The Impossible Suddenly Became Possible

When Russia invaded Ukraine, the West’s assumptions about the world became unsustainable.

A half-blurred photo of Vladimir Putin
Sean Gallup / Getty; The Atlantic

History has accelerated; the impossible has become possible. Shifts that no one imagined two weeks ago are unfolding with incredible speed.

As it turns out, nations are not pieces in a game of Risk. They do not, as some academics have long imagined, have eternal interests or permanent geopolitical orientations, fixed motivations or predictable goals. Nor do human beings always react the way they are supposed to react. Last week, nobody who was analyzing the coming war in Ukraine imagined that the personal bravery of the Ukrainian president and his emotive calls for sovereignty and democracy could alter the calculations of foreign ministers, bank directors, business executives, and thousands of ordinary people. Few imagined that the Russian president’s sinister television appearances and brutal orders could alter, in just a few days, international perceptions of Russia.

And yet all of that has happened. Volodymyr Zelensky’s courage has moved people, even the hard-bitten CEOs of oil companies, even dull diplomats accustomed to rote pronouncements. Vladimir Putin’s paranoid ranting, meanwhile, has frightened even people who were lauding his “savvy” just a few days ago. He is not, in fact, someone you can do business with, as so many in Berlin, Paris, London, and Washington falsely believed; he is a cold-blooded dictator happy to murder hundreds of thousands of neighbors and impoverish his nation, if that’s what it takes to remain in power. However the war ends—and many scenarios are still imaginable—we already live in a world with fewer illusions.

Look at Germany, a nation that has spent nearly 80 years defining its national self-interest in purely economic terms. If the government of some distant place where Germans buy and sell things was repressive, that was never the Germans’ fault. If military aggression was reshaping the outer borders of Europe, that was peripheral to Germany, too. Former Chancellor Angela Merkel, although she talked a lot about liberal and democratic values, in practice worried far more about creating good conditions for German business, wherever it was operating. That economy-first attitude infected her nation. Not long after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, I joined a panel discussion in Germany about “the greatest threats to Europe.” Because of the timing, I talked about Russia and assumed the others would too. I was wrong. One of the other panelists called me a warmonger. Another argued vociferously that the greatest threat was a proposed trade agreement that would have allowed Americans to sell chicken washed in chlorine to German supermarkets.

I remember that detail because I hadn’t known about the great chlorinated-chicken discussion that was then engulfing Germany, and I had to go home and look it up. But I’ve had some version of that experience many times since. I was on a German television program two weeks ago, along with three German politicians who were, even then, arguing that—despite the thousands of troops and armored vehicles gathering on the borders of Ukraine—the only conceivable solution was dialogue.

On Saturday, in a 30-minute speech, the current German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, threw all of that out the window. Germany, he said, needs “planes that fly, ships that sail, and soldiers who are optimally equipped for their missions”: Germany’s military should reflect its “size and importance.” The German government has done an about-face and will even send weapons to Ukraine: 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles. More incredibly, this 180-degree turn has the support of an astonishing 78 percent of the German public, who now say they approve of much higher military spending and will gladly pay for it. This is a fundamental change in Germany’s definition of itself, in its understanding of its past: Finally, Germans have understood that the lesson of their history is not that Germany must remain forever pacifist. The lesson is that Germany must defend democracy and fight the modern version of fascism in Europe when it emerges.

But the Germans are not the only ones who have changed. Across Europe people are realizing that they live on a continent where war, in their own time, in their own countries, is no longer impossible. Platitudes about European “unity” and “solidarity” are beginning to have some meaning, along with “common foreign policy,” a phrase that, in the European Union, has until now been largely fiction. In theory the EU has a single spokesperson for foreign policy, but in practice European leaders have given that job to people who know little about Russia, and whose fallback position when Russia misbehaves is always the expression of “deep concern.” The previous European high representative for foreign policy, Federica Mogherini, was more interested in EU relations with Cuba than with Kyiv. The current holder of that office, Josep Borrell, stumbled through a meeting with his Russian counterpart last year, and seemed surprised to be treated with disdain.

But now everything is suddenly different. “Deep concern” has been exchanged for real action. Less than a week into the invasion, the EU has not only announced harsh sanctions on Russian banks, companies, and individuals—sanctions that will also affect Europeans—but has also offered $500 million of military aid to Ukraine. Individual European states, such as France and Finland, are sending weapons as well, and applying their own sanctions. The French say they are drawing up a list of Russian oligarchs’ assets, including luxury cars and yachts, in order to seize them.

Europeans have also dropped, abruptly, some of their doubts about Ukraine’s membership in their institutions. On Monday, the European Parliament not only asked Zelensky to speak, by video, but gave him a standing ovation. Earlier today the parliamentarians, from all across the continent, voted to accept his application for EU membership for Ukraine. Accession to the EU is a long process, and it won’t happen immediately, even if Ukraine emerges intact from this conflict. But the idea has been broached. It is now part of the continent’s collective imagination. From being a distant place, badly understood, it is now part of what people mean when they say Europe.

Ukraine itself will never be the same again either. Events are happening so rapidly, with moods and emotions changing every hour of every day, that I can’t guess what will happen next, or predict how people will feel about it. But I am certain that the events of this week have changed not only the world’s perceptions of Ukraine, but Ukrainians’ perceptions of themselves. In the long run-up to this war, the conversation in Washington and Berlin was always focused on Putin and Joe Biden, Sergey Lavrov and Antony Blinken, NATO and Russia. This was the kind of talk that academics and pundits liked: big topics, big countries. In this conversation Ukraine was, as the political scientist John Mearsheimer put it in 2014, nothing more than “a buffer state of enormous strategic importance to Russia.” But the Ukrainians have now put themselves at the heart of the story, and they know it.

As a result, thousands of people are making choices that they too could not have imagined two weeks ago. Ukrainian sociologists, baristas, rappers, and bakers are joining the territorial army. Villagers are standing in front of Russian tanks, shouting “occupiers” and “murderers” at Russia soldiers firing into the air. Construction workers on lucrative contracts in Poland are dropping their tools and taking the train back home to join the resistance. A decade’s worth of experience fighting Russian propaganda is finally paying off, as Ukrainians create their own counternarrative on social media. They post videos telling Russian soldiers to go home to their mothers. They interview captured teenage Russian conscripts, and put the video clips online. Electronic highway signs leading into Kyiv have been reconfigured to tell the Russian army to “fuck off.” Even if this ends badly, even if there is more bloodshed, every Ukrainian who lived through this moment will always remember what it felt like to resist—and that too will matter, for decades to come.

And what about Russia? Is Russia condemned always to be a revanchist state, a backward-looking former empire, forever scheming to regain its old role? Must this enormous, complicated, paradoxical nation always be ruled badly, with cruelty, by elites who want to steal its wealth or oppress its people? Will Russian rulers always dream of conquest instead of prosperity?

Right now many Russians don’t even realize what is happening in Ukraine. State television has not yet admitted that the Russian military has attacked Kyiv with rockets, bombed a Holocaust memorial, or destroyed parts of central Kharkiv and Mariupol. Instead, the official propagandists are telling Russians that they are carrying out a police action in Ukraine’s far-eastern provinces. The audience gets no information about casualties, or war damage, or costs. The extent of the sanctions has not been reported. Pictures seen around the world—the bombing of the Kyiv television tower today, for example—can’t be seen on the Russian evening news.

And yet, there is a strong, consistent drumbeat of alternative information. Yury Dud, a celebrity blogger with 5 million Instagram followers, has posted a photograph of a bombed-out building in Ukraine. The YouTube channel of Alexei Navalny, the jailed Russian dissident leader, has been equally clear to its 6.4 million subscribers. Members of his team are denouncing the war alongside the extension of his prison sentence, both part of the same story of internal and external repression. Millions of Russians know, because they have friends and relatives in Ukraine, that Putin has invaded a neighbor whom they don’t consider their enemy. Some have called those friends, weeping over the telephone, to apologize.

What could happen in Russia if the story became better known, the details clearer? What if Russians are eventually able to see the same graphic images that we see? What if the price of this pointless violence becomes tangible to them too? The unpopularity of this war is going to grow, and as it gets bigger, the other Russia—the different Russia that has always been there—will grow larger, too. The Russians who flooded the streets in 1991 to cheer the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russians who protested fake elections in 2011, the Russians who turned out in large numbers all across the country to protest the arrest of Navalny in 2021, the Russians, rich and poor, urban and rural, who don’t want their country to be an evil empire—maybe their numbers will expand enough to matter. Maybe, someday, they will change the nature of their state too.