Can Europe Make It?

Did we all get it wrong on Russia?

Nikolay Nikolov
5 March 2014

A little over a month ago, I wrote my column here on the escalating crisis in Kiev’s Euromaidan and the close resemblance between the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and what we have witnessed in Ukraine over recent months.

The two events both resemble a process in which people’s calls for democracy were met with disproportionate violence from a highly aggressive and dictatorial regime. In both cases, unfortunately, the push for freedom and insubordination towards the disciplining of society were met with death, torture, imprisonment, and chaos. In Ukraine today, the casualties lie somewhere over 100, while many more people are injured or missing. Among these, there are not just Ukrainians – there are Poles, Russians, Armenians, Belarusians, Jews, and Georgians who have died in the ‘February Revolution’. Back in 1956, the message was ‘We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe’; today, the message is the same but the speaker is different.

Unlike 1956 however, the world has witnessed a rapid metamorphosis in Ukraine: we witnessed President Yanukovich impeached; we followed him flee to Russia. We also saw Yulia Tymoshenko, freed, speaking on the podium of the Maidan. I also heard European Commission President José Manuel Barroso frame the new EU narrative around the normative foundations of a fully integrated union based on democracy and cooperation in the future.

Yet the crisis is far from over: in fact, it is getting worse rapidly. Crimea is effectively fully controlled by Russian soldiers in an escalating conflict, which was deemed by Prime Minister Yatsenyuk as an outright ‘declaration of war’ on Ukraine. According to Dr. Andrew Wilson, the new pro-Russian Crimean authorities, who took power on 27 February, were established at gunpoint. Despite Russian rhetoric about a ‘coup’ in Kiev, the real coup was in Crimea.

Democratic Whip, Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, and Anne Applebaum have called for the expulsion of Russian from the G-8, while in a new speech on March 1, President Barroso, has condemned the escalation of violence and violation of Ukrainian sovereignty, calling the events “unthinkable in the twenty-first century in the European continent” and pledged that Euromaidan and the values it fought for – “Europe will defend”.

Could this have been predicted? Slate staff writer Joshua Keating says – definitely –and quotes one Wikileaks cable from 2008 sent by then-President Medvedev, which said “[s]ince the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, Russian military action against Ukraine is no longer unthinkable.”

Yet, it somehow was unthinkable and it caught ‘the West’, particularly the United States, rather off guard. It seems that there was an almost universal hope that the Maidan could claim victory just by its sheer physical courage. That once the regime fell, it would be over. But it seems that the struggle, like 1956, has just begun.

Back then it was the Soviet Union which trampled insubordination in its satellite states. Today, it’s the ‘Putinist’ Russian regime, to use Anne Applebaum’s ample characterization, that is reminding us of the true power-play at hand in Europe. At home, Putin fakes opposition and talks the democratic talk. He does not use mass violence like before, he targets. His regime is the reincarnation of the KGB-style omnipresent rule and the Politkovskaya case illustrates that most clearly: not all political opponents are silenced or eliminated, just the ones who get too close to the truth, too famous or too popular.

Ukraine is the Politkovskaya case in geopolitical terms because the democratic movement has become too popular. Putin is afraid of the example that it will set for countries like Belarus, Armenia, even Russia itself. Russia’s geopolitical influence in Europe is being tarnished. Let’s not forget that, as Anne Applebaum states, “Russia is not a capitalist society at all. It is a rent seeking oil economy.” And it has majorly invested throughout eastern Europe, as well as having close accords with the Austrian OMV and the German Ruhrgas (remember how former German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, became a Gazprom man immediately after quitting office?).

From Bulgaria, through the Balkans, and up to Ukraine, Russia’s economic hold has translated, with varying degrees of success, into direct political influence. This is most clearly seen today in Bulgaria, a puppet-state for Russian interests. So while we all listen to speeches about ‘building bridges’ and ‘tearing down walls’ coming from Brussels, we forget that democracy is not allowed to progress independently in many of these countries. We all got it wrong, it would seem, when it comes to where Russia stands, geopolitically, and ideologically today; and what its role is with regards to the future of an integrated Europe.

Ukraine is the battleground and it seems increasingly likely that Russia is unconcerned by the (rather slow) acceleration of warnings coming from the west. It is becoming clear how deeply involved Putin’s Russia actually is in European affairs and even clearer that no one is, as yet, sure how to respond to this.

Senator John Kerry has warned of sanctions to come, which have already had a staggering effect on the Russian stock markets and rouble: Gazprom -15% Sberbank -14% Lukoil -12% as from early calculations on March 3. There is much hope there, as the argument plainly follows that given Russia is a rent-seeking oil economy, which is the main funnel of stability and government budget, a drop in oil-prices means an increase of instability. We have already got in wrong once by thinking Euromaidan will be a strong enough force on its own and that bipolarity is over.

Any future talk regarding Europe must seriously rescale the international arena and reposition Russia way back East and take away 20 or so years from its ‘democratization’ period. Hard geopolitics and regional dominance on a bipolar East-West grid must be kept in mind. The European Union is now much less about building bridges or tearing down walls than about safeguarding the ones already in existence.

It seems we have gone back 50 years back in history. Are we ready for this?

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