Europe is a dark place these days. Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine is killing tens of thousands, destroying the invaded country, and devastating the lives of its residents. And this war is deeply affecting the entire region. Russia’s aggression has created an influx of destitute refugees. Furthermore, the war has exacerbated a cost-of-living crisis for the people of the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (U.K.), along with stoking fear of World War III and nuclear catastrophe.
The plight of refugees. Europeans, especially Ukraine’s neighbors in Poland, Slovenia, and Moldova, have welcomed six million refugees with open arms. They have donated food, medicine, clothes, cash, and spare rooms. Governments provide healthcare, shelter, and job services. But, as the conflict drags on and the economy worsens, the outpouring of goodwill is fading. State services are set to expire. Temporary housing is disappearing. Cities and schools are crowded and overwhelmed.
The bulk of the refugees are women who fled to spare their children the trauma of living in a war zone. They are isolated from their families, who are often in danger. They live in cramped accommodations. Language differences often present obstacles. Many are running out of resources.
And the war has exposed the biases built into EU and international immigration policy. Roma, Muslim, African and LGBTQ+ people fleeing the invasion have met discrimination at Ukraine’s borders and beyond. So far, the extreme right has been quiet about Ukrainian refugees, but this will change as economies plummet. Meanwhile, across the world, people from the Global South still struggle for entry into the north. The future for all migrants is precarious.
Hyperinflation. Germany and other nations were collectively spending $1 billion a day on coal, gas, and oil imports from Russia. In order to avoid funding Russia’s military, they have slashed these imports. And, in retaliation for sanctions, Putin severely cut the flow of natural gas. Prices soared and Europe was plunged into fuel insecurity.
Meanwhile, energy corporations are price-gouging. In the U.K., the June average for a fill-up at the pump reached $118. In the second quarter of 2022, U.S., Dutch, and British oil giants tripled and quadrupled profits. Britain’s privatized electric company increased profits 200%. Throughout Europe, organizations are redoubling calls for public ownership of energy systems. France is already renationalizing its electric grid.
British households struggle to cope with a 215% rise in energy prices. To combat skyrocketing costs, the grass-roots group Don’t Pay UK urges people to cancel their automatic payments to utilities. About 10,000 people die in freezing houses each year across the nation. This year, the number is expected to grow.
The EU has called for a 15% reduction in energy use, voluntary for now. In France, outdoor cafes are no longer heated or cooled. Germany has turned off hot water in fitness centers. In Greece, air conditioners cannot be set lower than 80°F in public buildings. The EU warns of possible fuel rationing.
“Eat or heat” is the choice facing many. The cost of bread, pasta, cooking oil, and chicken is spiraling across Europe. Grocery store expenses surge weekly. In July, 40,000 British train workers staged a one-day strike demanding higher wages in the face of the cost-of-living crisis. Underground rail workers followed suit the next month. Some European governments are providing inflation relief to households. Italy, Ireland, and Germany cut the price of train, bus, and tram tickets.
An armed camp. For the third time in 100 years, the European people fear a world war centered on their homes. They are afraid that Putin’s determination to compete in Eastern Europe with the encroaching West for political influence and economic spoils will spill past current borders. The war in Ukraine is, among other things, a proxy contest between top imperialists like the U.S. on one hand, represented by NATO, and Russia on the other, ambitious to join their ranks. (See “The Ravaging of Ukraine.”)
Dread of nuclear war is also rising, with even the UN Secretary-General warning that the prospect “is now back within the realm of possibility.” Europe is in the bull’s-eye. And there is also increasing worry of a radiation leak from the continent’s largest nuclear power plant. It is located in Ukraine in an area that is being shelled. In September, the plant was taken partly offline.
The demand for residential bunkers is the highest it has been since the Cold War of the 1950s. Many in the frontline countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are making escape plans. LGBTQ+ communities throughout the EU and the U.K. worry about Putin’s rabid homophobia and are helping queer asylum seekers.
The impact of the Russian invasion goes even beyond Europe. A major concern is that it is escalating world hunger. With production and shipments of grain in Ukraine disrupted, famine looms in poor countries, especially in Africa.
The hardships that millions are enduring as a result of this imperialist power grab by Russia cannot be contained. In the Vietnam War era a popular song asked, “War, what is it good for?” Then as now, the answer for the global working class is “Absolutely nothing.” We are joined in our need to end it.