The Eurosphere is losing Ukraine

Ukrainians may have had high expectations, but the unpleasant truth is that the EU has offered them more than it can deliver.


Denis MacShane
9 May 2014

Superpowers are bad losers. The Sovietsphere lost in Afghanistan, and then in Poland, Hungary and East Berlin in the 1980s. The Anglosphere lost in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2000. Now the Eurosphere is losing in Ukraine. In all cases, the end result is a turning back to introspective domestic politics and scratchy, unconfident foreign policy.

German business intervention 

After appearing to wallow in schadenfreude over the US-EU divisions in handling the Ukraine c\risis, Vladimir Putin says that he is pulling back from all-out confrontation. Russia’s president will have read the unambiguous language from the director of the Federation of German Industries, Markus Kerber, the bosses’ boss, who states that the ‘annexation of Crimea by Russia was a gross violation of international law. This is something that German industry cannot tolerate. It undermines the system of international government that was established after the fall of the Soviet Union, which has contributed to peace and stability in Europe for more than two decades.’

Kerber’s intervention carries far more weight than the windy neo-cold warriors like John McCain or Liam Fox. The German industry chief adds that ‘German businesses will support Ms. Merkel if she decides that sanctions are the only way to make President Vladimir Putin comply with international law.’

This is language that Putin understands. One cannot imagine the head of the CBI making such a clear statement. Putin reads German, and it is hard to imagine such a clear threat being conveyed in the name of German business without full consultation with the Kanzleramt and Angela Merkel herself.

The spectre of chaos

Protest in solidarity with the Euromaidan, Paris 2013.

This warning en clair adds to the spectre of violent chaos on Russian borders, with the possibility that, if more mass murders take place, as in Maidan or Odessa, Ukrainians will decide to flee for sanctuary to neighbouring Russia or to the West, like the 2m who fled the wars between Milošević’s Serbs and Croats, Bosnians and Kosovars, and the retaliatory violence against Serbs in 1990-1999. Solidarity with the Euromaidan, Paris 2013. CC Artem KononenkoWhere does that leave Putin? Having pocketed Crimea, and contributed to the increasing image of Ukraine as a failed state that will not easily find its way to any political or economic settlement, Putin can now say to both the Eurosphere and to Washington, ‘Look what a mess you’ve made of this. It’s your problem. Solve it if you can and I bet you can’t.’ He offers a tactical hint of ‘de-escalation,’ the fashionable new geopolitical word, by saying he doesn’t support East Ukraine independence plebiscites; and then does a 180 degree turn by stating that the May 25 presidential election can, after all, help resolve the situation.

Never have so many clichés been deployed to so little purpose in so few weeks.

Poor RT (Russia’s shiny English-language television service) and all the Putin apologists in the Eurosphere now left with egg on their faces, for they have been spouting the approved Moscow line that the presidential elections were a provocation and should be put off. What are they going to say now? One of the problems with the Ukraine discussion is the poverty of language or descriptive terms to explain what is going on. Never have so many clichés been deployed to so little purpose in so few weeks.

Bittersweet oranges 

The Ukraine of the Orange Revolution descended into a permanent fight between its leading figures, notably Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko. Russia intervened blatantly, with the gas crisis of 2009. The European Union, meanwhile, was devoured by its financial crisis after 2008, and the United States sought to reset relations with Russia after the military years of President George Bush Jr. It was almost with relief that Ukraine – and by extension the world – accepted Putin’s candidate, Yanukovych, and voted him in as president in 2010.

Alas, Yanukovych had no more idea what to do than the defeated President Yushchenko. His mistakes were numerous: he imprisoned, after a fake trial, Tymoshenko, and instantly turned her into a global heroine; he was unwilling to reform the oligarch economy, instead devoting time and energy to promoting his son and other family members to the ranks of the oligarchs.

Ukraine and the EU 

The EU had very little idea what to do about Ukraine, and no obvious ambitions. There could be no question of the 46m Ukrainians joining the EU in any conceivable future. The EU had no money for its own programmes so the idea that it could offer anything substantial to Ukraine was fanciful. Nor was there any conviction that Ukraine should enter NATO. Yes, since 2009, the EU had had what it called its Eastern Partnership process, which was its attempt to build a better relationship with Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. But the EU was suffering from enlargement pains, with the rise of major political movements opposing the free movement of people, which campaigned against the admission of Bulgaria and Romania.

Back to Germany

As the German industry boss, Markus Kerber, wrote, ‘The root cause of the Ukrainian crisis is Mr Putin’s failure to understand what caused the Berlin Wall to fall. It was destroyed not from the West but by millions of people leaning against it and pushing with their bare hands.’

Yanukovych, like Milošević, Ben Ali or Mubarak had to go and go he went.Like Serbia’s Milošević, Tunisia’s Ben Ali or Egypt’s Mubarak, Yanukovych could no longer remain in power; and his people refused to be cowered by the Maidan killings, and instead came together in one force and made clear he had to go. It was neither a coup nor a putsch, and the EU and US were not much more than cheering bystanders, as they were in Belgrade, Tunis or Cairo. Yanukovych, like Milošević, Ben Ali or Mubarak had to go, and go he went. But he has left a nation on the point of disintegration with no sense that a politics of compromise and tolerance can emerge.

While some in Washington look on with pleasure at Russia and Putin being revealed as neo-Soviet bullies, much of the rest of Europe looks with horror at the sheer hate and violence that has been unleashed. It seems clear that Europe is faced with another Yugoslavia as Ukraine slides into disintegrative chaos.

Putin has played a good hand. How, then, does the West fight back? The military spenders have been in force demanding more budgets. In response to the Ukrainian events, at a recent NATO meeting a Lithuanian general demanded more defence spending but did not explain why Lithuania’s defence budget was the lowest in Europe in terms of share of GDP spent on defence. It is not clear that having several NATO armoured divisions in situ on Ukrainian borders or a big US naval presence in the Black Sea would have made an iota of difference in the present crisis. 'Decide your children's future for yourself! Come to the Maidan!' Warsaw Old Town, 2014. Photo: Maxim Edwards  There is conflict fatigue in Europe. Germany, in particular, longs for a return to the Genscher era of foreign policy when the Free Democrat foreign minister, under both Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, sought to be friends with everyone from Washington to Moscow to Beijing.

Berlin today wants to be pro-America, pro-Russia and pro-Kyiv. 

Berlin today wants to be pro-American, pro-Russian and pro-Kyiv; however, to govern is to choose; a pity that Berlin would prefer not to choose. Other countries like, for example, those who support the South Stream gas pipeline linking Russia to Bulgaria, and then upwards to Austria and Hungary via Serbia, want to hide under the duvet, and hope that Putin’s anger with Ukraine’s rejection of his man, Yanukovych, does not turn into the fight that the neo-cold warriors in Moscow and Washington appear to relish.

The British government has refused to lift a finger even to question the provenance of the money which has flowed to London; and Putin capitalism provides easy revenue for the City, PR firms, wine merchants, Savile Row, estate agents, the LSE and private schools. 

The US Congress has passed into law the Magnitsky Act but, despite a unanimous House of Commons resolution, the British government ignores the will of MPs, and sends out a reassuring signal to Putin that he can get away with what he likes as far as ‘Londongrad’ is concerned.
Putin capitalism provides easy revenue for the City, PR firms, wine merchants, Savile Row, estate agents, the LSE and private schools.

William Hague is no Palmerston; he talks the talk but if he is not prepared to move on the issue of naming and denying visas to some vicious but minor state functionaries who killed the employee of a British firm, why should Putin take him or Britain seriously?

Disintegrative forces 

Europe’s real weakness is not in the level of its defence spending but in the collapse of confidence, growth, economic hope and sense of direction of the entire EU. On the same day as the proposed Ukrainian presidential elections, there will be the European Parliament elections. This is likely to see a surge in exactly the nationalist, disintegrative forces that are tearing Ukraine apart. 

Historians may come to see Ukraine as representing the moment in European history when the post-1945 efforts to build a new Europe finally came to an end. Whoever is elected on 25 May, as president of Ukraine will have little authority to impose his or her will across the nation. Similarly, whoever wins the European Parliament elections that same week, few expect the Second Coming of a Eurosphere leadership able to take Europe into a new era of growth, jobs and social justice.

The endgame 

Putin has no need to invade, Ukraine or anywhere else. Europe has neither the money nor the political will to deal with this crisis, whereas Putin can offer an alternative vision of an authoritarian fusion of state power and post-liberal capitalism under the banner of assertive national identity. Putin has taken Russia into the heart of global capitalism, and the old guard of pre-Putin global capital who thought they had sorted out history after 1990, haven’t the faintest idea of what to do.

Putin has no need to invade, Ukraine or anywhere else.

Ukraine solidarity demonstration in Munich

If the first decade of the 21st century saw the West profoundly weakened by the Anglosphere adventure in Iraq and Afghanistan, the second decade is seeing the Eurosphere, headed by the anti-Iraq powers of Germany, France and Belgium, governing without any strategy or even minor tactics to handle the increasingly violent disintegration of one of Europe’s biggest states. Ukraine solidarity demonstration, Munich February 2014. CC Blu-news.orgYet the Eurosphere must never forget the aspirations of the young people of Ukraine, wherever they live. They want a European future, and were ready to protest and camp out in freezing weather, and even be killed for their right to a better life. In that sense, Europe is to blame. By offering, since the 1980s, a world vision in which hundreds of millions can live in peace, make money, be gay, not be tortured to death on a US prison gurney, or killed in a Moscow prison for daring to challenge the state; and argue out their differences in a free media and via ballot boxes, Europe has offered Ukrainians more than it can deliver.

Ukraine’s future can no longer be decided by old men flying in to Geneva from Washington and Moscow. 

Ukraine’s future can no longer be decided by old men flying in to Geneva from Washington and Moscow, to redraw borders, like Bismarck, Clemenceau or Wilson. Putin perhaps does not understand this, which is why, even as he is causing the European and NATO democracies to trip over themselves, he also has no real answer; a Ukraine, like Yugoslavia, with regions falling into disintegration, violence, no state power, and endless chaos and propaganda wars, is a contagious nightmare.

But until Europe recovers its confidence and finds a way forward, this crisis will not come to an easy end.

This article is based on a talk given by Denis MacShane in Berlin, on 5 May 2014

(Standfirst image: Euromaidan in Kyiv, 1st December 2013. CC Ilya, Wikimedia Commons)

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