‘The four largest countries in Western Europe have each fallen prey to Vladimir Putin in their own way, each with a different bait. For Germany it is cheap gas and energy; for the UK it is oligarchs’ money; doing business for Italy; and for France, the permanent dream of building a security architecture for Europe that, according to Paris, is unthinkable without Russia.”

This passage comes true The blind (‘the blinded’), the new book by Sylvie Kauffmann, columnist of The world and former correspondent in Russia, Warsaw and Washington, among others. It is a fascinating account of European naivete over the last three decades.

The title, suggested by British professor Timothy Garton Ash, is very well chosen. Those who are “blinded” are not just the European leaders that Kauffmann describes at close range – especially the leaders of the two dominant countries, Germany and France, between roughly the year 2000 and the present. But Western European citizens are just as blinded.

All are products of an exceptional, peaceful phase in Western European history. A phase in which everything that happened in Western Europe was a response to the evil of the Second World War: from European integration to multilateralism and attention to the rights of the individual. In this way evil was vanquished, or at least tamed. As a result, it is always there, but at the same time almost no one recognizes it when it rears its head again. People look at it, but don’t really see it.

That makes the case study that Kauffmann focuses on – the way Western Europe has dealt with Russian President Putin, often against his better judgment – ​​so interesting.

It also applies to the way many now view the explosion of violence in the Middle East: with horror, as if transfixed. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the barbaric outbreak of Hamas, Israel’s frenzy bombing of Gaza – there is that surprise again and again. As a result, there is no plan, no strategy, no preparation. Only moral outrage.

If you want to be very blunt, you can ask yourself: what have we learned from the Holocaust? What lesson did we get from that? Maybe none.

“At the end of the Cold War,” writes Kauffmann, “we, with good intentions, really thought that freedom and democracy had ‘won’. We wanted to believe that. But we were naive. And therefore (as far as Putin is concerned) they missed all the signs.”

The entire European establishment was there, including them, when Putin delivered his thunderous sermon in Munich in 2007. The next day everyone did business with him again. Germany put Nordstream II in the works, France sold him Mistral helicopter ships. It was also after the invasion of Georgia and the annexation of Crimea business as usual.

Only Central and Eastern Europeans raised the alarm about Putin’s true intentions. They were politely brushed off.

Kauffmann describes Angela Merkel’s last European summit, in June 2021. Merkel and Macron tried to convince other government leaders that they should maintain contact with Putin. And that there should be a European summit with him. Kaja Kallas, the Estonian Prime Minister, grilled Merkel: “A summit, for what? We always said that there would be no summit with him until he returned Crimea. Does our word mean nothing anymore?”

Mario Draghi agreed. Then others. Merkel turned bright red. Her plan was aborted. She was defeated at her last European summit. Later she called Kallas to apologize. The two had lunch together. Everything became peace and quiet again.

That’s how Merkel was: desperately clinging to the paradisiacal present, in order to postpone the moment when Germany and thus Europe would return to history. Or rather, had to return. Because somewhere everyone knew perfectly well that this moment would come.


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