Tuesday

26th Mar 2019

Opinion

'Ruscism' is threat to European stability

Even as Russia's covert war against Ukraine claims new victims each day, European and US leaders keep pushing back red lines on economic sanctions.

There is nothing new under the sun.

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  • Putin at 9 May war parade in Crimea (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Bolshevik Russia in 1917 to 1920 also fought a covert war against an independent Ukraine.

It used the same tactics as today: denying legitimacy to the central government in Kiev; military incursion in support of marginal local elements; the formation of a puppet government in eastern Ukraine; instigating a civil war to cover up its engagement.

Vladimir Putin's Russia is undergoing a re-Sovietisation: parades with red flags, portraits of Stalin.

The terms 'Russia' plus 'fascism' have been added together to create a new word in Ukraine to describe this phenomenon: 'Ruscism'.

It was only a matter of time until the KGB/FSB-ruled country attacked Ukraine's sovereignty. Russia's chauvinistic elite never came to terms with the idea of Ukraine going its own way.

The Ukrainian nation has survived more than 300 years of Russian occupation, genocide, linguicide, cultural assimilation, Stalinist purges, Stalinist forced migration.

We should have known that history will not end with Putin.

He said at the 2007 Munich Security Conference that he aims to restore Russia's status as a world power. He voiced territorial claims on Ukraine during Nato's 2008 summit in Bucharest. He also said its independence is a historical error.

The West reacted by bowing to his blackmail and declining to give Georgia or Ukraine a Nato Membership Action Plan – a decision widely seen as a green light for the Georgia war in 2008 and the Ukraine war today.

The West should act now precisely because its past inaction paved the way for Russian hostilities.

It stood and watched as Putin unveiled a newly-aggressive military doctrine, built up his armies, used gas and trade to subvert Colour revolutions, and waged a personal vendetta against the democratic leaders of Georgia and Ukraine.

It also stood and watched as he created a new level of authoritarianism at home.

Putin's Russia has become a place where civil liberties are crushed in the name of raison d'etat, a one-party state in fear of its own intelligence services. It is a place where propaganda dominates daily life, feeding Putin's cult of personality and polluting Russian culture with xenophobia and homophobia.

It has become a threat to Europe's post-WWII legal order and, in Ukraine, an exporter of terrorism.

The historic parallels are inescapable: Another Ukrainian neologism, a popular hashtag on Twitter – #Putler (Putin + Hitler) – brings the point home.

We can look to Crimea to see the future of a Russia-controlled EU neighbourhood.

Since its annexation in March, Putin's men have rolled out a campaign of violent intimidation against native Tatar and Ukrainian minorities in order to impose power.

Russia's 9 May celebrations of its defeat of Nazi Germany always masked its true role in modern history: In August 1939 it signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Hitler and began World War II by helping him to rip apart Poland.

But today's 9 May festivities are a spectacle of Putin's claim to superpower status.

New phase

The occupation of Crimea boldly marked the point in which Russian authoritarian nationalism entered a new phase – imperialism.

The logic of Putinism and his vision of a Eurasian Union dictates that he will not stop at Ukraine. It is a logic in which any concession to international law or foreign appeals is weakness, anathema.

It is a logic in which any neighbouring country which hosts a Russian minority is at risk and which poses difficult questions for the West.

Even if EU and Nato leaders are willing to turn a blind eye to Russian expansion in Ukraine, in the Caucasus, or in Central Asia, what will they do if Putin destabilises the Baltic states, where the Russian minority, in some cases, is proportionally larger than in Ukraine?

Is Nato capable of fighting a non-conventional war with Russia in which Russian spetznaz hides among local civilians and paramilitaries?

If France delivers its Mistral warships to Russia, could they be used against its Nato allies?

Is former Soviet Europe the limit of Putin's ambition, or could the unchecked revival of Russian imperialism lead to a wider confrontation over, for instance, Arctic mineral claims?

Russia's partition of Ukraine has taken place despite the fact it was swaddled in security guarantees by China, France, the UK and the US under the so-called Budapest Memorandum in return for dismantling its nuclear arsenal. But most countries in the region do not even have treaties to keep them safe.

Putin's gambit

If Russia succeeds in Ukraine, the world order as we know it will change.

Putin's strategy is designed to protect his vision of Russia's destiny. On one hand, the Kremlin fears EU expansion and the fragmentation of its domain, whether in political or territorial terms, into smaller parts which change their geopolitical allegiance. On the other hand, it fears economic dominance by China.

Putin's discourse – that Russia is too powerful to be bound by law – is opposed to the basic principles of Western society.

It is a discourse backed by the Russian Orthodox Church, which promotes the concept of "Russkiy mir" - that Russia is not just another country, but a unique civilisation that has its own values, which stand opposed to modern liberal democracy.

This is precisely why the Baltic states and places like Georgia and Ukraine want out. They no longer want to live in a part of the world were the state tramples on human dignity in the name of imperial greatness.

If the Eurasian Union comes to be, what we are seeing in post-Soviet Europe risks being replicated on the world stage: a new autocratic bloc which works in concert with rogue, anti-Western, regimes to bring them into its orbit.

We are already seeing ripples deep inside Europe.

The Kremlin has taken a special interest in far-right and anti-globalisation movements inside the European Union. The rise of anti-statism and fascism in Europe will hold back further integration, but it could also lead to unrest on European streets.

Inertia, momentum

If some of these scenarios seem unlikely, no one can deny the West has been inert, while Russia has a dangerous new momentum: Where is it going?

In mid-2013, Ukrainian and eastern European politicians warned that Putin will stop at nothing to block Ukraine’s EU integration because Ukraine is vital to his Eurasian strategy.

The warnings were ignored.

This year so far, targeted personal sanctions and backward-shifting red lines on economic measures have led to the annexation of Crimea and the Crimea-isation of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Did anyone think that a visa ban on a handful of Putin's cronies was too great a price to pay for grabbing lands which are larger than many EU states?

Only a broad anti-Putin coalition, led by Budapest Memorandum signatories the UK and the US, which is prepared to take real economic and military countermeasures, can prevent this new threat to peace in Europe and beyond.

This is not about Ukraine, it is about the future of our shared continent.

Peace and stability are far greater interests than economic growth or Russian energy imports and arms contracts. The EU was conceived as a peace project. It is time to stand by that legacy.

The writer is a Ukrainian activist and columnist

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