Two Europes Confront Each Other Over the Glory, or Shame, of War

PARIS — In the past, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has used the annual celebration of the Soviet victory over the Nazis in 1945 to cement his steady militarization of Russian society, extol the values of heroic patriotism, and contrast Russia’s warrior spirit with what he sees as the moral decadence of the West.

This year, he will no doubt try to conjure “victory” from the indiscriminate destruction he has wrought in Ukraine. He will find some justification for a war that has gone far less well than expected against a Western-backed “Nazi” threat in Kyiv that he has invented.

As he does so, May 9 will be marked otherwise in Western Europe. President Emmanuel Macron will salute Europe Day in Berlin and Strasbourg, seat of the European Parliament, laying out his ambitious vision of a 27-nation European Union now compelled to move beyond mere economic heft toward becoming a more federal, and more forceful, world power.

“It will be a split-screen effect,” said Nicole Bacharan, a French foreign policy analyst. “On one screen, a magnificent Moscow military parade, on the other something more cumbersome and slow, but perhaps we in the European Union should celebrate not having a dictator laying down the law.”

Two Europes now face each other on a Continent where, for Mr. Putin’s Russia, the defeat of Nazi Germany in the “Great Patriotic War” enshrines the sacredness and glory of war, whereas in Paris and Berlin it symbolizes the imperative of peace.

The confrontation is between 19th- and 21st-century worldviews, with potential consequences that the 20th century illustrated at Verdun, Hiroshima and elsewhere. Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine has demonstrated that the risk of great conflagrations has not been consigned to the past.

From flattened Aleppo in Syria to besieged Azovstal, the steel mill that is the last outpost of resistance in the ruins of the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, his message has been consistent: Military force is effective in changing geostrategic reality in Russia’s favor.

Citing a Russian proverb, he said in 2014 that “for the community, even death is beautiful,” a trait that explained the nation’s “mass heroism in military conflicts.” He contrasted “the superior moral truths” pursued by the Russian people with the belief in the West that all that counts is economic success.

That, of course, is to misread Europe’s reasoning and long commitment to integration, undertaken not merely for the pursuit of prosperity, but to secure peace by doing so.

On May 9, 1950, Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister, proposed fusing French and German steel production so that “any war between France and Germany becomes not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.” So was the seed of a borderless Europe with a single currency planted and the Continent’s repetitive suicides ended.

It is this anniversary that Mr. Macron will recognize on Monday, in a Europe where hymns to bloodshed are shunned.

But Mr. Putin, after 22 years in power that have led him to a smoldering resentment of the West, is convinced that the French president, and all of Europe, should be recognizing something else: the immense Soviet sacrifice, involving the death of 27 million of its citizens, that saved Europe from Nazism.

“Our people were alone, alone on the difficult, heroic and sacrificial road to victory” over fascism, he said last year.

“He believes that Europe is ungrateful and that if the European Union was built, it was only through Russian sacrifice,” Michel Eltchaninoff, the French author of “Inside the Mind of Vladimir Putin,” said. “And he is utterly contemptuous of the idea that commerce can bring peace to nations.”

That, of course, is precisely what a European Union of 450 million citizens, with its economy of more than $17 trillion, is all about. As an alternative, Mr. Putin has offered his Eurasian Union to the likes of Ukraine, but Belarus as model is a hard sell if Berlin and Barcelona are on the table.

The magnetism of European democratic success, whatever its flaws, appears more life-threatening to Mr. Putin than NATO because it challenges the autocratic kleptocracy he has built around a web of oligarchs beholden to him.

Hence his violent reaction to Ukraine’s association with the European Union, and his horror at the E.U. flag draped down the facade of the Ukrainian foreign ministry in 2014, after the country drove out Mr. Putin’s corrupt toady president, Viktor F. Yanukovych.

From the start of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, it has been clear that Mr. Putin is not merely at war to restore Moscow’s empire by subjugating, or dismembering, Ukraine. He is also at war against the United States and its European allies that he has come to regard as godless agents whose humiliation of Russia at the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991 can never be forgiven.

This wider war promises to be a long one, obliging Europe to restore at least some of the military focus it has largely shunned in the more than three decades since the end of the Cold War.

“The whole so-called Western bloc formed by the United States in its own image and likeness is, in its entirety, the very same ‘empire of lies,’” Mr. Putin said in his speech announcing a war to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, a state with a Jewish leader.

At one point in his long rule, Mr. Putin was prepared to recognize Soviet military crimes. As prime minister, he visited the Katyn Forest in 2010 to commemorate the Soviet murder there of thousands of Polish officers at the start of World War II.

He denounced the “cynical lies” that had hidden the truth of the slaughter in Katyn and said “there was no justification for these crimes” of a “totalitarian regime.”

“We should meet each other halfway, realizing it is impossible to live only in the past,” Mr. Putin said.

But in Europe a dozen years later, a “halfway” compromise between Russian militarism elevated to mystical, quasi-religious intensity and Franco-German “peace through union” appears almost unthinkable.

Mr. Putin has elevated Stalin once again to heroic status. Far from admitting any of its crimes, in Katyn or elsewhere, he has reconstituted the Red Army as the connective tissue of the new expansionist Russia.

Each year on Victory Day, Russian citizens parade bearing photographs of their heroic forbears in a spectacle known as “the immortal regiment.” On occasion, Mr. Putin, whose father was badly wounded in the war, has joined them. This time, a direct connection is being established between the war against Hitler and the current war on the fictive “Nazis” of Kyiv.

Against this blaze of militarist nationalism from a nuclear power, evoking what the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska called “magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns,” what does the pallid European Union have to counter Mr. Putin? What magnetism does its May 9 hold?

War in Ukraine has galvanized Europe. It generally views with urgency bringing Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova into the European Union. Calls are multiplying for an acceleration of decision-making on foreign and defense policy. Mario Draghi, the Italian prime minister, called this month for “pragmatic federalism” in defense and other areas.

Federalism, a word associated with the idea of a United States of Europe, eventually under a federal government of some kind, suggests fast-forwarding European unity in ways that have seemed unthinkable for many years.

“We must overcome this principle of unanimity, which leads to a logic of crossed vetoes, and move towards decisions taken by a qualified majority,” Mr. Draghi said, alluding to a procedure that would allow approval once a certain threshold of support is attained. He added: “Protecting Ukraine means protecting ourselves and the project of security and democracy we have built together over 70 years.”

Germany’s coalition government under Chancellor Olaf Scholz supports majority voting on security and defense policy, but France is more hesitant.

Russian aggression has shifted Poland toward support for strengthening the union. Mr. Macron’s defeat of Marine Le Pen, the nationalist friend of Mr. Putin, in the presidential election last month has isolated the illiberal Hungarian leader, Viktor Orban, in his connivance with Russia. The European Union, always querulous, seems bent on transformative change.

“It’s a spectacular coincidence of dates,” Dominique Moïsi, a French political scientist, said of May 9. “What is more real? Russian might and Mariupol destroyed, or normal European life in Strasbourg? We will have to fight like hell to stop him, as if our very future is at stake.”

Mr. Macron has been the leading proponent of a sovereign Europe, independent enough to claim “strategic autonomy,” and backed by the bolstering of European military power alongside and in coordination with NATO.

It appears certain that Mr. Macron will use May 9 to elaborate on this vision and to make clear the contrast between Mr. Putin’s model of war and the European peace magnet Mr. Schuman set in motion 72 years ago.

At the same time, however, Mr. Macron believes there is no alternative to negotiation with Mr. Putin.

Three years ago, he invited Mr. Putin to the presidential summer residence at Brégancon and declared that “Russia is European, very profoundly so, and we believe in this Europe that stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok.”

The Ukraine war has jolted, if not undone, that idea. “Mr. Macron knows Ukraine cannot resist without the United States,” Mr. Moïsi said. “You cannot build Europe as a power without America because you lose half of Europeans if you try. The unity of the West is the key to the unity of Europe.”

Whatever Mr. Putin declares on May 9, that unity has proved effective in defending Ukraine and hurting Russia. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III wants to see Russia permanently weakened, “to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

This will not happen overnight and it carries evident risks.

In “First Person,” the autobiography he published more than 20 years ago, Mr. Putin described cornering a rat in his dilapidated St. Petersburg apartment building as a boy.

“So, he turned around and jumped on me,” Mr. Putin wrote. “It surprised me and I was very afraid. It pursued me, jumping downstairs,” before the boy who would become president managed to slam a door on the rat.

“On that stairwell I understood once and for all what it is to be cornered,” Mr. Putin wrote.

If, as it seems to be, the rat story is any indication of the convictions of the man who now controls Russia’s nuclear arsenal, then direct, even reckless, attack is Mr. Putin’s response to feeling cornered.

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