Saturday, March 2, 2024

Europe and Russia

(L-R) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Germany's former Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Russia's Vladimir Putin speak during Normandy Format talks in December 2019.

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It’s always put my back up how conservative commentators have recently taken to comparing the current state of affairs in the West to the waning years of the Roman Empire. For one thing, I’ve always wanted to believe that since European and American democracies have gifted the world the greatest societies human history has ever known, they’d also endow a great resilience to defending that which matters most, but in truth, we haven’t seen a whole lot of this lately.

I’m aware that Europe knows its values are the best, which is why it’s able to look down its haughty nose at the Americans and the post-Brexit British, or send observers to countries like Georgia and Ukraine to give them a C+ grade with encouraging high school-style reports of ‘Can do better’ (whilst also hoping that nobody in Kyiv or Tbilisi dares to mention that things are hardly tranquil in the headmaster’s office). But when push comes to shove, Europe does little to defend the values it insists – with a fair degree of accuracy – are the best that the world can show.

There are two ways this hypocrisy has persistently manifested itself, and this poses a real danger to driving European liberal democracy into the shadows. The first is whenever an Islamist terrorist attack takes place, the public of whichever European country has fallen victim to the atrocity is reassured that Islamic extremism does not, in fact, have anything to do with Islam. The second, of course, pertains to Russia.

I have, as you might know, written about both of these thorny issues on these pages before. However, something that I have probably neglected to address at length is that the impossibility of solving either problem is compounded by the fact that European nations do not look at them the same way. 

France and Germany, for instance, cannot bring themselves to admit that maybe – just maybe – Islam could have some sort of connection to Islamic terrorism; there are simply too many Muslim people within their borders who might (again, just a possibility) object to criticism of their faith. Poland and Hungary, meanwhile, look with sceptical jaundice at what happens when a country tries to perform an act of suicidal humanitarianism, which in turn makes them evil right-wing racists in the eyes of liberal Brussels. Well, the road to hell – you know what it’s paved with.

This leads us to the Russian issue. I can’t help but think that European politicians long for the 1990s, a time when the collapse of the Soviet Union had popped Moscow’s like a balloon and effectively rendered it harmless. In fairness, I can see that from their point of view it is infinitely preferable to the resurgent and vengeful Moscow that we have today, but Europe’s inability to make concrete decisions in the face of an aggressive Kremlin is doing Brussels no favours on the international stage. Ideologically, of course, Europe would love to hoover up more former Soviet states, but these can’t possibly face the repercussions that would not have been a factor twenty years ago. Would Poland and the Baltic states have been admitted to the EU and NATO in today’s climate? I doubt it.

Of course, taking centre stage in the current act of this sad, sorry tale is that of Germany and Ukraine. I am not going to imply that Brussels and Berlin haven’t been supportive of Kyiv in its struggle against Moscow – far from it. They have been very vocal in their approval of steps towards Westernization and democratic government for many years. It’s just the fact that Europe has given Ukraine everything apart from things it might actually need. Military assistance in the form of training, weapons, and equipment has mostly come from the UK and US. 

And of course, let us not forget that Ukrainian migrants were not welcome in Europe – but why would they be? Their counterparts from the Middle East are clearly more culturally and socially compatible. The official reasons for rejecting Ukrainian migrants were based on the fact that the majority of their country is free from the fighting. Naturally, this callously and ignorantly ignores the idea that it is still possible to be a refugee within your own borders, and that fleeing from Donetsk doesn’t mean your worldly goods and wealth magically reappear in Lviv or Kyiv. I’m shocked – although unsurprised – the Germans didn’t appreciate this, given their own country’s division until 1991. 

Germany’s refusal to sell and export weapons to Ukraine is further evidence of Europe’s cowardice in the face of Moscow’s vulgar displays of power. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas apparently thinks “the conflict can only be solved by political means”. What does that mean, I hear you ask? I can only think of one thing, since only one thing will solve the conflict, and that’s to recognise the ‘independence’ of the occupied regions. 

This is a classic example of the doublethink that Europe has come to dearly love. It wants a political solution to Ukraine’s war, but knows the only political solution would mean the loss of the Donbas region. Therefore it is entirely free to make a lot of noise about letting Ukraine into NATO, knowing full well that no country can be granted membership if it has any internal territories declaring independence or under occupation by a foreign power. 

Naturally, the fact that Russia can just turn the gas tap off at any moment has made Berlin cautious towards antagonising the Kremlin, but can anyone honestly make the claim that appeasing Putin has been effective? He has, after all, become demonstrably more aggressive after every instance of violating international law and every foreign military adventure. 

President Joe Biden has made it clear that no direct military aid will be sent to Ukraine, a statement which was followed by Germany’s refusal to sell more weapons and equipment. This is hardly what Kyiv needs to hear when Putin’s armies are on its borders, but the news will obviously be received differently in Moscow. It’s almost an invitation to treat: a clear statement that neither help nor weapons will be sent to your enemies would surely be tempting in Putin’s position. Couple this with the immense loss of face that comes with Europe refusing to do anything tangible to defend its partner beyond bleating about a ‘political solution’.

Ukraine at this juncture would do better to look internally: hard training for its soldiers, solid fortifications for its positions. Europe has lost its fire; France is too focused on internal affairs (and given half the chance would probably like to rebuild its historically close friendship with Russia anyway), and Germany is too guilt-ridden over the Second World War. Europe must start to act, and soon: the three-pronged threat of Islamism, Putin’s revanchism and the rise of fascist right-wing extremism cannot be met by appeasement and willful ignorance. 

Therefore, I’m forced to concede that the conservative commentators might have a point, and this is a time that will be looked back on as we gaze back at the time of ending for Rome – assuming, at least, that in the future people are honest and interested enough to look back at European civilization as the beacon of light that it is. Perhaps the United States will carry on in the same way that Byzantium did, as the weakened successor committed to staggering forward for another thousand years. It would, I suppose, be better than nothing.

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