The images coming out of Ukraine – streams of refugees leaving the country – roads and trains leading west choked with primarily women and children fleeing the chaos, starkly reminded me of the black and white films that I used to show my students of the Fall of France under the Nazi blitkreig.
Even during my time posted with the Canadian Armed Forces at our NATO base in Lahr, West Germany I never imagined that war could ever come again to Western Europe. At that time, the Soviet Union was teetering on the brink of collapse, and the inevitability of the democratization of the “Eastern Bloc” and reunification of Europe seemed assured.
Fast forward forty years and that equilibrium has been turned on its head. Today, it has become evident that peace can be shattered by the ambitions of a single person, unchecked by the natural constraints of demographic institutions and international law. The invasion of Ukraine has been driven by the desire for self-aggrandizement by a small oligarchy of autocrats and their reckless leader, and has been resisted by the strength democratic values and a clear desire for peace and autonomy.
There are three takeaways for me from this appalling human rights crisis being imposed on the people of Ukraine and the response from the rest of the world:
- For all of its challenges, international economic integration has emerged as the strongest weapon in our global arsenal. Through collective action, we have cordoned off the Russian state from the benefits of economic collaboration;
- Our belief in common values and principles have trumped narrow self-interest particularly among the members of the European Union and the NATO alliance. I am sure that no-one was more shocked than Vladimir Putin to discover that his enemies would unite so quickly to oppose him;
- The need for the complete banning of all nuclear weapons has never been clearer. This war would possibly already be over if the threat of nuclear retaliation hadn’t been hanging over the heads of the western alliance. Leaving these weapons in the hands of rogue nations ensures that they will feel empowered to engage in reckless behaviour without fear of reprisals; and,
- That it is time to reconsider our model of global governance. In the face of overwhelming condemnation of Russia’s actions by the General Assembly of the United Nations, it is incomprehensible that the guilty party can veto any direct action that would impede its illegal war of conquest.
I am hopeful that someday the world will (without irony) thank Vladimir Putin for reminding the post-1945 generation of the danger of trying to appease global bullies. It is a lesson that our parents and grandparents knew, but we seem to have forgotten.