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Putin's declaration of war

Portrait of a man with blue eyes in a shirt and jacket, Majdan Square in the Ukrainian capital Kiev can be seen in the background
Frank Hofmann
February 22, 2022

The ruler in the Kremlin has denied Ukraine's independence and sent troops to Donetsk and Luhansk. If Europe lets him get away with this, a major war is inevitable, writes Frank Hofmann.

People in Donetsk wave national flags behind a large sign reading "Russia"
In Donetsk, some are celebrating Russian recognition of the 'Independent People's Republic'Image: Alexei Alexandrov/AP Photo/picture alliance

Suddenly, things are moving very quickly: Russian troops are now occupying part of the second-largest country in Europe. This time it's with official insignia on their lapels and not undercover, as they have for the past eight years, or like the anonymous "little green men" in Crimea. No — Vladimir Putin is sending official troops as occupiers into an independent European state that is also a member of the United Nations: Ukraine.

This is another breach of international law, like so many before it. It is a breach of the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, which resulted in Ukraine voluntarily surrendering its nuclear weapons. In return, signatories Russia, Britain, and the United States pledged to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and existing borders.

Frank Hofmann, DW correspondent in Kyiv
Frank Hofmann a correspondent at DW's Kyiv Bureau in UkraineImage: DW

The fact that Russian troops now marching into Ukraine breaks this agreement should be a wake-up call for the widespread view, especially in Germany, that Putin does not mean what he says. Yet somehow, he does mean it! Civil rights activists from the former GDR understand the unspoken intention very well: It is a declaration of war.

Not simply a neighboring country

On Monday, Vladimir Putin — casually wearing a crooked tie and with both hands on the table — declared to his people and to Europe in all seriousness: "Ukraine for us is not just a neighboring country. It is an integral part of our own history, culture, and spiritual continuum."

Spiritual continuum? For the uninitiated, the point is that "Kyivan Rus," to which today's nationalist Russia refers, finds its founding mythical origins in the Lavra, Kyiv's monastery of the caves.

In this televised speech, the man in the Kremlin fully dropped the mask. Nothing remains of the time when Vladimir Putin inspired the members of the German Bundestag; when there was hope that something could come of a new, modern Russia. On this evening, Vladimir Putin was sitting in the Kremlin under his true nature: as a Chekist — a child of his organization, the KGB.

Putin on Ukraine decision

There sits the soon-to-be 70-year-old ex-agent, once stationed in Dresden, at a dark brown desk, raising his hands to make air quotes with his fingers: "Grateful descendants," he says, "have torn down Lenin's monuments in Ukraine. This is what they call decommunization."

It's important to know that in Ukraine, Ukrainian nationalists as well as civil rights activists and artists used the term "decommunization" to describe their path "to Europe" after the pro-European Maidan Revolution in 2014. In part through critical engagement with the process of iconoclasm.

In Kyiv and in many other cities in Ukraine, the same happened as in the cities of the GDR after the fall of the Berlin Wall: the Leninist monuments were torn down — as a sign of departure. This was followed by a critical confrontation with this process. A process of an open society lived then in a post-Soviet country, Ukraine.

This displeases the Chekist in the Kremlin, the man who shaped the Russia of the Yeltsin years into an economic structure of the KGB oligarchy based on oil and gas. From Putin's simple worldview, it's understandable: This man has no interest in any European understanding of the ambiguities of politics, culture and social reflection.

Putting a stop to Putin's crimes

With the Orange Revolution of 2004, Ukraine embarked on a path marked by setbacks. In 2013, protests began on the Kyiv Maidan in response to the Kremlin-friendly Yanukovych government's rejection of the European Union Association Agreement. Yanukovych was the second post-Soviet ruler whom Ukrainians have chased out.

And they will do it again; because they know it can be done.

Europe now has the opportunity: Put a stop to Putin's crimes, or be complicit in a major war that is still avoidable. Any solution that now allows Putin to take over the rebel regions of Donetsk and Luhansk carries the seeds of actual war against Ukraine, and is therefore not a solution.

Germany, as part of the European Union, bears the greatest responsibility in this regard: after all it was German soldiers who, on Hitler's orders, first invaded Poland, then Ukraine and Belarus.

Russia orders troops into Ukraine

This opinion piece was originally written in German.

Edited by Richard Connor