In a recent class in my M.A. Geopolitics and Strategic Studies program in Madrid, Spain, we were asked to debate the European identity, and whether there is such a clearly defined border with evident differences between the so-called East and West. Among my predominantly Western European class, and to my surprise, a swift majority consensus was formed. According to my peers, there is in fact a clear and distinct division between the East and the West. They pointed to different respective histories, financial differences (that the East is just more "poor" than the west) but most apparent was that Western Europe has a certain sense of ideals which are always described by the vague identifier of ‘Western Ideals’, that according to my class Eastern Europe just doesn’t have. Admittedly, they acknowledged those ideals themselves are not so clearly defined, but to suggest they were strictly Western European, I was shocked. I quickly rebutted that the quote ‘East-West divide’ is not as clear as they describe in today's contexts at all; you have countries like Ukraine, Kosovo, Czech Republic, Slovenia, etc. that to me promote ‘Western Ideals’ and, alongside that, hold profound innovation with more similarity to their Western counterparts, than they do their Eastern neighbors like Belarus, Serbia, or Hungary.
Amongst the almost entirely Western class, was my life-partner, a Ukrainian-Czech who was born and raised in Prague by Ukrainian parents. She vehemently opposed my reasoning, and the reasoning of the rest of the class. To her, there is a clear East-West divide in Europe, not one built on ideals or practices, but on a shared consensus that one holds more importance than the other. She explained to me that within Europe, the West will always view the East as different, as lesser than, and thus the East will always long to be accepted by the West. In the end, it’s not about innovation or ideals, but it’s about a geographically accepted imaginary divide that was constructed generations ago and has permeated each of their cultures till this day.
I was hesitant to accept her conclusions, but I understood my limited understanding as a young American abroad. However, now considering the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine, I can see now that she was right. The divide is stark and apparent. The ethos of each end of the continent is a tragic dichotomy. While the city in which I currently live, Madrid, has seen one moderately sized protest (predominantly Ukrainian) and the plans for the next one slowly inch along, Prague, the city in which I did my undergrad, has seen repeated large-scale protests and statements of solidarity from thousands upon thousands of people, with a protest projected to hold 100,000 people in the next few days. This contrast is not only between Spain and the Czech Republic but is a trend that can be seen far more easily across the entire continent. It has made me realize and accept that I was wrong to not see a divide between Western and Eastern Europe, and that not only was my life-partner right, but my classmates were too.
Yes, there is a divide and a clear difference, but no, the divide is not economic. Although it is one of ideals, it is not defined by the supposed primacy of ‘Western Ideals', but by the preferable ‘Eastern Ideals’ that the West so deeply lacks. While the West again repeats its grave mistakes of the past through appeasement, just as in WWII with Nazi Germany and during the expansion of the Soviet Union in the Eastern Bloc, which was defined by self-centered protectionism that in reality protects no one, the East has chosen to stand tall, strong, and band together in the face of atrocity. The contrast in ideals ripples from government and institutional reactions all the way down to the average citizen. While the East erupts in passionate civic engagement and protest, reminiscent of their respected leaders of the past like Vaclav Havel, the West is mostly quiet, or simply shares an Instagram reel with a quiet sense of sympathy and the shared expression of passive disbelief. While the East stares down and fights to expunge Putin's authoritarian strongman actions from Saint Petersburg to East Berlin, being the heroes of history books in the making, the West prefers to escape through their normal daily drink and relax escapades with their friends while discussing what a rare and exotic time it is to live in when history is happening all around us.
The point is, the West has failed to claim any right to an ideological sense of superiority. The East has beat you to it and put you to shame. More accurately, we, the West, have put ourselves to shame.
A Geopolitical Failure
Regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western governments have proven more spineless and incapable than the general ethos of their own citizens, and furthermore, they lack any understanding of how to deal with strongmen like Putin, or the general tactics of a revisionist power.
The first grave mistake of the U.S. and NATO that I will address was the decision to pull troops out of Ukraine as a precaution for the beginning of a possible conflict. U.S. and NATO troops were the only things preventing the invasion. Revisionist powers in general do not seek to engage in conventional conflicts that they can’t predict and control, and Putin himself is known to only act when he has certainty in the situation, to then create a facade of a crisis where he can boast of his own invincibility and confidence, while in actuality, he knew his and his opponents' cards all along. The minute troops were withdrawn, we, the West, became predictable, and thus conflict was destined to begin. While, had we left troops, it would have made Putin have to question much more deeply his willingness to shell and invade Ukraine, for fear of creating a conventional confrontation with NATO, that through most analyses he would lose, and lose to a degree of severe humiliation.
In regard to the reactive sanctions, to generalize, the West knows that they won’t work, and even within that, they still choose to not utilize the full capabilities of their economic power. Firstly, Putin doesn’t care about money, he cares about power, so if this approach were to be effective at all, it would need to include not only personal sanctions towards Putin and sanctions on SWIFT, but the immediate revoking of Russian student visas from prestigious and expensive Western universities, the expulsion of the entirety of Russian diplomats abroad in the West, and the immediate removal of Russia from the UNSC due to the opening of the international war crimes case against the actions of Putin. Not only would this damage Putin where it hurts, through harming his own source of power and stability through those that support him, but it would also humiliate him on the world stage for all his countrymen to see. The fear of not pursuing such strict measures stems from the irrational fear of the depiction of Putin as an emotional madman who could cause nuclear warfare. Such fears are unfounded, and frankly, working from the point of view of such fears leads to the incapability of expressing strength and deterrence through any means. It only leaves appeasement, which right now is the only plan for NATO.
More so, and more importantly than economic and diplomatic pressures, is military engagement. To be brief, I don’t think the troops should have ever left, but now that they have, I believe in accordance with the 1994 Budapest agreement that was designed to guarantee security for Ukraine, NATO troops need to be sent back in, and this is not to say send in a full-scale infantry support but send enough boots on the ground to make our presence felt and known. If Russia continues to advance, then it gives us the legal ability to unleash an aerial hell fury based from Poland and Turkey, similar to that seen in Libya in 2011, that would decimate the Russian mobilization in a few weeks or less.
However, thus far, all of these options are off the table because the West has chosen appeasement, as it did in WWII with Hitler and during the expansion of the Soviet Union in the Eastern Bloc, as it did in Georgia in 2008, and as it did in 2014 with the illegal annexation of Crimea. What we will see again now is the illegal annexation of further regions in Ukraine and a Munich agreement to boot that will be negotiated by the West, threatening the measures I have discussed earlier. The result will be that Ukraine will have taken a beating and lost its own lives and land for the rest of Europe, and ‘stability’ again will return for the West and for Europe. But what type of stability does appeasement create if the line keeps getting pushed? If history is to guide us, it doesn’t give us any stability at all. The current path and actions of the United States, NATO, and the European Union have paved the way for a future of global insecurity led by the newly found strength of strongmen like Putin and Xi.
I’ll finish with this: of course, Western Europe wants to appease Russia, establish ‘security’ and move on. They lack the will for warfare from their citizens, in general they lack the military force needed to comfortably do so, and frankly, in regard to intracontinental conflict, they have never cared to stand up for anyone until their own necks are on the line.
But what is the excuse for the U.S.? Have we forgotten the strength and ideals we have so openly bragged about and projected onto the world since WWII? Now is not the time to appease our allies and continue to engage in diplomacy when the advisory actively breaches all trust and all rules of international law. Now is the time to stand for the principles we were founded on. To fight for the right of our democratic ally to be one, regardless of the manufactured crisis imposed on them by an attempted imperialist state led by a war criminal. The U.S. needs to remember not only the ethics of what has defined us as the global hegemon that the world has placed its trust in, but what has defined global security over the last few generations. We are the military might of the world that stands down those that seek to provoke unwarranted conflict. We are not and should not fall in suit with our soft and privileged EU allies who have gained from this unipolar system without due contribution, because if we become one of them, who will the military might be that will counter the clearly unwavering and growing strength of Russia and China? And who, then, should new emerging countries count on to protect them? In light of Ukraine and Afghanistan, it's safe to assume they won’t be looking to the U.S. for help, and unfortunately, today they are left with two daunting other options. If we continue this path, this supposed global security we are working to uphold will dwindle before us.
Samuel Dempsey is freelance journalist and a master’s student in Geopolitics and Strategic Studies at the Universidad de Carlos III de Madrid, Spain, and studied his bachelor’s in Journalism and Communications at the Anglo American University in Prague, Czech Republic.