I’m writing this in Aldbourne, England at a pivotal time in history in what were Major Dick Winter’s World War II quarters. Democratic Europe and the United States are once again at war with a formidable enemy. But unlike during World War II, we’re not only unprepared to respond, the European Union is failing to even acknowledge the threat.
Reactionary elements are working to alienate the United Kingdom and the U.S. from their natural allies. The UK is preparing to leave the EU, which will trigger a global recession. The American government – shut down and rudderless – is turning its back on its most important allies and trade partners.
Both events connect back to an assault on modern Western democracies by one person: President Vladimir Putin of Russia. Putin manipulated both the 2016 American presidential election and the 2016 Brexit vote, not to mention funding aspiring dictators across Europe.
For Americans like me, the ancient Wiltshire village of Aldbourne is emblematic of what we used to stand for. During World War II, Major Winters came here with the 101st Airborne, part of the American support for Churchill and the Brits against Hitler. His exploits inspired the “A Band of Brothers,” book and HBO series.
He traded his home in Pennsylvania for a small room in this 400-year-old house, then spent months preparing his paratroops first for D-Day, then for Operation Market Garden, the first steps toward defeating Hitler.
By coincidence, we’re here visiting friends at the very moment Trump and UK leaders are abandoning their most steadfast allies as Russia, like Nazi Germany, grows increasingly aggressive and emboldened.
Like Hitler 90 years before, Putin is winning because of Western naiveté and passivity:
• After snatching away the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Putin’s naval forces just seized with impunity three Ukrainian ships.
• Russian banks are financing far-right parties including Marine Le Pen’s National Front and the German Alternative for Germany.
• Trump is under investigation related to Putin’s covert support of his presidential campaign. It’s certain Russian intelligence groups, including the Internet Research Agency, used hackers to interfere directly in the election process.
• It has emerged in recent days that Trump has taken extraordinary measures to keep secret his conversations with Putin, even from his own staffers. Late Monday U.S. time, the New York Times reported that Trump told national security officials he plans to withdraw the U.S. from NATO. “Even discussing the idea of leaving NATO — let alone actually doing so — would be the gift of the century for Putin,” the Times quoted retired Adm. James G. Stavridis, the former supreme allied commander of NATO as saying.
• Even that Brexit cheerleader, The Telegraph, has revealed Russian trolls interfered in the Brexit vote.
• Russian spies repeatedly met with Brexit leader Arron Banks and offered him money. Whether it made it to the Brexit campaign itself is unknown.
Putin and his Moscow-backed allies want to see a Russian-style (and Russian-funded) network of countries under one-man rule across all of Europe. Conventional left-center-right coalitions increasingly are under pressure from what Hungarian President Viktor Orbán calls “illiberal societies.”
Year after year, from Poland to Hungary to the Czech Republic, nationalists skillfully tap into reactionary sentiments, ancient prejudices and tensions and fear of migrants to win elections. Then, as in Hungary, they take over major media, the last defense against governments run by oligarchs.
Those neo-fascist parties then enact “reforms” such Hungary’s new “Slave Law” that requires workers to put in 800 hours of overtime each year because – ironically – there aren’t enough people in the workforce. Orbán promises they’ll get paid in a few years … maybe.
Most of the “nationalist” leaders from Orbán to Brexiteers such as Nigel Farage are at best opportunists, and at worst, nihilists who seek to destroy pluralistic, liberal societies for their own ends. They have no core beliefs having spent their lives holding their fingers in the wind to see which way it’s blowing politically.
Take Farage, who has a German wife and at least two French mistresses.
Take Orbán, who started out as a radical liberal and went to Oxford University courtesy of Hungarian financier and philanthropist George Soros, the same Soros who Orbán vilifies today as an “internationalist,” anti-semitic code for “Jew.”
In the late 1980s, Orbán became a nationalist and set out to oust reformists, building his base by giving free rein to the most corrupt elements in Hungary.
He is, of course, close personal friends with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “In the past, we Hungarians have suffered a lot under Russia,” Orbán told La Republica newspaper in Italy. “Nevertheless, it needs to be recognized that Putin has made his country great again and that Russia is once again a player on the world stage.”
RUSSIA IS WEAK AND PUTIN IS VULNERABLE
Clearly the Trumpian rhetoric of making countries “great” again resonates. But Orbán aside, how great is Russia?
While it has a large nuclear force and military, along with a remorseless and effective intelligence agency that regularly tracks down and attacks dissidents from England to the Central African Republic with impunity, Russian power is mostly a mirage.
Though rich in natural resources, the Russian economy is not competitive because it’s a kleptocracy. If you build a successful company, sooner or later Putin will take it from you, often after you have a tragic accident or are convicted of a “crime” and sent to prison.
Every reputable economist and analyst describes Russia as a “pipsqueak” economy: weak and riddled with systemic societal problems, inefficient and corrupt.
From the London School of Economics:
US GDP reached US$ 19,362 billion in 2017. With GDP as a yardstick, the US is 13 times bigger than Russia. In the same way, other countries can be compared with Russia. China is economically 8 times larger than Russia; Germany 2.5 times more, France 1.8 more, and the European Union as a whole is 12 times bigger than Russia.
Which means Putin is much weaker than he seems … and vulnerable. Now is the time to destroy him. Now is the time to go to war.
I don’t complain without offering options, and I’ll warn you in advance they’re extreme. But to quote Barry Goldwater, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” I advocate a merciless and united effort with the goal of not merely defeating Putin but ensuring Russia and its satellite nations are neutralized and cannot continue to threaten the West.
All that said, Putin is only effective because the EU, which is always more interested in reaching consensus, lacks the political will to take him down.
Here’s are my recommendations:
• EU officials need to immediately expel Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. I was tempted to add Italy, but Italy has – as far as I can tell – no actual government and hasn’t since World War II.
• EU officials need to use the same IP targeting digital technology Russia uses against the U.S. to energize rebellious elements and minority groups inside Russia.
• EU democracies must identify, energize and fund progressive groups to counter nationalists while blocking Russian funding of Far Right nationalist groups.
• EU democracies must ban Steve Bannon, the American Trump acolyte, alt-right agitator and a member of Team Putin. Bannon has serious funding and a mission to unite nationalists in France, Italy and other countries. He must be declared persona non grata in the EU.
• EU countries should start a deliberate and coordinated program to enforce European sanctions against Russia while recruiting Russia’s best talent. The EU must direct member nations to end direct investment as long as Putin is president of Russia.
Working here in his quarters, I can imagine how anxious Major Winters must have been about the outcome of the showdown between good and evil. In my mind, we need to make the bold commitment he made.
Europe, wake up. It’s time to fight.
About the author:
Terry Boyd is co-founder of Dispatches Media, based in Eindhoven. Boyd has been a military reporter, business reporter and an entrepreneur, founding Insider Louisville, a pure-play digital news platform, in 2010.
Boyd & Family are long-time expats and have lived in Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.