EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Solidarity with Ukraine against Putin’s Reality

We should not be surprised by differences about how to respond to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Understanding reasons for those differences is one critical step toward formulating an effective response. Recognizing both real policy options and the equal importance of political signals is the second. Moving too fast is dangerous in the short run, but not moving at all is the most dangerous in the long run. And that’s what Germany’s leadership promises.

We should not be surprised that the authorities of Germany, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Spain explicitly resist calls for trade sanctions. Leaderships in Austria and Hungary are likely with them. London seems more concerned with its financial prospects than European well-being. Putin has been pursuing a policy of diplomatic divide and conquer within the EU, sweetened with economic deals powered by the energy business. Critical studies often explain corporate power and practice by analyzing interlocking directorates. It’s time that progressives use the same methods to understand Russia’s post-Soviet imperialist strategy, and the willingness of European elites to buy into it.

Although Chancellor Merkel may report that Putin is out of touch with reality, Putin has constructed a business reality in which Germany, England, and others are deeply and increasingly implicated. And that reality finds expression in calls for more diplomacy, more fact-finding missions, more OSCE engagement in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And that’s just what Putin wants. It gives him even more time to consolidate what has by now become the fait accompli. Defacto if not dejure, Russia has Crimea. And Putin seeks more: a fully subordinated Ukraine through the country’s fracture into more autonomous regions easier for imperial manipulation.

Germany and the like-minded are avoiding tough responses because they are living in and accepting Putin’s reality. That’s dangerous in the long run, for Putin’s reality is ultimately based on the rule of force, not the rule of law, on the convenience of the lie and not the search for the truth. Ukraine was trying to build something different.

EuroMaidan and its extensions rebuilt Ukrainian society. Although it had its political class, its methods were not unlike the Occupy movement itself. It was an alternative public, maybe even a “revolution in reverse” to use David Graeber’s terminology. It tried to model in protest the kind of society it sought to establish for the nation. While it had its limits, it certainly fared well in comparison to the regime it eventually overthrew. While some activists of EuroMaidan might have pulled down Lenin statues and thrown Molotov Cocktails, the Yanukovych regime won any contest for brutality with its snipers and its torturers. That Yanukovych regime kidnapped hospital patients and assigned them to prison cells without health care. EuroMaidan was a revolution in the name of dignity and rights. It overthrew a dictator. It’s insulting to discuss whether the new government is constitutional, for Euromaidan made a revolution against Yanukovych’s intransigence and brutality. Only 1989 managed to square that legal revolutionary circle.

Of course EuroMaidan also harbored those whose politics I detest.

We should analyze critically and diminish politically all those who seek to restore fascism’s appeal, whether in its crude anti-Semitisms or celebrations of almighty leaders. At the same time, we should not fall prey to those who use the invocations of Bandera and other World War II fighters by some of EuroMaidan’s activists to identify the whole movement’s politics. Russia has been deploying its considerable political technology to demonize the leadership come out of Euromaidan as fascists, thugs, and nationalists, in part to disguise their own fascist behavior. After all, what can be more fascist than to use Hitler’s techniques to justify war?

On the day before German forces invaded Poland in 1939, Hitler dressed Nazis in Polish uniforms and attacked the German speaking Gliwice radio station. Poles and other East Europeans know this trick all too well, and see it in Putin’s forces today. After invading Crimea, Ukrainian soldiers have by and large resisted the impulse to fight. With this kind of strategic non-violence, itself a legacy of the EuroMaidan revolution, Putin lost his justification for invasion. Instead, he relies on lies and provocations to get what he wants. He sends Russians to pose as Ukrainians to provoke clashes. He doctors digital media to imply mass oppression of Russian-speaking citizens. He creates the image of chaos so that he can rescue ethnic brethren. He denies that Russian-speaking Ukrainians might not want to live in a Russia defined by Putin’s reality. And Putin can rely on the deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych, to request the rescue of the Ukrainian nation against an unconstitutional takeover by the forces of EuroMaidan.

Who would want to be defended by such a lying and brutal regime?

It cannot be any more clear that the New Ukraine EuroMaidan promised is the kind of society the world wants as its partner and Ukrainians would prefer to a warfare-based state. It cannot be any more clear that the kind of society Putin wishes to install, and what he imposes at home, is the kind of order that is a risk to all. Too many invoke Munich 1938 as parallel. While I see the justification for parallel, I can’t justify the call to war. At the same time, I am glad Poland has assembled NATO forces.

Poland has requested a meeting of NATO ambassadors under Article 4 of their Charter. This cannot be read, this should not be read, as preparation for NATO’s war with Russia. While some will identify NATO superiority in overall capacity, it does not have sufficient solidarity and will to go to war. That’s good. But they need sufficient coordination and commitment to use their capacity for war to deter further aggression. They also need to be careful. Brinksmanship could spark unwanted conflict.

Poland may be playing an incredibly smart hand here. Their allies in the European Union and NATO know that Poland and Lithuania have been the most aggressive in defending the New Ukraine. These countries also know Russian political technologies better, or, at least, have the least stomach for them. Those NATO countries bordering Ukraine should invoke Article 4 to prepare for war in case Russia has a hard time stopping when it decides Crimea is not enough. Ukraine’s NATO neighbors should also prepare for war to move those allies still mired in Putin’s reality to more aggressive non-military actions.

It has been repeated time and again by commentators. Impose sanctions now. Focus on Russia’s ruling class, and not just the men with their hands on the triggers and on the gas meters. Yes, freeze their accounts in Western banks, but also deny them and their families the visas that enable them to travel to this decadent Europe they so disdain in their public pronouncements, and so love in their private moments.

Those sanctions will only reinforce the punishment global markets have already imposed on the Russian economy. Today the ruble declined to its lowest trading value vis-à-vis the dollar ever. Its MICEX index lost more than 10% of its value in a single day. Gazprom stock took an even bigger hit. Those declines could be exacerbated through the rule of law. What would happen if an extensive and systematic investigation of money laundering took place across Europe, with a focus on Russia’s ruling class?

It is said that America should play the lead here. In the absence of leadership from Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, it must. And it should support Poland, Sweden, Lithuania and the other parts of Europe who choose not to be defined by Putin’s reality.

At the same time as political authorities act and markets collapse, its time for the publics of Europe and beyond to show their solidarity with Ukrainians struggling to defend their nation from invasion, and with Russians who struggle to save their nation from war’s destruction.

I admire those courageous Russians who dare protest Putin’s war. The demonstrations protesting this war in Russia are not overwhelming, but they are incredibly brave. They coordinate, in part, with a hashtag circulating in Russia: # нетвойне, or No to War. There is some people to people diplomacy going on that is pretty compelling too. Ukrainian students communicate directly to Russian students in this YouTube video: “We ask you to tell your leaders not to kill us.”

I also admire those Ukrainians who are now prepared to defend their nation. I admire their bravery, but I also admire their savvy. I admire their social media publicizing all of Putin’s lies, and I admire their willingness to sign up to fight Putin’s aggression. But they cannot win by themselves. And I pray that they don’t have to fight any more.

One might hope that demonstrations will grow as the costs of this criminal aggression in Ukraine become more apparent to the Russian public. One might hope that Russia’s oligarchs will recognize the risk Putin’s reckless intervention puts to the entire Russian economy, and to their way of life, and do something about it. But all of that depends on real solidarity with the New Ukraine, with that society whose virtues were so evidently being born on EuroMaidan. It depends on the European Union and NATO finding common voice in severe sanctions. We can’t risk war. But we should prepare for it. If Putin’s reality defines the world, we will have to wage it.

Completed: March 3, 2014 9:00 pm

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Michael D. Kennedy

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