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Understanding how Europe sees Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

Seeing Putin’s aggression through European eyes.

Like many Americans, one supposes, Thomas Friedman had been viewing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine through a U.S. prism. Through that prism, Washington was rallying its NATO allies to help Ukraine (despite Ukraine not being a NATO member), and many of the allies were rallying reliably.

As he explains in his latest column, he knew Putin was engaged in an evil, murderous, bullying effort to grab all or most of an independent democracy on his border in order to annex all or perhaps just most of a smaller neighboring state, because he thought he could get away with it.

But unlike most of us who are not foreign affairs-oriented columnists for the New York Times, Friedman gets to travel the world and hobnob with foreign officials. Writing from Switzerland while attending the annual Davos meeting of the World Economic Forum, Friedman was able to see Putin’s aggression through European eyes.

In a column headlined, “I thought Putin invaded only Ukraine. I was Wrong,” Friedman explains that through the eyes of America’s European allies, Putin had invaded Europe, and Europe is determined not to let him get away with it, and would be fighting back on Europe’s behalf with or without American leadership or assent. 

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When he sent his troops into a peaceful, non-communist neighbor and a country that borders several Nato member states, Friedman writes: “Putin had invaded Europe. … This could be the biggest act of folly in a European war since Hitler invaded Russia in 1941.” 

Friedman’s epiphany was that Europeans view Ukraine as a free European state, like them in all but NATO membership. For those whose view of the world was shaped by World War II, he writes: “This invasion — with Russian soldiers indiscriminately shelling Ukrainian apartment buildings and hospitals, killing civilians, looting homes, raping women and creating the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II — is increasingly seen as a 21st-century rerun of Hitler’s onslaught against the rest of Europe, which started in September 1939 with the German attack on Poland. Add on top of that Putin’s seeming threat to use nuclear weapons, warning that any country that interfered with his unprovoked war would face “consequences you have never seen,” and it explains everything.

“It explains why, practically overnight, Germany’s government dispensed with nearly 80 years of aversion to conflict and maintaining the smallest defense budget possible, and announced instead a huge increase in military spending and plans to send arms to Ukraine.

“In sum, what I thought was just a Russian invasion of Ukraine has become a European earthquake — ‘an awakening — boom! — and then everything changed,’ as Joschka Fischer, the former German foreign minister, put it to me. ‘The status quo ante will not come back. You are seeing a huge change in Europe in response to Russia — not based on American pressure, but because the threat perception of Russia today is completely different: We understand that Putin is not talking about Ukraine alone, but about all of us and our way of freedom.’” 

Forgive me for the long excerpt, but Friedman helped me grasp how Europe saw the implications of Putin’s invasion. It makes sense to me and helps explain the solidarity of the NATO-and-beyond-NATO alliance that is determined not to let him think he can get away with it.

The full Friedman column is here.