A recent trip to Ukraine made me realise that the ideals of what the European Union represents remain an objective that a nation aspires to, and one they refuse to give up on. Despite a history of hardship and external oppression, Ukraine is holding on for a better future, and one it hopes to fulfil as a member of the Union. Once one understands this, one understands Russia’s campaigns against the country, and why several far-right figures in Europe are keen to denigrate Ukraine and Ukrainians at the behest of Vladimir Putin, but also because Ukraine aspires to the values that the Union represents, which the far-right despises.
My trip to Ukraine also took in a trip to Moldova, both the government-controlled areas, and Transnistria, the area under Russian-backed separatist control. In various conversations, one comment stood out more than most: an ethnic Russian who worked in the Transnistrian administration wondered why Ukrainians insisted on differentiating themselves from Russians. To him, Ukrainians were just part of a wider Russian people, and the fact he himself wasn’t even born in Russia, but in Tiraspol to a father from Kharkiv (in Ukraine) didn’t instil any doubts regarding this assertion. What was strange was that this statement didn’t come with a hint of nastiness or anger. He was quite simply surprised by Ukraine’s desire to be its own nation.
While it may be a just a statement, it encapsulates how Ukraine has struggled to assert itself as an independent country and people, enduring a genuinely tortured history under external control, with its period under various forms of Russian control perhaps the most traumatic. Indeed, the extensive subjugation and Russification of the Ukrainian nation and people in this period (with a fixed Russian presence in Ukraine beginning in the 1600s in certain Eastern regions, and in time extending to the whole country) which reached its climax in the Soviet era, helps explain why to many ordinary Russians and the Russian regime, Ukraine is more an extension of Russia than a distinct nation.
For this reason, Ukraine’s position regarding Europe and the West in general is a particularly sensitive subject to Russia. After all, if Russia and Ukraine are so fundamentally similar if not somehow intertwined, then what applies in Russia must apply in Ukraine, but also vice-versa. Therefore, if Ukraine’s citizens loudly proclaim their desire for a more accountable state closer to Europe, the danger for Russia’s rulers that their apathetic and disillusioned citizenry might mobilise once again to demand similar changes would suddenly become much more realistic, potentially threatening their wealth and power. For this reason, Russia cannot allow Ukraine to succeed, because if Ukraine can do it, Russia has no excuses not to. However, the recent capture of Ukrainian coastguard boats and troops by the Russian navy and the subsequent lock-down of the Kerch strait by the latter point to a worrying hypothesis: Putin knows he can strangle Ukraine’s Azov Sea ports, and can bet on a muted or even absent reaction from European countries whose leaderships are increasingly taken pro-Putin or ambivalent stances.
Let us speak clearly. Although the current Ukrainian government is afflicted by infighting and corruption, and many of the same oligarchs who prospered previously hold enormous power to this day, Ukraine is fighting for a better future. To ensure the country kept moving towards ideals of democratic rule and a place within Europe in an active rather than marginal sense, thousands of ordinary Ukrainians have quite literally spilt blood to remain close to Europe and the ideals it represents. Now Europe’s nations find themselves in the spotlight because in terms of upholding European values, the buck stops with them. At present, the signs are not encouraging. Pro-Putin and illiberal politicians have gained ground in recent years, and have entered government in several EU member states. Likewise, their idea of “European values” tends to lean towards a Christianity none of them practice, and a have conflated economic worries with race and the presumed incompatibility of certain people with European society based on skin, religion, and other physically evident differences, and their model for Europe is Putin’s socially-conservative ideal, despite his own country’s parlous state as per most socio-economic indicators. If Europe shows inaction towards Ukraine, it has betrayed its own values, and signals clearly that its own self-interest is more important, and just how willing it is to appease authoritarian regimes on its doorstep for the semblance of “stability”. To be clear,, this is NOT an endorsement of all-out military conflict with Russia. Rather, it is an encouragement to European leaders to pursue a closer partnership with Ukraine in economic, educational and other fields, to allow the country to stabilise, and in time improve its citizens’ quality of life.
Just when the European project is under unprecedented attack from the inside, will we really desert those who most believe in it? We’re better than that, and we can do better than appeasing authoritarian regimes on our doorstop, but our leaders might not be. And that, more than anything else, summarises the callous self-interest afflicting European politics at present.