The Guardian view on Ukraine: the shadow of war looms larger

Show caption Ukrainian troops patrol the town of Novoluhanske in eastern Ukraine. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images Opinion The Guardian view on Ukraine: the shadow of war looms larger Editorial Vladimir Putin’s actions and angry rhetoric mean the threat has grown. Unity against aggression is essential Tue 22 Feb 2022 19.07 GMT Share on Facebook

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After months of growing tensions, and massing troops at Ukraine’s borders, there is no doubting the gravity of this moment. The tremors are felt across Europe, which the repercussions of Russian aggression could shape for decades to come – in its east, especially, where other former Soviet republics watch anxiously, but most of all, of course, in Ukraine itself, where this is not about geopolitical struggle but the threat of a massive human disaster. Its neighbours are preparing for millions of refugees in the worst case; some Ukrainians are already fleeing, abroad or to the country’s west, though others have vowed to fight.

Vladimir Putin’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine as independent states, and order to send in “peacekeepers”, is the culmination of events which began in 2014 when Russia fomented the separatist insurgency that created the two self-proclaimed republics. Since Russian personnel have long been believed to be involved, this could be seen as to some degree a formalisation of the status quo. But in recognising the separatists’ claims to parts of the Donbas region that they do not currently control, the Russian president has increased the prospects of his armed forces encroaching on other parts of Ukraine. On Tuesday he requested the Duma to authorise the use of troops abroad; his angry railing the previous day, and the size and location of the military buildup, already suggested actions on a much larger scale.

Besides making absurd claims of “genocide” by Ukraine, Mr Putin portrayed the country as a Russian invention with no historical right to exist and, chillingly, warned that if Kyiv did not stop the violence of which Moscow accuses it, “all responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodshed will be entirely on the conscience of the regime ruling on the territory of Ukraine”. The best way to solve the current crisis, he has argued, is for Kyiv to abandon its goal of joining Nato and declare its neutrality. The unspoken words: or else. He has laid out his deep frustration at the Soviet Union’s collapse and desire to reestablish Russian supremacy in the region. His anger at Nato expansion comes alongside contempt for a weakened west; Brexit, domestic political divisions, the rise of China and the hope of a second Trump presidency have all, surely, factored in.

Yet as Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said, there is “no other way” than focusing on de-escalation efforts: restating the costs for Russia, and keeping the door open for diplomacy, however uninterested Mr Putin appears, and however unlikely it seems to succeed. His security council looked uncomfortable as members declared their backing for recognition – but they all took what was effectively a public oath of fealty.

Western unity will be essential. Russia has foreign currency reserves, and is benefiting from high energy prices, while the west must decide how far it will go amid a cost of living crisis. Germany’s suspension of certification for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline was both striking and welcome. But the first Nord Stream pipeline already provides two-thirds of Germany’s imported energy, and the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, has declared that EU sanctions should not hit energy. Meanwhile, Britain’s sanctions are decidedly anaemic, despite Boris Johnson’s bluster, singling out five banks and three oligarchs whom the US targeted years ago: hardly the promised crackdown on kleptocracy, and weaker than the EU’s measures.

Leaving further leverage is sensible, but a lacklustre response has even less chance of deterring Mr Putin if he is truly set upon a course that, as the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny warned, is likely to lead to the deaths of Russians as well as Ukrainians and cost his country dearly too.