If you don’t know you are at war, how are you going to win it?

Every day in recent years, we perceive the world changing, facing increasingly formidable challenges: the energy, climate, health, and migration crisis, as well as the war of Russia in Ukraine and the Israeli-Palestinian war… What comes next? A World War? Is warfare in Europe already underway? Do we acknowledge the reality and prepare for the future to safeguard ourselves and our families from these threats? Are our political leaders wise and persistent enough to rescue the people who place their trust in them?

A firefighter walks outside a destroyed apartment building following a bombing in a residential area of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday, March 15, 2022. Russia’s offensive in Ukraine has moved closer to central Kyiv, with a series of strikes targeting a residential neighborhood. This occurs as the leaders of three European Union member countries plan a visit to Ukraine’s embattled capital.” (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

At present, we must recognize that geopolitical shifts are inevitable. In this context, we need to comprehend our position on this figurative checkerboard.

Politicians from allied nations outright assert that if we fail to bolster security and honor our commitments, they won’t step in to do it for us.

During his election campaign, Donald Trump — the presidential candidate of the country that plays the crucial role in transatlantic security, our closest security ally, said: “No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them (Russia) to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay. You got to pay your bills.” Pay attention to those who “do not pay the bill”: according to the report of July 2023, Belgium is the second lowest NATO defense spender after Luxembourg, only committing 1.1% of its GDP to defense expenditure.

At the same time, the Belgian Army’s Chief of Staff, Admiral Michel Hofman, emphasized the need for Europe to urgently prepare for potential Russian aggression on NATO’s eastern flank. He highlighted Russia’s switch to a war economy and the use of bellicose language, suggesting the possibility of new fronts opening against Moldova or the Baltic states. Hofman’s comments underscore the importance of enhancing military readiness to defend against any future aggression​.

Simultaneously, the NATO Secretary General urges readiness for actual hostilities over the next decade. Belgian, German, Finnish, Estonian, and Italian generals set a timeframe of 3–5 years before direct confrontation.

Are we prepared for this?

Meanwhile, Russia is building its capacity to bomb Ukraine. At the same time, with its numerous provocations around the world and hybrid attacks, it freezes Europe’s capacity for effective decision-making and, thus, effective self-defense.

How can we be ready if we fail to acknowledge that the war against us is already ongoing? The autocratic world is gaining strength, launching a hybrid war through information attacks, cyber assaults, and political bribery right in the heart of Europe. Autocrats exploit war tactics in unstable regions to divert our focus and paralyze and destabilize us, showcasing democracy as weak and incapable of addressing the challenges it confronts.

I wish to remind you that Belgium houses all central governing bodies of the EU and NATO. We must act responsibly, bearing the burden of our descendants’ future.

Despite the alert in 2022 with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, in 2024, we are still ill-prepared to defend ourselves, lacking troops, ammunition, and air defense systems. Even now, our military cannot shield us. Situated strategically, all European institutions and NATO’s headquarters, including member states, are on our soil. These, as Putin labels them, are decision-making centers.

Are our air defense systems ready to secure our skies? Are we prepared to defend our coastlines from maritime assaults? Are our soldiers ready to execute amphibious operations and assist our allies?

Does this scenario seem far-fetched to you? Are you hesitant to confront the truth because our politicians pretend to have everything under control?

According to Russian state media and public opinion, most Russians view the “conflict” in Ukraine as a war between Russia and the West. Meanwhile, Europeans believe no such war exists. Now, if you don’t know you are at war, how are you going to win it?

Just because you don’t see it and it doesn’t involve weapons doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

On December 15, 2023, the “Krasukha S4” radar jammed the GPS/GNSS signal in the Suwalki gap, located between the Kaliningrad region and the rest of Russia, which caused problems with the navigation of ships in the Baltic Sea and aircraft. Russian drones and missiles cross the state border of the NATO countries. Russian state-backed cyberattacks on the European Parliament in 2022 upon its recognition of Russia as a terrorist state and the International Criminal Court in 2023, sometime after the arrest warrant for Putin for kidnapping Ukrainian children was issued, — are just the tip of the iceberg. What about the use of chemical weapons in Salisbury in 2018 or the murder of a Chechen separatist fighter in Berlin by the FSB agent? Today, Putin tries to free him by pushing for an exchange with an American journalist whom he took as a hostage.

If these are not acts of aggression, what are these then? If they are not alerting us enough, what will? Mind that Russia is watching our response.

The ongoing Russia war on Ukraine, motivated by the imperial ambitions and Putin’s “historic land” justifications that go back to 1654, poses a direct challenge to the fundamental principles of international law and the post-war order established in Europe. The 2014 occupation of Crimea and the 2022 full-scale invasion undermined the very foundations of peace and security upon which the European project is built. If left unchecked, such actions could further embolden aggressors around the world and erode the sovereignty and territorial integrity underpinning global stability.

Making people believe that “historical law” not only is legitimate but is above the principles of a widely and mutually agreed international law is, per se, a very well-executed disinformation campaign and an attack on the core of our individual decision-making. The Kremlin convinces its own population as well as influences the opinion of other people regarding the “right and wrong” in international law, whereas, in fact, it has no monopoly on it.

One of the vilest instruments of the Kremlin’s imperial policy is deportation, mass passportisation, and relocation of Russians to the emptied territories, and then taking them over or making them hotspots for the mass murders “because Russian speakers should be protected by Russia.”

If Russia did this to a sparsely-populated area in Limburg, relocating Russians until they form the majority of the people, then conducting a referendum to declare that territory Russian, would Belgium have to give up on Limburg in that case? No! Pacta sunt servanda — the treaties must be executed, and the new treaty cancels the previous one. It is a civilized and widely recognized norm of international law. We agreed to respect each other’s borders and all sorts of international agreements within the UN, OSCE, CoE, and other organizations that exist to maintain the established rules-based world order. And the breach of the norm of the law cannot be justified by the norm of the force. Not in Belgium. Not in Europe.

The autocrats’ war is against the people of Europe, targeting our dignity, our right to self-determination, and our freedom of everyday choice.

While many issues surface in today’s political campaigns across Europe, aligning them is crucial for the long-term betterment of our lives. Yet, the most existential issue — protection in the face of aggression — remains sidelined.

During Belgium’s New Year receptions, all political parties presented their visions and candidates for the upcoming elections at the national level. Where does Ukraine fit into their visions? Most barely mentioned Ukraine. Where does Russia fit into their security considerations? Nowhere!

But if Ukraine gets defeated by the armed aggression of Russia, where would Putin stop? If there is a further invasion of wider Europe by the previously unstopped Russian Federation, who will defend Belgium?

Let’s ask ourselves: Will these leaders supply more weapons to Ukraine if elected? Will they advocate for the use of frozen assets to compensate Ukraine for the immense damage inflicted? Will they push for a special tribunal for Putin? Do they even educate their electorate about Ukraine?

Considering Belgium’s very minor budgetary input for support of Ukraine’s sovereignty by February 1, 2023, compared to other countries, there are doubts that the politicians will push for more if their electorate does not demand it.

Yet it’s not about political preferences; it’s about the survival of a European country defending our way of life and the lives of its citizens while we hurry under peaceful skies to resolve all other political issues of our daily lives.

At the same time, a lot of other issues in our daily lives are connected to Russia’s war on Ukraine. According to a poll, the second-largest concern of Belgians after the “cost of living” is climate change and environmental degradation — an issue that 54% of Belgians feel should be prioritized. While we focus on environmental degradation in Belgium, let’s keep in mind that the explosion of one BM-21 Grad in Ukraine releases more than 500 grams (18 oz) of sulfur that reacts with water and turns into sulfurous acid. War-damaged land is ‘burned’ with acid.

War-related fires in Ukraine. The Economist

During the first 12 months of the war, an estimated 21.9 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (tCO2e) were released due to war-related activities, and an additional 17.7 million tCO2e were released from war-related fires. According to EcoZagroza, as of July 18, 2023, there have been 2 450 reports (2 317 verified) of military actions with a direct environmental effect.

In short, the West should put all possible efforts to stop Putin — Ukraine cannot do this alone. After all, the West “disarmed” Ukraine at the beginning of the ’90s for security guarantees through a Budapest Memorandum. Now, Ukraine pays with the lives of its people for this trust. Despite this, it still stands with the West in terms of its values: freedom, dignity, and justice!

Revolution of Dignity, Kyiv, Ukraine. Jeff J Mitchell

Ten years ago, in February 2014, during the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv, Ukrainians were the only people globally who died with the European flag in their hands, fighting for EU values. It was Russia’s response to this sovereign choice that led to its attack on this brave nation, defending freedom and dignity. The Euromaidan was dubbed the “Revolution of Dignity” because Ukrainians defended their — our — dignity, the fundamental human right that is absolute! And Europe is the only continent recognizing this absolute, having endured suffering and sorrow around 80 years ago.

And that’s for Putin to be able to justify Hitler’s aggression on Poland by the refusal of the latter to give up on the territory? What is it if not an attack on dignity?

The right to dignity isn’t a gift; it’s a legacy for which people sacrificed their lives. We must safeguard it for our children and future generations.

Ukraine acts as a shield for Europe, sacrificing its best to give us time to prepare. How are we using this invaluable time? Are we doing enough? I believe not!

We must ramp up ammunition production, enhance troop numbers and training quality, and bolster investments in the military-industrial and military-scientific sectors. These are also the key to the revival of villages and small towns. By strengthening our defenses, we send a clear message to potential adversaries that aggression will not be tolerated.

We must defeat the autocrats in Ukraine, halt their bloodlust, and make them repent. To achieve this, we must strive to restore Ukraine’s control over its skies, its people, and territories, repatriate prisoners of war and abducted children, ensure justice for the fallen, and compel aggressors to repent.

Europe must grow strong enough not to be threatened ever again! And Belgium must lead the way. Belgium finds itself at a pivotal juncture in history. We need a proactive and decisive response from our leaders!

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