The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

War in Europe casts the continent into a frightening unknown

People try to flee Kyiv, Ukraine, on buses, many headed to Poland. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
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The era of peace in Europe ended before dawn.

Hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military buildup was a bluff for diplomatic concessions — a view clung to for weeks by many in Europe — disappeared in the smoke and fire of missiles and advancing troops in Ukraine.

In Britain, a nation awoke to a BBC broadcast trying to Stay Calm and Carry On: “There is war in Europe. It’s 7 a.m. on the 24th of February. The headlines this morning …” French President Emmanuel Macron, who had personally sought to assuage Putin, severely warned of “a turning point in the history of Europe.” Calling an emergency summit of NATO, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway, declared that “peace on our continent has been shattered.”

For a continent where old-school war had largely receded into history books, where recent conflict has amounted to bureaucratic wrangling over Greek debt or coronavirus restrictions, Moscow’s full-on assault on Ukraine seemed almost incomprehensibly anachronistic — and a frightening leap into the unknown.

Despite Russia’s 12-day war with Georgia in 2008 and its 2014 annexation of Crimea, recent fears of intervention by Moscow have tilted more toward misinformation campaigns, alleged price-fixing in the energy sector, and brazen poisonings of Russian targets on European streets.

What’s next for Ukraine? Our reporters answer your questions about Russia’s invasion.

But Putin’s invasion of Ukraine served as a sudden wake-up call for the continent. What’s crystallizing now is different from the ideological tug of war with the Soviets during the Cold War. Europe is facing the escalating unpredictability of a strongman with nearly unchecked domestic authority, his actions informed by resentment of Russia’s decline after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and who may be all the more reckless because his core mission is the preservation and expansion of personal power.

For many young Europeans, Putin before now had been a bare-chested, horse-riding social media meme. Even among policymakers in London, Paris and Rome, he was viewed, alternately, as a calculating friend of the European far right or a bullying statesman bent on undermining liberal democracies — but still shrewd enough to know where to stop.

When asked at a panel last month about Putin’s intensions, Germany’s navy chief scoffed at the notion of a Russian invasion. “No, this is nonsense,” Vice Admiral Kay-Achim Schönbach said, before adding that “Putin is probably putting pressure on us because he can do it.”

Assessments began to change as evidence built over the past weeks, and warnings from Washington and London of a Russian assault grew increasingly dire. Europe braced for the consequences of a Russian incursion — including further soaring energy prices and flows of Ukrainian refugees that could turn into floods.

Still, the extent of the Russian strike has inspired a measure of shock.

“European leaders have wanted to shove Russia under the carpet, they wanted to deal with China, covid, climate change,” said James Nixey, a Russia expert at the British think tank Chatham House. “They simply underestimated it willfully, or they thought Putin was being over-egged … that the Biden administration and the United Kingdom were crying wolf. They thought it was a massive bluff.”

Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, said Thursday: “It wasn’t just the Europeans. I myself didn’t think Putin would go in, because it is such a roll of the dice. But I think a lot of Europeans are stunned, surprised, and ready to reconsider policies toward Russia. He is looking to them as what he is: an unhinged dictator.”

The ramifications, observers said, could refortify slipping commitments to NATO, spark increased defense spending, and prompt a rethink of post-Cold War security in Europe, in a way that recognizes Putin as a leader willing to wage conventional war. The continued praise of Putin by Trump Republicans may give Europeans further pause about whether to place their security in the hands of a fickle American electorate.

On a continent with a dark legacy of war, France’s Le Point newsmagazine this week compared “Putin’s belligerent posture” to Adolf Hitler’s annexation of Austria and subsequent invasion of Poland. But for all the echoes of history — including the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary and the 1968 quashing of the Prague Spring — many Europeans see what is unfolding as a unique threat from a modern Russian leader more dangerously brash than many had thought.

To be sure, there were those who correctly read Putin’s incremental moves over the years as signals of how far he was willing to go to rebuild a Russian sphere of influence. The Poles, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians — former Soviet bloc nations now within the European Union and NATO — repeatedly warned their Western neighbors of the growing Russian menace. After the attack on Ukraine, they now live even more precariously in its shadow.

“Europe and the free world have to stop Putin,” said Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in demanding the “fiercest possible” sanctions.

Still, European leaders remained locked in tense debate Thursday over how hard to hit Putin. President Biden suggested that Russian banks were not cut out of SWIFT, a vital global network for international transfers, because some European countries didn’t yet support a financial measure that some have dubbed a “nuclear option.” It remained unclear if Europe was simply giving Putin a moment to rethink. Macron on Thursday, French officials said, had spoken to the Russian president, calling for him to immediate halt military operations or face “massive sanctions.”

Mapping the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Standing outside France’s national military school in the center of Paris, 39-year old consultant Baptiste Bergès fretted over a question being asked across the continent.

“What’s going on in Putin’s mind? How much crazier can he go?” Bergès said.

Bergès embraced a notion being pushed by Macron: the creation of a European army.

“Maybe it’s time,” Bergès said. “I find it crazy that in the 21st century, we’re still talking about war in Europe,” he said.

The Europeans born after the fall of the Berlin Wall are no strangers to the reverberations of war. They’re well aware of the horrors of Bosnia and Kosovo. European troops served in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Syrian civil war, too, felt more real to Europeans than to Americans, especially as hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed onto the continent.

But for some younger Europeans — including largely pacifist Germany, which has taken a highly cautious approach to Putin — the attack launched by Russia struck closer to home and amounted to a fresh reality check.

“We are witnessing an epochal change in Europe,” said Victoria Montenegro, a 24-year-old who was demonstrating on Thursday at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, which was illuminated with the colors of the Ukrainian flag. “Today I realized that our army needs to function. Usually I am pacifist. I always thought that’s a good thing when countries don’t have any army — like Costa Rica, for example. But I realized that the only things that will stop Russia is a sign of strength.”

You didn’t have to be young in Europe to have an epiphany about Putin as his forces struck. “Today I woke up, looked at my phone, and I couldn’t believe that there is an invasion,” said Berlin resident Per Brodersen, 47. “It’s a turning point today, I think we haven’t fully realized. I remember 9/11 vividly, but today is worse. Terror is one thing, but an open war against an independent country, I would have never thought that’s possible in Europe.”

The West will feel a pinch from Russia, a major producer of oil and gas. Americans may feel pain at the pump. But citizens of the European Union — who rely on Russia for nearly 40 percent of their natural gas — will almost surely feel sharper pain. The E.U. is moving to shift away from its long reliance on Russian energy, but that will take time. On Thursday alone, European natural gas prices surged by almost 70 percent.

“With the cost-of-living crisis, inflation, gas and energy prices, things kicking off in Ukraine — there’s potentially a perfect storm … that could bring us into a recessionary cycle,” said John Lunt, an event organizer in his 60s traveling through London’s Waterloo station on Thursday.

Even in Italy — a country famous for shrugging off global turbulence — people broke from routines Thursday and spoke of the conflict triggering new fears. At a protest near the Russian Embassy in Rome, university student Simona Laudicina, 19, said the idea of war in Europe had felt “anachronistic” until now. The mayor of Rome called it a day of “anguish.” Nicola Zingaretti, the leader of the region, said Europeans had been proud to enjoy such a long period of peace and prosperity. “But this came to an end tonight, with bombs falling over Ukraine,” he said.

Stefano Stefanini, Italy’s former ambassador to NATO, said he couldn’t think of a comparable moment in his “lifetime as a European.” He recounted other crises, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. None of those events had left him as aghast.

“I was born after World War II, in 1947,” he said. “In my lifetime, there’s never been a dramatic war right in the middle of Europe. The kind of [peaceful] context that we had taken for granted is no longer there.”

Karla Adam in London, Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli in Rome, Loveday Morris in Lviv, Ukraine, Rick Noack in Paris, Emily Rauhala in Brussels and Frederik Seeler in Berlin contributed to this report.