Politics & Policy

Unhappy Anniversary

Independence Square in Kiev, February 2014 (Bulent Kilic/Getty)
The slow-motion betrayal of Ukraine.

In late 1990, a year after the Revolution of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe, the peoples of the newly self-liberated countries, who had suffered under the Soviet jackboot since the endgame of World War II, could look back on a year of solid achievement while looking forward to a more prosperous future.

Poland, which had led the way in making “1989,” was taking hard but necessary economic decisions that would eventually lead to years of growth and a prosperity unimaginable under Communism. Czechoslovakia, under the tutelage of President Vaclav Havel, whose luminous writings qualified him as the Poet Laureate of “1989,” had welcomed Pope John Paul II to Prague and was preparing in a civilized and democratic way to let his country divide itself into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Germany had reunified on October 3, 1990, despite the nervousness of Margaret Thatcher, François Mitterrand, and other Western European leaders. Not without sacrifice, the Baltic states were beginning to disentangle themselves from the Soviet Union, into which they had been forcibly incorporated during World War II, thus setting in motion the implosion of the USSR that would be finalized in August 1991.

The arc of history, it seemed, was being bent in a more humane direction, as the people of Central and Eastern Europe worked their way through the practical implications of the revolution of conscience that was at the heart of their auto-liberation in 1989. During the Communist period, Polish dissident Adam Michnik had cautioned that those who begin by storming Bastilles end up building their own; it was a warning largely heeded, as peoples unaccustomed to the give-and-take of democratic politics made rapid strides toward becoming what they had long said they wanted to be: “normal societies.” And once German reunification had been democratically decided by the peoples of West and East Germany and ratified by the Four Powers that had occupied Germany after World War II (and this despite the fretting of Western European leaders who, like Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, were so fond of Germany that they wanted to keep two of them), Europe moved quickly to support the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, opening a path to incorporation into a broader European Union while, in concert with the United States, laying the groundwork for the expansion of NATO and the inclusion of the new democracies in the basic security structure of the West — an inclusion that, in some minds, might eventually involve a democratic Russia.

Twenty-five years, three months, and two weeks after the enlarged West celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall, another anniversary was at hand, just this past week: the first anniversary of the most dramatic moments of the Maidan Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. Just a year ago, Russian snipers, under orders from President Putin in Moscow, opened fire on peaceful demonstrators in Kyiv’s Independence Square, in a desperate attempt to save the corrupt regime of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. The Russian czar, Vladimir Putin, a KGB elitist to the core, had little use for Yanukovych, who had begun his tawdry career as a petty thief, snatching old ladies’ handbags in railway stations. But Putin needed an acquiescent Ukraine for its energy resources and as a transshipment route for illegal economic activity: thus his veto of Ukraine’s next steps toward incorporation into the E.U., which triggered the Maidan revolution in November 2013; and thus his efforts to save the crumbling Yanukovych regime in February 2014.

It didn’t work. Yanukovych scuttled, fleeing to Russia. A new Ukrainian government was formed, and the Maidan revolution was later validated by democratic elections. Putin, in response, invaded and annexed Crimea a month later, in violation of every applicable international law and of Russia’s commitments in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum to preserve Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty as a condition of Ukraine’s giving up the nuclear weapons it inherited when the Soviet Union collapsed.

And the West did very little in the wake of the most blatant European land-grab since World War II — an illegal invasion covered by a barrage of propaganda of a sort not seen since the heyday of the Third Reich. Yes, economic sanctions were imposed, and they have taken a significant bite out of the Russian economy (although a bigger bite has likely been taken by the Saudi-engineered drop in crude-oil prices). But it was clear to all with eyes to see that Crimea was merely the first course in Putin’s ingestion of Ukraine, which has continued over the past eleven months with the Russian occupation of large swaths of the Donbass in eastern Ukraine, in the guise of the bogus “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. Yet as Ukraine tried to celebrate the first anniversary of its self-liberation, the West, to which Ukraine had pledged its allegiance in blood, continued to deny Ukraine’s requests for the instruments of self-defense necessary to meet the attack of Russian troops and their accomplices, who were slaughtering their way toward the creation of a land-bridge between the Donbass and Crimea — and this despite the fact that the “Heavenly Hundred” murdered on the Maidan a year ago died under the flag of the E.U., which they had hoped to join.  

A lot had changed in 25 years, evidently. The kind of nonviolent revolution in favor of a democratic future that would have been celebrated and defended in 1989 has been betrayed, in slow motion, even as the Ukrainian revolution’s leaders have continued to plead for Western help. It is by no means clear that this fecklessness can be reversed in the short term, although noises about tightened economic sanctions have followed the latest Russian violations of the latest sham “truce” negotiated by German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president François Hollande. But a decent respect for the heroism of those who died on the Maidan a year ago, and for those who continue to struggle today for a free, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine, requires on this anniversary a clarification of what has been happening in Ukraine, what has happened to Europe, and what is required to stop Putin’s efforts to reverse the verdict of 1989.

The realities. To begin with, it would be helpful if the West could summon the self-respect to call things by their proper names. Enough, already, with euphemisms about “separatists” who are “supported by Russia.” There is a war going on in Ukraine; that war began with a Russian invasion; and thus that war is Russia’s responsibility. Ukraine has been invaded and its sovereign territory occupied by Russian special forces, Russian troops operating sophisticated Russian weapons (such as multiple rocket launchers), and Russian-paid (often Chechen) mercenaries, in league with some very nasty low-life types from the eastern Ukrainian criminal classes. According to Western diplomatic sources in Kyiv, this war and the resulting occupation have resulted in tens of thousands of deaths (not the 5,500 typically cited) and over a million refugees. Ukrainian soldiers captured by Russian forces and their allies are routinely tortured. The Russians cremate many of their own war dead on the spot, so as not to have to ship the bodies back to Russia, where there might be repercussions from too many funerals. Russian-sponsored terrorism reaches beyond the Donbass, most recently to Kharkiv, where a terrorist bomb killed two people and wounded at least ten others during a February 22 rally for peace. As for Crimea, it is being ethnically cleansed; recently, a century-old library that had survived two world wars, was closed and thousands of its Ukrainian-language books were stolen and burned. It is not at all clear whether the Latin-rite Catholic Church will be able to function in Russian Crimea; there will be no future for the Greek Catholic Church there, so long as the peninsula remains under Russian rule.

Those who continue to describe this as a matter of “separatists” wishing some form of autonomy from Kyiv are either deliberately lying or being willfully obtuse. This is a war, and it is being fought on the Russian side with methods reminiscent of the Third Reich and the Stalinist Soviet Union.

European and American fecklessness. Some Europeans get it: the Baltic states, which fear that they’re next in line (as one Latvian leader put it recently); Poland, at least in the person of its former prime minister, Donald Tusk, now president of the European Council. But the general Euro-response to Russian aggression in Ukraine was never better captured than on a Polish television program last month, when a Polish interviewer asked a German foreign-policy specialist what Germany’s bottom line was in the matter of Putin’s revanchism. The response: Germany could live with a Russia “up to the Polish border.” To which the Polish interviewer replied, in a nice display of ironic sangfroid: “Which one?”

A report last week in the British House of Lords stated bluntly, if obviously, that the U.K. and the European Union had indulged themselves in a “catastrophic misreading” of Russia and Putin, and thus had “sleepwalked” into the Ukrainian crisis. This “misreading,” the report continued, had been based on an “optimistic premise” that Russia was becoming a normal state. That premise, in turn, had been too long believed because “a loss of collective analytical capacity has weakened [E.U.] member states’ ability to read the political shifts in Europe and to offer an authoritative response.”

But is that quite right? Are things really that bad at Chatham House, or at the sundry international-security conferences that dot the annual academic/political calendar across Europe? Perhaps they are; still, it strikes me that a clearer insight into Europe’s fecklessness might be gained by pondering a pair of incidents at this January’s Davos gathering of Those Who Count (or think they do). In the first incident, the great and good of Europe laughed out loud at Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s latest imitation of Joachim von Ribbentrop, when Lavrov repeated the tired lie that there were no Russian forces or Russian heavy weaponry in Ukraine. But the same audience that hooted Lavrov then applauded when Chancellor Merkel took the stage to announce that “there is no military solution” in Ukraine.

Which is, of course, another “catastrophic misreading.” There is a “military solution” in Ukraine, and it’s being imposed right now by Putin and Russia. President Hollande may not understand the difference between “offensive weapons” and “defensive weapons,” a matter on which he recently requested clarification. But the Ukrainian regulars and volunteers on the receiving end of Russian artillery know, and when under fire from Russian tanks or Russian BM-21 Grad multiple-rocket launchers, they are not comforted by the blankets so generously provided by the Obama administration.

No, the deeper reason for Europe’s “catastrophic misreading” of Putin and Russia is Europe’s lack of belief in its own civilizational project, which manifests itself in its military and political weakness — its refusal to defend itself, either with arms or with ideas. Europe wants to be left alone with its pleasures, happily uninvolved in the Hobbesian world Putin has created to the east of Poland’s eastern and southern borders; Ukraine is a bother, because the people who made the Maidan Revolution of Dignity have the disturbing tendency to insist that “European values” involve more than six-week paid vacations in a womb-to-tomb welfare state. Thus Europe tacitly acquiesces in Putin’s gross violations of the international law to which Europe pays such homage, and the Baltic states are, rightly, very, very worried — as the rest of Europe ought to be.

As for the Obama administration, its Alice in Wonderland foreign-policy team, teaching itself six impossible things before breakfast and then trying to explain the latest impossibilities through the State Department’s Jen Psaki and Marie Harf, stumbles along, blithely unaware of, or indifferent to, the fact that Putin is dismantling, step by step, the basic security architecture of post–World War II Europe. For if Putin pauses in his ingestion of Ukraine to  take a bite out of one of the Baltic states, and NATO does nothing, then NATO is finished, for its key article 5, stating that an attack on one member state is an attack on all, will have been rendered null and void. A former mid-rank KGB thug, running a mafia state atop a crumbling society, will have succeeded in doing what neither Stalin, nor Khrushchev, nor Brezhnev could pull off: the defeat of NATO. And then the world will be back in the late 1940s, the victories of the West in 1989 and 1991 having been thrown away, not in a fit of “sleepwalking,” but in a self-induced coma brought about by over-indulgence and decadence.

Now what? One would like to think that this most dire playing out of the drama of Ukraine is not inevitable. But time is running short. And yet, if perhaps it can be seen, now, that Crimea was the crucial moment — the moment when, eyeball to eyeball with Putin, the West blinked — then something of a path toward a different future might come into clearer focus.

“Sequestration” is a bad word in Washington these days, but that is what ought to have happened to Russia immediately after its invasion and illegal annexation of Crimea: Russia should have been sequestered, shut off from its normal economic and political contacts with the world, shunned and shamed and diminished until such time as it disgorged Crimea — probably following regime-change in Moscow — and thus showed itself capable of being a trustworthy partner in world politics and commerce.

It seems unlikely that anything short of such sequestration now — application of sanctions to all members of the Duma and high-ranking government officials; expulsion from the SWIFT system of international currency exchange; denial of landing rights for Russian aircraft in European and U.S. airports; freezing of Russian assets abroad — will bring sufficient pressure to bear in Russia such that Putin changes his policy or Russia finds itself a new leader. Little, if any, of this kind of severe pressure is likely; but a decent respect for the people of the Maidan revolution should, on this anniversary, compel a reexamination of the results of what little the West has done so far to make Russia pay for its aggression. And when the poverty of that ledger of results is revealed, there may be a willingness to think about stringent measures for the future, of which the examples cited here can serve as discussion-starters for a conversation that must take place sooner rather than later.

Any such severe tightening of sanctions must be accompanied by truth-telling on the part of Western leaders, if they’re capable of it. It’s not enough to have Ambassador Samantha Power raising Cain at the U.N. in the wake of the latest Russian violations of the latest sham “truce.” The leaders of the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and France must stop seeking ways to appease Putin or assuage his putative grievances, and find ways to shame him, publicly and relentlessly, describing his regime for what it is and his policy for what it is.

Sequester, shame — and arm. Ukraine has been begging for defensive weaponry to meet the Russian onslaught. The military commander of NATO, General Philip Breedlove, and the new U.S. secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, have agreed, with different degrees of enthusiasm, that this request for help should be met. But if the White House continues to dither on this front, let Canada, Poland, and whatever other adults remain in NATO take up the slack, providing Ukraine with the ability to defend itself.

A close friend in Ukraine has said that the greatest challenge to the Maidan Revolution of Dignity right now is the challenge of belief: the challenge to continue believing that the sacrifices of the past have not been in vain, and that the power of moral conviction — what Vaclav Havel once called the “power of the powerless” — can still win out over brute material force. The same applies to the West. For Ukraine is not just about Ukraine; Ukraine is about us. And it is long past time for the West to be the West that Ukrainians laid down their lives a year ago to join, thinking that in doing so they were joining something fine and good in history.

George Weigel — George Weigel is the distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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