Ukraine and the shame of Europe

Published by The Wall Street Journal (22nd May, 2014)

There are flickers of hope that calm can descend again on Eastern Europe. We are told that those threatening Russian military forces on the Ukraine border will be pulled back, amid hints that Moscow might be able to do business with the oligarch seemingly set to become Ukraine’s next president. We must hope that this is the case, that the conflict and violence has ended. It is not too early to reflect on the performance of Kiev’s putative European allies in this disturbing episode, or to reach the conclusion that their response has been shameful.

Consider the facts. A large, fledgling democracy in the Continent’s biggest country struggled to take flight after years of stagnation under an obscene kleptocracy, only to be ruthlessly dismembered by its belligerent and even bigger neighbor. First came the invasion of Crimea, taken with scarcely a whimper from the West despite being the first such annexation in postwar European history, then the cruel carving up of the country’s wealthy industrial heartlands.

Clearly these events were choreographed by Moscow, driven by an authoritarian regime fearful of an upsurge of freedom and consequent loss of influence over the lands ringing Russia. For those of us reporting on the brutal slaughter of protesters in Kiev in February, then the brazen theft of Crimea weeks later, and finally similar stunts in a “spontaneous” uprising in the Donbas region, the evidence points in one direction. Only the most myopic could fail to see this.

But it is depressing how many people in Europe fell for the parodic propaganda pumped out by Russian President Vladimir Putin, thereby weakening attempts to marshal a unified response. Disunity ensured that even the wan sanctions imposed by Washington seem strong by comparison, while highlighting divisions that undermine any dreams of European unity. The clash over Ukraine is often viewed as an old-fashion struggle between global powers, yet at its core lies the determination of most Ukrainians to share in their Continent’s noblest ideals.

Unfortunately Mr. Putin has plenty of useful idiots on both left and right who view the tragic events in Ukraine through the prism of their own prejudices. On the right, these include ascendant populist politicians whose dislike of the European Union is so intense that they endorse an imperial aggressor rather than individuals seeking liberty and modernity. On the left are those whose visceral contempt for the United States is so hard-wired that they side with any of Uncle Sam’s opponents—even if that means indulging a homophobic despot who has crushed dissent at home and sent his forces to stifle democracy abroad.

The most recent example of such reactionary anti-Americanism came last week from the celebrated journalist John Pilger, who made his name covering Vietnam. He blamed the breakup of Ukraine on Washington’s warmongers who “masterminded the coup in February” and were orchestrating attacks on ethnic Russians. “For the first time since the Reagan years, the U.S. is threatening to take the world to war,” he told Guardian readers. Similar paranoid accusations have been made by the leader of the Stop the War Coalition, Britain’s most prominent peace group.

Such deluded analysis is far from unique on the European left. In Germany, a left-wing daily newspaper has run headlines that could have been written by Russian propagandists about fascists controlling Ukraine. One German ex-cabinet minister said Kiev “had to be taught” that it could not join NATO immediately, while former Social Democrat chancellors have publicly hugged Mr. Putin, defended the annexation of Crimea, and blamed the West for causing the crisis.

It is strange to see those who had been incensed by the American invasion of Iraq defending this devastating intervention in another nation. The most charitable explanation is that they have fallen for propaganda about rampaging fascists taking over Ukraine. They turn a blind eye to the rather more uncomfortable reality that ultranationalists have captured the Kremlin. Renewed reverence for Russia on the left is one more curious Cold War echo with this conflict.

Yet it is reflected on the right too. Perhaps this makes more sense: The populist parties riding the anti-politics wave sweeping Europe can identify with Mr. Putin’s patriotism, his cultural conservatism, his economic interventionism, his antipathy to globalization, his muscular alliance with the religious establishment. But the populists’ support is really rooted in loathing of the European Union. This makes them oblivious to pain caused in Ukraine, let alone the dangers of a complex crisis spiraling out of control. “We have been told the EU stands for peace,” Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders told the Dutch Parliament. “Now . . . we know better: the EU stands for warmongering.”

Far-right fringe parties are expected to do well in elections this month for the European Parliament, which can only weaken resolve to impose tough new restrictions on Russia. In France, the National Front is leading in opinion polls; its leader, Marine Le Pen, has been courted by the Kremlin while her foreign-affairs chief defended the discredited Crimea referendum and echoed Moscow’s language about an “illegitimate” government in Kiev. Little wonder an unpopular Socialist government in France recently opted to carry on with the sale of two aircraft carriers to Russia, ignoring U.S. pleas to pull the deal.

In Britain, the U.K. Independence Party is also predicted to win the forthcoming European parliamentary ballot. Ukip leader Nigel Farage alleged that the EU had “blood on its hands” after meddling in Ukraine and professed his admiration for Mr. Putin’s political skills. But even some prominent members of the ruling Conservative Party seem to prefer the former KGB apparatchik to those hated bureaucrats in Brussels—former party chairman Lord Tebbit recently expressed sympathy for Russia, having seen the bullying EU “annex” chunks of central Europe.

Such are the delusions on both left and right. Ukraine’s travails were sparked by the desire for democracy and self-determination, powerful forces that populists of all persuasions elsewhere in Europe take for granted. Now we can only watch nervously as this wounded country plans an election for May 25, seeking a path to freedom and prosperity while, in the distance, Vladimir Putin seethes and Europe shrugs.

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