After more than a year of the crisis in Ukraine, some people are asking how soon it can be brought to a close and we can return to business as usual with Russia. The French and Italians are both lobbying in Europe for sanctions on Russia to be eased, and there is no doubt that the Russian game from this point is to use these doubts to exploit divisions between the European states and between Brussels and Washington.
Why, then, should we persevere with resistance to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, a policy that plainly brings numerous costs and risks to the West? Here’s why:
The Ukrainians deserve our support
The mostly peaceful collapse of the Communist system in central Europe in 1989, followed by the USSR itself, was perhaps the most important political event in our lifetimes. Hundreds of millions of people were liberated from oppression at a stroke and the entire world was freed from the threat of nuclear war. The transition that followed was difficult and far from perfect, but one needs only to look at the Czech Republic or Poland to see how worthwhile it was: vassal states of the USSR have become functioning democracies and flourishing market economies.
To subscribe to this view is to be at loggerheads with Vladimir Putin, of course, who famously said that the demise of the USSR was ‘the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century’.
The one redeeming fact for Putin has been that the former Soviet states (with the exception of the Baltics) have mostly remained corrupt sinks, satellites of Russia run on licence by local thugs. The most egregious examples of this are Belarus and Turkmenistan, where the status of the individual and the rule of law are worse than in Russia itself.
Now it would appear that most (but by no means all) Russians are quite content to continue in a squalid ‘managed democracy’ where the nation's wealth is stolen by secret police networks and they are deluged with mendacious and cynical propaganda. But in Ukraine – like Georgia – the majority have rejected this cult of masochism, and that is unacceptable to Putin. This is why he invades, destabilises and threatens them: they must be in the Russian system of vassalage, corruption and brutality, or else they must be divided and wrecked. Progress, liberty and prosperity are poison to Russia’s interests.
In Ukraine in particular, it is important to distinguish between the mass of the population and the elites. In a piece headlined, ‘Are we wise to take sides in Ukraine?’, Peter Hitchens wrote:
"During all this process [i.e. the revolution], Ukraine remained what it had been from the start – horrendously corrupt and dominated by shady oligarchs, pretty much like Russia.
"If you didn’t want to take sides in this mess, I wouldn’t at all blame you. But most people seem to be doing so."
The error here is to conflate the Ukrainian elite – amoral clients of Moscow – with the majority of the Ukrainian population. As Ukraine’s parliamentary election in October proved, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians want independence and a European, democratic future like Poland or the Czech Republic. As the Maidan and the conflict in eastern Ukraine have shown, many of them are prepared to give their lives for this idea. They are not in thrall to Brussels bureaucracy, but just want their children to receive medical care without the payment of bribes, not to have their property stolen with the connivance of corrupt judges and not to be intimidated or killed for their political views. They refuse, in plain words, to be slaves.
Useful idiots of the Left and the Right such as Chomsky and Hitchens choose to ignore this. So do the ‘realists’ of the US foreign policy establishment like Kissinger and Brzezinski, who support the idea of a Russian ‘sphere’ where neighbouring states are eternally dominated by Russia. All of them, for reasons of their own, want to condemn further generations of Ukrainians to despotism.
The West must stand up for its values and ideas
The ‘West’ is a rather nebulous entity, and of course not limited to a point of the compass. It’s a catch-all term for a group of states that adhere to liberal democracy and the market economy. This is without question the best system for balancing the needs of the group with the needs of the individual, and combining a workable degree of order with liberty and prosperity. For all its flaws we are very fortunate indeed to live in such a system.
In the last decade a creeping doubt has infected the West, fueled by debacles such as the invasion of Iraq, the financial crisis and gathering income inequality. At the same time there are those who think that despotic states like China, Russia and Turkey might offer a better model. One of these is the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, who told his supporters in July:
"I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations."
He named those same three states as ‘successful’ exemplars, and went on to describe foreign NGOs as ‘not civilians’. And what happens to adversaries who are not civilians? Orbán chose not to answer this question directly.
Demagogues and opportunists like Orbán (whose spiritual home is inside a matrioshka featuring Putin and Erdogan) are increasingly bold in their schemes to abandon liberal democracy. And if those who truly subscribe to the ideas that have shaped Britain, France the US and their allies will not stand up and roundly defend the virtues of their system, is it any surprise that such challenges spring up?
Ukraine is a watershed. The volunteers who defend Donetsk airport from Russian Special Forces and the students who manned the barricades of the Maidan want what we have, and yet many of us hardly value. In showing our solidarity with them, we reaffirm our belief in our own values, and our willingness to defend them.
Appeasement will end badly
The many reminders of the 1930s in Russia's behaviour in Ukraine and the Baltic region have been well documented. Putin treats weakness as a provocation, and although to a remarkable extent the West has so far shown resolve, measure and unity, now is the moment when he hopes to exploit division; only yesterday the EU's new foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, tried and failed to float a series of measures to ease the pressure on Russia.
If force can prevail in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, then a very dangerous post-war precedent is set. A local majority of kin population and historical links cannot be a pretext for annexation and destabilisation. If that were the case, then Hungary could by the same token invade parts of Romania, Croatia could advance into northern Bosnia and Austria might pounce on the Sud Tirol. This is not to mention the chaos Russia could inflict on the Baltic states and Central Asia.
So before we start to consider easing sanctions, it should be clear that the annexation of Crimea will not stand. Similarly, there must be a full withdrawal of Russian forces and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. Any sordid deal that creates a frozen conflict as in Nagorno-Karabakh or Transdnistria amounts to a veto on Ukraine's sovereignty and political development; if the West colludes with Russia in carving up Ukraine this way it will be a disgrace on the scale of selling out Czechoslovakia.
What is happening in Ukraine may well be a ‘quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing.’ If we persist in our ignorance, we diminish ourselves and can blame no one else. Putin believes the west is so weak, decandent and demoralised that it will buckle before Russia does; the West must show that this is not so.
Neil Barnett runs Istok Associates (www.istok.co.uk), a corporate intelligence consultancy, and is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies