In 2017, Ukraine will be a major test of conscience that will force democratic countries to an uneasy choice among values
Nearly a century has passed since the Versailles Peace talks, and the Western world still seems unprepared to accept that a European nation of over 40 million has a right to its own identity and statehood. In contrast to events 100 years ago, Ukrainians today are prepared to even sacrifice their lives in the fight for the right to have their own state, independent of others—and especially independent of Russia.
Ukraine, which has dared to defend itself in a bloody confrontation with Russia in the heart of Europe in the 21st century will, in spite of it all, force Western states to rethink their own values, their attitudes towards the Russian Federation, and the role of Ukraine itself in the security arena, both in Europe and globally.
The Garden of good & evil
The undeclared war that Russia has been waging against Ukraine since early 2014 has led to tectonic shifts in the world’s legal and security order. It turns out that the principles that were established globally after World War II are now in jeopardy. Of course, these shifts were probably inevitable and early tremors have been felt for some time.
In 1945, in order “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind,” postwar states founded the United Nations on the basis that a nation has the right to self-determination and to become a sovereign state. By 1948, liberal principles of the dignity of the person and human rights, democracy, and the rule of law were enshrined in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the guiding principles for building not so much “post-war” but “anti-war” societies.
European states knew from firsthand experience the scourge of war and understood some of the mistakes they had made between WWI and WWII, and so they consented to an unprecedented level of cooperation and integration. To restrain and control each other, and to establish a counterweight to the United States, they established the Council of Europe in 1949, and then the European Community in the 1950s, the precursor of the European Union. At that time, the NATO security zone was also formed, running from Western Europe to the US, Canada and Japan. Based on their statutory documents, these geopolitical organizations were underpinned by the same four principles of the dignity of the individual, human rights, democracy and rule of law.
In terms of security, these liberal values played a dual role in the post-WWII period. On one hand, dignity and human rights, democracy and rule of law were goals, ideals for whose sake it was important to support peace and security. On the other, they became the instruments for maintaining peace and security through, among others, free elections, accountable governments and a fair judiciary.
The EU and NATO made it possible for post-war democracies to distinguish themselves from countries under totalitarian rule that, led by the Soviet Union, were also members of the United Nations. Unfortunately, freedom and dignity became the dividing line in a bipolar world while the threat of the totalitarian, soviet camp only strengthened the faith of democracies in these declared values.
The collapse of soviet ideology became a serious test of just how dedicated the West really was to its ideals.
Despite the coming down of the Berlin Wall, the western alliance was quite happy to see a weakened Soviet Union survive. A speech by George Bush Sr. in August 1991, made within the walls of the Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR, confirmed that the West was comfortable with viewing all the soviet republics, including those who were pushing for independence, through the prism of Moscow’s interests. What we heard from President Bush was that “freedom is not the same as independence” and that our desire for independence was “a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.”
And so, when the Soviet Union fell apart, all attention, both pragmatic and romantic, was focused on Russia. Its territory and people meant new markets, while its nuclear weapons and geopolitical position, especially its proximity to China, were new security priorities. What’s more, this was terra incognita, the bold and brash new kid on the block whom everyone was eager to befriend and protect, to forgive all his mistakes and make a big deal of his least success. Other former soviet republics were viewed as poor little brothers under Russia’s patronage.
Instead of assessing the real and potential threats posed by “Russia the eternal Empire” and to build relations with this clearly in mind, western countries preferred to stay within their comfort zone in dealing with the newcomer and to build the myth of “democratizing Russia.” What’s more, nothing could veer them from this course: not, Russia’s unilateral declaration that it was replacing the USSR in all international organizations and taking over all soviet assets abroad. Nor were they disturbed when Russia violated the basic principles of ownership, goodwill and proportionality. On the contrary, they helped Russia take away Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal, knowing that it continued to maintain a military base and its fleet on what had become Ukrainian territory. In signing the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, the heads of state involved understood this as “a bill that no one had any intention of paying,” as former US Ambassador to Ukraine Stephen Pifer put it.
Western media set up regional offices in Moscow and never even noticed that they had become part of the Russian propaganda machine, reporting events in the post-soviet region mostly through the prism of Russia Today. The OSCE did not appear notice the absence of democracy in Russia’s elections without selection. International human rights institutions and the countries who were the bulwarks of human rights and freedoms held their noses but swallowed the two Chechen wars and the genocide against the Chechen people, the restriction of freedom of speech and murders of Russian journalists, the dismembering of YUKOS, and the poisoning of KGB whistleblower Aleksandr Litvinenko.Russia soon became a member of the Council of Europe, yet the latter began to help it to institute the ideology of the “Russkiy mir” or “Russian world,” demanding from Ukraine, in particular, that it “protect the rights of the Russian-speaking population.” It didn’t seem to matter that, according to EU standards, a “population” does not have rights: only an individual, minority, nation, or state does, while knowing the state language is the requirement of citizens in any country.
Seeing that it was being given a free hand, Moscow began to explore the possibilities and to demonstrate its brutality more and more openly: “We don’t care about your democracy, your human rights or your rule of law, but you will fear and love us.” This impunity was cemented by that which does not smell: Russian gas and Russian money. Russia produced plenty of natural gas and even more money that it deposited in banks and property, community organizations and think-tanks, in media and political parties. And so everyone feared and loved it.
Moscow did not need to bring down barriers for internal purposes. Its goals were restoring empire and sharing global power. The Russo-Georgian War of 2008 was a rehearsal for the hybrid war machine of the Russian Federation and a “ test drive” to see how the political engines of the Council of Europe, the EU, NATO and UN would respond. Without any doubt, the Kremlin was pleased with both. The results of its hybrid war was two Russian enclaves in Georgia: Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Council of Europe pointed out to Russia that that was not how one defended “compatriots,” while the EU decided that Georgia had “provoked” the war; NATO decided that both sides were at fault; and the UN tried its best but came to no decision at all. This was a clear green light: the more brutally Russia operated, the more silent liberal values became.
From that point on, a Russian war against Ukraine was inevitable. Ukraine was, after all, a key component in Russia’s project to restore empire. An independent Ukraine represented any number of threats: the Black Sea with the Russian BS Fleet, the vast network of plants in the former soviet military-industrial-complex on whom Russia was dependent, and Ukrainian history even, which was a never-ending witness to Russia’s lies and despotism. But most of all, a successful Ukraine would spoil the myth of the greatness and success of Russia.
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After the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s declaration of independence, a national identity was lacking in a large portion of its population and its political elite, as well as experience in freedom and statehood, and the sense of worth necessary to stand up for the national interest. Instead, the country suffered from an inferiority complex as the purported “younger brother,” a status that had been drummed into it through centuries of colonization and unconscious but profound terror based on large-scale genocide: artificial famine and the massive russification of ethnic Ukrainians. This offered ideal conditions for the Kremlin to confirm its inexorable presence in Ukraine’s economic, political, media and cultural environments and to prepare the ground for a new “reunification of two fraternal nations.”
Still, both attempts to get such a “reunification” off the ground, in 2004 and 2013, led to the opposite outcome. In less than 25 years of independence, Ukrainians had undergone a catharsis and became aware, not only of their Ukrainianness, but of their capacity to be the bearers of the values of freedom, human rights and democracy, and that they had to demand respect towards these values from their government, and that those who lived beyond their eastern borders were living according to very different values and were not brothers in any sense of the word. And so the only option left to Russia to enact this “reunification” was through occupation.
The burden of choice
Russia’s occupying march on Ukraine began in February 2014 with Operation “Krym Nash” (Crimea is ours – Transl.), which was necessary to guarantee the security of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and its continuing presence “in the right position.” While shocked Ukrainians looked in hope towards the guarantors of the Budapest Memorandum, these leaders asked Ukraine’s government not to bother the “little green men” and make the situation worse. The democratic world officially “saw” Russia’s presence in Crimea only when Russia itself announced this after the March 16 referendum. Then everyone quickly declared that they would never recognize the annexation of Crimea and would always support the territorial integrity of Ukraine—and immediately turned back to their own affairs.
“Worse” was not long in coming. In contrast to Crimea, however, the “little green men” in "DNR" and "LNR" were not supposed to turn into Russian soldiers but to stay in the background and run the process of legitimizing Russia’s presence in Ukraine and to disintegrate the country from within. This was to be helped along by elections on the occupied territory and the provision of special status to them.
Nearly 12% of its territory occupied, more than 10,000 killed, tens of thousands injured, 1.5 million IDPs, the massacres at Ilovaisk and Debaltseve, nearly 100,000 hectares or a quarter million acres of mined territory, massive destruction of infrastructure and residential buildings, entire MIC enterprises packed up and moved to Russian territory—and that is just a partial list of the tragic aftermath of nearly three years of Russia’s operation against Ukraine.
And it is because of this fear and shame in the distinguished international community today that mentioning Crimea is considered in bad taste, invitations to international events are accompanied by firm requests not to bring up Russia or the war, and any attempt to discuss the situation generates angry responses. International organizations want to talk about human suffering, but not about its causes, about the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but not about why it is being violated. Ukrainian politicians who are not prepared to be silent about the causes and consequences of the Minsk accords are not in favor among their supporters. Some European politicians have paid for a similar position with their political careers.But the democratic world somehow still cannot “see” that the Russian Federation is in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, despite the presence of thousands of soldiers and heavy military equipment of Russian origin. It seems its vision is seriously hampered by its reluctance to take sides in a military conflict with Russia, which continues to deny its presence in eastern Ukraine, in contrast to Crimea: “We can’t say that what’s going on in eastern Ukraine is the result of Russian aggression because Russia denies this.” If we acknowledge that Russia is a bloody occupying force in Europe in the 21st century, then how can we live with this? How can we sell French potatoes, German cars or London properties to Russians? How can we keep going to sumptuous receptions at Russian embassies? How can we accept astronomical Russian fees? How can we live with the destruction of the myth of the “democratization of Russia” and the fact that we weren’t entranced by a “successful, powerful country,” but by a run-of-the-mill power-hungry despot? How can we overcome our fear of Russia’s vengeance? All over some place called Ukraine?
In 2017, Ukraine will be a major test of conscience that will force democratic countries to an uneasy choice among values.
Punishing the victim is a form of torture and a debasement of human dignity. And so, to demand that Ukraine should acknowledge the war in the east as an internal conflict, offer amnesty to the perpetrators, hold elections during occupation by a foreign power, and grant special status to the occupied territories is to punish the victim and debase the dignity of more than 40 million Ukrainians. Western states can continue to pressure Ukraine in this way, but then they have to admit that, for them, the fundamental principles are not human rights, democracy and rule of law but force, fear and the balance of trade. What’s more, to push Ukraine into Russia’s grip will simply affirm that country’s impunity, spurring it to new aggressions and new conflicts. This is the path to the complete corrosion of all international organizations in which Russia is a member, which means the bankruptcy of the current legal and security order in the world.
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If, on the other hand, the principles of the dignity of the person, human rights, democracy and rule of law are to remain values, the West still has a chance to try and realistically perceive Russia and the threats it represents. Dialog with the Russian Federation should take place, not as if with a “peacekeeper in the process of democratization” but as with an aggressive, manipulative and despotic player. In that case, there is still hope that the global security and legal order can be rebooted and with it at least some of the international organizations, by relegating Russia to its proper place.
In the end, a commitment to the principles of freedom and dignity means accepting Ukraine as a state that already exists and that does not have to prove its right to exist to anyone. This kind of re-think will make it possible to see Ukraine, with its admittedly dramatic but unique experience of relations with its northern neighbor, as the key to resolving many security issues.
Serhiy Zakharov is an artist from Donetsk known for his plywood caricatures of “Novorossia” leaders installed on the city streets in 2014. The installations resulted in his captivity in Donetsk that year. In his interview with The Ukrainian Week, Serhiy speaks about his complex relations with his city and the attitudes of the creative crowd to politicians
The Ukrainian Week talked with Acting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy on the act of aggression in the Kerch Strait and the military assistance to Ukraine.