The Irish Times view on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Europe enters a dark new era

Future generations will not forgive Europe’s leaders if they fail to stand in solidarity with Ukraine

With Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Ukraine, announced in the dead of night as Russian tanks rolled in, Europe enters a dark new era and one of its worst security crises since the second World War. A nuclear-armed dictatorship has launched a massive and unprovoked attack on a major European democracy. Western states estimate that thousands of people could be killed within a week. Millions could be displaced and the economic costs will be devastating. In images that call to mind some of the continent's darkest periods, terrified civilians were converging on train stations and sheltering in basements, fearful that their country was about to be wiped off the map.

Western powers have made clear that they will not go to war with Russia over Ukraine. That means Putin has the initiative, and a great deal hinges on his military endgame. Western security agencies, which predicted the invasion, have said Putin aims to decapitate the Ukrainian government and install a puppet regime. It is not yet clear, however, whether he envisages an occupation of the whole country, which would involve urban warfare and require a larger Russian military force than is currently deployed, or annexation of a smaller territory in the east. Either way, recent history in Syria and Chechnya suggests Russian tactics will be brutal and indiscriminate. And even though both Putin and Nato do not wish to be drawn into direct confrontation, it is not difficult to imagine things spiralling out of control as the fighting in and around Ukraine intensifies.

Russia’s military supremacy all but guarantees that it will overpower Ukraine’s conventional forces, but it is inevitable that any occupation will lead to a long insurgency. Western governments must figure out how to support that resistance. Their leverage is the vast economic disparity between Europe and Russia and the fact that so many key figures in the Moscow kleptocracy keep their money, their assets and their families overseas. Putin assumes the West does not have the stomach to apply sanctions that could hit their own economies hard. He must be proved wrong, and shown that Europe is willing to tolerate higher oil and gas prices and disrupted supply chains to defend democracy and stand with Ukraine. That means going after the biggest Russian banks, seizing the oligarch’s western assets and exposing money trails that lead to the Kremlin.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine ought to shake Europe out of its post-Cold War complacency. It assumed that globalisation would prevent wars between states. It thought Putin was a rational actor with a limited appetite for risk. It was wrong on both counts. History – and, ultimately, the Russian people – will judge Putin harshly. But future generations will not forgive Europe’s leaders if they fail to stand against him – and in solidarity with Ukraine – at this dark hour.