In March 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the BBC that Russia “is part of European culture,” and that he would not rule out the possibility of joining NATO.
“I cannot imagine my own country in isolation from Europe and what we often call the civilized world,” he said.
The young leader was still acting president after Boris Yeltsin’s resignation. No one could have imagined that, after he came to power on May 7, 2000, the concentrated and determined young leader that the Social Democrat German Chancellor Gerard Schroeder had appreciated—the one who promised to bring Russia, deadly wounded by the communist adventure, into the liberal-democratic universe—would turn into a figure for whom the very concept of Western peace is anathema.
It’s a concept on which the European Union is based, even if in a lame and contradictory way. Ditto for the United Nations, established after World War II with the aim of preventing future wars. It was this that inspired Francis Fukuyama’s idea of the “End of History.”
And yet, the conflict is now in the heart of Europe, with the roar of cannons and hiss of missiles echoing the shift of an entire philosophy of life; with desperate mothers and children in long lines laden with useless remnants of their broken existence designing a totally new ethic of courage and survival.
From his years as a “good boy” and former deputy mayor of Petersburg who brought Russia back to the stage of history, Putin is the leading actor of this unwanted revival of the history of conflict, and of an epochal change of the concepts of war and nationhood.
His nature couldn’t accept that a world that should have conformed to his power and success didn’t obey him. When even his own Russia rebelled in 2011, he became frustrated and cruel. The photos from the period when he gradually moved from the KGB into politics, portray him as more and more macho—as a hunter, a warrior.
He became increasingly assertive and antagonistic not as a result of NATO’s approaching Russia’s borders; that had always been there. But as the breath of international and internal dissent thickened.
Yeltsin in 1997 had signed the founding act of NATO. When it went to Afghanistan, Putin was happy. Nor did he react when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania entered the cooperative endeavor. He even said that Ukraine could do so, stating, “It’s none of my business.”
But what frightened and made him guarded and aggressive was and still is the unforeseen and threatening rebellion to this power. And it is from this that democracy became an enemy to beat.
Subjugation—forced internecine obedience, the elimination of dissent and rejection of a free press—became his goal and weapon. In the meantime, the world around him became dangerously hot: Serbia in 2000; the Colour Revolutions, Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, the Arab Spring in 2011 (all accompanied by strong unrest in Russia), and then again in 2013 and 2014 Ukraine.
The Ukrainian thorn, his fight with former loyalist President Viktor Yanukovych, who was forced to repudiate the E.U. in order to demonstrate his loyalty to the Eurasian Economic Union, and Volodymyr Zelensky’s resounding victory in 2019, were too many shocks to his system. Putin then became such an enemy of dissent and democracy that for two decades he was subject to a series of internal aggressions similar to those that punctuated the history of the U.S.S.R: shooting, beatings, poisonings (including the latest one in 2020 of Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Aleksej Navalny, who now spews his hatred at Putin from prison), while gangs of bullies disguised as sports fanatics were organized as enthusiastic supporters of the regime.
The first Putin—who legitimately wanted to rebuild the economy, restore Russia to its former splendor and historical dignity and reestablish a birth-rate policy to counter its reduction to zero in the post-communist era—died on the shores of his imperialist and authoritarian nationalism.
He abandoned democracy because of the frustration at and fear of not being appreciated, respected and obeyed as much as he wanted. In 2002, I had the honor to be given a journalism award along with Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist gunned down in a Moscow elevator four years after accusing Putin of killing democracy. Today, those bullets have been replaced by missile blasts.
Putin probably didn’t expect the deafening “no” that he received from most of the world. These rejections have created an unexpected Western narrative in which—as Yossi Kuperwasser has written—politically correct pacifism is making way for a new ethic of courage that even requires weapons. In this narrative, Zelensky represents the ideal of a fighting democracy.
Even Madonna posted on Instagram a video montage accompanying her new song, “Sorry,” in which she depicts Putin as Adolf Hitler. Famous actor Sean Penn, another outspoken Putin critic, is rumored to have become Zelensky’s ghost writer.
Zelensky’s determination is taking the world by storm. In Bertold Brecht’s “Life of Galileo,” the character Andrea says, “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” Not anymore: lucky is the country that still has one, and that can enjoy having the weapons to defend an unwavering patriotism. Europe had completely forgotten this concept.
During these hours, when it appears that Putin’s blitzkrieg is not working as he had expected, a possible compromise is being discussed. His order to activate nuclear defenses seems hideous and menacing, but it appears to be a furious and embarrassed reaction to the homogeneous “no” from the kids in Kyiv preparing Molotov cocktails to the E.U. countries that have gradually changed their attitude since Feb. 24 and have been marking an unusual new ethical exaltation of a fighting democracy.
This dimension of heroism had been expunged from the behavior of contemporary democracies, because it brings with it the word “war” and the need, if necessary, to sacrifice one’s life. Zelensky has offered his and that of his family. He has also been begging for the thing that postmodern culture bans: weapons with which to battle the enemy and defend itself against missiles.
Even the European Peace Facility—aimed at enhancing the E.U.’s ability to prevent conflicts—is likely, pending unanimity—to reimburse the aid currently being given to Ukraine by more than 20 countries. This includes equipment from Holland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia and Latvia, with Italy and France likely to follow.
When Macron met with Putin on Feb. 7, German Chancellor Olaf Sholtz met with U.S. President Joe Biden and E.U. President Ursula Von der Leyen spoke with Polish President Andrzej Duda. At the time, their message was still very hesitant: “There are big risks but considerable opportunities.”
Putin’s arrogant invasion of Ukraine caused a lightbulb moment among the above leaders: that Ukraine had to do the obvious thing: defend itself and affirm its choice for Western democracy on its borders over a Russia still haunted by oligarchic ghosts.
What Ukraine has shown, and Europe may be starting to understand, is that nationalism can be a force for good and democracy. Who would have thought that the “progressive” West would come to grasp that?
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.