Lessons from the Maidan
The West can’t stand idly by while Putin has his way with Ukraine — and with his own people.

(Getty Images)


George Weigel

The Maidan is thus a powerful reminder to Europe of what Europe intended to be, in the founding days of what has become the European Union. Yes, what is now the EU began with a series of mutually beneficial economic arrangements, in the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Common Market. And, yes, the political intention behind those economic arrangements was to bind together the East Franks and the West Franks — otherwise known as the Germans and the French — so that their millennium-long struggle for continental hegemony would dissolve in a larger political formation. But beneath all of that was a cultural vision: the vision of men like Robert Schuman, Alcide De Gasperi, and Konrad Adenauer, who saw in European integration a chance to recover something from beneath the rubble of two catastrophic world wars, something that could properly be called European civilization — a Europe living once again from its deepest cultural taproots, which run to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome; a Europe being formed and reformed by Biblical faith, reason, and law.

It would be difficult — indeed it would be fanciful — to suggest that that vision is the guiding inspiration in the institutions of the European Union today. But unless that vision is recovered and “Europe” becomes something more than an open labor market and a vast network of social-welfare systems, led by clotted bureaucracies determined to impose lifestyle libertinism on the entire continent in the name of a false idea of freedom and tolerance, “Europe” will continue to find it impossible to summon itself to meet the challenges posed to peace, order, and elementary decency in world affairs by Putin’s Russia, Assad’s Syria, post-Qaddafi Libya, China’s imperial ambitions, and global jihadism.

Thus the Maidan is a sharp reminder that the answer to Putin’s “Western decadence” story line is the cultural renewal of the West, not the West’s further descent into moral incoherence and what has rightly been called the “dictatorship of relativism.”

The third lesson: Putin is running a criminal regime that is unsafe for the world and humanly self-destructive in Russia.

At one point a few months ago, having absorbed the latest blasts of propaganda and prevarication from the Russian foreign ministry (amplified, alas, by dupes and fools in the Western media), I said to my wife, “This is what 1938 must have felt like.” It was all there: the Big Lie, shamelessly repeated; warped imperial ambition masked by the call to ethnic solidarity; criminality on the home front, by which the regime of lies maintained itself in power; the summons to a false ideal of national greatness; the provocations, sometimes lethal, in the near-abroad; the contempt for the “world community.”

Putin’s Russia is bad for Russia. The average Russian 15-year-old today has a life expectancy three years shorter than the average Haitian 15-year-old. Indeed, Russia is the only case in modern history of a developed nation experiencing declining life expectancy absent wars, natural disasters, or plagues. Russia is not a “managed democracy”: Russia is an authoritarian state run by an oligarchic mafia with deep roots in the old Soviet security services, a state in which a small minority with control over most of the levers of power has gotten extremely rich while society rots out underneath it. The brave hopes of the brave Russians who looked to a better future in 1991 have been dashed; Putin restores the old Soviet anthem, which is sung with gusto and no discernible cringing at the Sochi Winter Olympics; a vast internal propaganda machine dupes a disturbing number of Russians into believing that Putin’s mafia is leading a great national restoration; and, most sadly of all, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church gives its blessing to this campaign of falsehoods. The Maidan has made unmistakably clear that there is no better future for the people of Russia under the Putin regime.

Putin’s Russia is also unsafe for the world. The genocidal Assad remains in power in Syria because of Putin; the apocalyptic mullahs in Iran have been given time to advance their nuclear ambitions by Putin; now the post–Cold War security order in Europe has been challenged by Putin — and up to this point, at least, he has won his gamble. All of this suggests that the next “reset” of Western policy toward Russia must be a “reset” of containment, but with a difference. What the Maidan teaches us is that the West’s strategy toward Russia should be “containment-plus”: containment plus transformation.

The phrase “regime change” makes many European and American politicians break out into hives these days. But it is not easy to see how Russia can become safe for its people and safe for the world unless Russia is governed in a fundamentally different way from the way it is being governed by Vladimir Putin. Thus, in the first instance, Putin’s Russia must be contained: which means strengthening NATO land, air, and sea capabilities in and around the front-line NATO states through more troop emplacements and training exercises; negating the Russian nuclear threat by a rapid and robust deployment of ballistic-missile defenses; giving the Poroshenko government in Ukraine the defensive means to secure its national territory; and having ready to hand further, and far more serious, economic sanctions if Russia does not cease its attempt to destabilize various regions of Ukraine through the use of Russian-trained and Russian-supported criminal gangs masquerading as “separatists.” The countries of the North Atlantic alliance must also redevelop their broadcasting capabilities and accelerate their use of new media to counter, within Russia, and in that country’s many languages, the fog of lies that pours out of the Putin-controlled media. Western political and military leaders should be regular visitors to the Baltic states and Poland in the months ahead. And the hard but essential work of breaking Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas must begin — now.