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The year 2022 will go down in the history books. And it includes a chapter few wanted to see written: War returned to Europe.
On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his tanks rolling into Ukraine, marking the start of a brutal conflict that, 10 months later, shows no signs of ending anytime soon. The early weeks of the war saw a wave of refugees flood the EU and, in the months that followed, Europe was pushed into a grim energy crisis. Also rearing its head was the heightened threat of nuclear war — now closer than at any point since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
While the Russian invasion of Ukraine dominated headlines throughout the year, other global events dipped in and out of the spotlight. Among the biggest in the media was the death of the longest-serving monarch in British history. Meanwhile, 2022 also brought the shortest-serving prime minister in British history. And in Italy, the country’s first-ever female prime minister — a right-wing populist — was sworn into office.
Elon Musk bought (and almost brought down) Twitter. And to round out the year, European democracy has been taking a wallop as allegations of corruption at the European Parliament continue to unfold.
Which POLITICO stories grabbed your attention most this year? We look back at our 20 most-read stories of 2022.
For years, Vladimir Putin’s defenders and cheerleaders in Europe touted their close ties to the Russian president. Even while his troops lined up on the border with Ukraine, they remained steadfast in their views. Only after Putin ordered his forces to invade did many finally start backpedaling.
Who have been his most faithful European friends? What did they say before the war — and what are they saying now? We made a list.
Germany’s insistence on engaging with Vladimir Putin in the face of his sustained aggression was nothing short of a catastrophic blunder. As Matthew Karnitschnig writes, while former Chancellor Angela Merkel deserves most of the blame for falling into the Russian leader’s trap, the truth is that Germany’s entire political class is guilty.
And slowly but surely, it’s begun to dawn on Germans that their soft-shoe approach to Russia didn’t just open the door for Putin to go further; it effectively encouraged him to do so.
The years following the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union have been characterized by one-upmanship, failures to communicate and outright disagreements. But the days since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have seen politicians and officials on both sides of the Channel come together to coordinate their response.
Despite lingering disputes between the U.K. and the EU, can this crisis mark a permanent turning point in their relationship — or will it return to being acrimonious once the war is over?
It’s a terrifying thought: World War III has never been closer.
Senior Western government officials, diplomats and military analysts acknowledged in March the grave danger that the United States and other NATO allies could be drawn into Russia’s war on Ukraine. In this piece, we explored a number of scenarios that could lead to that happening.
In November, nine months into the Ukraine war, cracks started to show in the transatlantic relationship. Top European officials accused Americans of making a fortune from the war while EU countries suffer.
The explosive comments follow mounting anger in Europe over green subsidies and taxes in a U.S. bill to ostensibly combat inflation, which Brussels says threaten to wreck European industry. The U.S. has rejected Europe’s complaints. But regardless, over in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin must be smirking.
In the lead-up to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral on September 19, official documents obtained by POLITICO outlined what was in store for the VIPs who would be attending the grand event. World leaders traveling to the U.K. for the occasion would be treated like … everyone else, apparently.
This meant taking commercial flights, being bused into central London and not being able to invite any plus-ones to the state funeral. Did anyone feel sorry for them? We think you may know the answer.
While the world’s papers were full of obituaries of the queen in the days following her death, we told a different story: of the short and unhappy life of Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor — the young woman who would go on to become the longest-serving monarch in British history.
Imagine this scenario: You’re a plane leasing company. You’ve lent Russia hundreds of planes worth about $10 billion. Then Russia invades Ukraine. Your country starts imposing sanctions on Russia. Russia is not happy about it. How do you then get Russia to return your jets?
It’s a tricky situation, and aircraft leasing companies that found themselves in it are quickly losing hope of getting their fleets back. It also raises another question: What will Russia do with all those stolen airplanes?
For years prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states had warned of the risk Vladimir Putin posed. Western Europeans didn’t listen. Instead, they followed a path of commercial and political appeasement. And it backfired spectacularly.
While saying “I told you so” usually comes with an element of smugness, in this case it’s full of bitterness from the countries that tried to raise the alarm, with full knowledge of the violence that Moscow is willing to unleash to pursue its goals.
Usually, the story of a young woman going clubbing wouldn’t make the news. Enter Sanna Marin. The Finnish prime minister found herself having to rebuff allegations she’d taken drugs while out with friends in Helsinki in August after video emerged of her … dancing.
Her partying sparked a fierce debate over whether a world leader should be able to let their hair down — and the double standard applied to women in power.
After Russia invaded Ukraine, many people started wondering if Vladimir Putin would stop there. The Baltics were (and largely still are) particularly on edge.
But as we reported, there is one tiny corner of Europe that would likely be among his first targets, were he ever to choose to escalate the war in Ukraine into battle with NATO: The Suwałki Gap, a 100-kilometer stretch of land tucked between Lithuania and Poland.
In March, alarm grew that Belarus might join Russia in its war in Ukraine. Owing a debt to Russian President Vladimir Putin for keeping him in power, Belarus’ authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko had already been helping the Kremlin by allowing Russian troops to use its territory as a springboard for an attack on northern Ukraine; and to use its roads, railways, hospitals and morgues for the war effort.
While Belarus has until now kept its troops out of the conflict, the West is still concerned that Putin may pull Lukashenko into his war.
A day into the war, a story of Ukrainian defiance and heroism captured international media attention. Facing an attack from a Russian warship, a Ukrainian soldier defending Zmiinyi Island, also known as Snake Island, located in the Black Sea, was recorded telling his attackers to “go fuck yourself.” He, and the other Ukrainian soldiers defending the island, were then killed, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.
A rallying cry was born.
The phrase — one that now bears legend status — suddenly started appearing on signs, buildings and T-shirts not only across Ukraine, but across Europe. Days later though, the Ukrainian navy announced that the soldiers had not actually been killed; they were in Russian captivity. But by then, the myth had already cemented itself. It even spawned its own commemorative postage stamp in Ukraine.
On March 1, the war looked like it might be taking an even darker turn when the Ukrainian parliament claimed that Belarus had joined Russia in its invasion. Several hours later, Western allies had not backed up the reports, and Belarus itself was rejecting the claims.
The initial alarm that the conflict could be escalating was a stark reminder of how the fog of war can cloud the accurate sharing of information.
On February 26, Germany did something many thought it never would: reverse a historic policy of not sending weapons to conflict zones. Explaining its decision to change tack, which Chancellor Olaf Scholz termed a Zeitenwende or epochal shift, Berlin said Vladimir Putin’s invasion was an era-defining moment that threatened the entire post-World War II order across Europe.
But while the German government promised to send Kyiv bundles of weapons and equipment, in the months that followed, its historic change in course has been met with disappointment as Ukraine’s desperate calls for Berlin to send tanks have been left answered.
Four days into the Ukraine war, Netflix found itself sucked into the conflict. The streaming giant was due to fall under a series of new obligations in Russia on March 1, which would require it to carry 20 state-backed channels. Many experts believed the company was unlikely to withdraw from the Russian market because — well, money. As Catalina Iordache, a researcher specializing in Netflix’s business explained, although its market share steadily increased in 2021, there was still a plenty of space to expand.
But like any good movie or TV series, Netflix delivered a plot twist, telling Russia simply: Nyet.
In May 2021, a Ryanair flight was hijacked and diverted to Belarus after the pilots were told there was a bomb on board. Upon landing in Minsk, two passengers — blogger Roman Protasevich and his partner Sofia Sapega — were arrested.
Although the flight recording illuminated the conversation between the pilot and the Minsk air traffic control tower, what exactly went on inside the control center that day remained a mystery.
That is, until the agency released a follow-up report, obtained by POLITICO, that included a secret recording made by the on-duty air traffic controller. This recording implicates Belarusian officials.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, something became very clear, very quickly: Vladimir Putin had made a massive miscalculation. As our Ukrainian-born contributing editor Zoya Sheftalovich explained, the Russian president had vastly underestimated and misunderstood Ukrainians and their president.
(Zoya also elaborated on this in a Twitter thread, here.)
When Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov sent his paramilitary forces to join them. On his Telegram account, he documented their actions.
But analysis of the posts show that one thing was missing: Evidence of actual bravery on the battlefield.
On September 8, when news emerged that senior British royals were rushing to Balmoral in Scotland, it was clear bad news was on its way. Within hours, the official announcement came that Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-serving monarch, had died at the age of 96. One central question immediately sprung up: What happens now?
A year prior to the queen’s death, POLITICO had obtained a series of documents laying out in granular detail how Britain was to respond when that day came. The documents show the extraordinary level of action required by all arms of the British state to bring Operation London Bridge — the code name for the proceedings — to fruition.
This story had already nabbed top spot on our most-read list of 2021, but was thrust back into the news agenda almost a year to the day after its initial publishing.
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