The Long War

  • National Newswatch

We've become so used to a relatively secure Europe, full of trade treaties, human rights, military alliances, and even conventions on genocide, that we are running the danger of believing it will always be this way.  We are likely wrong.For centuries, the European continent was a simmering powderkeg for every sort of aggression.  Wars were endless, soldiers were mere pawns, natural resources were for the taking, as were human resources, and the age of empires meant secure peace could never be an option.  Yet there were shafts of light that would occasionally break through, eventually assisting the continent in finding a more progressive way forward.  The Reformation, Renaissance, Enlightenment and a new scientific age provided populations with other alternatives.  Then came two world wars and a Holocaust that eventually persuaded the various European nations that collaboration instead of combat was a better way forward.The Europe we know is the product of that awareness.  Democracies flourished, and conflicts receded.  Brexit aside, the European experiment of peace and prosperity has been one of history's better moments.That remarkable period is ending, not because of the Ukrainian conflict but through the diabolic ambitions of some of Russia's leadership.  Like the Cold War from the recent past, European citizens are talking about borders changing, an expanding NATO to meet an insidious threat, the calling up of new military personnel, lucrative military equipment contracts, and, God forbid, a tactical nuclear threat.  Russia is aggressive again, and the European family is restive.Most of us initially assumed that Ukraine would fall prey to the initial Russian advance.  We were wrong.  Then we hoped that Ukraine's various counteroffensives would turn the tide.  Wrong again.  Things continue to escalate, and observers increasingly think this could continue for a decade or more.  If so, it will be a disturbing reality long after Trudeau, Biden, Macron, Sunak and European heads of state are long gone.In their hearts, the European people knew this was a possibility and perhaps even expected it.  They spent half a century under Russia's shadow, frequently worrying that it was never entirely gone.  And they have been listening for years to Putin's claims he would restore the glory and the reach of the old Soviet Union.  He confirmed it by invading Georgia in 2008 and annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.  He helped with the invasion of Syria and extended cyber warfare extensively.Since invading Ukraine a year ago, Putin might have obtained a bloody nose, but his ambitions reach for the new Russian Empire he hopes to establish.  To oppose the threat, NATO is now expanding, sanctions are being levied, Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are perishing, massive amounts of weaponry are entering the region, millions are refugees, and memories of the Cold War are returning.This isn't how European development was supposed to go.  Millions are looking backward, not forward.  Some of Russia's greatest fears were of border nations joining NATO.  They invaded when Georgia considered it.  The fact that it had previously been an appendage of the old Soviet Union and possessed a port on the Black Sea added incentive.It's now clear that Putin's incentive was to incrementally recapture those smaller nations on its periphery that had once fallen under the old Soviet influence.  He might be struggling with Ukraine at the moment but had felt flush with victory following Georgia and Crimea, and he's unlikely to get discouraged and quit.Putin has to look to expansion since to permit Russians to look inward is to invite a world of hurt, perhaps even revolt.  As other commentators have noted, Russia is a young country, and the young generation is endlessly restless.  Only 1 in 10 Russians are over 65, yet life expectancies are severely declining.  Diseases run rampant, and birth rates are declining.  Workers are deeply discouraged, leading to rising rates of alcohol and substance abuse.  The Russian leader doesn't have the funds to solve those problems, nor does he have the resources required to upgrade Russia's outdated military hardware.In a phrase: he's stuck, unable to win at home or abroad.  He comprehends his people far better than he is given credit for and has convinced them that they will get invaded if he doesn't expand – a historical fulfillment that goes back centuries and remains embedded in Russian sensitivities and culture.  And the country requires natural resources and port cities in those bordering lands if the Russian people are to improve their economic future.  Such things still resonate with the majority of citizens.This is the grand context behind Russia's incursion into Ukraine, and it is authentic and prescient to the Russian people.  Putin plans to enflame Russian passions, and he isn't close to being done.  He can't survive by retreating or standing still; he must proceed, even if it's madness.There is only one way this Russian expansionism ends, which will occur when the Russian people have had enough.  When they see they are sacrificing for the war effort at home only to see defeat abroad, they will combine to bring about change.  But that will not happen soon, as Europeans understand too well.  This will be a long war, not because neither side can win but because one side has delusions of grandeur that can only be overturned at home.Glen Pearson was a career professional firefighter and is a former Member of Parliament from southwestern Ontario. He and his wife adopted three children from South Sudan and reside in London, Ontario. He has been the co-director of the London Food Bank for 35 years. He writes regularly for the London Free Press and also shares his views on a blog entitled “The Parallel Parliament“. Follow him on twitter @GlenPearson.