“GIVE war a chance.”

That is the message being attributed to pro-Russian demonstrators in Europe.

And there are more of them than you might think.

A few days ago, I was in Thessaloniki in northern Greece, which to me felt very close to the war in Ukraine. I was strolling along the foreshore when I saw a demonstration of several hundred people. This must be an anti-war demonstration against Russia, I immediately thought.

As I came closer, it seemed it might be an anti-Greek government demonstration. Closer still and it was clearly a pro-Russia demo.

I could not believe it. Greece had imposed sanctions on Russia along with EU countries and was accepting thousands of Ukrainian refugees, despite the pressure it was under as the favoured entry point of illegal immigrants from wars and economic meltdowns in Syria, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. Greece was also providing arms to Ukraine.

The speeches at the demonstration were visceral and scary. Eyes looked me up and down for any sign that I was not pro-Russia or at least anti-Greek government.

I am now in Cyprus. Cyprus has toed the European line and reluctantly imposed sanctions.

I say reluctantly because Cyprus was one country within the EU that Russia had targeted with massive investments in property and with shell companies to take advantage of low taxes.

Russians now make up about 6 per cent of the Cypriot population and they are its second-largest tourism source after Britain. So it is no wonder that a demonstration outside of the Russian embassy in Nicosia was in fact a pro-Russian demo. They too have been labelled by some of the locals as Cyprus’s “Give war a chance” brigade.

I asked myself, how is this all possible? Unlike ordinary Russians, this lot see the images of civilians being killed and the absolute carnage.

So powerful is the Russian propaganda machine that they have convinced many in the West of their narrative. This was brought home to me when I read of the Russian ambassador to Cyprus, Stan Osadchiy, publicly scolding Cyprus and threatening unspecified consequences if it did not remove all sanctions against Russia.

The Russian ambassador’s justification of the war was aired widely. It is the line that is parroted by pro-Russian demonstrators: “In this fight against the ‘black plague’ we are doing everything so that the victims are as few as possible. We do not indiscriminately bomb towns, areas where people live and social infrastructure targets. We do not do what others have done, flattening entire towns and villages.”

The reference to the black plague is a reference to the supposed Nazification of Ukraine – a claim rendered even more bizarre given the Ukraine leader is Jewish.

And the narrative even extends to claims that the Ukrainians staged the bombing of their own schools and hospitals to get world support.

It’s absolute garbage, given the real evidence of what is happening in Ukraine and what happened in Syria with Russian help.

So, to those who think the Russian propaganda machine is limited to Russia, think again.

Throughout Europe an alternative Russian narrative based on fake news is believed by many.

This fake news is closely aligned with another narrative. It is the narrative successfully prosecuted by Putin that direct military involvement by the West would result in World War III.

The West has been spooked into inaction because of this narrative.

It thus remains impotent on the one thing that would save Ukraine – direct military involvement, or a no-fly zone or even by providing fighter jets from Poland.

Six years ago in Kyiv, the deputy prime minister told me Putin was a great poker player.

He has certainly outplayed the West and is likely at a minimum to get a big chunk of Ukraine.

Putin is probably glad Trump is not President given Trump’s recent comments that if he were President, he would bomb Moscow. Putin thinks Biden is weak and that he won’t interfere militarily. Biden has reinforced that very position. He has not even set any red lines that would lead to military action if Russia crossed them.

Putin knows ultimately Russian gas and oil will beat the West’s sanctions, especially in a post-war scenario where he has forced Ukraine into a demoralising peace deal that will invariably include its support for removing sanctions.

Putin is an accomplished bully.

And like all bullies, only a bigger force standing between them and the little guy will stop them. The small countries in Europe abutting Russia have rushed to become members of NATO. But with success in Ukraine, the Russian bully will once again use the tried and tested threat of Armageddon if the West intervenes to help these countries if Russia invades them.

The West may well regret its cautious “no military intervention” approach. The democratic free world is in a historic fight, to be played out in this century, against autocracy and repression. If democracy allows autocracy to win in Ukraine, other countries will be next, and this will lead invariably to World War III, not stop it.

Now is the time to stop Putin militarily. A defeat may just lead to a change of leadership in Russia and the recommencement of its stalled journey towards democracy and freedom. All it takes is the courage to stand up to a bully.

Theo Theophanous is a commentator and former Victorian Labor Minister.