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 But perhaps this is an out of date remark in and of itself.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

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage