Russia has inflicted huge damage on Ukraine, and terrible cruelties on its people, and continues to do so. However, a war that was supposed to lead to the capture of Kyiv within days has now lasted nearly three months. There is no indication that Russia is winning, or can win – and this is thanks not just to Ukrainian heroics, but also to assistance given by Nato.
The resurgence of the Atlantic alliance has been another unpredictable consequence of this war, quite contrary to Putin’s supposed aims.
To many in the West, especially at the heart of the European Union, Nato was just a relic of the Cold War. Like a Trabant or a jukebox, it seemed to belong in a museum.
For most on this side of the Atlantic, international relations after 1991, when the Soviet Union went to its unlamented grave, meant the European Union. It steadily grew to 28 countries, absorbing many states from the former Soviet bloc. With Russia diminished, humbled, introspective and sinking into corruption as it built a post-Soviet existence, the EU felt entitled to assume its self-appointed destiny of commanding the continent’s future.
Inevitably, in that heady moment of triumph – a triumph brought about more by the Soviet Union’s economic and moral weakness and America’s firepower than by anything the EU could offer – it, too, began to overreach itself.
As treaty after treaty – Maastricht, Amsterdam, Lisbon – was concluded, and the EU’s ambition and central control grew, talk became more frequent of a federation, and the trappings that go with it. One was a European army, something pointless if Nato was serving its purpose.
Nonetheless, France, Britain (under Tony Blair) and Germany agreed in principle on a European Defence Force at St Malo in 1998, albeit in a very different world.
The dream was helped by a strain of anti-Americanism in Europe that became especially apparent during the second Gulf War.
France notably, but also Germany, imagined they wanted America detached from the defence of Europe, and that doing so would not affect their security. Such attitudes helped turn Britain against the EU and led, six years ago, to its voting to leave the bloc altogether. They also fostered a hubristic cast of mind that, before 2014, had Brussels toying with Ukraine about the possibilities of its EU membership.
When Russia made its first move on eastern Ukraine in the winter of 2014 the EU headed for the hills, too terrified to provoke a fight with a powerful neighbour over something so trivial as a little guy who showed an interest in joining the club. Reality had intervened.
If it has taken a greater attack on Ukraine to expose the true weakness of Russia and its deluded leader, it has also exposed the true weakness of the EU as an actor in international relations on its own continent – and the absolute indispensability of Nato if Europe is not to repeat the blood-soaked mistakes of the 20th century in the 21st.
One of the reasons Putin offered for attacking Ukraine was that if it were to join Nato he would regard it as a Western threat to Russia, despite Nato being an avowed and unequivocal defensive, not offensive, alliance.
Putin’s excuse may well be a lie: virtually every public statement he makes is. One suspects the real reason for the attack was to accomplish a conquest that would make him look powerful and make his benighted people feel better about the Russia he has created, and to throw his weight around in the world, as bullies do, in the expectation of intimidating others.
The West was caught off guard: despite having its own nuclear deterrent, for a while it was being deterred by Putin’s deranged threats to deploy his.
However, it is now clear that his attempt to stop Nato expansion is actually feeding it. Finland, whose 800-mile border adjoins Russia, for decades resisted the lure of Nato. Now its President Sauli Niinisto and its prime minister, Sanna Marin, have issued a joint statement that “Nato membership would strengthen Finland’s security” and that “Finland must apply for Nato membership without delay”.