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The European Significance of the War in Ukraine

The European Significance of the War in Ukraine

The all-out war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022, after months of Sitzkrieg (a play on words between blitzkrieg – lightning war – and sitting around) on its North-Eastern borders, is obviously of primordial concern for European security and politics. However, its fundamental significance for the continent’s contemporary political project has not been clearly recognized to date.

Contrary to public rhetoric, it was the European Union, more than NATO, that triggered the aggressive Russian response. The war began with behind the scene efforts at state subversion and dismemberment, typical for the Russian hardline faction that did not accept the dissolution of the USSR in the early 1990s, and, as a consequence of their failure, morphed into a full-scale military invasion, but having the same strategic aim of coercing a favorable change in the political regime in Kyiv. The urgency of the threat perceived by the Kremlin were not NATO missiles at its borders, but the closing of an era of domination over what constituted for centuries a core area of the Czarist empire.

That is why, for many European nations, what is at stake in the Ukrainian conflict is nothing less than defining the very frontier of Europe as such, in a region ravaged and scared to this day by the wars that the creation of the European Union on the Western side of the continent was supposed to end. 

The Bucharest train 

The Kremlin’s current public rhetoric, as well as that of many analysts and commentators, makes one forget that Ukraine’s bid to join NATO after its “Orange Revolution” was effectively rejected at the April 2008 Bucharest Summit. Not only Ukraine – a so-called “partner for peace” of the North-Atlantic Alliance, just like Russia for a time when it also had observer status in the NATO Council and later had a NATO-Russia Council for consultations – was deemed not ready to join for a host of “technical” reasons, as has happened with Romania, for instance, in 1997, at the Madrid Summit. Its membership application was vetoed by influential members such as France and Germany expressly out of deference to the Russian opinion in the matter, a decision which also became the de facto official position of its most influential member, the United States of America, especially under the administrations that followed those of George W. Bush.

It is true that there was a group of staunch supporters of Ukraine in the US Department of State during George W. Bush’s tenure. But not even these diplomats – commonly derided as neoconservatives, i.e., conservatives who believed in actively promoting Western values and interests in the spirit of the old American Liberal internationalism, whose influence was already waning and during Barack Obama’s tenure practically ceased being relevant aside from Victoria Nuland, herself of Ukrainian descent – were willing to jeopardize the Alliance’s unity for the sake of a country torn apart by political infighting. Nor did they want to fuel Putin’s threats of a nuclear missile race in Europe (particularly as he was seen as a useful partner at times in the “war on terror”).

Ukraine was at best to become a buffer-zone between Russia and the West under a tacit but very real agreement between Moscow and Western capitals, with effectively zero chances of future NATO membership. Contrary to the current Russian propaganda, which has turned NATO accession into a pseudo-casus belli, Ukraine was in fact a huge foreign policy victory for Vladimir Putin in 2008, but this victory was not enough to ensure mastery over the former Soviet space and the fulfillment of his political ambitions, which were unmoored from reality.

The United States did withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, but this happened long after Russia’s counter-offensive in the former Soviet space as well as in Eastern Mediterranean and even beyond this region, wherever it could reconnect with old allies or find new ones, and was based on repeated violations of said treaty which theoretically gave Russia a strategic arms advantage in Europe. However, the August 2019 American decision to withdraw from the INF treaty had more to do with the modernization and development of China’s nuclear arsenal, as well as that of North Korea, as US President Donald Trump explained before his 2018 high-level meeting in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin, reminiscent of Cold War times. The former US President purportedly tried to draw the latter into a triangular nuclear missile control treaty with Beijing, but the Russian leader kept invoking the 2002 expired Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) to allege that the deployment of American elements of a missile shield in Romania constituted a prior American infringement of nuclear diplomacy and even deployed nuclear warheads and missiles in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad. 

Welcome to Eurasia! 

Since the Bucharest NATO Summit, Ukraine’s Western orientation has been played out in various non-military diplomatic settings, such as, first and foremost, in the Trade Agreement with the European Union, which only underscores the irrelevance of invoking a NATO military threat. Nevertheless, the Russian pressure did not diminish even after that agreement was sidelined by the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2013. By this time, the Kremlin’s desire to keep Ukraine in its fold dominated all its diplomatic engagements and desperately led to the creation of an alternative to the European Union: the Eurasian Economic Community, later the Eurasian Economic Union, with its own trade union, values and ideology in the making.

Ukraine’s importance in Russian nationalist ideology is hard to overestimate, and the nationalist imperial ideology morphed in intricate and various ways into the Soviet empire’s communist ideology, which the older Russians still remember. Although far and practically unrelated to the Moscow Duchy, the aggrandized medieval Rurik’s Kiev, destroyed by Mongol invasions, out of which modern Russia emerged is deeply ingrained in the political imagination of Russian leaders as well as common folk. Eurasia was the political myth of pan-Slavic nationalists who tried to find a common denominator for the ethnic diversity of this huge, almost undefined, land mass as well as take pride despite its perceived backwardness and rationalize its peculiarities. Slavophilia was especially popular in Czarist Ukraine, the country of Gogol and a borderland then as now, which was often viewed by the cosmopolitan aristocrats in Saint Petersburg and Moscow as the quintessential Slavic Arcadia. But if it seems a paradox that Putin’s strategists and spin-doctors could not find a better ideology to keep today’s Ukrainians under Moscow’s grip and spell then one that, at least in part, lost the Russian ideological battle a century ago, that’s because it really is a paradox.

This is why the Putin regime, in its belligerent efforts to keep Ukraine under its influence in the aftermath of the country’s Orange Revolution that triggered soul searching, constantly shifted and scaled-up its ideological narrative. Although superficially framed in symmetry to the American foreign interventionist legal doctrines that emerged during and after George W. Bush’s presidency, in order to avoid the diplomatic stalemate at the dysfunctional United Nations Organization, as current international law would require – such as “preemptive force”, against an “Islamo-Fascist” threat, or “responsability to protect” –, the Kremlin’s new justifications for interference in Kyiv’s internal affairs and ultimately war increasingly discarded any pretense of a shared community. In turn, it favored ethnic nationalism and a partition of Ukraine along the country’s historical rift between its North-Western part, heavily influenced by centuries of Polish and Austrian rule, and its South-Eastern part, which formed the object of Enlightened liberation from Ottoman rule and Russian colonization since the times of Catherine the Great. Not coincidentally, this is also, broadly considered, the rift between the independence-aspiring World War One nationalist and World War Two Nazi-collaborationist Ukraine and the Czarist and Leninist Ukraine. 

The End of post-Sovietism 

There is nothing surprising in Russia’s actions so far in Ukraine – not the corrupt puppet politicians, the economic blackmail mainly through energy resources, the constant overt and covert interference, the self-proclaimed separatist republics, not even the ferocity of large-scale war – except for the fact that all this happens in Ukraine. That is the USSR’s second most populous, most industrious and most heroic republic. Everything has happened before, with no exception. From the Republic of Moldova to the Caucasus and Central Asia, the frontiers of the Soviet Union were more or less deliberately immersed in tragic, intractable and most of all generally useless and easily avoidable conflicts by the hardline faction in the Kremlin after the 1991 implosion, as a deliberate way of perpetuating Russian control, most likely in the hope of reconstituting the once Czarist, then Soviet, Empire once more. Only the Baltic states were spared, either because they were too small to be divided or because the geographical and cultural proximity to the West made them less amenable to the KGB-style machinations and propaganda.

Ukraine was strikingly spared from such euphemistically called “frozen conflicts”, one of only five or six Soviet republics, Baltic states included, to have had that chance, until 2014 of course, not because it was harder to invent such conflicts there (on the contrary, it was easier than in other parts of the Soviet Union where such conflicts "emerged"), but because its loyalty to Moscow was deemed undisputed. As the titular polity of one of the three East-Slavic nations and, with Belarus, one of the three Soviet republics representing the anti-Fascist camp of the “socialist democracies” at the post-war “court of justice” called the United Nations, Ukraine is an essential component of any kind of Russian great power project, both practically as a gate to the European peninsula and, mentally, as the self-representation of a medieval proto-empire blown out of proportions by Russian historiography.

A case in point is Crimea, formally transferred by the Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, from the Russian Soviet Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954. The Putin regime cited this “gift” as a primary reason for its re-annexation in March 2014, after a stealth invasion the month before, although its status within the USSR was much more complicated before 1945. Russia considers it the home of its Black Sea fleet, although the fleet was born almost a century before its incorporation into Russia on the shores of the Azov Sea. The romantic idea is even more astonishing when one considers the most common reason as to why Khrushchev changed the administrative borders in the first place: the entire peninsula – where the only Khan palace of the once mighty Tatar kingdoms was left standing by the Czars – is short on fresh water and only an artificial channel linking the isthmus with mainland rivers could supply water to sustain its modern development. In any case, the Ukrainian Soviet granted Crimea a limited form of autonomy, which included the right of deported Tatars in Stalinist times to resettle its interior, just before the dissolution of the USSR, which was followed by a lease agreement of the historic Russian naval base of Sevastopol after its collapse. Since then, there have been recurrent disputes between politicians in Kyiv and those in the predominantly Russian-speaking Crimea over the extent of the peninsula’s actual autonomy, but despite the on and off wrangling both Ukraine and Russia faithfully respected the Soviet arrangement until 2014, with even the naval base lease renewed in rather routine negotiations. Highbrow geopolitical speculations here or there for decades notwithstanding, few if any anticipated the Russian takeover of Crimea, whose name is ironically forever linked with the mid-nineteenth century war in which the main West-European powers united their forces to put a stop to Russia’s seemingly endless expansionism. 

What was the matter with Georgia (and Moldova)? 

The mainstream Western political narrative of the triumphant Liberal-democratic capitalism sweeping away the antagonisms of the Cold War, and even of history itself, in the 1990s is flawed. This is not so much because of its triumphalism, as most critics especially on the Left believe, because in some respects Liberal capitalism has truly been triumphant. Not even Putin for instance, no matter how peculiar his political economy outlook might be right now for the median Wall Street broker to discern and no matter how difficult were his days as a freelance taxi driver in Saint Petersburg, does not want to restore the communist economy of the USSR. The flawed aspect of this well-wishing, until recently hegemonic, ideology consists in thinking that, in due time at least, all the political troubles of the former Soviet space and its surroundings, even those of the entire world, would naturally, almost automatically, solve themselves by economic exposure to the West. Nothing – absolutely nothing – in the Western experience of the last seventy years, marked by decolonization and the rebirth of “peripheral nationalisms”, gives any reason for this confidence. The post-communist Liberal narrative, blinded more than willfully deceived, even before the Chinese success story based on the unlikely marriage of one-party state politics and market economics, began to seed doubt into the mind of its most ardent proponents.

And Russia was the poster-case, the very essence of the Liberal-democratic narrative, at least until August 2008, a few months after the NATO Summit that rejected the application for membership in the Alliance of Ukraine as well as Georgia. Back then, Russia engaged in a short war with the latter Caucasus nation for trying to reassert its authority over Russian-controlled breakaway regions, as if to underscore how erroneously it was misread for almost two decades in which the much glossed over terms like “transition to democracy and market economics” of the Boris Yeltsin era gradually gave way to terms such as “controlled democracy” and “authoritarian capitalism”, or simply “autocracy”, as the former’s chosen successor, Vladimir Putin, settled into his job for the long-run. But the signs of the present troubles long preceded the advent of Vladimir Putin, who at best is responsible for allowing the Soviet-era state security apparatus that lost control over the political dynamics in 1991 – and of which he is a formative element – to reassert itself freely and uncensored by other considerations in Russia’s foreign as well as domestic politics.

The Soviet hardliners, faced with economic failure and rising nationalism in a mega-state in which ethnic Russians were becoming a plurality, lost the battle in the August 1991 putsch, but they never conceded the war, so to speak. In fact, even the “doves” around Boris Yeltsin did not simply erase the USSR out of history, but replaced it with a security community called the Community of Independent States, which in Moscow’s view were never really thought of as independent, but in a sort of intermediate state between the many republics within the Russian Federal Republic and foreign countries proper, much like the British Foreign Office used to treat its colonies, dominions and various dependencies (whence also Vladimir Putin’s almost delusional threats against outside interference since the invasion of Ukraine began). The Soviet hardliners stirred-up conflicts in the Soviet borderlands, often already minutely engineered by Stalin for a divide-and-rule strategy, which seemed most at risk of truly asserting their independence and breaking away from Moscow, while the new Russia reinvented itself as a gas-pouring peace-keeping firefighter in these lands: a low-cost solution of preserving the empire for better days.

The case of the Republic of Moldova is paradigmatic for the new modus operandi. A little known but bloody war, which included acts of torture and ethnic cleansing, was triggered by the proclamation of a secessionist republic on the more militarized left bank of the Dniester out of fear that using the Latin script for the so-called “Moldavian language”, as opposed to the Cyrillic one, spelled the natural reunification of the province, or Eastern-half of a province, annexed in 1940 from Romania by the USSR through the infamous pact concluded by Hitler and Stalin. It did not even matter for the secessionist “Dniester Moldavians” that their republic, as well as the whole Republic of Moldova, lost around a quarter or more of its size to Ukraine in Soviet reshuffles! 

Our common home in pieces 

Did the Russian leadership ever believe in the capitalist Liberal-democratic ideology that the country, as well as its former rivals, claimed to embrace at the end of the Cold War or did they fake it as a way out of the crisis? Vladimir Putin’s speech regarding the “geopolitical catastrophe” that was the collapse of the Soviet Union – a state synonymous with the enslavement of half of Europe, born out of class-war justified mass killings and a temporary ally of Nazi Germany – suggests a negative answer. This is just like Mikhail Gorbachev’s last rumblings along the same lines blaming the West for taking advantage of Russia’s weakness. In any case, by August 2008, the people in the Kremlin were on the offensive, despite the fact that NATO had just eliminated the prospect of further Eastern enlargement. The West and Western influence were rejected as both decadent, corrupt and menacing. The former Soviet countries that have recently gone through a Western-facing democratic regime change, from Ukraine in Europe to Georgia in the Caucasus and all the way to Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia, following the so called Orange, Roses or Tulip Revolutions, were to be coerced back into Russian control by any means, even though Russia simply no longer woes their people, if it ever did, or had much to offer to them other than perpetual misery and servitude.

Did they sense the West’s exhaustion, disunity and weakness after almost a decade of political and military crusade against Islamic extremism? In light of the allegations regarding Russian espionage involvement in the election of US President Donald Trump, support for Britain’s exit from the European Union and sponsorship of a multitude of far-right Eurosceptic parties across Europe, including the governing party of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the answer is decidedly “yes”. Nevertheless, there still remains an extraordinary amount of gambling and unexplained overestimation in Vladimir’s Putin’s decision to use hard power where no soft power can fill the void in order to attempt the impossible task of reconstituting the USSR under a new form and position Russia once more as a rival power center in the world. There is an over-estimation which is at odds with his circumspect nature sketched by various analysts as well as good steward reputation initially conferred to him by economic liberals at home and abroad, early apparent successes in Georgia, Crimea, Syria and even the Donbas region notwithstanding

Charles de Gaulle – by no means an exemplary European by today as well as yesterday’s standards – conceived European political constructions as an extension of the French foreign policy of strategic autonomy between the US and Britain, on the one hand, and Soviet Russia, on the other hand. In his once famous 1959 speech made in Strasbourg, he talked about a “Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains”, of a “common home”, overcoming the continent’s divisions through the problem-solving actions of Europeans themselves. The ideas often seemed to gratuitously fuel anti-Americanism on the continent and naively play into Soviet manoeuvers to divide the Western capitalist camp, although at times it mesmerized Soviet and Russian leaders, including Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, and could even enhance the East-West dialogue. It is still alive today, in a more realistic and restrained form among the French high civil servants at the Elysée Palace in Paris or at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. But despite the best efforts of the current French president Emmanuel Macron, who also held the rotating presidency of European Union during this time, to mediate between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky, Europe was as much an object of scorn and blame as America for the former’s regime.

No matter where Europe’s border will be at the end of the ongoing war, Russia is clearly no longer interested in a common home. 

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