyrant will do next. When billboards went up proudly proclaiming “Russia’s borders do not end”, we averted our eyes, when Putin’s mouthpieces, and even Putin himself floated the idea of attacks on EU countries, we pretended not to hear. But on the eve of US elections that could put a Russian puppet in the White House, and with NATO security guarantees looking weaker than ever, we can no longer ignore the threat.

Britain and France did everything to prevent World War two, but the truth is, we were already at war with the Nazis on the day Hitler drove his tanks into Czechoslovakia, and although bombs may not yet be falling over NATO territory,and Russian tanks may not be rolling into Poland and the Baltics, we have been at war with Russia since February 22 2022

As in the past, some may still label the war as avoidable, but make no mistake: inaction won’t prevent escalation, it will just heighten the price of stopping the enemy in the future.

Since my return from Kyiv, this has been the only thing on my mind, and I’m not alone: in the past month alone, defence and intelligence officials from across Europe have warned of the risk of a Russian attack on Europe. Consider this: On the heels of a victory in Ukraine, and with a war economy that is already withstanding sanctions, and pumping out military equipment at full-speed, and a battered but experienced army facing a dramatically under-prepared Europe without US support, why would Putin hesitate?

When France and Britain declared war with Nazi Germany, it was too late: as a result, millions died in the Holocaust and the bloody campaign to defeat Hitler. It isn’t too late for us now: we just have to act.

We need to get serious about implementing sanctions, regardless of the cost. We need to confiscate Russian assets. We need to stop making Ukraine fight with one hand tied behind its back: send them long-distance missiles and let them use them to strike military targets in Russia. After one terrorist attack, we let Israel raze Gaza to the ground, but we won’t even let Ukraine use our weapons to end Russian attacks on schools, hospitals and residential buildings across the country.

We need to put our economy on a war footing, and dramatically increase production of weapons and ammunition, not just to help Ukraine, but also to restock our own reserves, and to deter Russia. We should mirror the The Approach taken by Thierry Breton during the COVID-19 pandemic: intense state-driven industrial cooperation among all European industries, and mobilisation of industries outside of the area of defence where necessary. And yes, we also need to buy shells from abroad if we can’t yet meet Ukraine’s demands now, whatever the cost.

We also need — and I can’t believe this needs to be said — to shoot down Russian missiles and drones flying through or close to NATO airspace. Every missile we shoot down is another death prevented, and an opportunity to correct the historical weakness we have shown until now. We should also consider extending our air defence over the airspace of Ukraine.

And finally, we need to consider the unthinkable: that we have delayed for too long, and that our failures have made victory impossible for Ukraine to achieve alone. Should this be the case, the EU and NATO will need to decide if they will stop Putin in Ukraine while he is weak, or wait until his soldiers are at our borders, and potentially too strong to stop. Every option we have to do this will be labelled as escalation, but make no mistakes, we are already at war with Russia — it’s time to start acting like it.