Europe’s response to Ukraine has been a betrayal

Published by The Guardian (3rd May, 2014)

Two weeks ago I stood and watched as three groups of heavily armed men in military uniforms entered a police station in Slavyansk. One of them, a friendly fellow who spoke some English, later confessed to being a Russian marine who had served in Chechnya; this was an unsurprising revelation, since he talked also of serial skydiving and had an assault rifle issued to Moscow’s armed forces slung across his back.

There is little doubt that a despotic regime in Russia is, slowly but surely, dismembering its neighbour. First Crimea, speedily annexed with barely a whimper from the west, and now the wealthy industrial heartlands of east Ukraine. If it were a conventional military invasion, there would be worldwide outcry. Instead, strategic sites are taken over in camouflaged attacks that confound critics, while a barrage of parodic propaganda pumped out by Vladimir Putin confuses the core issues.

It is worth remembering at the heart of this struggle, so often portrayed as some kind of great game played by global powers, is the desire of Ukraine’s people to share the purest European dream of freedom and prosperity. After decades of Soviet rule, followed by sordid cronyism and corruption that followed its collapse and led to such stagnation, these people want a better life.

Even now, with crisis crippling their country and an inexperienced interim government, polls show Ukrainians becoming more optimistic over their future. The number who feel their country is moving in the right direction has doubled since February, while there is significantly greater support for joining the European Union. Moscow’s intervention is merely solidifying a fledgling democracy’s sense of identity.

Putin’s initial attempts to foment unrest in eastern Ukraine struggled to take off beyond the bedrock of pro-Russian fanatics. Ringleaders were rounded up, demonstrations sparsely attended. Now the pugnacious president is doing all he can to stoke up tensions in the Donbass region, presumably hoping for a bloodbath to balance against the slaughter of protesters in Maidan, while exploiting cultural, economic, linguistic and even religious fissures in the afflicted area.

He seeks to recreate Russia’s empire, bound together with Orthodox religion and Slavic brotherhood. This is one reason the rather nondescript city of Slavyansk is so significant, with the generic word “Slav” at its root – along with a massive arms dump nearby containing millions of light weapons. An attempt by Kiev nine days ago to oust armed separatists prompted Moscow’s forces to edge closer to the border. Today’s ‘anti-terrorist offensive there, in which there were fatalities on both sides, was a critical test of Russian resolve.

Meanwhile the economic side of the equation is increasingly important. Just as in Crimea, many eastern Ukrainians – from pensioners to police officers – told me they were seduced by Moscow’s fiscal strength. Some yearn for Soviet-era stability. With their currency tumbling, the economy crumbling and incomes falling amid unrest, it is easy to point the finger at the supposed ‘fascists’ in Kiev and blame their ‘coup’ for the current financial pain.

We can only guess at Putin’s endgame, although he is a more pragmatic politician than often presumed. Does he want full-scale military intervention or just managed chaos? Is his desire for proxy buffer states on his border, or just to ruin Ukraine’s elections later this month? Regardless, the solutions must be diplomatic – although it is hard to see how, when the recent Geneva “de-escalation” deal was wilfully sabotaged by his stooges in Donetsk.

Yet, while many Ukrainians lust after a European future, they are spurned by a divided continent that talks tough but delivers only the mildest rebukes to Moscow. The most recent set of EU sanctions were so weak they caused the Russian stock exchange to rebound. The British worry about the City of London, the French about defence deals, and Germans about their energy supplies and history. All this is understandable, especially at a time of economic recovery. But it is hard not to wonder if history will judge this the ultimate betrayal of Ukraine.

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