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Today Ukraine, tomorrow central Europe: why the west needs to wake up to Putin’s ambitions

The Russian president is trying to rebuild the Soviet empire and in doing so offering an alternative to liberal democracy.

People raise their hands as they take part in a mass opposition rally on Independence Square in Kiev on December 15. Photograph: Getty Images.

Yesterday, the EU officially halted trade talks with the Ukraine. Tomorrow, the country is due to sign a "road map" agreement with Russia aimed at deepening trade relations between the two countries. All of this adds up to a genuine crisis for liberal democracy, the consequences of which no element of the western press has really touched upon thus far.

It is sad but understandable that Stefan Fule, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, should announce that trade talks with the former Soviet Republic should come to a halt. "Words & deeds of President [Viktor Yanukovych] & government regarding the Association Agreement are further & further apart. Their arguments have no grounds in reality," came a tweet from the official. It is clear that Yankoyvch and his people were asking for what they knew the EU could not deliver simply to force Europe’s hand. But still, it leaves the mass of protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square dangling – all 200,000 of them.

Those who still take for granted that the world is on an inevitable march towards more liberal democracy should pay close attention to what happens between the Ukraine and Russia. But perhaps this is an out of date remark in and of itself. What I found most depressing about the recent Russell Brand mania was finding out to what degree people in Britain, particularly young people, appear to take both liberal democracy and peace throughout Europe, at least western Europe, for granted.

This attitude is also evident in discussions surrounding whether Britain should remain part of the European Union or not. It is as if peace has come to Europe via some sort of mystical edict, and as such is now eternal and need be based on nothing whatsoever. This, I believe, is the chief reason that the EU is not synonymous with peace and stability in Britain but rather with strictly a helpful single market at best and with resource draining, unnecessary bureaucracy at worst. I also think this is why no one in any of western Europe’s various cognoscenti, in particular the British version thereof, has any real sense of urgency about what is happening in Kiev right now. People seem blind to the fact that a real battle of civilisations and possible futures is being waged.

Vladimir Putin is trying to rebuild the old Russian/Soviet empire and in doing so offering an alternative to the EU model, one that he personally controls. Ideally for him, this would eventually involve pulling the old Eastern Bloc countries that are currently part of the European Union back into the fold: Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria. Whereas the European model is based on open markets, a standard of human rights for all citizens, and rule of law, the Russian model is almost the exact opposite: a market dictated by the whims of Moscow, a legal system entirely run by local despots loyal to Putin, and widespread kleptocracy. Those who think that the countries which are currently EU members such as Poland being pulled back into the Russians’ sphere is wildly unrealistic are being wilfully naïve and underestimating Putin dramatically (there’s a great deal of depreciating the Russian president’s talents going on across the globe at present, oddly). Don’t think it can’t happen; the man has taken on bigger beasts recently and come out of each encounter with his aims being precisely met.

If Putin achieves another victory, as looks inevitable, and the Ukraine is officially and irrevocably drawn into his terrifying quasi-Soviet trading block, it will almost certainly have grave results for the world very few people appear to be seriously contemplating at present. It is very like western attitudes towards Syria; no one can see just how close to home these battles truly are.

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