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.

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 But perhaps this is an out of date remark in and of itself.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.

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

Nick Tyrone is Chief Executive of Radix, the think tank for the radical centre.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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